The Books: “Middlemarch” (George Eliot)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

MiddlemarchEliot.jpgMiddlemarch – by George Eliot

I finally read this monumental book – one of the greatest achievements in English literature – a couple years ago. It intimidated me. Or – no, not intimidated. It was daunting, in the same way that picking up Anna Karenina for the first time was daunting. Its reputation precedes it. And you know that you are in for a RIDE. The comparison with Tolstoy is deliberate. Middlemarch – while about this one small town in England – and all its inhabitants – is actually about an entire society, and culture. It’s a BIG book – in the way Tolstoy wrote BIG books – but it is only big through the concentration on the most intimate details of life of the characters, and how they fit in to the larger picture, even if they are unaware of it. The books encompass an entire world. Jane Austen wrote great books too – but you would never have known about the wars England was fighting at the time, or Napoleon, or any of the other current events from her books. Her books are strictly interior books – and she excavates interpersonal relationships in a way that has barely been topped since. But someone like George Eliot puts the entire WORLD into her book. And it’s somehow still not top-heavy or ponderous! (Again: see Tolstoy for the similarity). In Middlemarch – we learn about land laws, and politics, and economics, and educational systems, and the class divide – the book also has one of the most perceptive and SEARING descriptions of what it actually feels like to be way over your head in debt. Lydgate’s agony goes on for chapters … and it’s a secret shame (being in debt back then was seen as MUCH more shameful than it’s seen now – when most people carry at least a small load of debt). You just FEEL for Lydgate – George Eliot lays it all out – the slow creep of debt, the hiding of it, the growing feeling of panic – the increasing sense of entrapment and doom … Great stuff. There are love stories in Middlemarch, of course – but – in her omniscent way – Eliot goes to make larger points about the society, about women (and how women not being educated beyond a “toy box history of the world” is bad for everyone – not just women), about marriage itself – through these smaller one-on-one stories. Dorothea Brooke is a TYPE … but I have to say she’s not a “type” written about all that much … and I often wonder why. I wonder this because I see so much of myself in Dorothea Brooke – she’s a cautionary tale, of course … AS Byatt (who is the main heir to George Eliot) writes about such types all the time … and convincingly. She does it from the inside, rather than just as an observer. She KNOWS that world. It is the focus on intellectuals – or, no, bad word, with all its connotations. People who are CEREBRAL rather than strictly emotional. That’s not quite right, either. But something along those lines. Byatt (in Possession certainly – but in all the Frederica Potter books too) looks at the experience of love through the eyes of someone who is mainly cerebral, perhaps over-educated, weighed down by CONTEXT – not able to come to anything pure. Everything is a reminder of something else … and so the modern-day experience of something like, oh, love … begins to feel second-hand, not to be trusted. This is highly specific – and to many people it would not be relevant at all – perhaps interesting to read about, but not reflective of their own experience in any way. But that IS my life. Byatt writes about ME, over and over and over. Dorothea Brooke, with her ideals, is part of that continuum – although she hasn’t had the educational advantages of Byatt’s characters. But she yearns for them. She yearns to live in the world of ideas. And her life is, on some level, meaningless – she has the opposite of the Byatt characters – she has NO context … just a vague yearning for a life that has meaning. But give her a doctorate in English lit, and put her in 1980s London – and she’d step right into an AS Byatt book. She would become ALL context and there is a paralysis that accompanies “all context” people. I should know.

One of the things that is so stunning to me about this book is George Eliot’s freedom in inserting herself into the narrative. There’s quite a presence there – a watching presence – someone who inserts herself (or himself – it’s not specific) into the writing, to make philosophical observations, to pull the telescope back, so to speak. It’s like you’re in the middle of a conversation between two characters – and suddenly – with one sentence – you’re orbiting the earth, looking down on all humanity.

And she pulls this off on almost every page! It’s a hugely philisophical book, meant to make you think and question and look within, and either go: Yes, I recognize that in myself! Or: No, I do not recognize that in myself – but I do recognize it in my neighbor … I had never quite thought of it before though!

A couple examples of the pulling-telescope back – but these are just two of many:

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.


Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common table and mess together, feeding out of the common store accorded to their appetite.

Then of course there is the humor of such lines as:

Plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science.

