Reading Middlemarch had been on to do list for, oh, about 15 years. I’m not sure what finally possessed me to take the plunge – I think I had binged a bit too much on a few YA novels which, while lovely in their own right, left me longing for something epic and, well, adult. And it had been spring at the time, and spring, with all the bright green buds and the new green of the rolling hills, seemed the right moment for beginning this “study of provincial life” (which is 35 hours and 40 minutes long if you’re planning on listening to it as I did!).
I should admit upfront that Middlemarch is the kind of book that I just can’t find any fault. It’s a book that you can fall into and lose yourself in and, when lost in that way, I, for one, don’t wish to pull myself out enough to consider what could have been done differently. It seems to me to capture what it accomplished to do, a perfect vision of the author’s intention. I’ll put it up there with others of my favorites, (Year of the Flood, Someone, Ocean at the End of the Lane, to name some recents), in which the reading for me was pure pleasure. Though I’ll admit Middlemarch took me several months to complete. The plot wasn’t a gripping one, and I don’t mean to say that as criticism, but simply that it was the type of book that was okay to place by one’s bedside for several weeks if one wanted to indulge in a YA romance fantasy (i.e. Eleanor & Park, a kind of anti-Middlemarch). But now that I’m finally done with the book, I am already yearning to read it again (perhaps every other year will do), as I think the book will richen on future readings and I’ll be able to pay better attention to the language.
What I did find gripping, if not the plot, was studying the various couples of the novel and wondering who would find happiness and who would not. Having been involved in the letterpress wedding invitation business for 10 years in a former life, my day to day work was filled for a long time with bride and groom nuptial fantasies: that a wedding made beautiful enough meant that couple’s love would last forever. Who doesn’t hope that when starting out? That their marriage will stay as beautiful as it was in the beginning. So while it was pleasurable watching a couple like Dr. Lydgate and Rosamond fall in love (“He touched her ear and a little bit of neck under it with his lips, and they sat quite still for many minutes which flowed by them like a small gurgling brook with the kisses of the sun upon it” – oh my!), it was also pleasurable (in a different way) wondering where they would be in a few years and if their initial marriage fantasy would last.
I was glad that Mary and Fred finally found their happiness, and Dorothea and Will finally found theirs, and I loved the relationship of the adult Garths, the gentle give and take of a marriage decades old that that has begun to include one’s joint hopes for their adult children.
Though what I connected most with was the characters whose lives were steeped in disappointment. That’s only natural, I suppose, as I prepare to enter middle age myself (where does middle age start these days?) and can see the options of my life narrowing. Perhaps that’s why I read Middlemarch as novel about middle age (though middle age does seem, in the 1800’s, to begin in one’s mid 20’s.) It’s about the time of transition, when one moves from living in one’s fantasies about one’s future to actually inhabiting that future, which, it turns out, is not a place for fantasy.
In Rebecca Mead’s lovely New Yorker essay on Middlemarch (thoughts which she has elaborated on in her book My Life with Middlemarch), Mead speaks of Eliot’s “sympathetic imagination,” mentioning the person Eliot related most to was not Dorothea– the enthusiastic intellectual moralist without an outlet–but Mr. Casaubon, an old, unhappy, bitter and controlling man who must face the realization that one’s life work will not add up to anything great, and that even love will be a disappointment. Eliot’s compassion to even her most ridiculous and spiteful characters is what amazed me most about the book: It is funny book, and Mr. Casaubon at times is funny, he is unintentionally funny, but then Eliot counters that, treating Casaubon with such sympathy while chiding the reader to do the same. There are many wonderful examples of this throughout the book but I’ll limit myself to one.
“ONE morning some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea– but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us. He had done nothing exceptional in marrying– nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets. It had occurred to him that he must not any longer defer his intention of matrimony, and he had reflected that in taking a wife, a man of good position should expect and carefully choose a blooming young lady– the younger the better, because more educable and submissive– of a rank equal to his own, of religious principles, virtuous disposition, and good understanding….For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self– never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr Casaubon’s uneasiness. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.”
It’s so easy to make our character into farces, but Eliot refuses to do so, and Casaubon’s life becomes a narrow tragedy of unhappiness through no one’s fault really, and I, as a reader, was moved by his disappointments.
But really it was Dr. Lydgate who I fell in love with, yet another disappointed man who thought he would do something great with his life, but instead he got married, and became a parent, and grew disillusioned what little he was able to accomplish. What parent can’t relate to that? Who knows if Lydgate would have done greater things had he not married. Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
I could go on and on about everything I love about the book but that would probably be detrimental to the book I’m actually supposed to be writing now. I’ll save my gushing about the ending of MIddlemarch for a later post soon.