Tag Archives: George Eliot

Middlemarch: Final progress report

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 73 to end

I had lunch last week with a friend from university days, who remembered me going on about Middlemarch back then. Apparently I was very keen on Casaubon’s doomed project, the Key to All Mythologies. My friend assured me that my keenness was ironic, but maybe in his heart of hearts the young me feared he had a lot in common with Casaubon.

As I read the book this time, two things stood out for me that I’m pretty sure I took for granted in 1968 (yes, it’s been that long!).

First, the main characters are very young, and the narrator speaks with the gravity of experience. In 1968 I read a contemporary review that, from memory, began by saying that reading George Eliot’s prose was like lifting the heavy lid of a sarcophagus. I was at a loss to understand what the reviewer meant, but this time around the narrator’s world-weariness is clear as a bell, along with her deep affection for, and possibly even envy of, the young characters.

Second, there’s a serious concern with money. Dorothea can be virtuous because she inherited a small fortune from her mother, and she inherits a further substantial fortune when Casaubon dies. Part of her virtue for most of the novel consists of a commitment to use her wealth well: she sets out to be a decent landlord, but never considers that her wealth is created by the labour of the people she means to be kind to. (Marx was still working on Das Kapital when Middlemarch was published, but George Eliot had almost certainly read Les misérables.) Lydgate comes from gentry, but is determined to make his own way as a doctor and scientist. Rosamond is all about wanting affluence without worrying where it comes from. Fred gets into serious trouble by gambling, and finds his way to responsible work.

These two strands come together brilliantly in the climactic scene at the end of Chapter 83. Dorothea and Will have just declared their love for each other, all doubts as to the other’s integrity dissolved, and they have faced the apparent impossibility of marriage because of the terms of Casaubon’s will:

‘Oh, I cannot bear it – my heart will break,’ said Dorothea, starting from her seat, the flood of her young passion bearing down all the obstructions which had kept her silent – the great tears rising and falling in an instant: ‘I don’t mind about poverty – I hate my wealth.’

(Page 923)

It’s been stated explicitly much earlier that Dorothea could renounce what she has inherited from Casaubon, but only now does she see that as a real option. ‘I hate my wealth’ – the wealth is a kind of prison from which she can escape.

But the word ‘young’ is crucial here. The narrator and the reader know not to take her outburst literally. Will takes her in his arms and, looking into his eyes, she says ‘in a sobbing childlike way’:

‘We could live quite well on my own fortune – it is too much – seven hundred a-year – I want so little – no new clothes – and I will learn what everything costs.’

(Page 924)

So, she doesn’t really hate her wealth as such, only the part of it that constrains her. She’s hardly opting for poverty. The narrator sees that, and so do we, but we can still appreciate the moral leap she is making. And that wonderful final clause, so clearly the cry of a young person – ‘I will learn what everything costs’ – sends echoes back through the whole book. Fred has had to learn the cost of his gambling; Lydgate the cost of marrying unwisely; Rosamond, however briefly, the cost of dalliance. Even some of the older generations learn what things cost – notably Mr Bulstrode whose sins find him out.

I’l miss the world of Middlemarch. I’ll wait a couple of weeks before I plunge into my next slow-read project, in no hurry to have George Eliot’s voice fade from the front of my mind. I’ll give her the last word, from the beginning of the ‘Finale’:

Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic – the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.

(Page 945)

That’s from Mary Ann Evans, towards the end of a book dedicated ‘To my dear husband’, to whom – scandalously – she was happily not married.

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.

Middlemarch: Progress report 5

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 47 to beginning chapter 59

This month, as usual, Middlemarch made its presence felt elsewhere than in the five pages I read each morning. Researching her family history, the Struggling Artist learned that her paternal ancestor who came to Australia roughly a decade after the events related in Middlemarch was a health practitioner who started out as a doctor and became an apothecary because that’s where the money lay after medical doctors were no longer able to sell drugs. This change in the law plays a big role in the fortunes of Middlemarch‘s Lydgate. He is in favour of the changes and the established medical men of the town, believing they will be deprived of much of their livelihood, take against him.

