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Archive for August 3rd, 2021


New Penguin Edition


Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on plans to build cottages for tenants on her and relative and friends’ properties (never actually done by her)

“There is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it … the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone” (the last page of Middlemarch)

“Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life──the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within──can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances” (Bk 8, Chapter 73, Middlemarch)

Dear friends and readers,

The high moments of this summer (more than half-way over now) have been an eight-session hour-and-one-half class given online from Politics and Prose bookstore (Washington, DC) where Prof Maria Frawley (of Georgetown) held forth and talked of George Eliot’s transcendent masterpiece, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. I didn’t think I would but under Prof Frawley’s tutelage and inspired by her class, I reread it for a third time — it was my fourth time through if you count listening to it read aloud beautifully by Nadia May while I was studying and writing on Andrew Davies’s film adaptations.

The first time age 18 in a college class on the 19th century novel, the second on Trollope listserv with a friend, Martin Notcutt and a few others around 1998 (I was 52), the third listening in an early year of the 21st century, but none of them was the experience I just had where I know my attention was alerted sympathetically to much that intelligently and idealistically apprehended on the many realistic (psychological, social) levels of this novel’s language.

I became far more open to what is in the novel than I ever had before — as in the depiction of the Garths, which I had been inclined to see as simply unconvincingly exemplary. I reveled in the movie serial twice through(!) with a renewed enthusiasm. Saw its hour-long feature along with a BBC4 special: Everything is connected (on Eliot) . I reread some of the criticism, and biography, including the now famous My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. Had there been no pandemic, I might have re-listened to the CDs in my car.

For myself I find Middlemarch a transcendent book because of the in-depth understanding of human nature all its complicated ideas are based upon; and the intent to offer this kind of knowledge, which the reader can use to find some happiness or ways of coping with unhappiness in his or her life. The deeply humane and forgiving point of view is one human society is in need of — as long as the line is drawn at giving into evil and harm to people to gratify the greed and cruelty and egoism also found in groups of people who band together or individuals who inflict pain on others. It must also be drawn at self-immolation and self-sacrifice of the type we find in Dorothea at first, and Lydgate at length driven to. So on my own statement, the heroine who comes closest to staying with the good is Mary Garth; the heroes Farebrother and Ladislaw. Not that Lydgate does not do some good when he writes a treatise on how to cope with gout.

This blog is rather about the content of the class and how the book emerged through that.  So what can I convey of such an unfolding and complicated nuanced conversations (the class was filled with thoughtful readers too).  I shall have to revert to my compendium method for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala because there is far too much to tell of what was said.


Douglas Hodge as the yet unbowed eager Dr Lydgate (his is made the central shaping story paradigm of the serial)

As luck would have it, the online Literary Hub led this week with a much linked-in couple of columns, “George Eliot begins writing Middlemarch this week.” The site tells the familiar story of how Eliot began by writing the story of Lydgate (an aspiring young doctor), then separately “Miss Brooke” (an ardent young woman with no outlet for her intelligence, imagination, desire to do something for others in the world with her wealth), with Eliot afterward seeing how the two characters’ personalities and stories could be situated in one place, and then fit together in a artful design.

But it adds that there was a fragment written earlier — about Mr Vincy (Walter, the Mayor of the town, and hard-working merchant) and old Featherstone (the miser the Vincy family hopes to inherit a fortune and a house, Stone Court, from). Featherstone torments his young housekeeper, Mary Garth, who links to Mr Vincy because Featherstone enjoys humiliating the Vincy son (Fred) who loves and wants to marry Mary, among other things bringing her books, like Walter Scott’s Anne of Geierstein, which Featherstone forbids her to read, lest she have any enjoyment of her own during the time she is supposed working for him. So there are the three story matters. Eliot did keep a notebook of quotations, so you can try to follow her creative process just a bit. She meant it to be a study of provincial life.

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From Book I: Now Prof Frawley emphasized the metaphoric and inward perspectives embedded in these stories and ethnography. And I here present her ideas as they worked out during class discussions in which I participated too. Eliot presents herself as watching human lots (in the Greek sense of your fate, what cards you were handed) organically inter-related. Yes the biological connections are real: Lydgate is deeply erotically attracted to Rosamond Vincy, the Mayor’s daughter; his patron, the evangelical town successful man, Nicholas Bulstrode, is married to Vincy’s sister, Harriet. Dorothea becomes enamoured of the aging scholar, Casaubon, whose nephew, Will Ladislaw, comes to work for Dorothea’s uncle, Mr Brooke, who, running for public office, hires Ladislaw to edit and write articles in a newspaper on his behalf; Ladislaw is emotionally drawn to the idealistic Dorothea, and flirts with Rosamond Vincy once she marries Lydgate.

