A Tortoise Finishes Middlemarch (by Bethany)


I posted my thoughts on the first half of Middlemarch a LONG time ago, so if you’re looking for a refresher, feel free to check them out here. This earlier post also describes the process by which I decided to “race” a former student and friend through this 766-page honker of a nineteenth-century novel. She had just found out she was supposed to read it before classes started at the university in England where she was studying abroad and was trying to read the whole novel over a long weekend. I, on the other hand, read it over three and a half months. My pace felt slow, but I actually read it quite rapidly compared to the way this novel was experienced by its original audience, who read it in serial publication in Blackwood’s Magazine over a period of about eighteen months in 1871-72. Its original audience had long lapses of time in between installments to consider what they had read and anticipate what would come next, much as we wait eagerly for the next episode of Downton Abbey or Mad Men. And of course, in those intervals of time, they weren’t just looking forward to the next few chapters of Middlemarch; they were also living their own lives and bumping up against the lives of their neighbors, knee-deep in the dignity and shame and longing and incomplete understandings that make up the connective tissue of human lives – which is what I was doing as well over the last three and a half months, at least during the hours when I wasn’t reading Middlemarch.

This novel doesn’t just feel slow; slowness is part of its subject matter, and once I accepted that slowness and began to think of it as a necessary – almost symbolic – element of the novel, I began to enjoy it. This novel is about the painfully slow pace of human progress, which may be one reason that it can feel inaccessible to some readers today, especially for those in my generation, who grew up taking lessons in how to look straight ahead while typing A-A-A-space-S-S-S-space-D-D-D-space onto the whited-out keys of a manual typewriter and now tap cryptic messages into iPhones that correct our mistakes for us, sometimes comically. Nowadays we tend to delude ourselves into thinking that human life changes quickly. It still doesn’t – not in ways that matter, anyway – and for me the fact that this novel is so accessible was a reminder of how illusory the rapid pace of some parts of my life really are. In her introduction to my edition, Margaret Drabble connects the “march” of the title to the “hint of progress” (vii) promised by this novel, and there is no doubt that progress in this book comes in the form of a “march” – a march through swamps and windstorms and swarms of locusts and steep, rocky terrain. Remember that song you sang in preschool about going on a lion hunt: “Can’t go over it! Can’t go under it! We’ve got to go THROUGH it!”? Yeah. That kind of march.

But while the progress in this novel requires struggle, this march is not a forced one. The characters in this novel are invested in their lives and in their individual, minute efforts to make their world better. The second half of this book is relentlessly political, as Dorothea and Celia’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, begins publishing a political newspaper and briefly runs for office himself. The issue at stake is the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, which – when it was eventually passed – extended greater voting privileges to the English population and restructured the way representatives were chosen for Parliament to reflect the enormous demographic changes that took place in the first decades of the Industrial Revolution. The compulsion toward reform is everywhere in this novel – from Dorothea’s determination to use Casaubon’s money to build improved housing for the poor and assist Lydgate in the funding of a new hospital to Lydgate and Bulstrode’s determination to plan ahead and find innovative ways to fight the cholera epidemic that they expect is coming, to anxiety in the community about the sale of land to railroad companies, to a general loosening of customs and expectations concerning marriage that allows – eventually and not without struggle – for the marriage of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth and for that of Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Brooke Casaubon. But the reverse compulsion – for keeping things exactly as they are, for not struggling, for making sure that people who preach reform are stifled and silenced – is present as well, in the codicil to Casaubon’s will that tries to prevent Dorothea’s marriage to Ladislaw, in the townspeople’s vicious mockery of Brooke during the political rally, in Bulstrode’s determination to hide the secrets in his past, in the town’s suspicions of Lydgate’s unconventional theories of medicine.

