The Gospel According to the Nineteenth Century: Thoughts at the Midpoint of Middlemarch (by Bethany)

Believe it or not, Middlemarch is not part of the AP Challenge, nor is it part of my Fall Book Collection Weight Loss Challenge (FBCWLC), although it would fit nicely into either one. The story of why I happen to be reading this novel right now is a funny one. A few weeks ago I woke up on a Sunday morning and logged on to Facebook. It was late September, and my primary goal of the day was to make some headway in Lord Jim. On Facebook, one of my former students who is currently studying abroad in England posted that she had just then learned that she was supposed to have read through a long list of novels and plays over the summer but that the list was never sent out to international students. At first I laughed because that’s what international students always say, and second I laughed at the nature of the list, which included Ulysses, Jude the Obscure, Middlemarch, and five or six shorter works. But soon I recognized an amazing procrastination opportunity: I could offer to give her some motivation and support by “racing” her through one or more of her assigned books, thereby giving myself an altruistic reason to avoid Lord Jim. So I proposed the race, and she wrote back that she was starting with Middlemarch. I think she might have thought it was a little weird of me to drop everything to race her through Middlemarch, but whatever. People have thought stranger things of me before.

I have, of course, tried to read Middlemarch before, although I don’t think I have ever read it while remaining in more or less the same geographical location. For me, Middlemarch is the kind of novel I always think will be perfect to read on long flights and other trips. When I was reading the first hundred pages, I had little glimmers of déjà vu that brought me back to all the other places in the world where I’ve read those pages before: the colossal front steps of a domed and birdshit-bespattered church in Venice, Italy; the shallow end of a grimy motel pool in North Platte, Nebraska; the front porch of Robert Frost’s house in Franconia, New Hampshire. After I got past the first hundred pages there was no more déjà vu: I had never read past that point before.

To my credit, I don’t think I was ever assigned to read this novel. I certainly should have been – and I should have found the wherewithal to read it on my own in spite of my professors’ oversight – but I honestly don’t think I was. And I really didn’t know much about it, except that it is probably THE single most important British novel of the nineteenth century. And I knew that in the past, somewhere around page 100 my interest in its plot and characters has always seemed to peter out.

This time, no such thing is happening. I am loving this novel, although (as you can tell, given the date that I started this book) I am reading it slowly and have also been reading other books alongside it. This, of course, is one of the many luxuries of being out of school: being able to read on my own schedule. Some days I woke up and saw it sitting on the armrest of my futon, took one look at its bricklike heft, and said HELL, NO. Other mornings, though, it was exactly what I needed, and I brewed a pot of coffee and settled into my recliner with a couple of blankets and at least one cat to immerse myself in the slow, detailed world of Eliot’s nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century fascinates me. If the twentieth century is a fully-grown murderous psychopath at the height of his powers, the nineteenth is that same psychopath when he was about eleven: brilliant, curious, independent, devious; but not yet sexualized, not yet bloodthirsty, not yet muscular, not yet self-aware. If the twentieth century is Voldemort, the nineteenth is Tom Riddle in the orphanage, trying to find the words to explain to Dumbledore what makes him different from the other kids.

This novel tells the story of several provincial families living in and around the town of Middlemarch in the 1830’s. It’s hard to identify a central protagonist, and several characters serve this role as the perspective shifts from family to family. The novel opens on orphaned sisters Dorothea and Celia Brooke, who live with their benevolent but clueless uncle and are distinctly marriageable. At the outset the novel has a very Pride and Prejudice feel to it, although it quickly transcends anything Jane Austen could even think of creating. In her introduction, Eliot implies a connection between Dorothea Brooke and St. Teresa of Avila: “Many Theresas [sic] have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure with found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion” (1). In other words, circumstances matter. If a person with the makings of a saint is born into an environment that is ordinary and oppressive (but oppressive in ordinary ways), that person might never become the saint she was meant to become. Dorothea’s circumstances are comfortable and nurturing; she is a 19th-century woman of the upper-middle class who wants a life of greater striving and struggling than her milieu can provide. Her solution – entirely reasonably under the circumstances – is to marry a great man. She turns down the interest of Sir James Chettam, even though she admires his reform-minded attitude toward his ancestral land and his willingness to take seriously her plans to reform tenant housing, in favor of a proposal from the grotesque and pathetic Edward Casaubon, who is endlessly working on a masterwork that is supposed to provide “a key to all mythologies.” Sort of a 19th-century Joseph Campbell, I guess, except that he never wants to talk about Star Wars. Or about much of anything, really.

