Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Middlemarch 3: The Seeds Disperse...

Imagine someone writing this about her father:

"Father's birthday. He would have been 96, yes, today; & could have been 96, like other people one has known; but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;—inconceivable."

The man about whom that was written was Leslie Stephen, an eminent-in-his-own-mind Victorian. (Was there any Victorian male who was not eminent in his own mind?) His daughter, who wrote those words in her diary, was Virginia Woolf.

I say this because it was also Virginia Woolf who famously called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." This seems plain and straight-forward, until one adds the knowledge that her father had himself written a book on George Eliot, a patronizing study of a famous novelist read not for her talents as a writer but because people felt they "should" read her.

Woolf is saying, "My father was not a grownup." She also writes in her essay "George Eliot" about "the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself," again a veiled reference to the patronizing view of Eliot [and perhaps all women of talent, imagination, and intellect] as exemplified by her father's book.

"His life would have entirely ended mine," Woolf could admit in her diary. In her public writing, she all but called her father a child. It is a bittersweet revenge, but something that I think of often as I read American and British literature in the light of how that literature was received in its time and how it has withstood the tests of time.

In Middlemarch, George Eliot returns to the subject of pity, and how nothing kills love faster. Even Leslie Stephen picked up on this, when he wrote of Causabon, "No doubt there is a pathos in devotion to an entirely mistaken ideal." Little did Leslie Stephen realize he was writing his own epitaph.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Middlemarch 2

Last night, as I read the last seventy-five pages of this—"novel" doesn't seem the right word; one wants something that means "world in a book" or "life woven from paper and ink"—okay, novel, I was deeply moved by this line. This is Dr. Lydgate, after a significant conversation with Dorothea Causabon. Dr. Lydgate, I should mention, had never before considered the possibility of having a significant conversation with any woman. But as he leaves her house a changed man, having been honest for the first time with another human being and with himself, he thinks, "She seems to have what I never saw in any woman before — a fountain of friendship toward men — a man can make a friend of her."

This is the tragedy of which I wrote in yesterday's blog post, the tragedy that it doesn't occur to these men until after friendships must be severed that friendship was possible in the first place. This is a novel about friendship, in that it depicts people who have no friends. Trivial acquaintances are in abundance, but no one in this novel knows how to be or make a friend.

After reading my blog post yesterday, my husband George said, "Don't we have Middlemarch on DVD? Let's watch it." When we realized we have a set of DVDs with dramatizations of five George Eliot novels, my George said, "It will be a George Eliot summer."

This is why one marries one's best friend.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Middlemarch, part 1

I have been spending these past several days of my summer break reading one of my favorite novels, Middlemarch by George Eliot. Every fifty pages or so (I'm in the 700s) I think, I should go write a blog post about this...but then I just keep reading. So now the blog posts I felt were so necessary have built up in my mind into a towering impossibility. Forgive me, then for resorting to bullet points:

  • Imagine my wonder last night when I got to a chapter I had completely forgotten about. That's all I can say, because there will be no spoilers in this post. But it got me thinking (as I was reading) about the fickle nature of memory, and the importance of re-reading those creative works that have changed us, do change us, will change us.
  • Earlier in the novel, I had this realization: Dorothea Brooke, Mary Garth, and Rosamond Vincy are all about the same age. (In fact, Dorothea is the youngest, just 19 when the novel begins, which makes it all the more interesting that she seems the oldest by far of these three women.) The novel is really about these three women: their personalities, their choices and lack of choices, their actions and the ripple-in-a-lake effects of those actions, and mostly it is about their minds and the shaping of those minds. In a way—hidden just below the surface of a compelling fictional story—George Eliot is illustrating Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Eliot details how each of these young women were educated, and how their intellect is regarded by the men in their lives. The men—all of whom have had access to the best education of their times (the novel is set from 1830-1833) often come up lacking, though a few recognize the tragedy of the educational deficits with which these women have had to contend. The men also recognize among themselves that education does not necessarily make one intelligent. The men do not consciously recognize that they recognize these things. No one in this novel is really "ahead of" his/her time. They are trapped, and some make the best of what life has to offer. Some do not.
  • And always, George Eliot is showing us two opposing truths: Even our most trivial actions can have far-reaching consequences, and yet we must not live life fretting over trivialities. Yikes.
More after the next 700 pages. (Just kidding; only a couple hundred to go...)