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! 

Monday 29 June 2015

George Eliot& George Sand

Yesterday I was working on a post called "Some wonderful letters by George Sand", then I felt it might have been a bit long, and decided to paste it in Word. Turned out, that post was more 14000 words! 
Which means that it won't be published. Or maybe it will be published in a series of posts. Or heavily cut. 
Anyway, as I was rereading parts of The George Sand- Gustave Flaubert Letters (translated by A. L. McKenzie), I discovered something interesting- in many passages George Sand sounds just like George Eliot. 
For example, look at this:
"“Not put one’s heart into what one writes?” I don’t understand at all, oh! not at all! As for me, I think that one can not put anything else into it. Can one separate one’s mind from one’s heart? Is it something different? Can sensation itself limit itself? Can existence divide itself? In short, not to give oneself entirely to one’s work, seems to me as impossible as to weep with something else than one’s eyes, and to think with something else than one’s brain." 
A while ago there was a post on this blog about a discussion between her and Flaubert, who had opposing views, on whether the author should express their opinions in a literary work. The other George, we all know, wrote didactic novels and often used intrusive narrators, and could have called impersonality "a sort of idiocy which is peculiar to me" as George Sand did, and said "I attach less importance to [style] than you do". 
The French George talked about love for humanity: 
"And what, you want me to stop loving? You want me to say that I have been mistaken all my life, that humanity is contemptible, hateful, that it has always been and always will be so? And you chide my anguish as a weakness, and puerile regret for a lost illusion? You assert that the people has always been ferocious, the priest always hypocritical, the bourgeois always cowardly, the soldier always brigand, the peasant always stupid? You say that you have known all that ever since your youth and you rejoice that you never have doubted it, because maturity has not brought you any disappointment; have you not been young then? Ah! We are entirely different, for I have never ceased to be young, if being young is always loving." 
And her optimism: 
"One needs to see the putting-on of a play in order to understand that, and if one is not armed with humor and inner zest for the study of human nature in the actual individuals whom the fiction is to mask, there is much to rage about. But I don’t rage any more, I laugh; I know too much of all that to get excited about it, and I shall tell you some fine stories about it when we meet.
However, as I am an optimist just the same, I look at the good side of things and people; but the truth is that everything is bad and everything is good in this world." 
"... And YET, in the midst of all that, my soul exults and has ecstasies of faith; these terrific lessons which are necessary for us to understand our imbecility, must be of use to us. We are perhaps making our last return to the ways of the old world. There are sharp and clear principles for everyone today that ought to extricate them from this torment. Nothing is useless in the material order of the universe. The moral order cannot escape the law. Bad engenders good..." 
That love, acceptance of everything, and optimism, can be felt in Middllemarch as well as in Adam Bede and Daniel Deronda. Everyone, or almost everyone, in these novels is depicted with understanding and sympathy. People may have faults, but they may improve. People may make mistakes, but they may learn through experience and become wiser. People may suffer injustices, but if honest and good may be later rewarded; and even if the happiness is not "absolute" in the end, there's a calm acceptance. 
Look at this excerpt from another letter from George Sand to Flaubert: 
"I make my life in the midst of all that, and as I like my life I like all that nourishes it and renews it. They do me a lot of ill turns which I see, but which I no longer feel. I know that there are thorns in the hedges, but that does not prevent me from putting out my hands and finding flowers there. If all are not beautiful, all are interesting. The day you took me to the Abbey of Saint-Georges I found the scrofularia borealis, a very rare plant in France. I was enchanted; there was much . . . in the neighborhood where I gathered it. Such is life!
And if one does not take life like that, one cannot take it in any way, and then how can one endure it? I find it amusing and interesting, and since I accept EVERYTHING, I am so much happier and more enthusiastic when I meet the beautiful and the good. If I did not have a great knowledge of the species, I should not have quickly understood you, or known you or loved you.." 
There are still other passages which sound as though they could have been written by George Eliot: 
"The deluge comes and death captures us. In vain you are prudent and withdraw, your refuge will be invaded in its turn, and in perishing with human civilization you will be no greater a philosopher for not having loved, than those who threw themselves into the flood to save some debris of humanity. The debris is not worth the effort, very good! They will perish none the less, that is possible. We shall perish with them, that is certain, but we shall die while in the fulness of life. I prefer that to a hibernation in the ice, to an anticipated death. And anyway, I could not do otherwise. Love does not reason. If I asked why you have the passion for study, you would not explain it to me any better than those who have a passion for idleness can explain their indolence." 
"Can one live peaceably, you say, when the human race is so absurd? I submit, while saying to myself that perhaps I am as absurd as every one else and that it is time to turn my mind to correcting myself."
"I pity humanity, I wish it were good, because I cannot separate myself from it; because it is myself; because the evil it does strikes me to the heart; because its shame makes me blush; because its crimes gnaw at my vitals, because I cannot understand paradise in heaven nor on earth for myself alone." 
"You have too much knowledge and intelligence, you forget that there is something above art: namely, wisdom, of which art at its apogee is only the expression. Wisdom comprehends all: beauty, truth, goodness, enthusiasm, in consequence. It teaches us to see outside of ourselves, something more elevated than is in ourselves, and to assimilate it little by little, through contemplation and admiration." 
If I had never known about these letters, and if somebody had replaced the name, I might have thought that those letters were written by George Eliot. So in a way I have a vague idea about what she and Flaubert would have said to each other, had they been acquaintances. 
I've never read any novel by George Sand however. Are the 2 Georges similar?

Sunday 28 June 2015

On Fred Vincy

1/ I'm reading a selection of critical essays on Middlemarch, edited by Patrick Swinden, in the Casebook Series. 1 critic complains of the narrator's partiality for Fred and against Rosamond. Both are spoilt, selfish, frivolous, idle, etc. 
Indeed, Fred Vincy has lots of faults. He gets up late in the morning, comes down 2 hours after everyone else and demands grilled bone. He wanders, has no resolution and lives an idle life in expectation of inheriting Featherstone's land and money. He indulges himself in games and fun, gets into debt and borrows money irresponsibly without thinking whether he can return it. And when he comes to talk to the Garths about his inability to give the money back, what he fears is his own dishonour rather than the loss it might cause them. 
However, what makes Fred different from Rosamond is that he concentrates everything on Mary. This says 3 things. 1st, loving a girl who is neither pretty nor rich means that, eager as he is to inherit money from Featherstone, Fred isn't obsessed with false values, and he's capable of recognising something good and admirable, whereas Rosamond isn't, who marries Lydgate because of his good relations as much as because of her feelings for him, who likes the Captain and wants her husband to be more like him, who wishes Lydgate were not a doctor, who looks down on the Garths, etc. 2nd, Fred always thinks about Mary and fears her disapproval, which makes him choose not to do things that Mary doesn't like, whereas Rosamond thinks about nobody but herself, and never finds herself blameable. 3rd, Fred's love for Mary acts as a drive for him to better himself, and in later chapters he becomes independent, whereas his sister doesn't have such a force. 
In short, Rosamond's greatest fault is her egotism. Fred's greatest sin is his weak will, or in Mary's words, his unsteadiness. Mary supplies the strength he needs. 