I would love to take (or, sometime in the future, after lots of research, maybe to teach) an interdisciplinary course on this book, one that covers the social and political history behind the Reform Bill; the religious distinctions of the era between Church of England adherents and “Dissenters”; the changing attitudes toward medical practitioners (“physicians,” “surgeons,” and “apothecaries”), drugs, and disease in this era; and the economics of this changing world, which play such an important role in this novel. Moneylending and debt are practically characters in this novel – that’s how instrumental they are in driving the plot forward and determining the fates of its characters. I laughed out loud – and not in a mocking way at all – when Dorothea and Will finally admit and embrace their mutual passion for one another (on page 743!), and the chapter ends on Dorothea’s climactic line, “I want so little – no new clothes – and I will learn what everything costs.”

Why is this line so funny? Written out here, out of context, it seems less so. But here’s the thing: for all her life, Dorothea has been protected and controlled by money. She has inherited a yearly income of seven hundred pounds from her father – which, as I understand it, is relatively significant when it takes the form of a dowry and is enough for a person who is used to modest means to live on but not nearly enough to support Dorothea in the manner to which she has become accustomed. When Casaubon dies, she inherits his considerable fortune, and the terms of his will indicate that she can do absolutely anything she wants with his money except marry Will Ladislaw. As a young, wealthy widow in her early twenties, Dorothea has an unfathomable amount of freedom and security, and of course, being Dorothea, she pops up every so often in the novel to make a speech about how all she really wants to do with the money is to make other people’s lives easier and practically begs Lydgate to take her money off her hands for the improvement of his new hospital – but of course to the reader it is obvious that what she wants even more than endowing the hospital and improving the lives of the poor is to renounce the money altogether in favor of a different kind of freedom: that of married life with the Byron-like, politically radical, artsy-fartsily appealing Will Ladislaw. When she makes her declaration about finding out “what everything costs” (a statement that follows her first kiss with Will, which, by the way, takes place during a thunderstorm in a scene that would be painfully cliché if it weren’t so darned gratifying), I pictured Dorothea’s radiant visage (so much like that of St. Teresa of Avila, as Eliot tells us twelve thousand times) on stage on The Price is Right, competing against a bevy of Indiana housewives to guess the price of canned beets and toilet cleaner – and loving every minute of it. The line is funny because it reflects a victory over fate, I guess, and of course, it’s also funny because it suggests that to Dorothea this task of learning what things cost seems like an almost impossible endeavor. She will do absolutely anything for Will Ladislaw, even do her grocery shopping herself, a task that she seems to think is even harder than eliminating poverty from the English Midlands.

While I was reading, I kept coming back to the question of what George Eliot thinks of Dorothea. The novel begins and ends with Dorothea, and she is in some ways its heroine, although there are times when she more or less disappears for a hundred pages or more while Eliot focuses on the more mundane trials of Tertius and Rosamond Lydgate, Fred Vincy, the Garths, and Mr. Bulstrode and his blackmailing former associate, Mr. Raffles. In some ways it’s hard to take Dorothea seriously, although of course it is easy to approve of her and admire her high ideals and aspirations. Eliot makes it clear that we are supposed to see Dorothea as a saintly soul that had the misfortune of being born in a world with little for a saint to do, and this is Dorothea’s struggle: she has to take her idealism and her generosity (as well as her tangible resources) and not use them for the benefit of THE POOR as an abstraction, as she intends, but use them instead to find the courage to renounce her money and security and become much financially poorer than she used to be in the service of her love for Will. In a way, her story is the reverse of a common morality tale in which a wealthy person has to learn that the way to happiness is to help others. Dorothea has an inborn compulsion to help others; she has to learn instead how to turn the great trust she has in the goodness of humanity on herself, and trust that her instinct to marry Will in the face of great opposition is correct and good. She’s a fascinating character – almost a cliché, and there were times when I rolled my eyes at her endless determination toward self-sacrifice – and it is her naïvete that saves her, that keeps her human, that prevents her from being just a two-dimensional image of a saint.

It occurs to me as I write this: isn’t that what we all are – almost clichés? In some ways, one of the greatest challenges of the fiction writer’s job is to convey with subtlety and insight those tiny moments and those tiny traits that make up the almost. Fail to convey them enough and you create clichés. Give these quirks and foibles too much emphasis and you’re in Swamplandia! territory. And no one really wants to be there.

