so i've finally actually embarked upon reading george eliot's middlemarch (penguin classics, clothbound edition, 2011) and rebecca mead's my life in middlemarch (crown, 2014), so today's hello monday post shall be about books one and two of middlemarch, "miss brooke" and "old and young." for this week, there'll be a post everyday, and my stupid ambition is to finish these books by saturday because i'm leaving town at a ridiculous hour on sunday morning, and i am not hauling this brick of a book across the country. i am nothing if not full of stupid ambitions.
maybe i ought to preface this by saying that this isn't a scholarly endeavor, just a personal reading endeavor. this is my first time reading george eliot, and i'm ignorant about a lot of the history or social context of middlemarch, and a lot of these thoughts are first impressions. THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. at the same time, though, if you're looking for summaries/context ... carrying this novel around is also a great shoulder workout?
how did i think i could read my life in middlemarch without having first read middlemarch? i'm not sure what made me try to read my life first because it makes much more sense having read middlemarch (obviously) -- and, even better, as i'd hoped, it adds to the experience of middlemarch. mead is an excellent writer, and she provides wonderful biographical details from eliot's life and weaves it into accounts of her own life and her experience with middlemarch. my life is meant to explore why this specific book resounded so much with mead, and, generally, on a broader scale, it taps into why specific books mean so much to us. for me, personally, it makes me think of ishiguro's never let me go (faber & faber, 2005) or nicole krauss' man walks into a room (doubleday, 2002) because those are two books that have stuck with me over the years, that i constantly go back to -- or, if we're going further back, there's charlotte brontë's jane eyre, the first book i loved, that i've returned to over and over again throughout my life.
and i keep coming back to this quote from my life, in the prelude, which i'm sure i quoted here before:
reading is sometimes thought of as a form of escapism, and it's a common turn of phrase to speak of getting lost in a book. but a book can also be where one finds oneself; and when a reader is grasped and held by a book, reading does not feel like an escape from life so much as it feels like an urgent, crucial dimension of life itself. there are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. there are books that grow with the reader as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.
this kind of book becomes part of our own experience, and part of our own endurance. it might lead us back to the library in midlife, looking for something that eluded us before. (mead, 16)
maybe one day i'll do a post on the books that have grafted themselves to me and grown with me. that might be a good exercise. what are some books that have grafted onto you?
if you ask me what i think of middlemarch thus far, i'd say that i think it's funny. i'm laughing a lot, writing my fair share of "lol"s (yes, "lol"s) in the margins, while also side-eyeing a lot of the gender crap that tends to come out of the mouths or minds of the [male] characters. i'm amused by the way dorothea's in love with this idea of a man, of a marriage, even though i'm sure it won't end well for her, but also by mr. causabon's ideas of a wife and of a marriage, too -- in some ways, the two are perfect for each other. similarly, i'm also amused by rosemary's ideas of love and lydgate's ideas of ... himself? ... and am curious to see how that pans out (because they seem to be headed towards marriage) -- and also how will is going to shake things up between dorothea and mr. causabon.
(is it telling that i can't remember what mr. causabon's first name is? or lydgate's, for that matter ...)
i find it all amusing because eliot's poking her finger at the marriage plot, airing out the absurdities of gender roles and characterizations while being sort of like, screw the romance; what happens after the "i do"s? she gives us enough of the lead-up to dorothea and causabon's engagement that we know the thoughts and calculations and events that lead to this ill-suited marriage and do the work of foreshadowing future unpleasantness.
also, in general, i think eliot does a great job in introducing her characters. she does so in batches, i want to say, so that we get time to familiarize ourselves with dorothea, celia, mr. causabon, sir james chettam before she introduces rosemary, mary garth, lydgate, fred, etcetera. it's a pretty big cast of characters, but i don't feel totally lost but rather like i have a grasp for who they all are, not only as individual characters but also as characters in relation to each other. not a small feat, that, i dare say.
altogether, middlemarch is turning out to be different from what i expected. it's witty and clever, and i appreciate eliot poking fun at these faulty ideas of marriage. marriage here seems very utilitarian, decided upon usefulness or social gain or whatnot, but i can't say i'm without sympathies either -- i can see where dorothea particularly is coming from, and, while i find myself rolling my eyes at her often, i wish she'd had a stronger hand in her life to advise her, to show her that these ideas of hers are simply ideas, that marriage isn't about finding an older man who can instruct her and to whom she can be of some sort of use, that affection isn't wrong or unnecessary, that she shouldn't be worrying about being "good enough" for mr. causabon. i hope she doesn't get too hurt.
okay i confess that i'm still reading the two chapters in my life corresponding to books one and two (it's already technically tuesday, so this post is overdue, but i will finish once i'm done writing this), but, in chapter 1, mead talks about letters eliot wrote when she was young (in her teens), and "enthusiastically evangelical, and priggishly judgmental" (mead, 26). a professor at yale describes them as lacking in charm, but mead writes:
lacking in charm they may be, but they were not written to charm [...]. they were written out of passion and exuberance and boredom and ostentation, and her desire to discover what she was thinking by putting it on the page -- which is to say they are letters written by a young woman who is trying to work out who she is, and where she is going. (mead, 27)
mead then shares about the similar letters she wrote during her own teenage years, letters filled with the same kind of embarrassing earnestness and obliviousness, which in turn reminds me of the letters i wrote as a teenager about the boyband (h.o.t) i was into, the TV (the x-files) i loved, the gossip circulating in our youth group, my woes about school, my high-handed ambitions, the books i read and proclaimed to have understood. i had a lot of that judgmental, evangelical religion going on in my own life when i was a teenager, and maybe that's another reason i find myself sympathetic to dorothea, wanting to tell her that it's okay, she'll grow into herself, she doesn't need to marry mr. causabon, though, unfortunately, she does.
all in all, i'm glad i finally sat myself down and made myself read this. it hasn't been the easiest reading because i sometimes have to make myself focus, but, at the same time, i am enjoying it. tomorrow, we delve into book three, which is called "waiting for death." doesn't that sound ominous???