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Middlemarch

I've seen it claimed that this is the greatest English novel. I don't go in much for the idea of a single greatest achievement in any art, or for that matter in any human endeavor, but I will go as far as agreeing that there are good reasons for making this particular claim. By "English" I would mean not "in the English language" but "by an English writer." Middlemarch is such a different sort of thing from, say, The Sound and the Fury, that the comparison would be inapt. 

I've put off reading Middlemarch for more than forty years, in the face of strong recommendations from people whose opinions I respect, some known personally and some by reputation, because I acquired a prejudice against George Eliot's work when I was a teenager. I can't figure out now exactly where that came from, but I have a vague notion that it had to do with Silas Marner--and yet I don't recall reading it. I have an even vaguer, and now embarrassing, notion that I may not have read the novel at all, but rather a comic book version of it. There was a comic book series called Classics Illustrated when I was growing up, and I read several of them. From what I can remember they were pretty horrible: I'm pretty sure I acquired a somewhat similar prejudice against Jane Eyre from that source, though it didn't stop me from eventually reading and appreciating that novel. 

Perhaps it was just as well that I've only just now read Middlemarch for the first time. I'm not at all sure I would have appreciated it when I was, say, in my twenties, which is when I remember hearing my first recommendation of it (from my late friend Robert W, whom I've mentioned here before). Why now? I've understood for many years that it must actually be a good book and have had in mind to read it. What finally pushed me into picking it up was the fact that the January issue of The New Criterion has an article about it, and I didn't want to read the article without having read the book first.

A few years ago when I reread Moby Dick for the first time since high school I said "It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed every word of this book." The same is true of Middlemarch, or almost; perhaps a bit more of an exaggeration, but only a bit. And that was a surprise. I expected it to be undeniably good, but perhaps a bit stiff or a bit dull at times; I would not have been surprised if it had been somewhat moralistic. The greatest surprise was that Middlemarch is a very funny book. Not comic, in the sense that, say, some of Dickens's characters and incidents are comic, but witty, in a way that strikes me as very feminine: arch, dry, similar to Jane Austen's wit, but to me rather more funny. I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud within the first few chapters, and frequently thereafter. 

For the most part this humor is in the observations of the narrator, not in the characters or the situations. And in general I think it's the authorial voice that sets Middlemarch apart. The characters are alive, the plot is engaging. But the most remarkable aspect of the book, the aspect that had me often pausing in sheer admiration, is the voice of Eliot herself. There seems little warrant for supposing that the narrator is in any major way different from the author.

There are, I grant freely, many gaps in my reading. But I don't know of another novelist who seems to have (or be able to express, which as far as a novel is concerned is the same thing) the psychological acumen of Eliot. Henry James comes to mind, but I haven't read that much of him, and most of it was many years ago, so I can't really judge. Eliot seems acutely attuned to the subtle workings of the psyche, and is able to describe them with great precision. And these are not just phenomena of sensibility, but of motivation, of self-will and self-delusion--the springs of action. It seems almost god-like, and made me think of that remark from St. Paul about the word of God being sharper than a sword, judging the intentions of the heart.

And that touches upon the only thing I would wish to be different about the book. Eliot was a free-thinker of the Victorian type, newly converted from orthodox Christianity by scientific and scholarly challenges of the time. She translated the German skeptic Feuerbach. Despite the presence of several clergymen as major characters--and perhaps revealing of the state of the Church of England at the time--the novel has essentially no vertical dimension. It's all horizontal, all of this world. In a pattern that would become dreary and very, very stale, the only person who seems deeply concerned with Christian faith is an odious hypocrite.

But that's like complaining that Shakespeare is not Dante. Over and over again while reading Middlemarch I thought "this woman is a genius." She doesn't have to be right about everything to deserve that praise. (And clearly she would have been considered a remarkable intellect even if she had never written a word of fiction.) And it's worth mentioning that the book begins and ends with the comparison of its central character, the great- and noble-hearted Dorothea, to St. Teresa (of Avila), and regretting that Dorothea did not have before her the potential field of action that Teresa did. (Elizabeth Seton and Katharine Drexel would have argued with her there.)

I wonder what Eliot really intended in Middlemarch. It's very topical, very specifically placed in a certain time (around 1820, about the time Eliot was born), very concerned with the politics and other developments of that specific period. Did she realize that she was writing for the centuries? 

I'm not bothering with a plot-and-character summary. You can find those anywhere, and this is not a review which might be someone's only information about the novel. I'm only telling you why I liked it so much, and will surely read it again. I liked it in that rare way that makes one wish to have known the author. I can't imagine that I would have been able to hold a conversation with her, but I think I would have loved to listen to her.