2/ Some blogger I read the other day wrote that she preferred Mary to end up with Farebrother rather than Fred Vincy. 
At the time, it made some sense. Farebrother's a very good, admirable man. He makes the best of his situation. And look at the scene in which he talks to Mary on behalf of Fred, in spite of his own feelings. 
However, it should be noted that Farebrother has several faults. He sticks to his vocation, despite knowing it's a wrong one. He likes money and plays whist, card games, billiards... He wants a job because of its salary more than because of the job itself. And he doesn't change for Mary, at least it's doubtful that he would do so- instead, he would expect her to accept him the way he is. 
George Eliot's view on gambling is very clear in Daniel Deronda

3/ Am I contradicting myself when I believe in Fred's capability of change, but don't believe that Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park can change? 
Some people may think so, but they're mistaken. Henry's greatest sin is his selfishness, thoughtlessness and love of fun. He toys with women's feelings because it's all a game to him and he doesn't care about how they feel. I don't doubt his feelings for Fanny Price, but they aren't strong and deep enough to move him to change for her, and mixed with this love is something else- wounded pride and curiosity because Fanny isn't charmed by him and in love with him as girls usually are, and determination to make the exception cease to be an exception, which results from egotism, conceit and self-love. When Henry seems to improve in manners, it's an act, a temporary thing, a part of the scheme to win her. He's attracted to Fanny because she's different from other women; the more she resists, the more interested he is, the more eager for winning her. Fred doesn't change until later because he has a weak will, Henry, in contrast, has a strong will- sadly he concentrates on winning, on getting his desires realised, on proving that he can get what he wants and nobody can resist him. 
Men like that can be found everywhere. They don't change. People who accuse Jane Austen of unrealistically making him hook up with Maria when he almost gets Fanny, are the unrealistic ones, who don't understand the nature of such douchebags and who naively buy the fantasy that bad boys can change for love. Fred can change because he always considers whether he's worthy of and approved by Mary, Henry isn't like that. 

Saturday 27 June 2015

Middlemarch: "Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"; the 3rd plot; the Garths

Back to Middlemarch. Because 15 posts isn't enough. 
1/ Reviews and blog posts about Middlemarch often ignore the Mary- Fred plot. It is important, especially when we remember that George Eliot's a didactic author, a sort of sage writer. That plot is there to make a point, and to contrast with the 2 1st plots
In Anna Karenina, there are 3 families: Anna- Karenin (-Vronsky), Levin- Kitty and Dolly- Oblonsky. Tolstoy depicts them to demonstrate the 1st line about happy and unhappy families (in the 1st one, both husband and wife are unhappy; 2nd one, husband and wife are happy; 3rd one, husband's happy, wife's unhappy, but the 3rd marriage should be regarded as another kind of unhappy family) and to depict 2 kinds of love- romantic/ passionate love (Anna- Vronsky) and intimate love (Kitty- Levin), and ultimately to argue what constitutes happiness. 
Similarly in Middlemarch, there are 3 main couples: Dorothea- Casaubon, Lydgate- Rosamond and Mary- Fred. We may say that by depicting and analysing them, George Eliot helps demonstrating the 1st line of Anna Karenina and offering 2 other forms of unhappy families. The marriage between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth doesn't take place till the end, but throughout the novel George Eliot writes about their bond and the impact they have on each other (though it's mostly Mary's influence on Fred) and some necessary components for future happiness. Placed next to this couple are 2 other happy families, Sir James- Celia and Mr and Mrs Garth, which are also built on love, understanding, compatibility... (I admit that it's a guess regarding Sir James- Celia, as their marriage's not described in many details, but I think we can say so because they are compatible and harmonious, having similar values and similar thoughts on many subjects, such as Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, the will...). 
It should be noted that there are 2 other marriages at the end of Middlemarch. Rosamond's 2nd marriage, after Lydgate's death, is unimportant and can be skipped. That Dorothea marries Will may not satisfy everybody (because he's irresolute or, to some people, inferior to her), and on my part I find Will not very fully developed as a character, but George Eliot does take care to let them have the necessary factors for a happy marriage that are absent in Dorothea's former marriage, such as compatibility (similar thoughts, values, aspirations...), love, trust, understanding, mutual respect and openness. 

2/ I've seen readers who express regret that Dorothea doesn't marry Lydgate instead. The heroine and the hero of the book, they say. I don't think that's a good idea. Lydgate's unlikely to let Dorothea have freedom to learn and do what she wants, he's unlikely to talk openly to her about his work or to let her help in any way except by spending her money on the hospital. They're different people, with different interests. At the same time, mixed with Lydgate's wish to do good to people in the community is a sort of egotism, an ambitious to succeed, do something important and become known. 
Those critics, I'm afraid, don't see these characters as clearly as George Eliot sees them. A man like Lydgate is unlikely to fall in love with a woman like Dorothea. He may admire her, he may be friends with her, but cannot fall in love with her. 

