Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Middlemarch #Eliotalong Week One

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?


Pan Alchemist said...

Your post was a fascinating read. I didn't know all that about Eliot/Evans.

I am a first time reader, and loving it (so much in fact that I am almost finished - I can't help it. The thought of putting it down is dreadful!). The characters are, as you say, alive on the page. I have feelings - strong feelings about most of them. Lydgate has to be one of my favourites, not only for his intelligence. (It is so difficult to restrict this post to the first 14 chapters. But as you are rereading, I am sure you know what I am implying here.) Will Ladislaw and Fred Vincy, though, are close behind him. Farebrother is another character I really appreciate, along with the Garths. But... Rosamond. I will leave it there.

OK, I am going back to reading. I can't stop, even though I feel dreadful for running ahead in the readalong. I can't believe I have put reading this book off for so long. Had I known I would enjoy it so much, I would have read it decades ago!

Amy said...

If I wasn't deep into several other reading commitments, I'd've joined in this. I love Middlemarch and am due for a reread. I'll just have to enjoy it vicariously for now.

*ೃ༄ Jillian said...

YES! George Eliot is, in a way, Dorothea. I love that you made that connection: I hadn't considered it. I'm a first-time reader just joining the group. I'm only thirty pages in so far, but I love it. The narrator especially: her sardonic, intelligent voice. (I assume the narrator is a woman, but really, we don't even know, do we?) :)

bibliophiliac said...

@Pan Alchemist- *the thought of putting it down is dreadful* Exactly! I'm so glad you are loving Middlemarch! I think you should just "march* straight through and then post your thoughts later (along the schedule). I will probably write my posts as I go along, but, like you, I'm enjoying immersing myself in the world of this book, and can't imagine stopping!

bibliophiliac said...

@Jillian-I think you are right about the narrator-it is a female voice from the start. In her Prelude Eliot refers to Saint Theresa. Interwoven throughout the text is this question of how women can contribute, how they can add something to the world, when they are given so little power and education.

bibliophiliac said...

@Amy-I hope you enjoy the vicarious readalong!

Bybee said...

I read this novel in 1999 and 2009! So excited to be reading it again in 2019. I love it so much!!! I get something new and fresh out of it each time.

bibliophiliac said...

@Susan Bybee-Looking forward to reading along with you!