In last month’s progress report, I described the moment when Dorothea feels pity for Casaubon, her dried-up stick of a husband. I thought it was a central turning point, a hinge. Little did I know (spoiler alert) that the real turning point would turn up in the next day’s reading! He died.

This month, among the older generation there’s much buying and selling, some blackmail, some generosity to the younger generation, a near riot as the railway comes to town, and some apparent endorsement by George Eliot of appalling class attitudes and behaviour.

Among the younger generation, which is where our interest really lies, Dorothea is taking up the management of her inherited estate, while a codicil to Casaubon’s will says she will be disinherited if she marries Will Ladislaw – which if it becomes known will create the impression that the two young people have been having a dalliance (nothing could be further from Dorothea’s mind or Will’s upright nature, though it’s what we want for them both). In the hope of winning Mary’s hand, Fred has given up any intention of becoming a clergyman, but he has discovered, and inadvertently alerted Mary to the fact, that the altogether decent, but older, Mr Farebrother has his hopes set on her too. Rosamond, who only last month revealed that she was pregnant, has had a miscarriage probably caused by going riding against her husband’s advice, and there’s a brilliant scene when Lydgate tells her about their financial crisis expecting her to see it as their shared problem, only to find that their understandings of the world, including in particular of their marriage, are separated by a huge gulf.

Today the narrative returns to the vexed issue of Dorothea and Will’s prospects. At least, that’s where I think we’re heading. Chapter 59 begins with this wonderful sentence, a nice example of Eliot’s way with similes, and of her wry understanding of how good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes:

News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.

While visiting the Farebrother household Fred learns about the codicil to Casaubon’s will. He, who ‘knew little and cared less about Ladislaw and the Casaubons’, wants to avoid being scolded tiresomely by his sister for having given up the Church, and passes the news on to distract her. Who knows what his sister, gorgeous and totally lacking in empathy, will do with the information? It’s not like her to keep any cat in any bag.

The suspense is massive.

Middlemarch: Progress report 4

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), end chapter 35 to end chapter 46.

Five pages of Middlemarch each morning has been my dependable daily joy for four months now.

This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. Natasha May wrote in the Guardian that when she was young she found George Eliot’s sympathy for Dr Casaubon life-changing. She quoted this from Dorothea’s ‘honeymoon’ in Rome:

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.

In my 20s, as far as I remember, I thought George Eliot’s sympathy for Casaubon was largely sarcastic. My current reading is closer to Natasha May’s. This month in particular, as he faces his mortality, I can tell that Eliot genuinely feels for him, and she paints his inner turmoil so vividly that when he offers Dorothea a word of attenuated kindness, we feel it as his moral victory, as well as recognising that Dorothea is no longer in his thrall:

‘Come, my dear, come. You are young, and must not to extend your life by watching.’
When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.

(Page 488)

That’s the end of Book Four, and of the first volume in the edition I’m reading, so pretty much the central hinge of the novel.

Since then, in the first pages of Volume 2, the narrative has been concerned with the politics of Middlemarch. Fifty years ago I read this as variously background and counterpoint to the main story of Dorothea’s romantic life. It’s not that I misread it then, but this time around I’m much more interested in Eliot’s satirical account of how an uneducated public responds to medical innovation, how professionals’ vested interests oppose that innovation, how media (in this case newspapers) function as tools of political agents, how political elites look after their own, and so on. It’s hard not to think of current conversations about the First Nations Voice to Parliament when I read a sentence like this one:

Oppositions have the illimitable range of objections at command, which need never stop short at the boundary of knowledge, but can draw for ever on the vasts of ignorance.