3/ Come to think of it, Middlemarch is more melancholy than the early Adam Bede and George Eliot's last novel Daniel Deronda. It's full of fools, egotists, philistines. It's full of disappointments. Dorothea and Lydgate, the 2 people that yearn for something better, higher, find their dreams and aspirations thwarted. Casaubon spends his whole life doing research on a book that is never begun. Farebrother chooses a wrong vocation. The Vincys are disappointed with their children's marriages. And so on and so forth. 
It would be as sad, melancholy and pessimistic as Flaubert's Sentimental Education, if not for the Garths, who are there to function as the moral touchstone or moral centre of the book and to balance out or reduce the negativity in the tone. The Garths, specifically Mr Caleb Garth, Mrs Garth and Mary Garth, are at peace with the world, because they do their duties, live honestly and kindly, and do nothing that gives them a heavy conscience. However, I don't think that George Eliot wants to say that people should be content with what they have, forget ambitions and yearn for nothing more, because Dorothea and Lydgate fail not only because they have big dreams, not only because they're hindered by society, but also because they have weaknesses of their own. Regarding Lydgate, he makes a mistake in choosing a wife, but there are also faults in his character- his attitude towards women, his weakness, and his pride (it's because of pride that he feels guilty and yields whenever Rosamond talks of her disappointment, which means he fails as a husband). Regarding Dorothea, I'm afraid that some readers idealise her too much (in the essay "Why Feminist Critics Are Angry with George Eliot", Zelda Austen says that some feminists criticise George Eliot for not allowing Dorothea to do what the author did in real life). Dorothea is not George Eliot. There's no indication that she possesses the same mental abilities and vast knowledge- I doubt that she does, growing up with a scatter-brained uncle like Mr Brooke. She lacks wit, and wisdom, Leslie Stephen is right to say that she even has "a slight touch of stupidity". Not only does Dorothea go against everybody and marry a man like Casaubon, asking herself whether she deserves him but not whether he deserves her, but she also shows insensitivity or foolishness in making the same mistake twice- at the beginning, she fails to realise that Sir James is courting her, thinking that he loves Celia, later, she believes that Will's having an affair with Rosamond. In addition, she takes a long time to realise that she herself has feelings for him. 

4/ Actually, it's not incomprehensible that the 3rd plot is ignored. Mary Garth and Fred Vincy are not as complex, interesting and fully developed as Casaubon, Rosamond, Lydgate and Dorothea. Their love story is unremarkable in itself, and wouldn't be fascinating as an independent book. It simply has a function. Apparently, the plot of 2 young people improving themselves to deserve each other and deserve happiness is Jane Austen's thing.

Now, having written and published this post, I'll go to a wedding. 

Thursday 25 June 2015

The Madwoman in the Attic: on Middlemarch

The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar .
In chapter 14 "George Eliot as the Angel of Destruction", they argue that Casaubon and Lydgate increasingly resemble each other.
"When Rosamond expresses her opinion about debts that will affect her life as much as his, Lydgate echoes Casaubon 'You must learn to take my judgment on questions you don't understand' (chap.58). Lydgate contemptuously calls Rosamond 'dear', as Casaubon does Dorothea when he is most annoyed with her presumption. The narrator expresses sympathy for Lydgate's need to bow under 'the yoke', but then goes on to explain that he does this 'like a creature who had talons' (chap.58). Lydgate begins to act and speak 'with that excited narrow consciousness which reminds one of an animal with fierce eyes and retractile claws' (chap.66). Like Casaubon, Lydgate will 'shrink into unconquerable reticence' (chap.63) out of personal pride when help is offered. And like Casaubon he experiences the discontent 'of wasted energy and a degrading preoccupation' (chap.64). Fallen into a 'swamp' of debt (chap.58), he feels his life as a mistake 'at work in him like a recognized chronic disease, mingling its uneasy importunities with every prospect, and enfeebling every thought' (chap.58).
Lydgate had dreamed of Rosamond as 'that perfect piece of womanhood who would reverence her husband's mind after the fashion of an accomplished mermaid, using her comb and looking-glass and singing her song for the relaxation of his adored wisdom alone' (chap.58)- a dream not appreciably different from Casaubon's. [...] Lydgate attacks Rosamond's attachment to their house, thinking 'in his bitterness, what can a woman care about so much as house and furniture' (chap.64), but she has been given nothing else to care about..."
Earlier I have noted that Lydgate's mistake is not only his choice of a wife, but also his attitude towards women (which seems to have escaped some readers), the same way I think there's no denying that Casaubon's a horrible person to be with and Dorothea is wrong in unthinkingly taking a plunge into that marriage, but she also has some crazy ideas about a future husband. Another sexist in Middlemarch is the scatter-brained, trivial and ridiculous Mr Brooke. Contrast Lydgate with Will Ladislaw, who doesn't hold such views of women. The good people of the book such as Caleb Garth and Farebrother don't think that way either.
However, I think Gilbert and Gubar go a bit too far in their assessment of Rosamond:
"Having no overt means of escape at her disposal and a husband who refuses to hear or take her advice, Rosamond enacts her opposition as silently as does Dorothea; she is 'particularly forcible by means of that mild persistence which, as we know, enables a white living substance to make its way in spite of opposing rock' (chap.36). Always able to frustrate him by stratagem, Rosamond becomes Lydgate's basil plant, 'flourishing wonderfully on a murdered man's brains' (Finale). She fulfills Gwendolen Harleth's vision of women and plants that must look pretty and be bored, which is 'the reason why some of them have got poisonous' (DD, chap.13). Rosamond has been imprisoned by her marriage [...] In spite of the narrator's condemnation of her narrow narcissism, then, it is clear that Rosamond enacts Dorothea's silent anger against a marriage of death, Mary Garth's resentment, Bertha Grant's plot, Gwendolen Grandcourt's secret longing, and Janet Dempster's desire, as well as Maggie Tulliver's 'volcanic upheavings' (MF, IV, chap.3)..."
A few pages later: 
"The meeting between Rosamond and Dorothea is therefore the climax of Middlemarch. Both women seem childish because both have been denied full maturity by their femininity. Each is pale from a night of crying, believing that she has 'buried a private joy'. Each is jealous of the other, yet self-forgetful..." 
Not only so, they regard Rosamond as "Eliot's most important study of female rebellion".
It's this way of thinking, this approach to literature that I earlier found reductive and distorting if not even distasteful. What kind of person is Rosamond? She is selfish and egocentric, prioritising her interests and feelings above everything else, ignoring her husband and his sense of dignity, thinking about nobody but herself. She is extravagant, frivolous and carefree, refusing to economise, and riding a horse even when pregnant. She values money, social status and physical appearance- she does love Lydgate, but certainly wouldn't marry him if not for his good relations, and wants him to be more like the captain; she dismisses Mary for being plain, and asks if Mrs Casaubon is beautiful. She's not ashamed of her own actions, only of bad reputation and disgrace. She never finds herself wrong, just wronged by others. Her mind is narrow, she doesn't read, doesn't have self-reflection, doesn't question her own behaviour, doesn't have sympathy for others, doesn't strive for knowledge or self-improvement, doesn't care about anything but fun. Of course women have little to do in this period, but it's mostly because there's nothing on Rosamond's mind that she suffers from ennui and can only get pleasure from music, riding, parties and Will's visits.
Let's consider what happens when Lydgate talks to her about financial problems. She doesn't see the fuss, doesn't care about her husband's struggle and doesn't ask how she can help- what bothers her is the loss of respectability. She refuses to live in a smaller house or to sell some of their belongings, and doesn't want to spend less. Gilbert and Gubar say Lydgate "refuses to hear or take her advice", what kind of advice does Rosamond give? Ask for help. Keep the house and everything else. Take things lightly, lots of people have debt and still have respectability. Then she acts on her own, hinders her husband's efforts, and humiliates him before others.
Yes, Rosamond tells Lydgate of her disappointment. Yes, she says that when marrying him she didn't expect such difficulties to occur. But that's Rosamond's way of silencing and mastering Lydgate.
What I want to say is that, Lydgate and Rosamond are 2 individuals, 2 complex, multi-faceted beings. That Lydgate has a patriarchal view of women doesn't mean that he's an oppressor and his wife's a poor victim. It is simplistic to draw such a line, or to group Lydgate and Casaubon together simply because they're men (with the 19th century view on women) and group Dorothea and Rosamond together simply because they're women and unhappy wives. Their reasons for unhappiness are not the same- in Dorothea, mixed with disillusionment is pity for Casaubon; in Rosamond, there's an exaggeration of her suffering. Their ways of dealing with unhappiness are also different- Dorothea endures it and does what she has to do; Rosamond goes around doing things secretly and ruining everything for her husband. The only similarity is that they both find consolation in Will, but Dorothea is consoled by conversation and Rosamond, by music, which is more like a diversion.
I know, I know, a feminist critic might argue that Rosamond's narrow-minded and self-centred because of society and the limited possibilities for women, and so on and so forth. Please ask yourself if you haven't met several Rosamond Vincys in your life. 
And some people wonder why I abhor feminist criticism. 

