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Middlemarch Revisited

A friend reminded me of the artistry of Middlemarch when he mentioned how much he enjoyed listening to an audio book of the novel on his way to work. I had to reflect that I had read Eliot first fifty years ago, under a magnolia tree in Fordham’s Rose Hill in the Bronx, caught up in Dorothea’s story but equally aware that I had yet another novel to read that week for Dr. Santaniello’s English Fiction course.  So taking up the book again, I was surprised and humbled by the number of times I had to read the following passage, Edward Casaubon’s proposal of marriage (in letter form) to Dorothea.

I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (connected, I may say, with such activity of the affections as even the preoccupations of a work too special to be abdicated could not uninterruptedly dissimulate); and each succeeding opportunity for observation has given the impression an added depth by convincing me more emphatically of that fitness which I had preconceived, and thus evoking more decisively those affections to which I have but now referred.

The knottiness of this passage, reminiscent of the frustrating Latin of Cicero, whose periods made me weep in the frustration of incomprehension, works in veritable counterpoint to the fluency of composition – and the ease of the prose rhythms. Casaubon’s self-regard, rendered in the subordination of the clauses and in the parenthetical notes to his own assertions are all too great warnings against the very proposal that Dorothea accepts. The weight of the words simply and ironically crushes any hope of realizing the “affections” that he mentions but are somehow buried in the qualifications that he has laid out earlier.

Perhaps it is too easy to comment that novelists do not write like this anymore. But I have to ask if that also means that our contemporaries do not make the demands upon us that the great Victorian writers did?

Take this passage, an intrusion by the narrator which coyly places her purpose in relation to a predecessor, Henry Fielding.

A great historian, as he insisted on calling himself, who had the happiness to be dead a hundred and twenty years ago, and so to take his place among the colossi whose huge legs our living pettiness is observed to walk under, glories in his copious remarks and digressions as the least imitable part of his work, and especially in those initial chapters to the successive books of his history, where he seems to bring his armchair to the proscenium and chat with us in all the lusty ease of his fine English. But Fielding lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evenings. We belated historians must not linger after his example; and if we did so, it is probable that our chat would be thin and eager, as if delivered from a campstool in a parrot-house. I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.

Now this act of self-exculpation, the petty successor walking between the legs of precedent colossi, calls attention to the elevation of the writer’s own prose. She mildly notes the diminution of the graciousness of her times in the contrast of “armchair” and “proscenium,” “campstool” and “parrot-house.” Perforce, modern times demands a closer focus, a less wide or embracing vision of the world; but then, paradoxically, who can doubt the control exerted by the narrator in “unraveling certain human lots”? She has her universe in time.

Is it simply easier to surrender as a reader to such a presence, so assured in her place in the tradition of the novel, and guaranteed by the deftness of comparison and rhythm of the prose? The fictive god in her own universe dooms and saves as the burden of character and action weigh in the balance. Here a last passage, also a comment by the narrator:

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? If it happens to have been cut in stone, though it lie face down-most for ages on a forsaken beach, or "rest quietly under the drums and tramplings of many conquests," it may end by letting us into the secret of usurpations and other scandals gossiped about long empires ago:—this world being apparently a huge whispering-gallery. Such conditions are often minutely represented in our petty lifetimes. As the stone which has been kicked by generations of clowns may come by curious little links of effect under the eyes of a scholar, through whose labors it may at last fix the date of invasions and unlock religions, so a bit of ink and paper which has long been an innocent wrapping or stop-gap may at last be laid open under the one pair of eyes which have knowledge enough to turn it into the opening of a catastrophe. To Uriel watching the progress of planetary history from the sun, the one result would be just as much of a coincidence as the other.

We have here, clothed again in the language of almost epic timbre, the mechanism of plot laid out. What is obscure or hidden, given the proper scrutiny by the right interpreter may yield remarkable results – “the opening of a catastrophe.” We are warned of secrets to be revealed in the story. And yet this is cast again into another, more mythic perspective, Uriel watching Earth from the Sun. Milton’s Paradise Lost has the archangel unknowingly directing Satan to Earth, upon the Demon’s request, and thence to the temptation and Fall. How odd the reference here; the implication that the Eyes of God look on the decisions and acts of men as linked by coincidence and not Providence. How Eliot uses that tradition in subversive ways to characterize the fates of her creations.

All of this is to admire the artistry of the prose, the ease in manipulation of the long, syntactic line, and the power of the characterization of that line, both of the actors in the drama and of the narrator in her god-like role. Middlemarch is worth rereading.

About the Author

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.



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The convolutions of Edward Casaubon's prose struck me immediately as more than enough to squelch the interest of its target. But how different is its squirreling around from that of the narrator's (Eliot's) own writing? I say they are comparable, that  while Casaubon's style is an example of complexity run amok, Eliot's own prose is, sadly, an example of complexity showing off.  If the complexities of Casaubon's and Eliot's styles are commparable, shouldn't this force the conclusion upon us  that Eliot's prose is not among the greatest?

I'll take Racine and Hemingway, thank you.  Wanna know what killed the novel? Unnecessary complexity.

The novel's dead? I always read the obits, so how did I miss that?

What was she (Dorothea) thinking?  He was a very bookish and humorless religious scholar -- and on BBC TV, dried up, self-centered and prunish while Dorothea was luminous.  As I recall from the book (read after the TV series) the above passage fits him to a T.  It was what a person like him in that day would speak like.  And she didn't have the best opinion of herself at the time.  And she may not have looked like she did on TV. 

