Tag Archives: George Eliot

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’. But it’s a little sign that Middlemarch is everywhere.

I have been away fro 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.