Monday, July 19, 2010

Dispatches from the Provinces: Middlemarch Chapters 11-21

I am currently sitting in the Isadora Duncan suite of a lovely B&B near the Haight Ashbury section of San Francisco. So, reading the Victorians in a Victorian! Quite lovely. Up until this morning, however, I was at my parent's suburban home, where I read this second set of chapters where you start to pull back from Dorothea's story and get a sense of the social landscape of Middlemarch. Now, being from the suburbs of a Midwestern city may not be the perfect socio-cultural analogy to the Midlands, but it got me thinking about the Provinces, following from Eliot's subtitle "A Study of Provincial Life." Of course the hero's move from the Provinces to the city is an ur-subject of the bildungsroman and the 19th century novel - here we have characters with those ambitions who don't move or who move and come back: Lygate had love in Paris but will have marriage perhaps in Middlemarch, Causaubon looks foolish to the younger would-be intellectual because he lacks German, and Dorothea honeymoon in Rome.

I love the description of Lygate and how he comes to his profession: until he discovers medicine everything comes easy and knowledge is something you just display. Medicine isn't about position for him but his position in Middlemarch cannot help but be part of the issue: hence his plan "to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world." And his admirer Rosamond - of course her provincial ambition is filtered through him. I love the description of her infatuation: "a stranger was absolutely necessary to Rosamond's social romance," which had always turned on a lover and bridegroom who was not a Middlemarcher." For young people, so often the idea of romance is that idea of being someone else, of being someplace else. But the unevenness between the girl who pours all of that into the young doctor, and the doctor who finds her fetching but is more taken with his book on Fever, leaves us with our narrator pitying them both.

And Dorothea! You start off wondering how she will slowly become disenchanted with her marriage, and instead we have her breaking down into sobs on her honeymoon- the realization comes all at once, as the husband sucks the life out of Rome. Every provincial has that moment of realizing that, if you're looking through the wrong eyes, all the art and culture that was supposed to take you somewhere else can't take you anywhere, but it's robbed you of the fantasy of escape.

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