Saturday, February 28, 2015

Thoughts on Middlemarch

“Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honey-moon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic - the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which make the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.” 
-George Eliot, Middlemarch

When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was actually a college professor taking a year off to rewrite the English curriculum for our school. She taught the AP English class that I took junior year.  She was an amazing teacher, and I credit all of my 5 on the AP exam to her.  Her favorite author was George Eliot, and we read Silas Marner in her class. I liked it, but it was always in the back of my mind to read Middlemarch, because I feel sure that was the professor's favorite book.

Although I was excited to settle into it, the first part of Middlemarch felt stilted to me. She is painting a very grandiose landscape of a town in England (is Middlemarch a real or imagined place? I think imagined).  It is very wordy and her characters are drawn as very uppity and self-absorbed.  I almost cast the book aside a couple of times, so fed up I was with this condescension and long, laborious, self-righteous sentences. But around the second book, there is a not-so-subtle change. And so, good reader, neither should you give up on George Eliot. When the setting moves from England to Rome, her words start to flow freely.

Dorothea becomes more likable, she fights with her husband on their honeymoon, but despite the character's imperfections, the prose is beautiful and natural. Her introspective nature is all the more believable and thusly appealing.  She is a rounded-out character.

The first part comes into light with receding shadows: your doubts about her authorship is resigned and you see the first part for what it actually is: the laying of a foundation for a great and glorious story.

Later on in the book, the dryness returns, along with a sprinkling of uppity lines. But it is accompanied by the gracious, beautiful prose. And even more importantly, not just Dorothea, but the entire story becomes more developed. She has created an entire town, full of issues, monetary quandary, and deep characters. As the subtitle ("a study of provincial life") suggests, it is an upper class look at a middle class town. The ending just absolutely sings, the dryness melts into spirituality and just a touch of sweetness... and it is worth it to read the whole thing to find out the ending.

I credit the dryness to George Eliot's focus on financial issues: gambling, debts owed, debts paid, and money given up for the betterment of the characters.  The plot twists are subdued- an excellent stylistic aspect- and I think the overwhelming detail is in the end worth your time.

I couldn't quite place the exact location of Eliot's spirituality- or the landscape she paints in the book- but I think she believes in the power of shining light into darkness, and the heroism of those people who despite pain and severe life challenges, make sacrifices that cannot be rivaled except by the saints. She is known, to the best of my knowledge, for all but having abandoned Christianity, but maybe she didn't, altogether. Perhaps we learn from this book that she shed its orthodoxy but kept it's basic principles of love, light, and sacrifice. At least I'd like to argue that she didn't, but I can't know for sure.

I'm thankful that I could read the original English text, and I encourage you and recommend that you read this book at some point in your life. Although not American, it is always nice when we don't have to read a translation!

“We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our hurts— not to hurt others.” 
-George Eliot, Middlemarch

Have you read it? What thoughts do you have to add?

read more on Middlemarch:

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