While I don't remember the quoted passage, I do remember a later chapter when Dorothea talked with the distressed young doctor, essentially doing psychotherapy 25 years before Freud.      

The psychotherapy session occurred in

Book VIII. Sunset and Sunrise

Chapter LXXVII

Abe --

What are the great novels that have been written in English the last 30 years or so, besides McEwan's Atonement?  I didn't finish Atonement because it was just overwhelming.  See? I do look at a novel once and a while hoping to find some, but I"ve always been disappointed.  What distinguishes the new great ones from the lesser ones? (Answer in 50 words or less :-) 

There's just too much great non-fiction these days to waste time on lesser stuff. 



Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”, Margaret Mazzantini’ s “Don’t Move”, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, Meg Wolitzer’s “Uncopuled”, any of John Updike’s “Rabbit” books, Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”, Colm Toibin’s “Blackwater Lightship”.  All them deserving of the adjective “great” (as in, they’ll be read a hundred years from now) and all of them spellbinding reads.

That’s off the top of my head but it should get you through spring.

Others that are great--and I mean really great: Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower; Marilynne Robinson's Gilead AND Home AND Housekeeping; Edward St. Aubyn's whole Patrick Melrose cycle; Caleb Crain's Necessary Errors; Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian ...

Ann, I kind of think that it's not so much that good fiction isn't being written as that you just aren't that into reading any of it. That's fair enough, but it's different than there not being any good novels.  I feel that way whenever anyone makes a "decline-of-the-arts" argument: no more good music, movies, or books? You're probably just not really looking.

Kevin  and Anthony  ==

Thanks for the suggestions.  I'll give several of them a shot.  I'm not going to try the Roth -  a bit of Portnoy years ago was enough Roth for me.  Talented undoubtedly, but too adolescent.  (Some authors fail by reason off character, not talent.  See Burgess' Enderby.)  I know the St. Aubyn fans are wild about him, but I don't generlaly go for historical novels.  (I didn't even finish Anna Karennina.)  Cormac McCarthy sounds much too violent for me.  I've read the Rabbit books because I think Updike's Maples short stories are indeed great, but I wouldn't call the novels great -- they accomplish in a couple of hundred pages what the short stories do in a few dozen.  Just yesterday a friend recommended the Fitzgerald, and I hurt her feelings when I said it sounded dull.  (She likes really crummy Regency novels.  Ugh.)  But maybe I'll look at it.

I don't doubt there are a few others out there worth the time. (I've been meaning to look at Charming Billy), but the trouble is I just don't trust critics these days to pan things that deserve it.  And I do read some reviews.  I even buy a novel occasionally (e.g., a de Lillo's and one of David Foster Wallace).  But mostly when I leaf through books at the library, so many of their authors seem to have all gone through the Iowa State Writers Program, or some such common regimen.  "Show, don't tell", "Speak in your own voice".  "Kill your babies".  Few surprises worth noticing.

But thanks.  I'll try to keep an open mind. 




George Eliot on a familiar social type in the age of reform:

"If we had to describe a man who is retrogressive in the most evil sense of the word--we should say, he is one who would dub himself a reformer of our constitution, while every interest for which he is immediately responsible is going to decay: a philanthropist who cannot bear one rogue to be hanged, but does not mind five honest tenants being half-starved:

. . .

"we all know the wag's definition of a philanthropist: a man whose charity increases directly as the square of the distance."

Middlemarch, Part 4, Chapter 38

Abe --  I grant you there's good fiction,  and  I enjoy a bit of it sometimes . e;g, Richard Russo.  He's extremely funny at times, does well drawn characters, has a "sense of place".  But shallow.  If he had an interest in the existential or the religious or transcendent or even just an interest in the deeper psychological parts of the human psyche, he might have been a great novelist.  But he doesn't.  So I don't expect him ot be around in a hundred years.

What do you value in a novel? 

The first paragraphs of Middlemarch...:

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor 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 social 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 favorite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.

... and the last:


Certainly those determining acts of her [Dorothea's] life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of a young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventional life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I have always enjoyed George Eliot's assurance as a stylist and psychological observer. Once you get into her linguistic groove, she's a pretty astute observer of human psychology with a special interest in religious experience, which seems to be an in her best-known novels.

I was surprised to learn that she thought "Romola" was her best novel. It's an awful hard slog even for a fan, the prose is extra stilted, and it takes a lot of stamina not to give up. In the first two-thirds, I wanted to smack Romola upside the head and tell her to grow a spine.

Then it turns into one of the most extraordinary conversion narratives I have ever read.

This is tangential -- about the absence of great Catholic writing these days.  Paul Elie, a sometime Commonweal contributor, has started a three-way conversation on the subject over  at his blog Everything that Rises.  The other two  participants are Gregory Wolf, another Commonweal contributor, and Dana Gioia, the poet and critic.    


Everything That Rises


Ann, while I have zero interest in laying out what I value in fiction, I will say that those authors active in the last 30 years who have meant the most to me include Antonio Muñoz Molina, Christoph Ransmayr, Louise Erdrich, Sergei Dovlatov, and--above all others--W.G. Sebald.

Thanks, Abe.  I'll take a look.

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