Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Source of book: I own this.

I have been wanting to read this book for ages, but it was one of the very few George Eliot books I didn’t own. Oddly, it is still the only book of hers I own that is not a hardback. (I own all her novels except Felix Holt.) I first read Silas Marner back in high school, and then read The Mill on the Floss in my 20s. Finally, I read Daniel Deronda in my 30s. Now, with Middlemarch in my 40s, I am finally reading the book considered to be her masterpiece. 

Regular readers of my blog will know that Anthony Trollope is my favorite Victorian novelist, but I would say George Eliot is a close second. Both share a keen sense of psychology and a fascination with the ways that rural English society interfaces with politics and religion. The novels mention great events (the Reform Bill of 1832 is at the center of discussions in the story), but the focus is on everyday stuff: marriage, birth, death, inheritance, relationships. 

Middlemarch is a long book, with a lot of related subplots, so I am not going to attempt a summary. Perhaps it is best just to name some of the main characters. The heroine is Dorothea, an idealistic and naive young woman who wants to do something meaningful with her life. It isn’t easy as a woman, however, as she finds out. She marries early in the book, choosing an older, fusty clergyman who is more or less writing a book tying all mythologies together. (He dies before succeeding, leaving that task to Joseph Campbell…) In contrast to Dorothea, who is an almost impossibly good person, is Rosamond, who wishes to escape both her plebeian (if well off) family, and the narrow confines of Middlemarch. She latches on to Lydgate, an ambitious but fortuneless doctor. Needless to say, this marriage does not go well for either party. Rosamond’s feckless brother Fred has received an education (at significant expense to his parents), but declines to become a clergyman, and thus has no obvious way to make a living. He is in love with the delightfully witty Mary, but has to find his way before they can marry. Rosamond and Fred’s uncle, Bulstrode, has a dark secret in his past which he wishes to keep secret - all while he adopts a sanctimonious and self-righteous religion that alienates others. 

This being a Victorian novel, tied up with all of this is the question of money. Who has it, who inherits it, and whose prospects are crippled because of a lack of it. This is also tied up with class: those who are considered aristocracy cannot “work for a living” in the normal sense without “lowering themselves.” A marriage outside one’s social class is either “climbing” (which is mostly good) or “lowering” (which most certainly isn’t.) Eliot, like Trollope, exposes the frustrations and hypocrisy this system require. 

Eliot’s particular twist on the genre consists in her focus, not so much on the courtships, but on the marriages themselves. Dorothea marries a few chapters into the book, while Rosamond marries about halfway. These two miserable marriages form the bulk of the narrative of much of the book. “Happily Ever After” this most certainly isn’t. The marriages (and others in the book) form a series of contrasts in compatibility (or lack thereof), grace, and sensitivity. 

Another theme in the book is the problem of womanhood. What IS Dorothea to do with herself? In another era, as Eliot points out, she might have become a saint. In our own time, she would be like my wife, with a career and a mission in life. But in Victorian Protestant England, her options were mostly marriage, marriage, and marriage. 

There are so many great lines in this book, it took me a whole page (on a mini-legal pad) to write them down. I’ll just run through them in some semblance of order - although not in the order they appear in the book. First is this exchange between Dorothea and her younger sister Celia. 

“Sir James seems determined to do everything you wish,” said Celia, as they were driving home from an inspection of the new building-site.
“He is a good creature, and more sensible than any one would imagine,” said Dorothea, inconsiderately.
“You mean that he appears silly.”
“No, no,” said Dorothea, recollecting herself, and laying her hand on her sister’s for a moment, “but he does not talk equally well on all subjects.”
“I should think none but disagreeable people do,” said Celia, in her usual purring way. “They must be very dreadful to live with. Only think! At breakfast, and always.” 

In this early exchange is the germ of so much that follows. Obviously, Celia is more the sort for Sir James, who bores Dorothea to death. But also, Dorothea’s idol, the crusty Casaubon, turns out to be miserable to live with - his ability to talk coherently on a variety of subjects does not translate into affection or respect toward Dorothea. I personally would hope that this is not a universal truth, however, because I kind of like to talk about all kinds of things, but don’t consider myself dreadful to live with. 