To be honest, I sympathize with Casaubon. I sympathize with him for the same reason I sympathize with Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and with Chillingworth in The Scarlet Letter and with Lawrence in John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother”: because it is harder to be these characters than it is to be the other characters in their respective works. Casaubon doesn’t want to hurt Dorothea; all he wants is to continue being Casaubon – intense, serious, tortured Casaubon –  while also taking on a sweet young bride. Other men manage to be who they are while living happily with sweet young brides, and Casaubon is nowhere near self-aware enough to understand why what works for other men will not work for him. I don’t sympathize with Dorothea nearly as much, although I did spend a lot of time cringing at her naïvete during the first hundred pages of the novel. I found myself writing “uh-oh” in the margins a lot, which I suppose is what any honest reader should be doing during the opening chapters of novels. Dorothea wants a life in which there is “nothing trivial” (23); well, of course – don’t we all want that? Dorothea seems consummately twenty-two to me (I’m not sure if that is her exact age, but it’s in the ballpark). She even goes so far as to say that she wants a husband who is like a father to her (in that he can teach her things she doesn’t know, things that seem chiefly to concern ancient languages and religion). She feels as if her life before marriage is “nothing but a labyrinth of petty courses, a walled-in maze of small paths that led no whither” (23) and even mentions that she would like to serve a husband in a secretarial capacity just as Milton’s daughters did for him, not recognizing the irony that casts her into a daughterly role instead of that of a wife.

By the way, George Eliot can be very funny, although her irony is usually more wry than jocular. Upon hearing of Dorothea’s engagement to Casaubon, jilted suitor Sir James Chettam says of Casaubon to the gossiping twit Mrs. Cadwallader, “He has got no good red blood in his body,” to which she replies, “No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses” (62). That’s funny, right? I think it’s pretty hysterical.

Shifting the lens away from Dorothea and Casaubon for a moment, another whole quadrant of the plot concerns the Vincy family and their friends, relatives, and neighbors. Mr. Vincy is the mayor of Middlemarch, and he seems to be related either by blood or by marriage to most of the prominent bankers, merchants, and ministers of the town. The town of Middlemarch is constantly atwitter about everything: the rivalries between local ministers, the recent dissolution of Parliament, the death of King George IV, and endless variety of political and social reforms, the arrival in town of a new doctor bearing new techniques and theories that he learned abroad. The Vincys are influential, but they aren’t rich. Their oldest son Fred causes constant consternation in the family through his indebtedness and his refusal to become a minister (his friend and love interest Mary Garth tells a local pastor who is trying to help persuade Fred to enter the ministry, “he would be one of those ridiculous clergymen who help to make the whole clergy ridiculous” [369] – if I had been drinking anything when I read that sentence, I would have splattered it all over the room), and the fact that most of the town, including Fred himself, assumes that Fred will inherit a significant portion of the estate of his relation Peter Featherstone prompts people to forgive Fred readily, since they think he will one day be rich and powerful. Fred’s sister Rosamond is another of the novel’s marriageable women: she is blonde and beautiful and scheming and everything that Dorothea Brooke is not, and her eventual husband is the new doctor in town, Tertius Lydgate.