While it was obvious from very early in the novel that Dorothea and Will would find their way toward marriage, there were times when I thought Dorothea should marry Lydgate. I remember briefly hoping they might pair up at the beginning of the novel (a move that would have shortened the book by, oh, about 80%), and at the end when Lydgate confides in Dorothea about his financial and marital problems it is obvious that there is a certain bond between them. These two characters are the idealists of the novel – they are the two who are most focused on effacing their own desires in order to serve the needs of the larger world, and they are the two characters quickest to renounce the importance of money. For Lydgate, this renunciation is horribly damaging because he is married to a woman who lives and breathes for money and the things it can buy. If this were a twenty-first-century novel, I think there’s no question that Lydgate and Dorothea would have found their way into a relationship – they might not have gotten married, but they would at least have dated and found words to express the bond that exists between them on some intuitive level. In some ways, Lydgate has all the qualities Dorothea admired about Casaubon – intelligence, seriousness of purpose, erudition – without Casaubon’s obtuseness and tunnel vision and tendency to write vindictive codicils. They could have saved the world together – but then, of course, Dorothea wouldn’t have had the chance to grow as a character by giving up the chance to save the world in exchange for a chance to save herself. For a few brief chapters I thought that Eliot might make this match work, though – I thought that the references to Lydgate’s determination to fight cholera might be a bit of ironic foreshadowing and that a cholera epidemic might carry off Rosamond (and wouldn’t that have been a shame?), opening the door for Dorothea and Lydgate to marry without Dorothea having to forfeit Casaubon’s bank account. And while I like Will as a character, I think Lydgate might have been a better match for Dorothea.

There were times in the last 150 pages of this novel when the whole Lydgate plot – the financial trouble he gets in by indulging his wife’s spending habits while also doing so much pro bono work at the hospital, combined with an incident that makes it seem as if he took a bribe to cover up what appears to be Bulstrode’s murder of Mr. Raffles – made me actually writhe with sympathy, and it was while I was cringing and wincing at the horror of his having to live with his debts and his wrecked reputation that I realized once again what a profoundly adult novel this is. Virginia Woolf famously said that Middlemarch is “the only English novel ever written for grown-up people,” and while I don’t agree at all about the exclusivity of this claim (is Bleak House for kids???), there’s no question that this novel is about the great Gordian knot of being middle-aged. It’s about what it’s like to realize that you have messed your life up irreparably decades and decades before you’re likely to die. I’m going to turn thirty-seven in a few days, and right now I think that if Freud were giving me a word-association test and gave me the word “thirty-seven,” I would reply “Middlemarch.” When the novel’s final chapter reveals that Lydgate salvages his marriage and his life by moving to London and becoming a gout specialist, insuring his life heavily, and dying young, I thought of the final chapter of The Age of Innocence – maybe my favorite single chapter anywhere in literature – in which Newland Archer thinks of everything he gave up in order to have the staid, safe life on the periphery of the great social changes of his century and then sits back on a park bench and fails to climb the stairs to Ellen Olenska’s Paris flat. In the balanced wisdom of her prose and in her ability to capture the bland endlessness of decades of routinized life in sentence or two – and then make this blandness seem beautiful – Eliot is undoubtedly the literary ancestor of Edith Wharton, and of Cheever too. All three draw our attention to the gigantic gaping holes in the world we think we know.

This novel had a powerful effect on me. I’m glad I read it now – and by that I mean at thirty-six instead of sixteen or twenty or even thirty-two – and I’m glad I picked it up again after the two-month hiatus I spent packing boxes and moving west. I’m glad I took my time. This is a rare text that manages to be both a detailed portrait of a period in history that has vanished and a mirror that I as a reader was able to hold up and say Yeah. Those are my people. This is my world.

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

2 Responses to A Tortoise Finishes Middlemarch (by Bethany)

  1. Helaine says:

    What a fantastic review. I thought the same thing about Lydgate and Dorothea and it killed me. Now I want to read it again. I wish you taught this course!!!

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