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Friday, 19 June 2015

Chapter 42 and Casaubon; or How I learn to stop fighting and praise George Eliot

For a moment, let's forget my fight with Middlemarch and celebrate the wit and wisdom of George Eliot. Here are 3 posts by Rohan Maitzen, an English professor, champion of Middlemarch and all things George Eliot. 
http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings/the-wit-and-wisdom-of-george-eliot-i/
http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings/the-wit-and-wisdom-of-george-eliot-ii/
http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/novelreadings/the-wit-and-wisdom-of-george-eliot-iii/
I don't collect her "sayings". But this line about Casaubon I find particularly moving: 
"He distrusted her affection; and what loneliness is more lonely than distrust?" 
Leaving aside the issue of literary merits (her art clashes with my aesthetics), I'm in awe of her formidable intellect, her wit and wisdom, her deep sensibilities. I would tell V. S. Naipaul, who thinks women are sentimental and have a narrow sense of the world, to read some George Eliot. She's profound. 
Now let's talk about chapter 42, at the end of Book 4. It's wonderful. Really, 1 of the best chapters in the novel. According to my spine. From Middlemarch to Daniel Deronda, George Eliot goes further by making Grandcourt a greater monster, a more horrible husband than Casaubon, but rarely offers Grandcourt's point of view, Grandcourt's side of the story (why always Gwendolen?). Casaubon is described as through the eyes of strangers (Celia, Sir James, Mrs Cadwallader...), of his wife, who initially worships him and slowly sees him for what he is (Dorothea), of a relative who knows him better than anybody (Will Ladislaw). The narrator comes even closer, dissects him, puts on display his weaknesses, insecurities, distrusts and jealousies. The man may not deserve sympathy, but he deserves some pity. Spending his whole life on some great work that would never be finished and perhaps has never been begun, he doesn't know that he's groping about in the woods with a pocket compass when the Germans have made good roads. George Eliot unveils the obsoleteness and pointlessness of the lifework of a man believed to be a great intellectual, in the conversation between Will and Dorothea, but there it mostly sounds comic and pathetic. When she goes deeper, in chapter 42, it is poignant. 
Look at this passage: 
"Against certain facts he was helpless: against Will Ladislaw's existence, his defiant stay in the neighbourhood of Lowick, and his flippant state of mind with regard to the possessors of authentic, well-stamped erudition: against Dorothea's nature, always taking on some new shape of ardent activity, and even in submission and silence covering fervid reasons which it was an irritation to think of: against certain notions and likings which had taken possession of her mind in relation to subjects that he could not possibly discuss with her. There was no denying that Dorothea was as virtuous and lovely a young lady as he could have obtained for a wife; but a young lady turned out to be something more troublesome than he had conceived. She nursed him, she read to him, she anticipated his wants, and was solicitous about his feelings; but there had entered into the husband's mind the certainty that she judged him, and that her wifely devotedness was like a penitential expiation of unbelieving thoughts—was accompanied with a power of comparison by which himself and his doings were seen too luminously as a part of things in general. His discontent passed vapor-like through all her gentle loving manifestations, and clung to that inappreciative world which she had only brought nearer to him.
Poor Mr. Casaubon! This suffering was the harder to bear because it seemed like a betrayal: the young creature who had worshipped him with perfect trust had quickly turned into the critical wife; and early instances of criticism and resentment had made an impression which no tenderness and submission afterwards could remove. To his suspicious interpretation Dorothea's silence now was a suppressed rebellion; a remark from her which he had not in any way anticipated was an assertion of conscious superiority; her gentle answers had an irritating cautiousness in them; and when she acquiesced it was a self-approved effort of forbearance. The tenacity with which he strove to hide this inward drama made it the more vivid for him; as we hear with the more keenness what we wish others not to hear." 
From the outside, this man may be seen as a dry, tedious man, whose blood is "all semicolons and parentheses"; or a self-absorbed monster who only cares about himself and acts cruelly to his own wife and to Will. But George Eliot brings us closer to him, and lets us see his self-doubt and helplessness. Look at the scene in chapter 42 after he knows about his health condition. No, not the whole scene, this 1 line: 
"He entered the library and shut himself in, alone with his sorrow." 
That's a wonderful line. 

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