(Page 503)

This morning, I read a scene involving the two young men: Lydgate the reforming doctor (I can’t bear to call him Tertius), and Will (it seems unfriendly to call him Ladislaw) the reformed artistic gadabout who now edits a newspaper. Lydgate has married the beautiful Rosamond, which we know won’t end well; Will adores Dorothea, which we fear likewise. Lydgate has thrown his lot in with the religious ideologue Bulstrode because he supports Bulstrode’s hospital project. Will is allied with the scatter-brained Mr Brooke’s potential run for parliament because he sees it as a way of supporting the movement for political reform*. The young men – one of them lying on the rug in the other’s living room, while the latter’s wife, Rosamond, waits impatiently for the disagreeable conversation to finish – discuss the evergreen subject of how to form alliances with others who are less than perfect. Lydgate:

If one did not work with such men as are at hand, things must come to a dead-lock. Suppose the worst opinion in the town about Bulstrode were a true one, that would not make it less true that he has the sense and the resolution to do what I think ought to be done in the matters I know and care most about; but that is the only ground on which I go with him.

(Page 531)

Rosamond calls a halt to the conversation. When Will has gone she and Lydgate have a brief conversation and we find out in the last three lines of the chapter, almost as a throwaway that a) Lydgate’s household debts, unknown to Rosamond, are becoming more pressing and, b) Rosamond is pregnant. I thought of this novel as proceeding at a leisurely pace, but no five pages pass without significant plot developments.

* Mostly I can live with not understanding the specific political and cultural references in Middlemarch. I did look up Lord Grey’s Reform Act of 1832. Mr Brooke is a Tory, who in his typical muddled way thinks Grey (a Whig) has a lot going for him. Will hopes to help Brooke get elected, and to influence him to support Grey’s bill.

Middlemarch: Progress report 3

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 28 to partway through chapter 35

Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.

This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. In Claire Potter’s book Acanthus there’s a short poem ‘Middlemarch in the Kitchen’. I don’t think the poem says anything about Middlemarch specifically – it just happens to be the book the poet is reading in the lighted kitchen: ‘instead of the grass and the trees, the objects I turn my back on are before me in the window’. But it’s a little sign that Middlemarch is everywhere. [Added on 16 March, just a little more than 2 months later: This morning, a passage in Chapter 61 of Middlemarch leapt out at me. The pious Mr Bulstrode’s past is catching up with him, so that ‘he felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees’.]

I have been away from home since the last week of December, and I didn’t bring my borrowed copy of Middlemarch away with me, as it would have risked damage to this beautiful object.

The parts I did read since my last progress report told mainly of the death of Peter Featherstone and the general disappointment generated by his will. In the younger generation, Lydgate has proposed to Rosamond, not without a degree of manipulation on her part; Fred has not benefited from his uncle’s death and so all hope of marriage to Mary seems lost; Dorothea is unhappily resigned to a life of misery with Mr Casaubon, but Will is back in town. Intrigue and hypocrisy continue to be the order of the day among their elders. George Eliot’s pleasure in her creations continues to shine in every sentence.

Here’s something from the last page I read before packing for Victoria. Mrs Bulstrode has raised the subject of her niece Rosamond’s betrothal to Lydgate – having a vague sense that this inappropriate match is partly due to her ostentatiously pious husband having given Lydgate a boost in the town’s social life:

‘I am sure we are bound to pray for that thoughtless girl – brought up as she has been,’ said Mrs Bulstrode, wishing to rouse her husband’s feelings.
‘Truly, my dear,’ said Mr Bulstrode, assentingly. ‘Those who are not of this world can do little else to arrest the errors of the obstinately worldly. That is what we must accustom ourselves to recognise with regard to your brother’s family. I could have wished that Mr Lydgate had not entered into such a union; but my relations with him are limited to that use of his gifts for God’s purposes which is taught us by the divine government under each dispensation.’
Mrs Bulstrode said no more, attributing some dissatisfaction which she felt to her own want of spirituality. She believed that her husband was one of those men whose memoirs should be written when they died.

(page 397)

‘Those who are not of this world,’ he says, meaning himself, who is of course one of the wealthiest men in town and much given to power games. And we know that ‘the use of his gifts for God’s purposes’ refers to Bulstrode’s having installed Lydgate as the only chaplain in the new hospital, thereby excluding any clergyman who might be critical of Bulstrode, The reader wants to give him a good shaking.