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Middlemarch and the 1994 TV movie

This film might be a bore for people who like a film based on a novel to be a work of art on its own terms, but for people who demand a faithful adaptation, it is very well-done. 
What do I prefer? I like both—as long as the film is good. A creative, individual take on a literary work is welcomed, but after watching so many outrageous films which, as adaptations, betray the spirit and essence of the books on which they’re based, and which make no sense in themselves, I sometimes only wish for fidelity.
Why, then, do we need the film when we’ve got the book, if it doesn’t say anything? That question might have to be discussed in another post. Let’s talk about the 1994 Middlemarch. A few scenes are removed but don’t affect the plot because what happens is reported in other scenes. There’s less access to the characters’ minds, but their personalities and emotions are seen through actions, words, gestures and facial expressions, helped by a brilliant cast, especially Patrick Malahide as the dry, self-centred, cruel but insecure and pathetic Casaubon, Peter Jeffrey as the banker Bulstrode haunted by his past and not without remorse, Douglas Hodge as the idealistic and talented but weak Lydgate, Juliet Aubrey as the pure, noble but naïve Dorothea and Trevyn McDowell as the gentle, good-mannered but superficial, frivolous and egoistic Rosamond. The film makes use of the aid of voice-over. In addition, silly as it may sound, Rufus Sewell’s sexiness makes Will Ladislaw more interesting. Middlemarch is a great novel with many powers—its greatest strength is in characterisation and psychology, but in this case there’s no great loss when the novel is brought to the screen. George Eliot’s prose is not retained, but she’s not a stylist like Flaubert, nor is her prose poetic like Charlotte Bronte’s—George Eliot’s merits are her wisdom and deep sensibilities and psychological insight and intellectual depth and scope, rather than style. Most importantly, we no longer have the intrusive narrator. Whilst I’m not certain whether or not to say that Anthony Page’s film is superior to George Eliot’s novel, which might be considered by many people as heresy, it does remove the chief problem I have with the book—the intrusive moralistic voice that comments on everything and wants me to respond to things in a certain way. 
It should be noted in the end that I’m not disparaging Middlemarch, which I finished reading earlier today. Edward Casaubon and Rosamond Vincy (the Victorian femme fatale) are 2 of the best characters in literature. Dorothea Brooke, despite being irritatingly sanctimonious and pure sometimes, is also a wonderful creation, who is so complex, multi-faceted and self-contradictory, who is so many things at once (unlike Dinah in Adam Bede and Mirah in Daniel Deronda). The scope, as well as the author’s vast knowledge, is admirable. I revere George Eliot and marvel at many things in Middlemarch and simply feel no ecstasy, which of course says more about me than about the book. It has to do with my resistance to didactic novels. 