Middlemarch has it all. George Eliot obviously has some issues, shall we say, with the institution of marriage – and she lays it all out, to devastating effect, in this book … It is the opposite of “happily ever after”. And this is not your typical book where the wealthy are unhappy and the working class are happy … Middlemarch, on that telescopic level, is about the emerging middle class in England, the merchants and traders – and the upheaval in society that will come about because of it. It’s an examination of marriage, and economics, and religion – how modern transportation will change the world forever (Forster echoes this in his books, of course – but Eliot was there at the beginning – trains across England, faster communication – what will it all mean?) and then also – just good old observational writing … what certain people are LIKE – like Mrs. Cadwallader – or Rosamond (Lydgate’s naive wife – I wanted to slap her about the head for being such a nitwit – but again: who can blame her? Life had not prepared her for anything serious. It had prepared her to be a pretty little wife who cared only about silverware. She was an undeveloped human being, and that is what happens when an entire section of society is denied educational freedom. EVERYONE suffers – it’s like Ibsen’s plays). So in that way, the book is quite radical.

It’s also a soap opera. With a bazillion recurring characters – all of whom have journeys that are interesting to read about. It’s not QUITE a page-turner – because it doesn’t have that one thruline of a plot that makes you unable to put a book down – like Tess of the D’urbevilles, for example … but it’s a magnificent book, one of the greatest accomplishments in the English language.

Excerpt below. I’ve chosen an excerpt that is of a more interpersonal nature – Dorothea trying to be intimate with her husband – but having no idea how. There is no dialogue in the scene – it’s all just interior – and it’s encyclopedic. What we do to each other, the misunderstandings and misinterpretations of teeny moments … these things last a lifetime sometimes.

And I have to say that the line below about Dorothea: “for her ardor, continually repulsed, served, with her intense memory, to heighten her dread, as thwarted energy subsides into a shudder” – that line fills me with recognition, and despair … I know that. I know that feeling, Dorothea. If one’s ardor is continually repulsed … then you end up navigating your relationships in a state of heightened dread. And who needs that. Not me, that’s for sure.

Not that Mr. Casaubon is totally to blame. George Eliot is way too much of a humanist to take that easy way out. Dorothea Brooke – whose life has not set her up to have meaning outside of marriage – whose society and culture has decreed that she shouldn’t be too educated because of her sex – has nothing to DO with all of her ardor … except yearn for a husband who is kind of a father figure, a man she can yoke herself to – and learn from. She is looking for intellectual intimacy. And sorry. Physical intimacy is easy peasy. Intellectual intimacy? Not so much. This is Byatt’s territory as well … but Eliot just barges right into it, fearlessly, and breaks it all down into its components.

it’s just so ACCURATE. And again: the point is made: It is not just Dorothea Brooke who suffers because of women’s second-class citizen status, and lack of education. Mr. Casaubon suffers too. Neither of them can see outside of the box – and who of us really can, in our lives – we get glimpses maybe, of what else might be out there … but we are all limited by our own horizons.

The rejection of Dorothea’s impulses below sends a chill to my heart. I’ve been there, hon.

EXCERPT FROM Middlemarch – by George Eliot

Lydgate, certain that his patient wished to be alone, soon left him; and the black figure with hands behind and head bent forward continued to pace the walk where the dark yew-trees gave him a mute companionship in melancholy, and the little shadows of bird or leaf that fleeted across the isles of sunlight, stole along in silence as in the presence of a sorrow. Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death – who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace “We must all die” tranforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die – and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first. To Mr. Casaubon, now, it was as if he suddenly found himself on the dark river-brink and heard the plash of the oncoming oar, not discerning the forms, but expecting the summons. In such an hour the mind does not change its lifelong bias, but carries it onward in imagination to the other side of death, gazing backward – perhaps with the divine calm of beneficence, perhaps with the petty anxieties of self-assertion. What was Mr. Casaubon’s bias his acts will give us a clue to. He held himself to be, with some private scholarly reservations, a believing Christian, as to estimates of the present and hopes of the future. But what we strive to gratify, though we may call it a distant hope, is an immediate desire: the future estate for which men drudge up city alleys exists already in their imagination and love. And Mr. Casaubon’s immediate desire was not for divine communion and light divested of earthly conditions; his passionate longings, poor man, clung low and mist-like in very shady places.

Dorothea had been aware when Lydgate had ridden away, and she had stepped into the garden, with the impulse to go at once to her husband. But she hesitated, fearing to offend him by obtruding herself; for her ardor, continually repulsed, served, with her intense memory, to heighten her dread, as thwarted energy subsides into a shudder; and she wandered slowly round the nearer clumps of trees until she saw him advancing. Then she went towards him, and might have represented a heaven-sent angel coming with a promise that the short hours remaining should yet be filled with that faithful love which clings the closer to a comprehended grief. His glance in reply to hers was so chill that she felt her timidity increased; yet she turned and passed her hand through his arm.