I’ll also mention the delightful neologism Eliot uses in describing the Renaissance paintings in Casaubon’s house: “severe classical nudities and smirking Renaissance-Correggiosities.” That makes me laugh every time. 

Later in the book, Lydgate meets Dorothea, but finds her to be not his sort. 

To his taste, guided by a single conversation, here was the point on which Miss Brooke would be found wanting, notwithstanding her undeniable beauty. She did not look at things from the proper feminine angle. The society of such women was about as relaxing as going from your work to teach the second form, instead of reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes, and blue eyes for a heaven. 

Obviously, this is as laughably naive as Dorothea’s belief that Casaubon would accept her as an equal partner in his work. Ironically, Lydgate and Dorothea would have made the best match, in my view. If only his male ego had been up to the task of partnering with a formidable and intelligent woman, the two of them might have fulfilled both their dreams. Instead, Dorothea ends up with Mr. Casaubon, who himself has rather retrograde views of women. This passage is just amazingly perceptive - and discloses the way far too many men still think of women and marriage. 

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!

He is as naive as Lydgate in his own way - Dorothea is a far more formidible intellect than he bargained for; and, while she is sweet and devoted, she needs love and respect, which he fails or even declines to give her. 

Rosamond is quite the different creature from Dorothea. Educated in a finishing school to within an inch of her life, she is one who seems rather than is.

Every nerve in muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at. She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique: she acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be her own.

Later, Rosamond kisses up to Lydgate’s rich relatives, much to the irritation of Lydgate. His army cousin is particularly stupid and flirtatious. Eliot wryly remarks that “but to most mortals there is a stupidity which is unendurable and a stupidity which is altogether acceptable--else, indeed, what would become of social bonds?”

The disillusionment, when it comes, is horrifying to the two men. Eliot describes Casaubon’s realization that Dorothea doesn’t just adore him uncritically. She too is human, and responds accordingly to disrespect and neglect. 

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. 
And who, if Mr. Casaubon had chosen to expound his discontents--his suspicions that he was not any longer adored without criticism--could have denied that they were founded on good reasons? On the contrary, there was a strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account--namely, that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out.

That’s just a tour-de-force of psychological analysis. These are real, human, believable characters. Sadly, Casaubon is never able to simply treat Dorothea as an equal, and speak intimately with her. Every time she lets her feelings show, he withdraws and punishes her. He becomes “hard,” as the author puts it. 

Mr. Casaubon kept his hands behind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm.
There was something horrible to Dorothea in the sensation which this unresponsive hardness inflicted on her. That is a strong word, but not too strong: it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness--calling their own denial knowledge. 

Eliot is one hundred percent right when she says that it is in the trivialities that relationships are destroyed. It is the proverbial straw - the weight of thousands of straws - that makes happiness and consonance impossible. I can say from experience in my professional life that more marriages die because of the cumulative effect of “hardness” than any other factor. This isn’t a gender thing - it happens both ways. At best, it is a refusal to consider the needs of the other spouse; in some ways, it is a form of emotional abuse. It happens in other relationships too, of course, and I would guess that most severed or damaged parent-child relationships will have this as a crucial element as well. Eventually, Casaubon becomes so paranoid that he tries to bully Dorothea. 

“Before I sleep, I have a request to make, Dorothea.”
“What is it?” said Dorothea, with dread in her mind.
“It is that you will let me know, deliberately, whether, in case of my death, you will carry out my wishes: whether you will avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.”
Dorothea was not taken by surprise: many incidents had been leading her to the conjecture of some intention on her husband’s part which might make a new yoke for her. She did not answer immediately.
“You refuse?” said Mr. Casaubon, with more edge in his tone.
“No, I do not yet refuse,” said Dorothea, in a clear voice, the need of freedom asserting himself within her; “but it is too solemn--I think it is not right--to make a promise when I am ignorant what it will bind me to. Whatever affection prompted I would do without promising.”
“But you would use your own judgment: I ask you to obey mine; you refuse.”
“No, dear, no!” said Dorothea, beseechingly, crushed by opposing fears. “But may I wait and reflect a little while? I desire with my whole soul to do what will comfort you; but I cannot give any pledge suddenly--still less a pledge to do I know not what.”

