Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Last thoughts on Middlemarch- the tingle along the spine

Actually reading Tolstoy at the moment, but I'd like to write a few more words about Middlemarch. It's a great book, definitely greater than Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda. I'm not sure if it's the greatest English novel of the 19th century (though definitely not the greatest novel of all time in the English language, and definitely not the greatest novel of the 19th century in any language, but then nobody says that). I'm not sure if it's greater than any single work by Jane Austen- in some ways it is, in some ways it isn't.
In any case, after some struggle at the beginning, (I think) I found the way in- somewhere around chapter 42. Middlemarch feels a lot better after I've read the whole thing, and think back about it.
What's lacking? The ecstasy, the overwhelming sense of satisfaction, the indescribable, incalculable pleasure I had when reading Anna Karenina or Sentimental Education or Lolita or Wuthering Heights, etc. But enough of that irresponsibly vague complaint. Here are the things that I do find extremely satisfying about Middlemarch
- Edward Casaubon. From afar, dried-up, passionless, stiff, self-centred. Closer, a talentless, pseudo-intellectual and deeply insecure man who spends his whole life on futile work and knows his inadequacy and helplessness himself or has enough self-doubt to let nobody help with his writing, lest they know what he's doing. The dread of academics. 
When was the last time I encountered a vivid and convincing male character created by a female writer? 
- Rosamond Vincy. The Victorian femme fatale. An example of passive-aggressive behaviour. An interesting character especially when placed next to Gwendolen Harleth, who is on the surface similar. This is a more fascinating creation than Dorothea Brooke, the moralistic and naively idealistic Dorothea, the moral centre that is nevertheless insincere to herself and sanctimonious to others sometimes, the "tragedy queen" (in the 2nd farewell scene between her and Will, she misunderstands at 1st, then realises his love for herself and likes the feeling but says nothing and lets him walk away; later, after talking to Rosamond, she knows the truth, but remains passive until he looks for her), the saint figure who speaks in childlike simplicity that reminds so much of the ghastly Mirah in Daniel Deronda.
- Tertius Lydgate. Good, talented and idealistic but real in his pride and egotism. 
- All the scenes that lead up to the marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond.
- The chapter that focuses on Casaubon's thoughts and feelings. His reaction to the coming death (reminiscent of Ivan Ilyich). The line "He entered the library and shut himself in, alone with his sorrow." 
- The scene in which Farebrother talks to Mary for Fred and hints at his own feeling. 
- The scene in which Fred confesses to the Garths of his inability to pay back the money, and then realises that he has only thought of his own dishonour, not the loss of others. 
- Mrs Cadwallader and her tongue. Witty epigrams. Most of the time, she's right. 
- Mr Brooke, the scatter-brained Mr Brooke is also a delight. 
- Mr Bulstrode's struggle over whether to kill Raffles. Those passages are magnificent. Lots of readers criticise George Eliot for this superfluous plot, but I'm fine with it. Without his plot how do you get those marvellous passages? 
- The scene in which Mrs Bulstrode hears about her husband's action and comes back to face him. 
"He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, "I know;" and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing with him, or of the acts which had brought it down on them. His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent. Open-minded as she was, she nevertheless shrank from the words which would have expressed their mutual consciousness, as she would have shrunk from flakes of fire. She could not say, "How much is only slander and false suspicion?" and he did not say, "I am innocent."" 
That passage, especially the last line, is wonderful. 
So those are the things that gave me that tingle along the spine. 
I like the scope. There are critics, Henry James included, who say that Middlemarch lacks unity. I don't think so. The plots and the characters are all connected, and there's a sense of wholeness similar to that of War and Peace, which is, funnily enough, called a loose, baggy monster. This scope is beyond Jane Austen's powers. That isn't important in my aesthetics, but it's admirable nonetheless and should be noted. George Eliot is "the pride and paragon of her sex" (Virginia Woolf's words). Our sex. 

I also like George Eliot's wisdom. The intrusive narrator is irritating and the moral can sometimes be annoying, but the wisdom is very good. I need it, apparently. I mean, back on fb after 5 months and what do I see? Homophobes, bigots, philistines, pseudo-intellectuals, show-offs, ignoramuses, idiots... Sympathise, sympathise! 


  1. Well, I am intrigued by your fine posting! And I look forward to revisiting Eliot's novel. You suggest _Middlemarch_ might not be the greatest English language novel, but now you are on the spot: tell me which one is the greatest. I look forward to your selection(s).

    1. The 1st name that came to my mind: Lolita.
      After some consideration, I have to read more. Whilst I find it easy to choose the greatest novel in Russian (despite my limited reading), when it comes to English there are some complications. By my aesthetics, not only Lolita but many English novels are superior, such as Mansfield Park, Emma, Wuthering Heights, Invisible Man, Things Fall Apart, The Sound and the Fury, etc.
      The most admirable thing about Middlemarch is its scope. Now that's what makes me quite uncertain, because that is admirable indeed and many of the works above have a small canvas. But if I can pick out, and make a list of, all the things that I found satisfying, there aren't many, don't you think? I didn't finish the book thinking "Wow this is a supreme work of art, why hadn't I read it a long time ago".

  2. It's been so long since I read this, that I don't know I can make any intelligent comment on it after so many years. But I do know people who are well-read and erudite and discerning and intelligent, who do rate this as their favourite English language novel - some, indeed, their favourite novel regardless of language. As for me, I admire it immensely, but I have never felt the urge to return to it, and that probably tells its own story. But I'd guess my own reaction to the book - and yours too, probably - is really no more than a subjective reaction rather than an objective comment on the qualities f the novel.