Maybe George Eliot’s irony is a little heavy, but I just love that ‘assentingly’: Bulstrode doesn’t have to disagree with his wife in order to reject outright her implied request for an intervention. Mrs Bulstrode’s backing off is one of GE’s myriad examples what we now call internalised sexism – but in case you’re inclined to think her belief, all evidence to the contrary, in her husband’s spiritual superiority is a mere comic invention, I remind you that just this morning former Australian Prime Minister was quoted as describing the recently deceased George Pell as ‘a saint of our time’.

Middlemarch: Progress report 2

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 15 to most of chapter 28

Reading five pages of Middlemarch each morning, which I’ve now been doing it for two months, is a joy.

When reading Niall Williams’s This Is Happiness, I kept feeling a Middlemarchian tone: the narrators in both books tell of events that happened in a remote village in living memory but feel as if they are from a different era. Williams’s narrator has a name and a story of his own. We are left to imagine who George Eliot’s narrator might be, though there’s definitely a person there, who is full of opinions, occasionally mentions conversations with her friend, and – if we assume she is a mature woman as Eliot was known to be when the book appeared – has bitter experience of male domination. Both narrators identify themselves as sophisticated and modern, she in metropolitan England, and he in the USA.

This month the intrigues continue among the older and younger generations, the former to do with control of the town’s institutions and the latter to do with affairs of the heart. Dorothea is married to Casaubon but troublingly finds his young cousin Will Ladislaw a more interesting companion in Rome. Rosamond is closing in on Lydgate as a prospective husband. And Fred, the profligate young man, discovers that his failure to keep promises not only harms his reputation but also harms other people.

This morning, the Rosamond–Lydgate story is approaching a defining moment. They have been thrown together when Lydgate comes to attend Rosamond’s brother Fred who has been struck down by typhus. Actually, not quite thrown together: Rosamond has declined to take the recommended course of leaving their house until the danger of infection was past, ostensibly so that she can help her mother tend to Fred, but really so she can see more of Lydgate. After some vividly evoked moments when they become embarrassed at meeting each other’s eyes, they settle into openness and ease with each other. He begins to play at flirting with her, seeing no harm in such a little pleasure. She – admitting it to no one – has visions of marrying him and escaping the suffocating backwater of Middlemarch. After much intricate tracking of the mental processes of each of them, and a scene where Lydgate sees off a chinless young man who he doesn’t even realise is a rival for Rosamond’s affections, today’s read finished with this terrific paragraph, which sums up the state of play, foreshadows the outcome, and ends with a gloriously deflating image:

To Rosamond it seemed as if she and Lydgate were as good as engaged. That they were some time to be engaged had long been an idea in her mind, and ideas, we know, tend to a more solid kind of existence, the necessary materials being at hand. It is true, Lydgate had the counter-idea of remaining unengaged; but this was a mere negative, a shadow cast by other resolves which themselves were capable of shrinking. Circumstance was almost sure to be on the side of Rosamond’s idea, which had a shaping activity and looked through watchful blue eyes, whereas Lydgate’s lay blind and unconcerned as a jelly-fish which gets melted without knowing it.

(pages 312–313)

Middlemarch: Progress report 1

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), pages 1–162

I had read just eight pages of Middlemarch, two mornings’ worth, squinting through sleep bleared eyes, when a kind friend lent me her copy, a beautiful two-volume edition from a German publishing house that is set in type that will demand less effort than the on I picked up from Gould’s bookshop.

In other reading this month, when the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Lessons reads the novel written by his estranged wife, he finds to his chagrin that it is brilliant, and includes ‘high-flying digressions offered up to the ghost of George Eliot’ (page 243).

So far, it’s not so much high-flying digressions as sharp authorial observations on the side that are delighting me. For instance, in the first scene where the gorgeous, privileged Rosamond Price and plain, less privileged Mary Garth have a scene together, there’s this brief excursion into the abstract:

Plainness has peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase.

(Page 130)

Part of the pleasure of this kind of thing is that it’s ironic. The narrator goes on to attribute to Mary the ‘vice’ of speaking with a satiric edge, a quality the narrator herself has in spades. There’s always a sense of the narrator as a character here, one who has a lot in common with George Eliot herself. In this example, it’s hard not to read the comment as springing in part from Eliot’s own experience of being seen as plain (‘horse-faced’, I dimly remember). The novel’s opening words, ‘To my dear husband’, affirm that George Eliot is a woman, and I guess she could assume that the English reading public knew who she was.