Mr. Casaubon kept his hands behiind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm.

There was something horrible to Dorothea in the sensation which this responsive hardness inflicted on her. That is a strong word, but not too strong: it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are forever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge. You may ask why, in the name of manliness, Mr. Casaubon should have behaved in that way. Consider that his was a mind which shrank from pity: have you ever watched in such a mind the effect of a suspicion that what is pressing it as a grief may be really a source of contentment, either actual or future, to the being who already offends by pitying? Besides, he knew little of Dorothea’s sensations, and had not reflected tha ton such an occasion as the present they were comparable in strength to his own sensibilities about Carp’s criticisms.

Dorothea did not withdraw her arm, but she could not venture to speak. Mr. Casaubon did not say, “I wish to be alone,” but he directed his steps in silence towards the house, and as they entered by the glass door on the eastern side, Dorothea withdrew her arm and lingered on the matting, that she might leave her husband quite free. He entered the library and shut himself in, alone with his sorrow.

She went up to her boudoir. The open bow-window let in the serene glory of the afternoon lying in the avenue, where the lime-trees cast long shadows. But Dorothea knew nothing of the scene. She threw herself on a chair, not heeding that she was in the dazzling sun-rays: if there were discomfort in that, how could she tell that it was not part of her inward misery?

She was in the reaction of a rebellious anger stronger than any she had felt since her marriage. Instead of tears there came words: —

“What have I done — what am I — that he should treat me so? He never knows what is in my mind — he never cares. What is the use of anything I do? He wishes he had never married me.”

She began to hear herself, and was checked into stillness. Like one who had lost his way and is weary, she sat and saw in one glance all the paths of her young hope which she should never find again. And just as clearly in the miserable light she saw her own and her husband’s solitude – how they walked apart so that she was obliged to survey him. If he had drawn hertowards him, she would never have surveyed him – never have said, “Is he worth living for?” but would have felt him simply a part of her own life. Now she said bitterly, “It is his fault, not mine.” In the jar of her whole being, Pity was overthrown. Was it her fault that she had believed in him – had believed in his worthiness? – And what, exactly, was he? — She was able enough to estimate him – she who waited on his glances with trembling, and shut her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him. In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate.

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7 Responses to The Books: “Middlemarch” (George Eliot)

  1. tracey says:

    Sheila — Man. That last paragraph especially hits me. I think I need to read this book — finally.

    /In the jar of her whole being, Pity was overthrown./

    And those last two sentences. That is so exactly true; it’s searing to me.

  2. red says:

    I know!! Oh tracey – it’s SUCH a book. You would eat it UP.

    “that she might be petty enough to please him”

    I mean, the PAIN in that one line!!!!

  3. red says:

    Wonderful first line too:

    Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

    I mean, what??

  4. Marisa says:

    I always think of George Eliot as sort of the anti-Austen although their work was separated by the better part of a century. I have to go reread Middlemarch now. :)

  5. Bruce says:

    Anna Karinina, Madame Bovary, Pride and Prejudice… they simply cannot compare to the magnificent Middlemarch!

  6. Wren Collins says:

    Adding to the lengthy list of books I’ve read on your recommendation: Middlemarch. I’m just in awe. Like: how?????
    ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrels’ heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’
    I mean- what?
    ‘It went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.’
    ‘There are many wonderful mixtures in this world which are all alike called love, and claim the priveliges of a sublime rage which is an apology for everything’
    Genius. I’m 350 pages in- started it on Monday- and I’m just /absorbing it. I love Fred- that awful scene where he has to confess to the Garths that he’s lost their money- Eliot GETS this stuff.
    And Rosamond is a complete dishcloth, but the moment where she and Lydgate actually get engaged was one I found really touching.
    As for Dorothea, I want to shout at her but I also love her. Her sister is dreadful (or I’m resentful.)
    Also: Mrs Cadwallader.
    What an incredible book.

    • sheila says:

      Wren –

      I know, right? Isn’t it just … I mean, it’s so good it’s on some whole other plane.

      I need to re-read it – it’s been a while.

      Dorothea haunts me. I have a feeling that if I had lived then – I might have been something like that. I hope not, but I’m just not sure.

      All the money stuff in the book is fascinating too, right? It’s this brilliant psychological book about …. economics? HOW does she do it??

      I love it when you keep me posted on what you’re reading. It’s exciting!

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