If you haven't read it, or if it's been a long time since you did, and you don't already own it, I suggest you get an edition with notes. I read the only one readily available to me, the local library's Modern Library edition, which has no notes, and I felt the need of them on every other page, it seemed. So I found myself constantly picking up my phone or Kindle to look up a word or a reference to some place or thing (and of course sometimes just passing things by and hoping they weren't essential). In the course of deciding which edition to buy for myself, I ran across a great web site, Middlemarch for Book Clubs, which is a sort of orientation, and which includes a very helpful guide to Choosing an Edition. (I plan to get the Oxford World Classics one.)

Middlemarch

The author of that web site begins by noting someone's assertion that Middlemarch may destroy your book club. I can see how it might. It is a very long book (800 pages in the edition I read), and it's not easy reading: the narrator, and many of the characters as well, lean toward very long and complex sentences with subtle meanings which often required two or three readings for me. And there are a lot of characters to be kept in mind. I didn't find any of this excessively burdensome; in fact it's the quality of the prose in general that's the essence of the book's great delights. But some may find it so.

One last note: I'm struck by the concern of most of the characters with their personal honor. It is considered an intolerable blight on their reputations even to be put in a light where it would be plausible to suspect them of anything dishonorable. Now the predominant type of our culture is the one described by Yeats:

Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors' eyes

As soon as I'd finished the book I was tempted to watch the 1994 BBC dramatization. I say "tempted" because I was wary of having my perception of the book damaged by badly-chosen actors and interpretations. I did fairly soon give in to the temptation, and was not sorry. No dramatization could possibly be a substitute for the book, for reasons that should be obvious from what I've said. But this one is quite respectable and I wouldn't warn anyone away from it. 

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I am pretty sure that you just weren't ready for Silas Marner yet. I have liked everything I have ever read by George Eliot. I'm in the middle of reading Silas Marner now. This may be the third time I have read it.

AMDG

I'm sure that's true but it's probably even more significant that I didn't even get a clear impression of it. The more I think about it, the more I think that Classics Illustrated quasi-memory may be all there was.

"the novel has essentially no vertical dimension. It's all horizontal, all of this world. "

I wonder if perhaps this is one reason why I didn't care for it. In my favorite fiction writers, as in most of the fiction I read, there is a vertical dimension, or at least the presumption of one. I think my reading history has tuned me to it, and when I don't sense it I feel that something is lacking. I don't mean this as a judgment one way or the other but simply as an observation.

In general I feel the same. It's a lack I feel in a lot of art, really. But for me Middlemarch overcomes that deficiency.

There's a town here in New Zealand named Middlemarch, it's in the South Island about 50 miles away from me. How it got the name is unclear, but it's possible that the wife of the man who owned the land it was built on named it after the novel.

It's great to hear from you. Been wondering if you're ok.

I think I read that Eliot made up the name, which would certainly suggest that the town was named after the novel.

The first sentence has always confused me, Mac. What does "thrown into relief" mean? I've never known. When I read the novel I had to just bypass that first sentence and realize that in the great scheme of things it just doesn't matter. ;-)

I take it to mean "she had the kind of beauty which is enhanced by the contrast with poor dress." I wondered what "poor dress" might mean, and the rest of the paragraph suggests that it only means "plain." No "frippery." So that would make sense.

Lily James in a sweatshirt, maybe? :-) I had never heard of her (that I recall) until a couple of days ago when I watched The Dig.

Now I understand. Lily James in a sweatshirt that has perhaps been used for painting, or working outside. LOL Mac, she was in Downton Abbey! The young free-spirited niece. :)

I had forgotten the young free-spirited niece...didn't she come and go within a few episodes? But I saw Carson in a pre-Downton Abbey BBC mystery series recently. And have seen the sort of shy nerdy butler/footman in several. And Anna as a sort of wild partying young woman--actually both that young woman and her younger sister. It was almost the end of the show before I figured out why she seemed familiar. And have seen Bates in at least one show of that type. For some reason I get a kick out of seeing these less-famous actors popping up in these shows.

Frequently as with Anna I can't figure out at first where I've seen them. Last night, for instance, I kept thinking that the devastated mother of a murdered girl seemed familiar. Toward the end of the show I had a suspicion but had to go to Wikipedia to find out for sure: yes, she was Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies, Imelda Staunton. I love the way really skilled actors can become such totally different people.

"the devastated mother of a murdered girl...Imelda Staunton"

Sounds like you're watching A Confession. I watched that a few weeks ago -- very good.

