middlemarch, part two.


in chapter 1 of my life in middlemarch (crown, 2014), rebecca mead notes that "one of the odd things about 'miss brooke' is how little of the heroine's personal history is revealed."  (mead, 38)  i didn't even realize this when i was reading, but i wonder if part of that is also just me.  i realized a while ago that i'm not that big on descriptions or factual histories of characters, in that i don't necessarily require them; i tend to form images in my head off more abstract descriptions than detailed, physical renderings; and i'm not very good at taking a written spatial description and creating a corresponding visual image in my head.  the realness or authenticity of a character [in a book] lies more in personality and character [of said character], the ways that s/he is fleshed out as a thinking, feeling human being, and, from the beginning of book one of middlemarch, dorothea has been just that.  i may not know her history, and i may not be able to offer you a description of how i see her in my head as a reader, but i don't question who she is or, even, and maybe more importantly, that she is.

mead goes on to write:

the only growth that matters is that which occurs within the novel's pages -- the growth that turns her from a prematurely opinionated, occasionally priggish, alarmingly passionate, and inchoately ambitious young woman into something else.  (mead, 40)

i love this.  i love the principle of this, and i love the execution of it in middlemarch.  we know enough about dorothea going into her marriage that we can see the trajectory of her arc in the novel, not in that we know what "something else" she will become but that she will become "something else."  it's a narrative way of practicing good faith, i suppose, because, as readers, in general, we like to think of arcs and "journeys," though, whenever i think of arcs and journeys now, i think of meghan daum and how she advocates for it being a triumph, too, to emerge from the other end of a journey the same person.  instead, as a culture, we tend to sentimentalize these things, whatever these "things" may be, near-death experiences, a loss of a loved one, an accident, etcetera, all of which are indubitably profound experiences, but we go looking for change, in some alteration of beliefs or behavior, like the experience is wasted if one does not come out from it a "better" person.

while i see daum's point, i also recognize in myself the desire to see dorothea grow, more in the ways that we anticipate teenagers leaving behind their adolescence and becoming young adults.  the truth, though, is that much of that also comes hand-in-hand with disillusionment, a sometimes crushing realization that one's ideas and ideals are not held up in reality, and i fear for that with dorothea, the impending disappointments that are already starting to show, the unhappiness that seems so inevitable, at least where i am now moving into book four.  

loved this, the end of chapter 1 of my life:

as miss brooke, dorothea remains for me the embodiment of that unnameable, agonizing ache of adolescence, in which burgeoning hopes and ambitions and terrors and longings are all roiled together.  when i spent time in her company, i remember what it was like to be eighteen, and at the beginning of things.  i remember going for my entrance interview at oxford and meeting with the senior english literature tutor at what was to become my college -- a forbidding-seeming scotsman who, i learned much later, was possessed of a magnificently dry sense of humor and was particularly partial to bright, ambitious, state-school students from the provinces.  his study was furnished with low-slung easy chairs upholstered in mustard-colored corduroy; one could either perch on a chair's edge or sink into its depths.  during my interview i shifted uncomfortably between one position and the other while talking passionately about middlemarch.  afterward i walked across the cobblestones of a narrow lane and stepped onto the wide, lovely sweep of the high street in a state of exhilaration and anxiety.  i felt as if my life were an unread book -- the thickest and most daunting of novels -- that i was holding in my hands.  i didn't know what the story would be, or where it would lead, and i was almost too overawed to crack its spine and begin.  (mead, 43-44)

as far as religion goes:  when eliot was twenty-three, she stopped going to church and "left" faith, something that resulted in tension between her and her father until they reached a compromise where eliot would still accompany him to church every sunday, though she could maintain her own opinions about what she heard.  i didn't know this, and it surprised me when i learned of it because i've been finding eliot's treatment of religious people to be fair and free of judgment -- it's not that she doesn't criticize intense religiosity (as demonstrated in dorothea) or the hypocrisies that often accompany it, but she does so fairly, allows it the berth of human complexity.

in chapter 2 of my life, mead writes:

one of the things that makes middlemarch a book for grown-ups -- a book for adults, even -- is eliot's insistence upon taking moral questions seriously, and considering them in their complexity.  the loss of faith that she underwent in coventry was the beginning of a lifelong intellectual process of separating morality from religion -- of determining how to be a good person in the absence of the christian God.  (mead, 72)


eliot's novel is intensely moral -- but it is not a moral codebook, and no one would want to read it if it were.  rather, through her delineation of human passions -- romantic and intellectual -- eliot reveals her morality.  middlemarch demands that we enter into the perspective of other struggling, erring humans -- and recognize that we, too, will sometimes be struggling and may sometimes be erring, even when we are at our most arrogant and confident.  (mead, 73)

i think that second quote sums up why middlemarch is so compelling.  it's why i'm enjoying the novel as much as i am -- because the people who populate the pages aren't flat, two-dimensional ciphers.  they're living people with their mistaken ideals and preconceptions, their notions of the marriages they should have or the partners they should seek or the lives they should lead, and, even though these social relationships seem very utilitarian (you don't want to marry or be too close with people who won't benefit you socially), there's still something about these mentalities that's compelling.  i'd say a lot of it is that none of it is somehow obsolete; we can relate to these characters, if not directly then at least relationally; and these "struggling, erring humans" of the nineteenth century still populate our present world.  we like to think we're so advanced because of technology, but the truth is that we're still human, still prone to the same sorts of pride and arrogance and ambition and prejudice.

book three, "waiting for death," of middlemarch went faster than books one and two.  now that i'm fully familiar with these characters, i feel more invested in their lives and more curious about the outcome of these life decisions they're making, and i'm loving how astute and witty eliot is.  she is, in many ways, making judgments of societal expectations and behavior, but she does it with such generosity of spirit and with such ease and absence of preaching or moralizing, with a naturalness that befits the naturalness of her world.  i'm loving it so far and looking forward to diving into book four!

and we shall close this post with the last paragraph from chapter 3 of my life:

a book may not tell us exactly how to live our own lives, but our own lives can teach us how to read a book.  now when i read the novel in the light of eliot's life, and in the light of my own, i see her experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel -- not as part of the book's obvious pattern, but as part of its tensile strength.  middlemarch seems charged with the question of being a stepmother:  of how one might do well by one's stepchildren, or unwittingly fail them, and of all that might be gained from opening one's heart wider.  (mead, 110)