Saturday, August 30, 2008

Spacious writing (Middlemarch by George Eliot)

George Eliot spends the entire of the first book of Middlemarch introducing us to the Miss Brookes, Celia and Dorothea, and Dorothea's intended, the papery old Mr. Casaubon. As that first book ends, we are brought into another household - The Vincys - particularly their daughter Rosamond, a paragon of beauty, Rosamond's friend Mary Garth, and the handsome new doctor, Lydgate, who seems to be of great interest to everyone in Middlemarch. We have progressed 100 pages into the story of the Brookes before we ever encounter these new characters and the circumstances that are going to propel their story. Imagine giving that sort of writing to a contemporary editor or book agent. 'You cannot wait until page 106 to spring an entirely new cast of characters and circumstances on your reader. No one is going to want to wait that long.' I remember being told what a great writer Shakespeare for introducing characters and their situations in a scant few lines. It is meant to exemplify literary efficiency. And economy on the page can certainly be admired, but so can spaciousness. It's been awhile since I have had a reading experience where I feel like I have to look far out to cast my eye upon the literary horizon. Page turners are great, I love them. But there is something I am finding satisfying about the contrast in the pacing of this book with the rest of my New York life. After a long day of school orientation and classes, I read just 20 pages before going to sleep last night, where I will usually read 60-80 in something from the pile by the bed. Of course, at this rate, you may still be reading posts about Middlemarch in January.

With 100 pages to introduce three characters and their circumstances, one can afford two pages merely to contrasts the physical appearance of Mary Garth with her friend Rosamond. I just love how Eliot asks us to luxuriate in the specificity not only of the appearance of Mary but also of the meaning of that appearance to each of them, to Middlemarch, and to the world in general, but with a smile, of course. Eliot has a marvelous sense of humor.

Only a few children in Middlemarch looked blond by the side of Rosamond, and the slim figure displayed by her riding-habit had delicate undulations. In fact, most men in Middlemarch, except her brothers, held that Miss Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be required. Her shrewdness had a streak of satiric bitterness continually renewed and never carried utterly out of sight, except by a strong current of gratitude towards those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so. Advancing womanhood had tempered her plainness, which was of a good human sort, such as the mothers of our race have very commonly worn in all latitudes under a more or less becoming headgear. Rembrandt would have painted her with pleasure, and would have made her broad features look out of the canvas with intelligent honesty. For honest, truth-telling fairness, was Mary's reigning virtue: she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof, and when she was in a good mood she had humour enough in her to laugh at herself. When she and Rosamond happened both to be reflected in the glass, she said laughingly -

"What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion."

"Oh no! No one thinks of your appearance, you are so sensible and useful, Mary. Beauty is of very little consequence in reality," said Rosamond, turning her head towards Mary, but with eyes swerving towards the new view of her neck in the glass.

"You mean my beauty," said Mary, rather sardonically

Rosamond thought, "Poor Mary, she takes the kindest things ill." Aloud she said, "What have you been doing lately?"

"I? Oh minding the house - pouring out the syrup - pretending to be amiable and contented - learning to have a bad opinion of everybody."

I enjoy how Eliot blows apart the stereotype of the young middle class girl literary stereotypes of the day - young, fair and carefree being one, or above marriageable age, superficially unattractive, and practical, however contented with her lot. Mary belies them both. And that little passage toward the end where she writes Rosamond's silent thoughts and contrasts them with what she says aloud is quite a modern vantage point to give an audience towards a character.


Sheila O'Malley said...

I love your comments here, Ted! Lydgate!! He was the one I was trying to remember when we went out the other night ... his descent into debt is one of the most harrowing and accurate descriptions of losing control of your money that I have ever read in my life.

I need to read this book again.

Ted said...

Thanks for your pitch on your blog!! This is such a great reading experience and I have you to thank for getting interested in returning to it. And, god, your Cary Grant orgy is fabulous.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Ted - I'm so glad you like! He's wonderful, isn't he??

Sadly, I have no more Cary Grant books and have to move on to the next book, alphabetically, on my shelf - which is Charles Grodin's awesome autobiography with the best title ever: It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here.


Unknown said...

Middlemarch is one of my all time favorites. I'd argue it's the best novel in English from the 19th century.

It's interesting to read your remark that the book makes you slow down. The people of the 19th century all felt they were living in a fast paced time. They had too much to do, if anything. Now, it seems like a charming, easy-paced life.

I look forward to future posts. Please take your time with Middlemarch.

Ted said...

CB - That throws an interesting perspective on my reaction. I'm looking forward to your short story challenge.