Sadly, she is on the verge of agreeing anyway, when he dies. And fucking good riddance. He had some of my sympathy up until that moment, when he got full-on abusive. And it is abusive to demand that someone promise to do what you order them to do, without knowing what it is. And it is also abusive to try to bind someone beyond your own death. 

The situation with Lydgate and Rosamond is similar, although it is Rosamond who brutally punishes her husband for trying to get her to work with him as a team. One is left wondering how different things would have been with a bit of honest communication. Actually, come to think of it, the Garths do that - they may not always agree, but they communicate with love and respect.  

One of my favorite minor characters is Mr. Farebrother, a vicar. His interest isn’t really that much in his job - although he does work at it. He prefers his scientific experiments and his garden. Since he has several female relatives to support, he plays whist for money. As one of the more moderate religious sorts, he ends up being the most admirable of the clergymen, ironically. I mention him in this instance, to quote his mother, who gets into an exchange with Lydgate because she does not support any sort of change, including reform. 

“I object to what is wrong, Camden. I say, keep hold of a few plain truths, and make everything square with them. When I was young, Mr. Lydgate, there never was any question about right and wrong. We knew our catechism, and that was enough; we learned our creed and our duty. Every respectable Church person had the same opinions. But now, if you speak out of the Prayer-book itself, you are liable to be contradicted.” 

Mrs. Farebrother is pretty harmless, to be sure. But danged if I haven’t had this used as a weapon against me a few times. This idea that the past was a utopia is ludicrous on its face, as is the idea that everyone agreed. But “we knew the truth, every new idea is heresy” is pretty much the Fundamentalist credo, and justifies preserving the hierarchies and injustices and superstitions of the past. 

Not as harmless as Mrs. Farebrother is Bulstrode, whose militant Puritanism combines with his “sharp” business practices as banker to earn the suspicion of his neighbors. When Lydgate shows up, it is rumored that he is an illegitimate son of Bulstrode. When Rev. Farebrother points out to his mother that Lydgate has family elsewhere and never met Bulstrode, she retorts:

“That is satisfactory so far as Mr. Lydgate is concerned, Camden,” said the old lady, with an air of precision. “But as to Bulstrode--the report may be true of some other son.”

In the actual event, the truth turns out to be even worse than an illegitimate son. (I won’t spoil it.)

Men in general do not come off all that well in this book, although there is one notable exception: Caleb Garth, who is patterned after Eliot’s own father. The two men who die leaving money are particularly loathsome in their use of money to control people after their death. Old Peter Featherstone has essentially strung Fred along with promises of an inheritance before changing his mind at the end. Eliot has no difficulty speaking evil of the dead. 

He loved money, but he also loved to spend it in gratifying his peculiar tastes, and perhaps he loved it best of all as a means of making others feel his power more or less uncomfortably. If any one here will contend that there must have been traits of goodness in old Featherstone, I will not presume to deny this; but I must observe that goodness is of a modest nature, easily discouraged, and when much elbowed in early life by unabashed vices, is apt to retire into extreme privacy, so that it is more easily believed in by those who construct a selfish old gentleman theoretically, than by those who form the narrower judgments based on his personal acquaintance. 

I can think of a few people who fit this description. (Cough, cough, Trump, cough, cough…) Whatever good there theoretically may have been once has been killed by a lifetime of vice. 

Mr. Vincy is rather more comic, but he too shares the flaw of most of the men in the book in that they expect to be in charge and looked up to even when they clearly have not earned it. 