Moral lessons from George Eliot's Middlemarch

What George Eliot aims to say, to teach, through Middlemarch can be broken down to several moral messages such as: 
- Think carefully and get to know the other person well before getting married. In marriage, there should be love, understanding and respect. Both Casaubon and Lydgate are wrong to regard women as inferior and expect them to be submissive and docile. 
- Human beings are all frail and flawed, and what should we live for if not to make life less difficult for each other. This is said, and practised, by Dorothea, especially when she prioritises her sense of justice, sees past her own anger, and assures Rosamond of Lydgate’s innocence and others’ belief in him. The selfish Rosamond, in return, helps clear the misunderstanding between her and Will. 
This lesson can also be seen in Mrs Bulstrode’s decision to stay with her husband when he’s abandoned by everybody, in Mr Garth’s readiness to help Fred, etc. 
- Love, sympathise, trust, forgive. Return love with love. Return hate with love. Give others the benefit of the doubt, and the chance to speak and explain themselves. Again, Dorothea is the embodiment of this spirit, who is willing to trust Lydgate when everyone else doubts him. 
- Don’t let prejudices and private feelings interfere with your judgements and actions. Lydgate sees Farebrother’s shortcomings and votes for someone else even though they’re friends. Mary criticises Fred for his foibles and refuses to marry him until he meets her conditions, even though she loves him. Farebrother represents Fred’s interests even though he loves Mary. Dorothea speaks to Rosamond on behalf of Lydgate and consoles her even though she thinks there’s something between her and Will. 
In contrast, people in the town destroy Lydgate’s career and lose a good doctor because they believe him to be guilty, and they believe so because they have always disliked him.
- We should be open—if there’s anything wrong, we have to talk about it. 
Mrs Bulstrode talks to Rosamond and Mr Bulstrode talk to Lydgate about the state of their relationship, otherwise it goes nowhere. Mary always talks frankly to Fred about his faults. Fred admits his error to the Garths. Farebrother, Fred and Mary talk openly about their relationships and feelings. Dorothea and Will keep misunderstanding each other when they make assumptions and don’t have a conversation, or talk in an indirect way instead of being straightforward. The marriages of Dorothea- Casaubon and Lydgate- Rosamond don’t work because they’re not open to each other; Casaubon torments himself and has suspicions about his wife simply because he pushes her away and keeps her at a distance; Rosamond resorts to passive-aggressive behaviour and ruins things behind her husband’s back simply because they don’t talk frankly to each other. Lydgate suffers alone because he keeps things to himself and doesn’t confide in anyone, even his friend Farebrother. 
- Take the responsibility for your own actions. If you wrong somebody, admit your fault and try to undo the wrong or pay for it. Examples are Fred and Mr Bulstrode. 
If you make a wrong decision, face the consequences, do your duties, make the best of the situation, learn from mistakes and improve yourself. Blame no one. Don’t run away. Both Dorothea and Lydgate make a mistake in choosing a spouse, but they do their duties. Farebrother chooses a wrong vocation, but he makes the best of the situation. Rosamond can never learn and become better or wiser because she always finds herself irreproachable and others disagreeable, always puts the blame on others. 
- Be independent. The models are the Garths. Fred has to learn to become independent. Dorothea renounces wealth. Lydgate insists on relying on nobody, and gets into trouble once he gets the loan from Bulstrode. 
- George Eliot apparently adheres to duty ethics. The moral people of the book are the Garths, who hold fast to their values and principles and do nothing that might give them a heavy conscience. 
- Sometimes it’s only through experience and disillusionment can one become wiser. We can see this in Dorothea and Lydgate, but also in Fred, who becomes stronger and wiser after being disillusioned by the collapse of his expectations. 
- Besides stressing the benefit of experience and disillusionment, George Eliot also sets out to make a point about the power of love. That obviously refers to Fred, whose love for Mary makes him strive to be a better man. 
- Spoiling your children gives you, at best, Fred Vincy, at worst, Rosamond. 
And so on. 
It's no wonder that many people see Middlemarch as the book of their lives. 
However, I can’t help finding it problematic that a novel can boil down to several moral lessons as seen above. Can we do the same for Anna Karenina and War and Peace? I don’t think so—they are didactic indeed, but they’re too complex for that. 
Perhaps I could have liked and appreciated Middlemarch a lot better if I had never read Tolstoy’s masterpieces.  

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Arguing against myself: Gwendolen vs Rosamond

The other day I wrote that Gwendolen Harleth's basically Rosamond Vincy under different circumstances.
Now I'm revising that view. No, I'm arguing against myself. 
There's 1 crucial difference between these 2 characters: spoilt, egocentric, superficial, conceited and frivolous as Gwendolen is, she has a conscience and enough sensitivity to notice negative feelings (pain/ sadness/ anger/ resentment/ hurt, etc.) in people that she cares about (her mother especially), reflect on her actions and find herself in the wrong. One might argue that feeling bad about something isn't enough, because Gwendolen still marries Grandcourt despite knowing about Lydia Glasher, for example, but she does torment herself and is filled with shame and self-loathing. One might argue that earlier when she hurts her mother or her sister, she only makes it up through some gift or soothes them with words and some gentle gestures and doesn't change, and that's because she's a shallow and selfish person, who is used to behaving that way, but she does realise that she has been wrong and tries, in her way, to make her family member feel better. If a person has even a little capability of contemplating her actions and seeing her own errors, there is hope for improvement, George Eliot seems to argue, and there can be improvement only if a person finds herself in need of improvement, i.e. sees herself in the wrong. Rosamond is similar to Gwendolen in many aspects, but she always finds her conduct impeccable and irreproachable. In her mind, the blame always lies with someone else. Told of the rumours, she can only think of the disgrace and her own misery, and doesn't once ask herself why Lydgate accepts the 1000 pounds, doesn't once realise that it's her that drives him to that point of desperation and stupidity. 
What distinguishes Gwendolen from Rosamond is that the former can be ashamed of her own actions, whereas the latter's only ashamed of bad reputation and disgrace. 
Is this important? Yes. You can't talk about George Eliot without talking about ethics. The other day I was wondering about the narrator's partiality, about why George Eliot sides with Gwendolen but apparently doesn't side with Rosamond, but now I see the reasons. This important point about self-reflection and self-awareness and ability to find oneself wrong also, interestingly enough, makes George Eliot closer to Jane Austen than people think. Detractors of Mansfield Park, for instance, ask why Jane Austen disapproves of Mary Crawford, but if Elizabeth Bennet can think deeply about her judgement, realise her mistakes and learn from them, Mary lacks self-reflection, and isn't good at heart. 
2 writers, different if not opposing in many respects, ultimately make the same point about ethics. 

Sympathy and mockery; or Jane Austen's meanness

The line "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" in Middlemarch reminds me of the line "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" from Pride and Prejudice
This is an interesting essay by Sarah Emsley about Jane Austen and the problem of charity: 
"Everybody's dear Jane" being uncharitable/ unfeeling/ mean/ cruel/ insensitive/ intolerant, etc. 
How can I defend her? I find her detached, and do notice some traces of meanness here and there in her works. I remember Nabokov's remark in his lecture that the deaths in Mansfield Park are functional deaths and no character dies in the arms of the author (which, if I'm not mistaken, is true for other novels too). I remember Woolf's comment that it seems like some characters are there only to give Jane Austen the pleasure of chopping their heads off. Whilst I remain firm in the opinion that she's superior to George Eliot as an artist, it's also true that George Eliot makes me aware of Jane Austen's smallness, in many senses of the word. The author of Middlemarch has a larger heart, deeper sensibilities. Some people find Flaubert cold and misanthropic but I can feel the deep sadness and hear Flaubert's sighs of resignation in Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education; some people criticise Nabokov for being icy and distant but Pnin is heartbreaking and Lolita made me want to cry for Dolores Haze; it is Jane Austen that is truly cold and detached and sometimes even harsh and unkind.
And yet her novels are about virtues, self-understanding, self-improvement. 
That woman is a bundle of contradictions. 

Monday 22 June 2015

Where is my sympathy?

