Friday, January 26, 2007

Middlemarch (thoughts)

Ah, how to talk of a classic like Middlemarch? I suppose, since I've never taken a lit class in my life, I'll just approach it from my experience.

I happen to love Jane Austen. I feel that George Eliot is like Jane's more serious and studious older sister. They both deal with English countryside society; not the ridiculously wealthy titled folk, but not the poor either. They both tend to focus on marriage and family relationships. They both move through day-to-day life at a pretty slow pace. Nevertheless, they're very different.

But, first a brief synopsis of Middlemarch. It looks at life in the small English town of Middlemarch (a surprise, I know), somewhere in the nineteenth century. It begins by following young girls as they go from single to married: Miss Dorothea Brooke, her sister Celia, and Miss Rosamond Vincy are all married off in their turns during the first part of the book. Miss Brooke marries an older clergyman, Mr. Causabon (I love that name!) and Miss Vincy marries the newly-arrived young doctor, Lydgate. Celia marries one of the gentry of the area; she's only a peripheral character, who exists (imo) in order to represent the *ideal* match. Following this, Eliot examines how Dorothea and Rosamond both become disillusioned in their marriages. The book includes a whole cast of other characters, some of them loveable, some of them hateable, and by the last part of the book, the plot has been thickened with a certain someone's disreputable past. However, most of these events are told through the 'eyes' of Dorothea, Rosamond, and the men connected to them (either through blood, marriage, or love). I will say now, I feel that this book is a great length. My copy was the Norton critical edition, meaning absolutely miniature type, and still weighed in at 578 pages (the Penguin edition is 880). Therefore, you can really settle in with the characters, and get attached, knowing that they're not going to be rudely snatched from you in another hour or two. Lots of cups of tea went into this reading, which is just the way I like it. Also, a great first line: "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." This woman can write.

Obviously, I'm leaving a lot out. But you can see how this rather resembles an Austen novel; Rosamond takes a whole part to get married, and there are worries about Lydgate's attachment, and her parents' disapproval. But, whereas Austen tends to end her books at the marriage (in fact, *always* ends them at the marriage or engagement), thereby leaving the reader to imagine the ensuing marital bliss, Eliot actually goes there. I feel that she casts a more realistic look at life; her characters don't have the 'sparkling wit' Austen's are known for. Furthermore, they resign themselves to less-than-perfect situations. Life does not always turn out the way they want it to. Eliot also shows her disapproval of aspects of English society. Austen, when she wishes to show disapproval, uses mockery and draws satirical characters. Eliot tends to just add sermonizing sentences to the novel; her personal voice comes through as very serious. When I read Austen, I can hear a supressed laugh in the narrator's tone; Eliot has more sadness.

And yet, I really enjoyed the book. When I read Austen, I end up wanting to be her herione. With Middlemarch, I ended up seeing that I can overcome the challenges in my personal life. Marriage isn't always fun and games; you have to fight for it, you have to compromise and change habits to make things work. Even so, it's something that normal people can do. They don't have to be as clever as Elizabeth Bennet, as sweet as Jane, as rich as Darcy. They just have to realize the value of having someone else. At least, that's what I took away from it. I highly recommend this book for those moments when you need someone to say 'Buck up, and deal with it' in a gentler manner. By reminding me that life has its downs, Eliot made the ups that much more precious. I am grateful to her for that.

Favorite Passages:

We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about th elips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts-not to hurt others. (41)

Will Ladislaw's smile was delightful, unless you were angry with him beforehand; it was a gush of inward light illuminating the transparent skin as well as the eyes, and playing about every curve and line as if some Ariel were touching them with a new charm, and banishing for ever the traces of moodiness. (142)

"But I have a belief of my own, and it comforts me."
"What is that?" said Will, rather jealous of the belief.
"That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't know quite what it is and canot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil-widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower."(270)

With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man's past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present; it is not a repented error shaken lookse from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavours andthe tinglings of a merited shame. (425)

(This one requires a bit of preface. Dorothea is flustered about love at the moment and trying not to think about it.)
Here was a weighty subject which, if she could but lay hold of it, would certainly keep her mind steady. Unhappily her mind slipped off it for a whole hour; and at the end she found herself reading sentences twice over with an intense consciousness of many things, but not of any one thing contained in the text. This was hopeless. (555)

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