But Eliot is representing the interactions between their inner worlds and realities of outward life (class, money, rival ambitions); the way society distorts (town gossip is central to what happens to these people) their awarenesses and conscience; how their consciousness distorts what they see of and in society, how they understand it. Mirrors are an important metaphor in this novel (as is tapestry, webs of interconnections). Casaubon also shows an ability to feel for Dorothea when he realizes he has made a mistake in marrying her: she is too young, too eager for him to be a great hero, and the mirror she shines up in his face mortifies him so he strikes out to silence her.

We have characters to compare: three central women: Dorothea (Dodo), Rosamond (Rosie), Mary Garth, heroines, and with them Celia (Kitty), Dorothea’s sister, Rosamond Vincy, Fred’s. Three men: Lydgate, Casaubon, Ladislaw, and against them, Bulstrode (as a hypocrite, hiding his criminal past used to rise in the world), with them, Rev Farebrother, Mr Brooke, Dodo and Kitty’s uncle. We see what six center presences do with their lives, what they make of them. We are led to ask by the narrator, Who among us could stand close scrutiny? to think pride is not a bad thing as long as you do not hurt others or yourself with your own. Some of these characters are given beauty in their thoughts, aspirations, generosity, but others show them unable even to understand the person right in front of them at all and no toleration at all for anything that might endanger their position in the world.

Both Lydgate and Dorothea make bad choices for their first marriage. Lydgate cannot escape his partly because of his conscience; Dorothea when she realizes she has make a mistake, recalibrates (like a GPS). The petty perspectives of a Rosamond, the small ones of the local rector’s wife, Mrs Cadawallader, and Celia’s husband, Sir James Chettam, a conventional county leader, matter too. We looked at beautiful statements in the first book about self-despair; Farebrother, the vicar, who while a humane man, has no real vocation to be a clergyman, found himself in studying insects, but he is deeply thwarted in his secular scientist study because he must spend time as a vicar, gets such low pay and is trying to support his mother, her sister, and an aunt. But also the inner rapture as the self involves its consciousness in study, which will also result in nothing practical. We are seeing the ways people struggle with their lives. We see our friends change, grow, mature as they try to follow a career.

From Book II: It is a novel about vocation; and for me, it is also about the enemies of promise that stand in the different characters’ ways. I loved how Eliot captured inner moments that can mean so much to us as we define who we are and follow a road possible for us — as when Lydgate realized he wanted to be an original researcher in medicine. Eliot writes:

“Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within (Bk 2, Ch 15, p 143)

I did tell of how after I read a moving passage in Wordsworth’s Michael, I knew I wanted to be an English major, to study literature.

There is a comfort in the strength of love;
‘Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would break the heart … “

The intense emotional pain caught up in those lines took my breath away. The pain for me comes in how the words capture also the opposite reality: that few feel this love, and since Luke (Michael’s shallow son in the poem) had not, the lines are also about how at times we come near into breaking or our hearts are broken and we can scarce understand how we bear up.


Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw

While in Rome with Casaubon, who is spending most of his time researching in the libraries, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw, there to study art, and he glimpses in her a buried, a repressed depth of emotion; Dorothea will find it like death, like a nightmare of dread when Casaubon attacks her for her nature. Prof Frawley said many times the book explores what it is be alive. The deeper question here is how we know others; a lot of 19th century novels are about characters some characters thought they knew but did not; how we really get to know who somebody is: in the case of Lydgate and Rosamond, they knew so little of each other, they understood so little of each other’s character. Rosamond is not interested in any character or desires but her own, and her dense tenacity triumphs over the sensitive Lydgate who yearns for her validation of him, and cannot bear her misery, no matter how stupid (he knows) the causes. Of course it is Lydgate who choose her, who is dismissive of women and yet she becomes his trap. The often-quoted passage is about how were we to be able to know the miseries of others (including the animals around us), we could not keep our equanimity

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well-wadded with stupidity (Bk 2, Ch 20, p 194)

We had talked about the novel as historical, set back in time from the era Eliot was writing in; it is also devotedly realistic, turning away from romance, ever aware of actualities (as an artful norm discussed by her in Adam Bede). You can see her practicing her awareness of the natural world around her in her Ilfracomb journal. The question here is what can a novel do? how does one make a character resonate with a reader? She says her mirrors are doubtless defective however earnestly she commits to faithful accounting. The mirror is a mediator, not the thing itself — now it’s Dorothea who remembers Rome so intently vivid; it is an epoch to her, while to Casaubon, absorbed in his own central self in years of arcane study, cannot respond with any immediacy to what is around them, is imprisoned in self-preoccupation, thoughts of gaining fame and respect from others, fear he never will.

