In the middle of Middlemarch

I’m keeping up with one of my 2017 reading resolutions — that is, to read one book of  Middlemarch a month. Today I finished Book IV: Three Love Problems, which puts my bookmark right in the middle.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought about how I might or might not want to comment here in my blog. I think with Middlemarch, as with many famous and classic novels, the world doesn’t really need any more reviews, so this is more a scattershot of some thoughts and impressions. And they might only make sense if you’ve read Middlemarch — or even a part of it.

I find reading Middlemarch that I have to give my utmost concentration to the writing. There are sections of dialogue and storytelling when I can read along with ease, but when the narrator steps in, as she so often does, I have to really slow down and parse the train of thought. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. It tempts me to describe the narrator’s style as turgid, but I think it’s really the opposite. Eliot’s use of language is so precise and dense with meaning that it often demands my full engagement to reckon the complexity of the idea she’s putting across — and/or it exceeds my ability. But when I do get it, most of the time, the narrator’s ideas seem to express human truth in a fresh way:

We know what a masquerade all development is and what effective shapes may be disguised in helpless embryos. In fact, the world is full of hopeful analogies and handsome, dubious eggs called possibilities.

While I am doing my best to read Middlemarch as slowly, deeply, and thoughtfully as I am capable of (because I find it the most interesting and rewarding to do so), I wish so much that I could take a college class on nothing but Middlemarch. Reading this book along with the guidance of a scholar would help me tease out and illuminate so many themes and ideas that Eliot works on in this multilayered novel: gender, science, politics, philosophy, religion, more. One huge source of help and inspiration, if you are considering reading Middlemarch, is a blog called Middlemarch for Book Clubs, an offshoot of the blog Novel Readings by Rohan Maitzen, a professor of English at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Both blogs are terrific (especially if you nerd-out on English lit crit), but the book club blog in particular has been super helpful and sent me down all sorts of wonderful Eliot rabbit-holes.

Perhaps because book IV is fresh in my mind, I found a lot of interesting developments within. One thing that I like about Eliot and her narrator is this insistence that we see things — people’s characters, events, places (even Middlemarch itself) — from multiple points of view. This is a small example, but in book IV she is talking about Mr. Brooke’s arrival at the house of one of his tenants, the Dagleys. As we the reader have learned up to this point — Mr. Brooke is a rather oblivious and therefore negligent landlord, a fact which everyone but him seems to be aware. As he approaches the house, the narrator tells us:

It is wonderful how much uglier things will look when we only suspect that we are blamed for them. Even our own persons in the glass are apt to change their aspect for us after we have heard some frank remark on their less admirable points; and on the other hand it is astonishing how pleasantly conscience takes our encroachments on those who never complain or have nobody to complain for them.

And she goes on to give us a long, extremely detailed description of the property, which highlights both how artistically “picturesque” the overgrown, rural farmhouse could appear (as to Mr. Brooke) or how opposite — meaning rundown and neglected — the house could be viewed if “touching those [sensibilities] which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interests, with the sad lack of farming capital, as seen constantly in the newspapers of the time.” Art and social justice do not mix.

And once again, in the last chapter in Book IV,  chapter 42, we are taken into the head of Mr. Casaubon, probably the most unlikable (but fascinating) character in the book so far. Eliot used her demanding narrator to force us, in an earlier chapter, to consider the circumstances of his life and marriage to Dorothea from his point of view, which was illuminating, but didn’t make me like him any more. Since then, we suspect from Casaubon’s actions that he has developed an irrational jealousy of Dorothea’s friendship with his cousin Will Ladislaw.  But it is in this last chapter that we see from Casaubon’s viewpoint just how twisted the jealousy is. Our narrator tries to suggest that the “human soul moves in many channels, and Mr. Casaubon, we know, had a sense of rectitude and an honourable pride in satisfying the requirements of honour, which compelled him to find other reasons for his conduct than those of jealousy and vindictiveness.” Well, Mr. C., you don’t fool me.

In fact, Casaubon knows he will likely die soon and is worried that Will and Dorothea will marry. This causes his jealousy to eat at him:

If the truth should be that some undermining disease was at work within him, there might be large opportunity for some people to be happier when he was gone; and if one of those people should be Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon objected so strongly that it seemed as if the annoyance would make part of his disembodied existence.

With Lincoln in the Bardo so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder what Casaubon’s “disembodied existence” of annoyance might look like in spectral form (because you know this type of obsessive, vindictive thinking would lead to his being trapped in the bardo). Would he be a pale mass of hairy warts? Would he look like a rigid human icicle? Would he somehow be sliced into the leaves of an ever-unfinished manuscript that would flow-flap through the graveyard? So ghoulish but it made me laugh!

2 thoughts on “In the middle of Middlemarch

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