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.

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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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