Staunton's been in a ton of stuff -- she's a sort of female Derek Jacobi. Her husband Jim Carter is an actor as well. You may not know the name but once you see him it's like, "Oh yeah, that guy!"

Yes, it was A Confession. Finished it last night, and it was good. Since it's supposed to be an accurate dramatization of a true story (i.e. not "based on"), I had to check Wikipedia to see how accurate it was, and as far as I could tell they did stick very closely to the facts.

No, I didn't recognize Jim Carter's name, but one look at his face was sufficient: he's the Carson I mentioned.

"one look at his face was sufficient: he's the Carson I mentioned."

Ah, I see. I didn't watch D.A. so I've only seen him in other things.

A lot of well-known actors appear in 80s and 90s Brit TV shows. I was often pleased by all the now-famous actors who appeared in Morse and Prime Suspect when they were young and not-yet-famous.

I was watching The Avengers not long ago and was surprised to see very young versions of Charlotte Rampling, Brian Blessed, and Donald Sutherland -- all in the same episode!

Marianne,

Yes, it is nice to see you again. We have missed you.

I just finished reading Silas Marner, for the second, or maybe third time. I am envisioning what the Classic Comics version must look like, and thinking how bad it must be.

I don't think you will find this one to be without a vertical dimension. She doesn't absolutely come down on the side of God, but He does play a part in the narrative, and she isn't dead set against Him.

I heard in a podcast that she very much liked The Imitation of Christ, and any negativity towards religion in the book is directed towards the Christians themselves rather than the idea of Christianity.

AMDG

Your last statement is more or less true of Middlemarch. She's pretty much silent on any actual doctrines. But I wouldn't say God plays any part in the story.

Things happen in SM that are very providential. I think she leaves it open as to whether or not actual Providence is responsible. To a believer, it seems impossible that these things happen by chance. There is certainly a thread if redemption.

AMDG

If the link below works it will show you what the Classics Illustrated version of Silas Marner looked like.

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51+XpLv69OL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

I'll eventually read it (the novel, not the comic).

Adam Bede is quite religious in its plot, Mac.

Have either of you read The Mill on the Floss? I discovered that I have a copy of it so it may be the next one I read.

Yes. It is real good too. I'm of the mind you can't go wrong with Eliot. That said, I've only read the "big 4": Middlemarch, Silas Marner, Adam Bede, and The Mill on the Floss. I do have a copy of Daniel Deronda, but for some reason have not yet indulged. It strikes me at how different each of the stories is...Mill is about a brother and sister.

There was a dramatization of Daniel Deronda on PBS a while back. I watched it but it apparently didn't make much of an impression, as I've almost entirely forgotten it.

Hi, Janet. I've been here all the time, just haven't had a heck of a lot to say. :)

By the way:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middlemarch,_New_Zealand

Interesting about the name of the town in NZ maybe having a connection with the Middle March region in Northumberland. Found a piece talking about that area that has this: "No Warden carried such a burden as those of the Middle Marches; it was as one of them said 'an unchristened country'." Wonder if that played into Eliot's choosing the title of the book.

It would fit, in a partly ironic way: her Middlemarch is extremely domesticated, and yet also full of conflict.

I wonder exactly what period that piece is talking about. Late medieval?

Rough place and times:

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Border-Reivers/

Just happened to pick up a book on that subject, The Marches, by Rory Stewart. Another one on the same subject is The Debatable Land by Graham Robb.

Having read about 2 pages of Middlemarch, I have determined that I must have only watched it. This isn't resonating with me at all.

I too, watched and have forgotten Daniel Deronda.

AMDG

I was about to express surprise that you aren’t sure whether you read it or not, but remembered I was the same about Silas Marner.

I have a bad feeling that the history of the Scottish border wars and anarchy may shed distressing light on certain aspects of American culture.

I was away from home for a while yesterday with nothing to do and nothing to read, so I used my phone to read the first few chapters of The Mill on the Floss at Project Gutenberg. I'll definitely stick with it.

My appreciation of Eliot is increasing with every page.

I must say that any woman who accepts a proposal like that deserves what she gets. I could barely force myself to read the whole thing. And yet, I can remember having quite a crush on an older English teacher once.

I love if that Celia calls her Dodo.

AMDG

Celia is a pretty great character in her own way. Dorothea's thing for Casaubon is pretty much crazy, and had me thinking that there would be a good argument for a very authoritarian parental intervention. Sometimes I think marriage is a pretty crazy thing anyway. Sort of like jumping out of an airplane with a 50-50 chance that your parachute will open.

I don't remember if I've mentioned before that one motive on my part for watching the dramatization was to find out how to pronounce "Casaubon." That bothered me all the way. Patrick Malahide's portrayal of him is really excellent.