From Books 3, 4 and 5: We moved into how Eliot works up, depends on our responding with sympathy so that we may pass over this egoism. She shows us Dorothea aware of what another character is feeling through her sympathetic impulses; sympathy just erupts, but equally characters fail in sympathy. Frawley defended Eliot’s narrator as not intrusive, and there in the text tactfully, but also rightfully there, to thicken out the novel, to share things with us. She numbered the ways the narrator adds to our understanding and pleasure in the book. I remembered the narrator’s sense of humor at the auction later in the book where we invited us to laugh with her at the absurdity of the inflated descriptions, what the seller said about the items from people’s houses to push the price bidding/war up. She lends life to all the minor characters in the Featherstone story, the Garth family: Caleb sees the potential and real goodness in Fred, Mrs Garth feels the loss of money she has saved for months to enable her boy to become an apprentice


Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy being bullied by Michael Hordern as Featherstone, Rachel Power as Mary Garth looking on, Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond Vincy keeping well away

The medical history context as such becomes more important as Lydgate becomes part of the Dorothea/Casaubon story after his heart attack. Specifics go beyond Lydgate trying to institute reforms as Lydgate gets involved in individual characters’ health (like Fred’s, which leads to Lydgate’s engagement with Rosamond). Gossip begins to play a major role — how we come to talk and to know about one another (Book 4, Ch 41, p 412: the world as a “whispering gallery”). Last debt and obligation — how we can be saddled with moral as well as financial debt. Invalidism as a form of identity emerges in Victorian novels; epidemics are part of the this 19th century realistic world, and we see Lydgate struggling to be professional, to be taken seriously. Now the question is, What good can people do for one another in this world. We did talk of a Medical Act trying to set minimum criteria before a man can call himself a physician.


Ladislaw, Robert Hardy as Mr Brooke, and Stephen Moore as Mr Vincy on the hustings

Where does progress happen? Certainly Mr Brooke makes no progress on his estates nor does he help his desperate tenants to live at all better lives. Prof Frawley saw Brooke’s disastrous speech as an example of how hard it is to to get a society to support progressive legislation. She pointed to a debate between Lydgate and Ladislaw about measures, men voted in to pass them (Bk 5, Ch 46, p 465), which did remind me of debates between characters in Trollope’s political Palliser fiction, only here it did seem to me that the measures the characters were talking of were genuinely capable of helping vulnerable individuals (to be honest, I’ve never seen that in Trollope’s fictions — perhaps in his travel books, yes). The existence of (stupid) gossip connects here: ignorant people attributing malign motives to other people; people who make a living selling useless products. Change is therefore glacial. Lydgate finds himself attacked for dissections.


A Middlemarch grocer appeals to Lydgate to prescribe Mrs Mawmsey’s strengthening medicine, next to Lydgate, Simon Chandler as Farebrother

Prof Frawley called Eliot’s a “curative vision,” and admitted there is a conservative thrust to her work; she takes a retrospective POV and sees elements in community life as entrenched deeply. Middlemarch as a community is a social body. What can you change among such people? what do they value? (I’d say speaking general individuals their position and status first of all.) Characters find themselves powerless to stop ugly gossip. Dorothea can act once she is a wealthy widow, not before. She can decide on what she wants to do as social obligations once Casaubon has died; she would have obeyed him out of a deep feeling of pity and duty she had to him, but we see in her meditation how she is alienated at long last when she realizes how he thought so meanly of her. Meanwhile she is coming to defer to Ladislaw as he proves himself to her, and she wants to think so well of him. I’d put it Dorothea needs to, as part of her make-up and the way she needs to see the world. She applies an ethical compass to what Mrs Cadwallader tells her of others; at the same time she is realistic about people around her, and we see her hesitate when Chettam or Farebrother advise caution.

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From Books 6 and 7: I’d say the central most fascinating character in the last books of the novel is Nicholas Bulstrode; Frawley showed how Eliot’s analyses here are extraordinary for insight as well as compassion for a distasteful often petty cruel and power-mongering man in the way she enables us to see how he sees himself. (Cont’d in the comments.)


Clive Russell as Caleb Garth, Peter Jeffreys as Nicholas Bulstrode, and John Savident as Raffles

From Book 8: how we find all the preoccupations and themes brought together in this deeply felt consoling vision of acceptance (also Cont’d)

The 1994 serial: one of the best adaptations of a novel thus far ever made — if faithfulness, wonderful artistry appropriate to this book’s tone and feel, and depth of understanding matter (third continuation).


The coach loaded down with people and whatever goods they can carry, bringing people into Middlemarch and out again — the first thing we see when the film begins ….

Ellen

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