Chapter 66. Lydgate is in trouble. He has difficulties at work, his hospital doesn't get much support, people go against him only because they're against Bulstrode, he's ahead of his time in handling of patients and therefore misunderstood, he's in debt, his wife is insensitive and insensible, his house isn't yet sold due to his imbecile wife's meddling, his uncle Godwin not only refuses to help him but also insults him, he's too proud to ask anyone for help. The idealistic, talented doctor is now disappointed, disillusioned, depressed, desperate. 
George Eliot sympathises with him. Readers ache for him. I too feel his pain and wish him all the best, but mixed with my sympathy is another feeling- very vague, very slight, but it is there, a voice that says "That's what you get for belittling women, Tertius", a feeling that he deserves it and has only himself to blame. That's not to say that Rosamond is a strong-minded, determined, independent heroine who gets credit for teaching a sexist a lesson. Nobody can say that. Rosamond is an awful person, who prioritises her own interests above anyone else's and thinks others have the duty of conforming to her wishes and making life easy for her, who has no sense of purpose and no principle and only cares about maintaining her extravagant lifestyle, who lacks the capability of self-reflection and always finds herself irreproachable whilst everyone else disagreeable. All the scenes describing their arguments over money and solutions, as well as all the passages detailing her thoughts and self-justification, are masterfully done. This is an awful woman, and one must feel sorry for Lydgate for being stuck with such a wife. And yet the other feeling still hangs there, that Lydgate imagines women being weak, feeble, inferior, docile, submissive... and now he's mastered, he's under a woman's thumb. One can't help falling in love, but it's his fault to marry Rosamond. It's his fault to have wrong ideas about women. It's his fault to yield and let her dominate him. 
Where is my sympathy? 

Sunday 21 June 2015

The 2nd plot of Middlemarch and the conception of Daniel Deronda

Middlemarch has 3 main plots:
1/ Dorothea Brooke, Edward Casaubon, Will Ladislaw. Supporting characters: Celia Brooke, James Chettam, Mr and Mr Cadwallader, Mr Brooke, etc.
2/ Tertius Lydgate, Rosamond Vincy.
3/ Fred Vincy, Mary Garth. Supporting characters: the Vincys, the Garths, Camden Farebrother, Peter Featherstone, etc.
We can also mention the 4th plot of Nicholas Bulstrode and John Raffles.
Unlike the 2 strands in Daniel Deronda, these plots are not entirely separate from each other. E.g. plot 1 and plot 2 are connected by Will Ladislaw; plot 2 and 3 are connected because Fred is Rosamond's brother, Lydgate is friends with Mr Farebrother, and expectations regarding old Featherstone's will affect everything including Rosamond's marriage; plot 1 and 3 are glued by the relations between Mr Brooke and the Garths; plot 4 is linked to plot 2 through Lydgate (who is associated with Bulstrode), to plot 3 through Featherstone's legacy (which brings Rigg Featherstone to the area and then brings Raffles, who is Rigg's stepfather) and through Mrs Harriet Bulstrode née Vincy (wife of Mr Bulstrode, sister of Mr Vincy) and to plot 1 through Ladislaw (who is in some ways, I don't know what, related to Bulstrode and his shady past). In addition, there's always the politics in the background that connects or separates the characters and puts them into place, as Whigs or as Tories, etc.
The 3 main plots have 1 important thing in common: the process of learning and growth, of doing wrong things and realising the mistakes and becoming better. That refers to Dorothea, who marries the wrong man; Lydgate, who marries the wrong woman; and Fred, who has to work and improve himself to be accepted by the right woman.
I've written about Mr and Mrs Casaubon. Let's focus on the 2nd plot.
"... Those words of Lydgate's were like a sad milestone marking how far he had travelled from his old dreamland, in which Rosamond Vincy appeared to be that perfect piece of womanhood who would reverence her husband's mind after the fashion of an accomplished mermaid, using her comb and looking-glass and singing her song for the relaxation of his adored wisdom alone. He had begun to distinguish between that imagined adoration and the attraction towards a man's talent because it gives him prestige, and is like an order in his button-hole or an Honourable before his name.
[...] Lydgate could only say, "Poor, poor darling!"—but he secretly wondered over the terrible tenacity of this mild creature. There was gathering within him an amazed sense of his powerlessness over Rosamond. His superior knowledge and mental force, instead of being, as he had imagined, a shrine to consult on all occasions, was simply set aside on every practical question. He had regarded Rosamond's cleverness as precisely of the receptive kind which became a woman. He was now beginning to find out what that cleverness was—what was the shape into which it had run as into a close network aloof and independent..."
Think about Rosamond for a moment. She marries Lydgate, and this is what happens:
"To Lydgate it seemed that he had been spending month after month in sacrificing more than half of his best intent and best power to his tenderness for Rosamond; bearing her little claims and interruptions without impatience, and, above all, bearing without betrayal of bitterness to look through less and less of interfering illusion at the blank unreflecting surface her mind presented to his ardour for the more impersonal ends of his profession and his scientific study, an ardour which he had fancied that the ideal wife must somehow worship as sublime, though not in the least knowing why. But his endurance was mingled with a self-discontent which, if we know how to be candid, we shall confess to make more than half our bitterness under grievances, wife or husband included. It always remains true that if we had been greater, circumstance would have been less strong against us. Lydgate was aware that his concessions to Rosamond were often little more than the lapse of slackening resolution, the creeping paralysis apt to seize an enthusiasm which is out of adjustment to a constant portion of our lives. And on Lydgate's enthusiasm there was constantly pressing not a simple weight of sorrow, but the biting presence of a petty degrading care, such as casts the blight of irony over all higher effort..."
The interesting bit is that, after Middlemarch, she throws away everything else but keeps Rosamond Vincy, renames her, changes very little about her character and personality- even the fondness for music and horse-riding is retained; it's only the family and the circumstances that are different. It seems that, after writing a novel about the development of Dorothea, George Eliot turns her interest to Rosamond and wants to see what happens to a spoilt, selfish, frivolous, shallow, vain and extravagant girl like her when she, instead of finding someone who yields to her wishes, meets someone who can manage her, tame her, dominate and control her. In other words, she places the same character in different circumstances. Thus we get Gwendolen Harleth and the novel Daniel Deronda

