Tuesday, August 26, 2008

19th Century Television (Books - Middlemarch by George Eliot)

I put Middlemarch on this year's re-read list after Sheila read it recently and I realized I barely remembered it, having read it 23 years ago while hiking in the Black Forest. Matt and I have a plan to read it simultaneously, but as classes are just starting I'm not certain how I'll keep up.

If the first section is any indication, George Eliot's mission seems to be to differentiate between a woman's role in rural English society and a woman's essence - there are strong women as well as helpless ones, those with opinions as well as compliant blank slates, she warns:

Theresas [women like Saint Theresa of Avila] were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardour alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.

Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the soical lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's coiffure and the favourite love-stories in prose and verse...

The Miss Brooke's are being raised by the their uncle in rural England. They are parentless and of marriageable age, but of a reputable family. I love the way Eliot tells us this, not merely as a fact, but with a twinkle in her voice that lets us know we are not just reading a good story, but social criticism :

...the Brooke connections, though not exactly aristocratic, were unquestionably "good": if you inquired backward for a generation or two, you would not find any yard-measuring or parcel-tying forefathers - anything lower than an admiral or a clergyman; and there was even an ancestor discernible as a Puritan gentleman who served under Cromwell...
Middlemarch is really a book of ideas dressed in the clothes of the serialized novel of its day. Celia is the typical, down-to-earth sister who is happy not to have her pretty little head bothered by notions, Dorothea wants to study Greek, Latin and theology in order to help the aged religious scholar to whom she eventually become engaged - she spends her spare moments designing cottages for the poor farm workers. Sir James Chettam, the local country gentleman, has all but promised to build one of these cottages just to get Dorothea to marry him. But she is oblivious.

Celia says of her sister:
...you went on as you always do, never looking just where you are, and treading in the wrong place. You always see what nobody else sees; it is impossible to satisfy you; yet you never see what is quite plain.

And the neighbors say in comfort to the man who hoped to marry her:
Come, come, cheer up! you are well rid of Miss Brooke, a girl who would have been requiring you to see the stars by daylight.

Not a soul can understand why she wishes to marry Casaubon, a scholarly prig 25 years her senior:

"He has got no good red blood in his body," said Sir James.

"No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses," said Mrs. Cadwallader.

"Why does he not bring out his book, instead of marrying?" said Sir James, with a disgust which he held warranted by the sound feeling of an English layman.

"Oh, he dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brain. They say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of 'Hop o' my Thumb,' and he has been making abstracts ever since.

Gossip worthy of Sex in the City- and that really is the format here. Eight books, each about 100 pages in length (think seasons) which are composed of about 10-12 chapters (think episodes). Strong characters types have their psychology developed and exploited as they are placed in dramatic situations week-to-week in a popular magazine depicting a world that resembles our own, so that we might both think about who we are and be entertained by our foibles. The Ragazzo is just re-watching Six Feet Under, and the similarities scream to me. Middlemarch is nineteenth century television. One can look at the sheer width of the volume and think - doorstop, it's going to be weighty. But Eliot and Dickens were not originally read in big continuous gulps, but in little sips. Just because the book is a chunkster and written in the 1860s doesn't mean is dull or difficult. The serious aims are never far from a character you will nod at in recognition or a bright quip at which to smile:

Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.


Sheila O'Malley said...


Middlemarch has one of my most favorite opening lines in all of literature:

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in comparing how Eliot and Austen handle social commentary and criticism differently. Looking forward to reading it. I just got the book and will begin soon.

Ted said...

Matt - That's funny, Sheila and I were talking about Eliot versus Austen versus Bronte just this evening! How witty a critic Austen is and how brilliant a psychologist Bronte and how Eliot is all those things and also has this world view. When she pronounces omnisciently it's as though her camera pulls back far enough to see the town, the country and then the entire world. What certainty she expresses in her voice, but tempered with humor. I wish I was current enough on either
Austen or Bronte to fold them into the discussion more specifically, I'll see if I find the time. But that will be a great accompaniment if you end up making those comparisons! It will make me want to re-read them!