When I read Middlemarch in 1968, it was as part of an exhilarating immersion in literary classics. In the little notebook where I listed the books I read, it appears on the same page Racine’s Phèdre, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, and books by Pinter, Conrad, Joyce, Lawrence, Descartes and Rabelais. So reading it now, with that tsunami well in the past and without my 20-year-old predisposition to awe, is like meeting it for the first time.

I’m pretty sure I picked up on the ironic tone back then, but I doubt if I understood that the affectionate mockery of the idealistic heroine Dorothea and her pragmatic sister Celia, of gorgeous Rosamond and her flibbertigibbet brother Fred, and of ‘plain’, sarcastic Mary all has to do with their youth. The narrator is in love with their lack of world-weariness, and I’m in love with them too, as I doubt I was the first time around, however much I loved the book.

Mind you, I’ve read to the Emerging Artist a couple of passages that gave me joy. She responded to the first with a noncommittal noise, and to the second, ‘Now I know I was right not to read past the first page.’ So it’s not a book for all tastes.

So far, Dorothea has committed herself to marry the dried up old stick, Mr Casaubon. Youngish Dr Lydgate has arrived in the area full of reforming zeal. Rosamond, whose beauty no man could resist, is determined to marry someone from outsides Middlemarch and Lydgate is a likely prospect. Fred is in love with Mary, who has been his friend since childhood. The older generation is rife with intrigue to do with religious intolerance, political ambition, greed, and owning-class pretensions. So far, it’s a frothy comedy of manners as told by an immensely erudite and morally serious narrator.

This morning, there was some dialogue worthy of Oscar Wilde. Mary is responding to Fred’s proposal of marriage, which we understand has been made many times before::

‘If l did love you, I would not marry you: I would certainly not promise ever to marry you.’
‘I think that is quite wicked, Mary. If you love me, you ought to promise to marry me.’
‘On the contrary, I think it would be wicked in me to marry you even if I did love you.’
‘You mean, just as I am, without any means of maintaining a wife. Of course: I am but three-and-twenty.’
‘In that last point you will alter. But I am not so sure of any other alteration. My father says an idle man ought not to exist, much less, be married.’
‘Then I am to blow my brains out?’
‘No; on the whole I should think you would do better to pass your examination.’

(Page 162)

I hope they end up living happily together, rich or poor. I know their love’s path will not be smooth, any more than that of any of the other potential love matches.

Starting Middlemarch

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Trident Press International Classic Romance 2001)

There’s been a gap in my waking-up ritual since I finished my slow-read of the Iliad more than a fortnight ago. Maybe I should have decided to reread The Odyssey – after all, I read it in a bit of a hurry the first time. Or I could have picked one of the classics that have so far stayed unread by me – Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, the Confessions of Saint Augustine, there are plenty to choose from. But it’s Middlemarch that has been mentioned regularly in my social media feed, more than once nominated as the best English novel ever written.

A mention that stands out is something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his blog more than 10 years ago. His blog seems to have disappeared without trace so I can’t give you an exact quote, but he focused on one of George Eliot’s sentences, showing how the beats fell, how it veered off in unexpected directions, comparing it to hip-hop music that he loved. (In December 2011 The Atlantic published what may be a shorter version of that blog post, which you can read here. He had two other Middlemarch pieces in The Atlantic at about the same time, here and here.) Even though that was more than 10 years ago, it was probably Ta-Nehisi Coates who made the prospect of rereading this book attractive, if somewhat daunting.

Last year I read and blogged about Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s In Love with George Eliot (blog post here) and the comments on that blog post made rereading seem less daunting and even more attractive, and here I am.

I didn’t have a copy, so I trekked to the nearest second-hand bookshop (Goulds in King Street Newtown, if you’re interested). The one copy on their shelves was this Classic Romance edition. If romance readers can deal with such tiny type, it shouldn’t be impossible for me, but if I stumble across an edition that’s kinder to my septuagenarian eyes, I’ll switch and let you know.