Apart from his dinners and his coursing, Mr. Vincy, blustering as he was, had as little of his own way as if he had been a prime minister: the force of circumstances was easily too much for him, as it is for most pleasure-loving florid men; and the circumstances called Rosamond was particularly forcible by means of that mild persistence which, as we know, enables a white soft living substance to make its way in spite of opposing rock. 

The political element of the book centers, as I noted, on the Reform Bill. Dorothea chooses not to focus on the politics (at least early in the book), in part because she sees so much to be done locally. Her uncle, Mr. Brooke, has tenants, yet he fails to maintain and upgrade his houses and fields for their benefit. Dorothea points out to him that his idea of running for parliament on a pro-Reform platform is hypocritical if he won’t do the good he can where he is. 

“I used to come from the village with all that dirt and coarse ugliness like a pain within me, and all the simpering pictures in the drawing-room seemed to me like a wicked attempt to find delight in what is false, while we don’t mind how hard the truth is for the neighbours outside our walls. I think we have no right to come forward and urge wider changes for good, until we have tried to alter the evils which lie under our own hands.”

Dorothea is partly right. To the degree she is right, she is stating the one single true criticism conservatives make of liberals: all too often they can ignore the injustice in their own neighborhoods. But Dorothea is also half wrong. Individuals can and should do good in their personal lives, but true social reform requires those “wider changes” and can only be enforced against evil, greedy people (such as Featherstone) with the force of government. I may (and do) give to private charity, but even if I gave all I have, I would make little dent in providing meaningful healthcare to the millions who go without due to our cruel policies. (Which are rooted in racism and social darwinism…) Both approaches are necessary, but individual effort is both worthwhile and grossly insufficient. 

Mr. Brooke does, however, find that his own opinion of himself is not shared by his tenants. In this, Dorothea is quite correct: he needs to tend his own garden, so to speak. 

He walked out of the yard as quickly as he could, in some amazement at the novelty of his situation. He had never been insulted on his own land before, and had been inclined to regard himself as a general favourite (we are all apt to do so, when we think of our own amiability more than of what other people are likely to want of us.)

Eliot is correct that all of us are subject to this to some degree. In the age of Trump, I think I have seen it most clearly in the response of Baby Boomer Evangelicals to the unpleasant experience of being called out on their racism. And on the way certain family members have responded when it turns out that they made themselves so unpleasant that they find themselves alone. It is nice, I suppose, to spend much of one’s life with the illusion that one is an amiable person, and never have to actually make the effort to be so. 

The chapter headings all have quotes. Often, these are from Eliot herself, in the form of poetry. Other times, they are quotations from other authors. I was particularly struck by this one from Sir Thomas Browne. 

It is the humour of many heads to extol the days of their forefathers, and declaim against the wickedness of times present. Which notwithstanding they cannot handsomely do, without the borrowed help and satire of times past; condemning the vices of their own times, by the expressions of vices in times which they commend, which cannot but argue the community of vice in both. Horace, therefore, Juvenal, and Persius, were no prophets, although their lines did seem to indigitate and point at our times.

There is a doozy in there when it comes to my Fundamentalist Cult experience. The whole premise of it was that things (and people) were better back in the old days, so if we just returned to the culture and hierarchies of the (white) past, everything would be better. But the evils they decried existed in plenty in the past too, and the so-called “prophets” they love foretold nothing - they were just screaming about how bad racial and gender equality were. Furthermore, the past was not better anyway. It just gave more power to people like them. 

Sir Thomas Browne, by the way, wrote that in the middle of the 17th Century. As in, nearly 400 years ago. Things haven’t changed - the retrograde reactionaries of any age sound exactly the same. 

Speaking of things that are older than one expects, how about this one? 

The trash talked on such occasions was the more vexatious to Lydgate...

Wait, what?? That is indeed a reference to “talking trash.” Which apparently they were doing back in 1871. I had never seen a reference to trash talk that far back, so who knew?