So how do you pronounce Casaubon, is it phonetic?

I was afraid somebody was going to ask. Now I'm not sure I remember. But I think it's more or less CASuhbun. The whole time I was reading it I kept wanting to put the accent on the second syllable, and pronounced the "au" as "aw": "cuhSAWbun."

I think I also pronounced it in my head pretty much like you did, but the emphasis on the first syllable seems more logical. What a strange last name, I wonder what the heritage of it is?

Yes, I kept asking myself that, too. I guess it's French, and there are a surprising number of French names amongst the English.

Mrs. Cadwallader is a scream.

AMDG

Indeed she is.

A bit of an article about two classical scholars, Isaac Casaubon and his son Meric Casaubon, one of whom may have provided the model for Eliot's Casaubon: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3200/ANQQ.18.2.52-60?journalCode=vanq20

Interesting--thank you. Seems odd that a 200-year-earlier French scholar would have been a model for the very 19th c English Casaubon. Maybe it was more the general idea, and the name?

This is a really long book. I have been listening to it so far for about 18 hours, and have 16 left to go.

I am reading Kristin Lavransdatter, and it has occurred to me that while Kristin's father does everything he can to save Kristin from her disastrous marriage, and Mr. Brooks almost colludes with Casaubon, both young women end up in a bad way.

I had forgotten how Kristin drives me crazy. I want to lock her up in a dungeon until she gets some sense.

AMDG

heh. Back quite a few years ago when we were discussing Kristin here, you quoted one of your daughters as saying "Kristen was a brat." Indeed. There is a great quote from Undset somewhere about "us", meaning the human race, doing such stupid things to mess up our lives.

I'm reading The Mill on the Floss and loving it, though not as much as Middlemarch.

I could have sworn I had a copy of that and saw it recently. If I did, it has disappeared.

AMDG

I just finished Houellebecq's Serotonin and immediately got the urge to read some Dostoevsky. I picked up Devils, which I last read in 2012, this time in a new translation by a fellow named Cockrell. I'm finding it a very readable, smooth translation so far. In his translator's note he says that he tried to walk a tight line between textual accuracy and clarity/readability. I don't know Russian, so I can't speak to the accuracy bit, but so far he's done a good job on the clarity front. Dosty can be a clunky writer, but I'm not sure how much of the clunk one wants in a translation.

To my shame I have yet to read Kristin. I will try to remedy that in 2021.

There's a long article in the March New Criterion about Devils which has made me realize that I missed a lot on my previous reading, and also that I've forgotten a lot. So I'd like to read it again now.

Thanks to my having a functioning search on the blog, I was able to quickly find my post about my previous reading. Not surprisingly, it was longer ago than I guess--I was thinking 3 or 4 years, but it's actually going on 7. It seems I had some trouble with it at the time.

https://www.lightondarkwater.com/2014/10/dostoevsky-demons.html

As for Kristin: I bought the newer translation a year or so (?) ago, intending to read it straightaway, but have not done so. I'll be a couple of weeks at least finishing Mill on the Floss, and maybe will then start either Devils or Kristin. Tough choice....

I finally got around to Kristin. I was doing great with it, up to a little over halfway through the second volume last week, when I hit a wall and put it aside. All the misery and death was just too much. I think the internet term for it is doomscrolling.

Very understandable. It's relentless. I read it over 30 years ago and well remember that feeling. One thing that really sticks in my mind is the accident that befalls Kristen's sister...I think it's her sister... And I'm not sure where in the book that happens. Relatively early I would think.

Master of Hestviken is that way, too, though maybe not as much.

I'll have to read that N.C. article on Dostoevsky if it's online. There was a good one on him in the January or February issue as well.

Has anyone ever read In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse? It's set in medieval France and was written in 1949, but not translated into English (from Dutch) until '89. I came across a copy not long ago and bought it, but I can't for the life of me remember who recommended it to me or how I heard about it. It's been on one of my 'to read' lists probably since the early 90's.

I haven't read it or even heard of it as far as I can recall. Searching the blog doesn't turn up any references.

Here's the URL for the NC article. As far as I can tell it's not subscriber-only.

https://newcriterion.com/issues/2021/3/demons-at-150

Thanks -- I'll check it out.

I like Master of Hestviken better.

These people in Middlemarch are killing me. Sometimes I almost find myself praying for them. Just over 100 pages to go.

AMDG

Mill on the Floss is doing the same to me, and I'm only halfway through.

While Eliot is very sympathetic to women of great talent who are stifled by the social and cultural restrictions on them, she's equally rough on others. There's one in this book who's pretty much a monster.

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