I’m starting out with the aim of reading four pages a day, to finish some time next April, but if that turns out to be frustratingly slow, I’ll increase the quota. As with past slow reads, my aim is to give you a monthly progress report.

Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s In Love with George Eliot

Kathy O’Shaughnessy, In Love with George Eliot (Scribe 2019)

George Eliot’s Middlemarch keeps turning up at the top of people’s lists of great English novels. I read it as part of the great cultural tsunami that engulfed me as a boy who’d landed at Sydney University in 1967, having come from North Queensland by way of a monastery, and I loved it, though I haven’t retained much more than a vague impression of the shining integrity of its main character Dorothea and her dried up stick of a husband Dr Casaubon. My first recent vicarious re-encounter was a couple of years back on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog (now apparently no longer available), when he took his readers through one of Eliot’s long sentences, describing its movements in language he had developed in talking about rap music. I found a nice piece by him in the Atlantic from about the same time: here. Middlemarch is on my To Be Read list, though the tiny type in the copies I’ve seen is pretty discouraging for someone with my eyesight.

When I was given In Love with George Eliot in my Book Group’s Kris Kringle, it seemed a good halfway measure: decent type size, manageable length, written this decade, and promising some kind of George Eliot experience.

The kind of George Eliot experience it offers is not easy to describe. The novel’s main narrative covers the years from Eliot’s arrival in London in 1851 to her death in 1880: the trajectory of her writing career including the agonised gestation of Middlemarch, her years living unmarried with George Henry Lewes, the ensuing scandal and shunning being overcome by her huge fame as a novelist, her late brief marriage to Johnny Cross, which caused almost as much scandal (after her flouting of convention had been accepted, she went and did the conventional thing, though to a man 20 years her junior and too soon after George’s death). In a secondary narrative, a number of EngLit scholars in contemporary London fall in and out of love, take part in mild academic intrigues, organise conferences and write papers about Eliot and her contemporaries. One of these scholars, Kate, is writing a novel about Eliot, ‘but a novel based on fact – biography, letters, diaries.’ In other words, this novel. An author’s note assures us that all the letters quoted, both George Eliot’s and others’ – are from the archives, and so is much of the dialogue.

So it’s a partial biography in which the writer has given herself permission to make stuff up to fill in the gaps. From a reader’s perspective, it’s a partial biography without a lot of paraphernalia or uninteresting detail, but also one that can’t be completely trusted; one that sticks to the known facts with no spectacular flights of fancy, no plunging headlong into the character’s imagined inner life. That is to say, this is just the thing for unscholarly readers who want to know more about George Eliot (real names Mary Ann Evans, Mrs Lewes, Mrs Cross), of whom I am one. But I’m not sure it will do much for readers who are not already interested.

In a way, the book is less about George Eliot herself than, as the title suggests, the people who were and are in love with her.

I knew about George Lewes, but only that he was her partner for many years. The book gives us much more of him: a scholar and writer himself, he was Eliot’s encourager who protected her from negative criticism, building his life around her and her work.

I knew that Eliot was successful in her lifetime. I didn’t know that she was a huge celebrity – on her trip to Venice late in life she is reluctant to leave the hotel for fear of being recognised.

I knew nothing of Edith Simcox, whose passionate love, ‘lover-wise’, for Mrs Lewes, as she wanted to be known, had her kissing her feet and laying her head in her lap. Presumably these details are taken from Simcox’s private diaries published as Autobiography of a Shirtmaker in 1998.

I didn’t know about Johnny Cross, whom Eliot married late in life and who jumped from a hotel window into a canal when visiting Venice with his wife: in the lead-up to this incident the novel shakes off the shackles of the archive a little, and those few pages are alive with Johnny’s weird, unsettled inner life.

Herbert Spencer, Henry James and other literary luminaries of the time have walk-on parts, not as lovers, but filling out the picture.

And then there are the 21st century academics, who in their own ways love her too. Perhaps, too, there’s a reflexive element to the book’s title: it was written in love.