Going back the religious issue, Eliot puts some interesting words in Dorothea’s mouth. Eliot herself was not religious - and considering the fury her relationship with her lover brought, it isn’t that surprising she wasn’t into it. She did, however, respect religion, granting that when done right, it helped to moderate and regulate society in positive ways. After Casaubon’s death, Dorothea has the legal right (based on property) to appoint his successor in the parish. On advice from Lydgate, she appoints Farebrother - who also happens to reflect her own gentle and aspirational Christianity. Certainly, Farebrother suits her more than Bulstrode’s favorite, Mr. Tyke, and his Calvinist sermonizing. 

“It is hard to imagine what sort of notions our farmers and labourers get from their teaching. I have been looking into a volume of sermons by Mr. Tyke: such sermons would be of no use at Lowick--I mean, about imputed righteousness and the prophecies in the Apocalypse. I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest--I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and brings in the most people as sharers in it.” 

This reflects my own frustration with Evangelicalism, which is obsessed with theories of atonement, the End Times™, and excluding as many people as possible. My journey out of that moral cesspit has been to a large degree trying to find a way that makes Christianity a force for wide blessing for everyone, not violence toward those outside the tribe. 

I do think that Calvinism is the worst of the worst - and Eliot (dang, isn’t she prescient?) nails it again.

He [Bulstrode] was doctrinally convinced that there was a total absence of merit in himself; but that doctrinal conviction may be held without pain when the sense of demerit does not take a distinct shape in memory and revive the tingling of shame or the pang of remorse. Nay, it may be held with intense satisfaction when the depth of our sinning is but a measure of the depth of forgiveness, and a clenching proof that we are peculiar instruments of the divine intention.

This explains how the people I know who care most deeply about “total depravity” and “completely unearned grace” are also the exact same people who are the most cruel to others in their political beliefs. Eliot explains, I think, how one can believe in total depravity while being horribly self-righteous and convinced that those other people totally deserve their suffering. 

While Bulstrode (mostly) gets his just deserts, the one thing the novel doesn’t really satisfactorily resolve is the problem of Dorothea. She still desires to manage her own life, and her own property. But in the end, she ends up in another marriage, and must content herself with a husband and children - the conventional ending. To be sure, Will Ladislaw isn’t abusive - he seems like a nice enough guy. And in the epilogue, it appears he makes a decent go of it in politics (with a lot of support from the faithful Dorothea.) But Eliot refuses to pretend this is idea. She is intellectually superior to Will - that is clear enough. And she has enough ambition for two of them. It feels like a letdown by 21st Century standards. 

I can’t help but feel that times are better now for women like Dorothea. My own wife is definitely more ambitious than I am, which is why her career is on a higher trajectory. I am content to do my work for clients and aim for justice in small things. I’ll never be rich, but I am fulfilled for the most part with what I do. She is management, and intends in a few years to complete her Nurse Practitioner license. Fortunately, she doesn’t find me to be a disappointment. But there is a place for women like that in today’s society, certainly more than in the Victorian Era, and she is able to follow her calling in a way Dorothea never can. 

One final bit of humor, after all that seriousness. Mary Garth is in love with Fred Vincy, and their courtship is pretty amusing. She has quite the tongue, but she is clearly good for him. When she asks her father to bless the union, after she has basically proposed (like my wife did first, btw…), she has this to say about why she loves Fred:

“Oh dear, because I have always loved him. I should never like scolding anyone else so well; and that is a point to be thought of in a husband.”

 And that, I suppose, is as good of a line as any. Mary assumes a level of intimacy and communication with Fred - which they certainly have - is a good basis for a marriage. And it is, really. In contrast to the other marriages, this one has promise, because it is founded on a mutuality, a high degree of love, respect, and good humor. 

I will say, I greatly enjoyed reading Middlemarch. Eliot is sometimes forgotten in our time and day, the greatest female novelist of the era, and one of the all time greats. Middlemarch is not exactly like any of the other novels of hers I have read - but each has been unique. This one is as good of a place to start as any, although Silas Marner has the advantage of being shorter, for those intimidated by long books. 

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