More plots and subplots: the aforementioned Peter Featherstone whines and screams and manipulates everyone he can get his hands on, finally dying leaving two different wills, the most recent of which bequeaths much of his estate to an illegitimate son that no one else in Middlemarch has ever heard of before, Joshua Rigg. This plot is only starting to flesh itself out at the novel’s midpoint, but it appears that Rigg has an evil stepfather who is going to begin making trouble. And speaking of troublesome relatives (N.B.: “The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots” [278]: another line that easily could have sent me spraying San Pelligrino grapefruit soda across the reception area of my acupuncturist’s office), Casaubon has a young cousin, Will Ladislaw, who continually appears and makes things difficult. One of the most appealing characters in the novel, Will is referred to more than once as a “Byronic hero” and a Romantic. He is poor because his grandmother was cast out of the family fortune because her parents disapproved of her marriage; Casaubon has been supporting him and paying for his education for years but has always hated him. He hates the freedom and creativity and passion that Ladislaw represents, but as the plot of the novel moves forward, he begins to have real reason to hate Will in that he senses a growing attraction between Will and Dorothea, whose uncle has just hired Will to run a progressive newspaper that he has just purchased.

There’s more, of course – and I still have another 366 pages to read. I hope I’m conveying how fascinating this novel is, but of course it’s fascinating not at all in a bells-and-whistles kind of way but in the sense that our own real lives are fascinating and compelling. I think the title of the novel – which refers to a fictional English town – is wonderfully subtle and significant. This novel is about the march through the middle parts of human life. It is about being middle class and middle-aged and absolutely, consummately average. I’ve already mentioned that I never had the patience to read this novel when I was younger, and, of course, the way I developed that patience was by doing the things people do when we are middle class and middle-aged. Tracking the monthly progress of the retirement account and the credit card balance. Standing in line in airports with our shoes in our hands. Participating in conversations related to insurance. Watching our moles to make sure they stay safely symmetrical. Trying to figure out what’s making that noise in the car.

Middlemarch would make a fabulous TV drama. I’m sure it’s already been adapted into movie and miniseries versions dozens of times, but what I’m thinking of is not so much a direct adaptation of these characters and these situations but a wholesale re-envisioning of the kind that transformed Pride and Prejudice into Bridget Jones’ Diary and Othello into O and Emma into Clueless. I feel as if Middlemarch is the direct antecedent of TV dramas like thirtysomething and Mad Men – dramas that are about politics on a small-scale human stage, dramas that are about the little things that we think about and talk about in order to distract ourselves from the One Big Thing that we never talk about: the fact that we die. Because that’s what every human story is about, isn’t it – the fact that everything we do is another smokescreen designed to conceal the only real truth that we will ever really know about ourselves.

As I hope I’ve made clear, I’m liking this book. I’m grateful that I’m at a place in my life when I have the privilege of reading it slowly. My former student, by the way, made valiant progress. The last I heard, she had read all but the last fifty pages, and the professor had moved on to the next book, as professors always seem so eager to do. At first I interpreted this to mean that the race was over and that I was like the slow kid on the cross country team, slogging across the finish line alone and forgotten. I didn’t really mind that option, to be honest. But then I realized something else: the fact that she finished all but the last fifty pages means that THE RACE IS STILL ON! I can still win! I can be the tortoise racing the hare, alone and forgotten but coming from behind for an underdog victory! And of course I am terribly excited by this – just as the characters in Middlemarch are terribly excited by the plans for the new hospital and the horse-trading convention in the next town and the chance to engage in catty gossip about Mr. Casaubon’s skinny legs. No matter which century we live in or whether we are fictional or real, we are all of us, all the time, looking for ways to trick ourselves into feeling important.

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This entry was posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, George Eliot, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Gospel According to the Nineteenth Century: Thoughts at the Midpoint of Middlemarch (by Bethany)

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I’ve wanted to read Middlemarch for years. I don’t remember who first told me about it (probably you one of the many times you’ve started it), but I’ve always found the “brick-like heft” of it intimidating. Someday I suppose I’ll just have to do it. Maybe when we get around to doing our “books we’ve never read but probably should have” challenge…

  2. lfpbe says:

    Maybe after the AP Challenge is over we should just pick a classic every month and go forward in the same vein…

  3. Pingback: A Tortoise Finishes Middlemarch (by Bethany) | Postcards From Purgatory

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