Experience and growth; Dorothea Brooke and Gwendolen Harleth

Jane Austen's heroines don't make (seriously) wrong decisions- if they're not right all along (Fanny Price, Elinor Dashwood, Anne Elliot), they gain self-understanding and realise their own errors before it's too late (Marianne Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse). This must be 1 of the reasons her works are now and then dismissed as light. In contrast, George Eliot's female protagonists, specifically in this case Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch) and Gwendolen Harleth (Daniel Deronda), make wrong decisions that change the whole course of their lives, then learn and grow through experience. By the time they learn a lesson, through disillusionment and suffering, they've become different persons, with a different view on life.
Dorothea and Gwendolen, despite their different personalities and mental abilities, have a few things in common. They lack an authority figure, a kind of guidance. They have neither a keen sight, nor a set of principles on which to rely to choose a man (unlike those Jane Austen characters, except Catherine). They're mistaken about the men they marry, Casaubon and Grandcourt respectively, and hasty. They don't marry for love. They expect to have freedom and power to do what they like, but once married, become absolutely powerless. Most importantly, they make the decisions themselves, being forced by nobody, and cause their own tragedies. However, there's no other way. Dorothea lacks experience and insight to judge people but, being intelligent and independent, often has her ways and doesn't listen to others' objections and advice. Gwendolen, selfish, weak-willed and used to comfort due to having been brought up a spoilt child, ignores everything and chooses the easy way to avoid hardships. Besides, Casaubon and Grandcourt turn out to be contrary to expectations only after the wedding. There's no other way for Dorothea and Gwendolen to learn. They have to make those wrong decisions and suffer the consequences, in order to become stronger, and wiser, and in Gwendolen's case, better, less selfish.
Reading Middlemarch may not be the same ecstatic experience as reading, say, Anna Karenina, but it's no longer frustrating once the readers accept George Eliot's method and get into the flow. Reading Middlemarch is like having the company of an insightful, wise, benevolent person who sees the foibles, weaknesses and mistakes of mankind and forgives them all, empathises with them all. She shows that wrong decisions can be damaging but not completely destructive, because we can learn from experience and become better.

2 lessons from George Eliot: 
"Men outlive their love, but they don't outlive the consequences of their recklessness." 
"If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new. We are told that the oldest inhabitants in Peru do not cease to be agitated by the earthquakes, but they probably see beyond each shock, and reflect that there are plenty more to come."

Friday 19 June 2015

Pen is a pen is a pen is a pen... or a penis?
From Pride and Prejudice:
"'I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.'
'Thank you—but I always mend my own.'"
That's between Caroline Bingley and Darcy.
Which reminds me of Mary Crawford's line in Mansfield Park:
"Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat." (the comments are worth reading too) 
A. S. Byatt warns, in Possession
"Do you ever have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world? I mean of course everything connects and connects. . . I mean, all those gloves, a minute ago, we were playing a professional game of hooks and eyes--mediaeval gloves, gaints' gloves, Blanche Glover, Balzac's gloves, the sea-anemone's ovaries--and it all reduced like boiling jam to--human sexuality. Just as Leonora Stern makes the whole earth read as the female body--and language--all language. And all vegetation in pubic hair." 
But who knows, really. Why does Darcy say specifically "I always mend my own" when he can say something like "No thanks, I'm fine"? It's the 19th century (or the 18th, if you think of the time Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice), not the 21st, but then earlier in the Renaissance period, poetry's full of sexual innuendoes. 
Your thoughts? 

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.
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. 

Thursday 18 June 2015

Middlemarch: taking a wife

Chapter 36:
"... Lydgate thought that after all his wild mistakes and absurd credulity, he had found perfect womanhood—felt as if already breathed upon by exquisite wedded affection such as would be bestowed by an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labours and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair's-breadth beyonddocile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from that limit. It was plainer now than ever that his notion of remaining much longer a bachelor had been a mistake: marriage would not be an obstruction but a furtherance..."
It's reminiscent of a passage from chapter 29:
"In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us. He had done nothing exceptional in marrying—nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets. It had occurred to him that he must not any longer defer his intention of matrimony, and he had reflected that in taking a wife, a man of good position should expect and carefully choose a blooming young lady—the younger the better, because more educable and submissive—of a rank equal to his own, of religious principles, virtuous disposition, and good understanding. On such a young lady he would make handsome settlements, and he would neglect no arrangement for her happiness: in return, he should receive family pleasures and leave behind him that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required of a man—to the sonneteers of the sixteenth century. Times had altered since then, and no sonneteer had insisted on Mr. Casaubon's leaving a copy of himself; moreover, he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key; but he had always intended to acquit himself by marriage, and the sense that he was fast leaving the years behind him, that the world was getting dimmer and that he felt lonely, was a reason to him for losing no more time in overtaking domestic delights before they too were left behind by the years.
And when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded: she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, an aid which Mr. Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr. Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.) Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed. A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband's mind powerful. Whether Providence had taken equal care of Miss Brooke in presenting her with Mr. Casaubon was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy. As if a man could choose not only his wife but his wife's husband! Or as if he were bound to provide charms for his posterity in his own person!— When Dorothea accepted him with effusion, that was only natural; and Mr. Casaubon believed that his happiness was going to begin..." 
It becomes clearer at this point that George Eliot does want the Lydgate- Rosamond relationship to parallel the Casaubon- Dorothea relationship. There is love in the former- chapter 31 is marvellous, especially the tête-à-tête between Rosamond and her aunt Mrs Bulstrode, and the meeting between Rosamond and Lydgate when, the moment their eyes meet, Lydgate realises that flirtation has turned into love. In personality, world view, aspirations, longings... the 2 men differ, as the 2 women differ. However, through these couples, George Eliot demonstrates the inequalities and injustices in society, the consequences of the lack of opportunities for women, and the condescending view men have on women at the time. If Jane Austen critiques the patriarchal society through focusing on courtship, George Eliot carries the point further by also writing about marriage. Both Lydgate and Casaubon think mostly of themselves when contemplating marriage, and expect women to be inferior, docile, submissive. In both couples, the man and the woman have different ideas and expectations about marriage. The author stresses the parallels even more strongly when making Lydgate choose a period of 6 weeks for courtship and preparation of marriage, which is the same amount of time Casaubon has earlier chosen. 
Nevertheless, it may be too easy to say. Maybe the one to suffer now will be Lydgate, not Rosamond. Maybe he will see his dreams and aspirations thwarted as Dorothea does. This is not even half of the novel.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Sympathy for fictional characters

