Middlemarch: Progress report 6

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 59 to chapter 72 and the beginning of BookVIII

A friend who recently read Middlemarch for a book group said she more or less hated it. I suppose I might too, if I was reading it with a deadline, but at five pages a day there is so much to enjoy.

A lot has happened this month. Fred and Mr Farebrother’s rivalry for Mary Garth’s affections is out in the open. The Will Ladislaw’s origin story has been revealed, to us and to him; he has felt obliged to leave town and exit the narrative, but not without declaring his love to Dorothea, leaving her sorrowful but happy. The agent of Will’s revelation has precipitated a crisis in the life of Mr Bulstrode the sanctimonious banker, which allows George Eliot to lay out in excruciating detail the way people can lie to themselves. The marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond has continued to deteriorate; financial disaster has been averted, perhaps too late to save the marriage and with terrible strings attached to the means of his rescue. There’s been a death, a murder even.

The rumour mill has been in hyperdrive, and while the pub gossips’ dialogue is richly comic, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that class-based comedy, and the unremitting focus on the land-owning and professional classes, that my friend found off-putting. I tend to think of it as a kind of science fiction: from one point of view the world of the book is far removed from the actual world – there are no people of colour, the working class and poor people are fairly uniformly dim, etcetera – but from another point of view it’s as realistic as, say, Succession.

I love the moments when Eliot takes the gloves off, like this, which leaves us in no doubt how she feels about the beautiful but completely unempathetic Rosamond:

In fact there was but one person in Rosamond’s world whom she did not regard as blameworthy, and that was the graceful creature with blond plaits and with little hands crossed before her, who had never expressed herself unbecomingly, and had always acted for the best – the best naturally being what she best liked.

(Page 756-757)

This morning’s reading was the first, short chapter of Book VIII, and the end is almost in sight. Things are looking grim for all the characters, and the many narrative strands are starting to come together. Lydgate has made himself the target of serious suspicion by helping the loathsome Bulstrode in his hour of need, and incidentally confirming for the reader that he is a deeply honourable man. Dorothea, hearing the news, is determined to clear his name, and in this chapter all her friends advise caution. Here’s a paragraph:

Dorothea’s tone and manner were not more energetic than they had been when she was at the head of her uncle’s table nearly three years before, and her experience since had given her more right to express a decided opinion. But Sir James Chettam was no longer the diffident and acquiescent suitor: he was the anxious brother-in-law, with a devout admiration for his sister, but with a constant alarm lest she should fall under some new illusion almost as bad as marrying Casaubon. He smiled much less; when he said ‘Exactly’ it was more often an introduction to a dissentient opinion than in those submissive bachelor days; and Dorothea found to her surprise that she had to resolve not to be afraid of him – all the more because he was really her best friend. He disagreed with her now.

(Page 836)

I just love the music of that. There are two long sentences reminding us of the story so far, especially of Chettam’s relationship to Dorothea, then a third that deftly evokes their current relationship, with the lovely observation of the turn of speech that allows ‘Exactly’ to mean its opposite. And the paragraph ends by bringing us back abruptly to the present moment with a sentence of five words.

At the very end of today’s reading, there’s a rare moment when Dorothea laughs, and almost as are a moment when she is bested in conversation. She’s talking to Celia, who like the book’s villain Rosamond is committed to conventional femininity, but unlike her is generous and kind. Celia urges Dorothea to take Chettam’s advice and hold back from interfering in Lydgate’s affairs:

‘Why can’t you think it your duty to submit a little to what James wishes?’ said Celia, with a sense of stringency in her argument. ‘Because he only wishes what is for your own good. And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better.’
Dorothea laughed and forgot her tears.
‘Well, I mean about babies and those things,’ explained Celia. ‘I should not give up to James when I knew he was wrong, as you used to do to Mr Casaubon.’

(Page 838-839)

Touché, little sister!

At my current rate, my next Middlemarch progress report will be my last.

5 responses to “Middlemarch: Progress report 6

  1. Oh dear, your friend…
    One might just as well say that in today’s current crop of fiction, (especially from London) books are likewise far removed from the actual world – there are no people who are white and the middle class and wealthier people are fairly uniformly dim and selfish, etcetera. Oh, and men are uniformly badly-behaved too.
    In real life people, in all their glorious diversity, are a mixture of characteristics, and this is what novels have always explored no matter what milieu they set their novels in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In defence of my friend, that comment of mine was entirely without evidence. I was projecting my own uneasiness about the ‘lower classes’ humour onto her


      • Ah, #WagsFinger, that’s naughty.
        My apologies to your friend.
        But seriously, how can anyone ‘more or less hate’ Middlemarch, whatever that means?

        Liked by 1 person

      • I do think it was because she had a week to read it for a book group where she was a newby, so the 19th century pacing was way too slow for her. As I said to her, reading it as deliberately slowly as I am currently, the narrative pace feels anything but slow.


      • It’s always difficult in book groups when there are long books chosen.
        I’m loving your slow pace!

        Liked by 1 person

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