Sunday, July 3, 2016
Middlemarch #Eliotalong Week One
Halfway through the day on Saturday I realized that I had gone past the 14th chapter of Middlemarch: I was caught up again, deep inside a story where I already knew the characters intimately, and knew much of what was to come. And knowing what was to come did nothing to diminish my pleasure in Eliot's novel.
Yes, George Eliot's writing is designed for another age. She digresses, makes allusions modern readers won't get, and takes her time filling in the details on each of her many, many characters. But at its heart Middlemarch is filled with characters who are alive on the page (except for the cadaverous Casaubon, who is deader than the Dead Sea Scrolls).
Dorothea Brooke is one of the most sympathetic characters in literature. Yes, at nineteen she is clever, but not as clever as she ought to be. She is a bit too pious, too ardent. But think about this: a bright, vital, energetic woman of the 19th century had very little opportunity for learning, very little scope for making a difference in the world. No matter how clever she is, Dorothea is limited and circumscribed by her sex. And remember, the novelist telling her story is also a woman. Think what it meant to George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans in real life) to be a brilliant woman, an accomplished writer, in an age when most women were expected to focus on needle work and the minor accomplishments taught by tutors and governesses (and that was only for the privileged).
Dorothea has room to grow, but she is also going to experience pain and heartbreak, since she has just made the most serious mistake a woman of her time could make: she has married a man who can't possibly understand her, or make her happy.
Dorothea's sister Celia, a much more malleable, and less clever girl, offers one contrasting approach to life.
Probably the most engaging, and likable character of the novel so far is Mary Garth, the plain girl who is plain spoken and loves to read.
But all of the characters are entertaining--I love Mrs Cadwallader, Fred Vincy, and Lydgate. Eliot's flawed, realistic characters (the hypocrites, the self-deluded, the miser, the vain beauty) are not stereotypical, but begin to give a sense of Middlemarch the town, and the interconnectedness of all the lives of the townspeople. Eliot first starts to build her metaphor of the town and outlying area, with all its people, as a kind of web, in chapter 15 (we're almost there).
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) was a woman who both defied the social rules of her time, and wrote about the social structures, morality, and social hierarchies critically but sympathetically. Eliot lived with her lover George Lewes without the social sanction of marriage because, for complicated reasons, Lewes could not divorce his wife (who had born another man's child). Some well-known artists and writers visited Eliot in her home, but others refused to meet her because of her relationship with Lewes. This had to be deeply painful to her, and it is apparent from the moral underpinnings of her novels that Eliot was not someone who simply rejected the rules of society (I think is was more the case that she was forced to defy them).
Thanks to Bex at An Armchair by the Sea for hosting the Middlemarch read-along, and for posting the questions for the Week One post. I found it helpful to have some questions to guide my post. How are other readers finding Middlemarch? Are there any other rereaders out there? Any first impressions from first time readers?