"I have a bit of a confession to make: I have never quite understood what is meant by “identifying with characters”, or why being able to “identify with characters” should be considered a criterion of literary merit. I often encounter “I couldn’t identify with the characters” as criticism, or “I could identify with the characters” as approval, but whenever I have asked what precisely is meant by “identifying with characters”, I have never yet received a coherent reply.
Part of it seems to be the demand that the reader should like the characters – or, at least, like some of the characters – especially the protagonist. I think “identification” means a bit more than just that, but liking a character does seem a prerequisite. But even at this first hurdle, there are questions: must one like the characters in order to admire – or even like – the work they appear in? Does one necessarily like Eugène de Rastignac? Would one wish to live next door to Hedda Gabler? Invite the Macbeths round to tea? Are the works in which these characters feature any lesser, or do we admire or like these works less, because we do not like their protagonists as people?
[...] Identification, in the sense in which it is commonly used, seems to me to indicate a state of imaginative oneness with the characters – a state in which we find ourselves sharing their feelings, their motives, their emotions and imaginations. And I remain unconvinced that “identification” in this sense is necessary for appreciation of literature. Or even, for that matter, desirable, as this state of oneness may well skew our responses and our judgements, and thus act as a barrier to our appreciation."
Anthony Trollope declares "No novel is anything, for purposes either of comedy or tragedy unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose name we find upon the page.  Let the author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his reader’s tears, and he has so far done his work well." 
Obviously, he's wrong. Tom argues "Novels can serve many purposes and work in many ways and touch neither the heart nor the tear ducts and yet be well-done work."
George Eliot resembles Trollope. "What’s interesting here, actually, is that Eliot’s notion of realism is directly tied to some idea of sympathy. True realism, including coarseness, selfishness, and whatever other ugly qualities are part of the portrait are the only path to true sympathy."
"The development of the idea of sympathy in 19th century literature was one of the great achievements of the time. [...] By mid-century, most of the great writers were working on The Sympathy Project.  Not just Hugo and Dickens: George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anthony Trollope, Theodor Storm, Adalbert Stifter, Henry James, Mark Twain ("All right, then, I'll GO to hell"), Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky.  All of those Naturalists.   Poets and playwrights, too..." 
- George Eliot makes an argument about sympathy, enforcing some limits. Example: Adam Bede
- "sympathy can be as bad for the reader as antipathy. Both can inhibit critical thought."
- "The 19th century International Literary Sympathy Project is beginning to look to me like one of the great achievements of civilization.  But literature can do other things, too."
The other things literature can do. Great books that don't have sympathetic characters. 
"What should one tell the reader who refuses to look into Wuthering Heights because the characters are unpleasant?  Stay away from all those other books?  Or, try another approach - it's a lot more pleasant than it looks."
"Tastes, I am told, cannot be disputed.  Tastes can be cultivated, though.  The taste for characters with whom one does not sympathize should be cultivated.  That's what I want to argue.  And, honestly, I'm not convinced that a taste for "characters I can identify with" or "characters I understand" is any less arbitrary than not wanting to read about poor people, or not wanting to read depressing books (examples drawn, sadly, from life).
[...] One more disclaimer, while I'm jabbering about tastes.  One of my problems with that Wuthering Heights straw man up above is that I don't really care if he likes the book.  I don't care that much if I like the book!   Something about Wuthering Heights has kept it alive, has attracted so many good readers.  I want to figure out what it is.  Looking for sympathetic characters in Wuthering Heights is a hindrance to understanding the novel.  The strange thing is that once I do begin to figure out what the author is up to, what is actually in the book, I begin to like it, a lot.  This is what I mean by cultivating a taste.  Critical distance is pleasurable."
"When I read Wuthering Heights, I encounter a fine assembly of weirdos, misfits, idiots, and monsters, a few of whom deserve my pity, but none of whom deserve much more. Yet there is one character with whom I sympathize strongly: I care about what happens to her, and I wish her well in her goals.  She's not much like me, so there's little identification with her, but I appreciate and benefit from the offer of friendship she makes me, and enjoy the opportunity to get to know her better." 
Tom means Emily Bronte. The implied author, not the real person.
"I don't particularly care about sympathetic characters.  They're a literary device useful for achieving specific goals.  Other devices are useful for achieving other goals.  Sympathetic attention to the book will point us in the right direction.  Then we can puzzle over whether the goals were achieved, or whether they were worth trying in the first place."
"Really, here's the most important reason to be careful about indulging in the entirely natural impulse to sympathize with the admirable and interesting characters in a novel.  It turns out that certain novelists are aware of this predilection and have learned to manipulate it for their own sinister ends."
Tom mentions Nabokov (Lolita, Pnin), Ford Madox Ford and William Thackeray.
"I lose sympathy for Gwendolen because in adversity she proves to have a bad character. 
[...] It seems that the narrator is not just describing her heroine but justifying her, even pleading for her, and also against Grandcourt.  The narrator has taken sides.  Why should I trust her judgment?  Perhaps because she is omniscient, but then why is she unable to tell me what went on in the boat, in the action behind Chapter 55?  Somehow her omniscience fails her there.
I have spent a lifetime of reading fiction learning to distrust narrators.  Here I am identifying the heart of my struggle with Daniel Deronda.  Eliot gives me a surprising number of reasons to distrust this narrator.  Am I supposed to read the novel this way?  No, I suppose not."

Middlemarch: paintings and miniatures

1/ Dorothea, looking at some paintings, says: 
"I am no judge of these things. You know, uncle, I never see the beauty of those pictures which you say are so much praised. They are a language I do not understand. I suppose there is some relation between pictures and nature which I am too ignorant to feel—just as you see what a Greek sentence stands for which means nothing to me." 
Later, to Will, she says: 
"I never could see any beauty in the pictures which my uncle told me all judges thought very fine. And I have gone about with just the same ignorance in Rome. There are comparatively few paintings that I can really enjoy. At first when I enter a room where the walls are covered with frescos, or with rare pictures, I feel a kind of awe—like a child present at great ceremonies where there are grand robes and processions; I feel myself in the presence of some higher life than my own. But when I begin to examine the pictures one by one the life goes out of them, or else is something violent and strange to me. It must be my own dullness. I am seeing so much all at once, and not understanding half of it. That always makes one feel stupid. It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky." 
Then Will tells Naumann: 
"Your painting and Plastik are poor stuff after all. They perturb and dull conceptions instead of raising them. Language is a finer medium."
He elaborates: 
"Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for beings vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere colored superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment.—This woman whom you have just seen, for example: how would you paint her voice, pray? But her voice is much diviner than anything you have seen of her." 
My notes:  
- In Dorothea's case, the talk about paintings is to show her ignorance, her sense of stupidity and uselessness. 
- In Will's case, the talk is to let the readers and Will himself realise how he feels about Mrs Casaubon. This tool George Eliot uses again in Daniel Deronda
- Combined together, the comments on art manifest the similarities, or the kinship, between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, and perhaps also reveal the author's view on the limitations of a painting. 

2/ Dorothea looks at the miniature of Mr Casaubon's aunt Julia, who had "an unfortunate marriage", and identifies with her. 
This is similar to some scenes in Shirley: Caroline Helstone, when feeling lonely, neglected and useless, identifies with her dead aunt Mary Helstone, née Cave. I believe there's a painting of the aunt in the house, near that of her mother.