Monday, July 12, 2010

"Her ideal nature demanded an epic life": 8 thoughts on the first ten chapters of Middlemarch

1) Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I had a certain teacher. In graduate school, the program I taught in had these peer mentoring groups, and the leader asked us to think about who our mentors were. I mentioned this certain teacher and there was an awkward moment: you weren't supposed to mention a high school teacher as a mentor. But she was. In any case, the year I graduated, she bought a book for each person in our class that, she said, thought of in some way as a match for us. She got me Middlemarch, which was her favorite novel. I remember her saying something about plowing through it when she was pregnant and housebound, and maybe that was the way you needed to appreciate it. Now, I've gotten through quite a few Big Books in my day, but for whatever reason this one has been on the shelf - has moved many shelves - until now. When I took it down, I was shocked to find that my copy (now broken at the spine) has an inscription from her that mentions my reading it "when the spirit moves me," so I hope she'll understand.

2) The prelude with Saint Theresa as setting the scene for Dorothea: "Her passionate ideal nature demanded an epic life . . . Her flame quickly burned up that light light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-depair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order." The idea of religion as an outlet for the otherwise unrecognized needs of girls and women is especially fascinating for me. In Mary Gordon's Circling My Mother, she talks about her mother's passionate relationship with various priests. In those days, she says, priests were the only ones who took a women's inner life seriously. Rationalists types (including myself) who don't like the hard line atheist line often talk about religion as a source of community, which is absolutely true, but sometimes we forget how much it's a source of/outlet for emotion. If you're young and passionate, God, good, evil, and all that feels the way life feels, that things matter, that everything is at stake.

3) "You have your own opinion about everything, Miss Brooke, and it is always a good opinion." Having opinions about things as a way of trying to exist in the world, a way to be known, understood . . .

4) Dorothea's desire to be taken seriously: so much of 19th century literature that takes on The Woman Question fights on this terrain: the question is women's mental acuity, moral nature. It's a question of fitness, about claiming a place in people's estimation, not in the world per say. I'm thinking of Margaret Fuller's extensive focus on what a woman properly educated would be capable of - that translating German is at the top of the list isn't just about class, it's about symbols of recognition. Or of the end of Persuasion: the heroine is rewarded in love because she speaks and proves women's greater capacity for love. It's odd to read this stuff in an era where defenders of sexism so often are the ones to tout women's alleged moral superiority.

5) Mr. Brooke: mansplainer?

6) Of course, 19th century novels with heroines most often end with marriage (comedy) or death (tragedy). That we start Middlemarch with Dororthea's engagement to Casaubon announces a different kind of story. I also love how chapter 10 ends with this understated account of the marriage: "Miss Brooke, however, was not again seen by either these gentlemen under her maiden name. Not long after the diner-party she had become Mrs. Casaubon, and was on her way to Rome." Maybe that's why my copy has a quote from Virginia Woolf calling it "one of the few English novels written for grown up people."

7) Dorothea's attraction to Casaubon and the question of perspective. If writers, filmmakers bothered more to look at relationships between older men and younger women though the eyes of the younger woman, we might often see what we see here: the longing to be taken seriously, for knowledge, and for some kind of place in the world, even though Casaubon is no world-breaker. But it seems that just as we get a taste of this, the perspective starts moving around. Even as our gentle narrator says, judge not harshly the middle-aged man's spinely legs, we see in their descriptions - his blood runs semicolons, something of truth. Not to mention: his big project is The Key to all Mythologies. He's perhaps a higher quality mansplainer, like Mr. Ramsey in Woolf's To the Lighthouse, who will get to R when everyone else is stuck on Q.

8) On Casaubon leaving middle-aged bachelorhood, and a representative passage of what's gotten me hooked: "Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment, and that large drafts on his affection would not fail to be honoured, for we all of us, grave our light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them. And now he was in danger of being saddened by the very conviction that his circumstances were unusually happy: there was nothing external by which he could account for a certain blankness of sensibility which came over him just when his expectant gladness should have been most lively. . . "

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