Saturday, August 28, 2010

Six Thoughts on the final books of Middlemarch

Last weekend I had a lovely dinner with my Middlemarch reading mates. I sped through the final books to be prepared, jotting down notes as I went. At dinner, I launched into an impromptu speech on the comparative trends in the 19th century novel in England, France, and Russia. This isn't really my field (I've never really had a clearly defined one - such is the beauty of the Comp. Lit major), but halfway through I thought, hey! I actually know something about this. This is the other side of the well-commented upon impostor syndrome common among academics: you worry for years that you're a fraud but then, slowly you realize you actually know what you're talking about, at least some of the time, which is an odd feeling.

Anyways. Six thoughts!

1) I loved reading Middlemarch but I can't say the experience was completely immersive - probably I'd need to read in the period a little longer first. Throughout my reading life I've gone through phases where I find it very hard to concentrate on serious reading, and others where I can't get enough of it. This is part of why I'm suspicious of the-internet-is-killing reading thing: in my experience web or channel surfing or what have you comes as a result of distraction, rather than being its cause. 19th century literature certainly does have a different pace - and of course reading it in one go is different than how the original readers would have encountered it in serialized form. But it does seem my reading improved over the course of the novel, as the writing started to feel more 'modern' to me - which is not inherently a good thing, of course, except insofar as it meant the writing was feeling less strange, with meant I was acclimating myself. I wish more writers wrote more honestly about their reading experiences - boredom, frustration and all - not the 'oh I can't concentrate anymore' self-laceration, but the foibles of it.

2) With Austen, especially in Persuasion, Eliot seems to share the fantasy (i.e. wish fulfillment, not necessarily completely unrealizable) that the heroine will win love through the force of her character - in this case, Dorothea's loyalty to Lydgate's innocence and even Rosamond's redemption. If love/marriage is the drama of women's lives, the least an author interested in their inner lives can do is make this a scenario in which she can act and not be acted upon - and winning love through a virtuous action perhaps gives more agency than directly pursuing it, even were that permitted. We see the other side of this in someone like Wharton - in The House of Mirth it is the heroine's character - or at least her unwillingness to completely corrupt herself that leads to her tragedy.

3) What happens in novels? I remember, years ago, watching Dangerous Liaisons with a good college friend and her brother. The brother kept saying "why don't the just drop the bomb!" He knew the characters were supposed to be doing cruel things, but it seemed silly to him that they did this through letters and mind games and not violence. And it's true: if you're used to contemporary movies, it feels weird, a world without violence where conflict must be found elsewhere, where the set pieces are constant: dinners, this or that person coming to call. And if you're used to contemporary fiction, it's the world without sex that strikes you: I mean, you understand about the Victorians at all, but how do you have knowledges about marriage without it?

4) People talk about Balzac as important in writing novels about money in a way that was previously frowned upon. Middlemarch is not really a novel about money but it is a novel about position and profession. Fred and Will need to find a position in order to win Mary and Dorothea and are held back by expectation and the meddling of their elders. Lydgate needs to be more successful to save his marriage. Causaban's scholarly impotence mirrors the failure of his marriage. These men's struggles for position in so many ways mirror the women's struggle for satisfying marriage and each sheds light and sympathy on one another's.

5) While Eliot takes on and in many ways achieves the challenge of giving a comprehensive portrait of her town, the working class characters and the servants are marginal and fall down. This is pretty universal in 19th century lit. of the canonical variety. I've thought a lot about why being an English major so often feels small 'c' conservative, despite the political affiliations of its practitioners. As a wee lit major taking women's studies majors, you're often immersed in something like Eliot or Austen or Wharton while your soc. major friends are reading about nannies. This tension probably led me to a lot of the ruminating on the topic of how gender and social class intersect, like I was trying to do here.

6) Surely when Woolf called this a novel for grownups she meant that we get at least three marriages at the start rather than seeing them at the end - though of course we also get Dorothea's second and Mary/Fred's first at the end. The postscript sums things up in a way that makes it sound like our narrator is talking about real people, whose lives can be summarized as by a biographer. Here we get and interesting caveat to our happy ending, a hint that, pace #2 above, it's not only a contemporary reader who finds marriage as a reward for virtue a less than completely fulfilling end: "Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done - not even Sir James Chettam, who went no further than the negative prescription that she ought not to have married Will Ladislaw." I can't think of another ending that makes this kind of gesture towards its own limitations, in a how many story lines we have way, not some meta-meta hemming.

So, obviously, I didn't read and write about two books every week this summer. But aside from Middlemarch and the three other books I blogged about, I read a great book by Julia Serrano about sexism and transsexuality, one of Anne Lamott's memoirs, and a book about teaching by a certain controversial radical Chicagoan, and I have a post coming up on Jean Baker's great book about the suffragette's. So, if you count Middlemarch as a couple books, it wasn't too too shabby.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Is it OK to be foolish?, in which our narrator can't refrain from television references: Middlemarch Chapters 34-42, Book 4, "Three Love Problems"

Poor Mary. When we realize that medicine is not a respected profession in Middlemarch, Eliot's world seems far away. But Mary's predicament, we can all imagine "And you see, I must teach: there is nothing else to be done." She is unhappy because "I am not fond of a school-room: I like the outside world better. It is a very inconvenient fault of mine." But the others ignore this, explaining instead that she must dislike it because she'd be teaching girls, who are of course, completely silly and "can neither throw nor leap."

And Casaubon. Ah, poor Casaubon, Eliot keeps telling us. He's sick and in a painful stalemate with his wife and can taste the young Will circling Dorothea. It’s so easy to mock, the narrator keeps childing us, but we should have some sympathy for the man. It's a an admirable position, even if we sometimes feel like we're been scolded. I'm often not fond of satire: people say it's about our hypocrisy, but we usually mean, 'look at how foolish they are!" Baudelaire said, we laugh to feel superior, and this has always seemed to me a real and intractable problem.

Of course, Causabon’s suspicion of his foolishness is not harmless: he sabotages Will's desire to acquire a respectable position, and we can tell worse is to come. On Sunday night's Mad Men, the Berkeley coed tells Don, "But no one knows what's wrong with themselves and everyone else can see it right away." So often when we have third person narration, we feel that that's what's going on "look at what's wrong with them and they're too foolish to see it!" No wonder the pull of first person to shield these poor characters from such piercing inspections.

But it's just as easy to say that people can imagine all too well what is wrong with them, but must protect themselves or others from that knowledge. Thus "Casaubon had never put any question concerning the nature of his illness to Lydgate, nor had he even to Dorothea betrayed any anxiety as to how far it might be likely to cut short his labours or his life. On this point, as on all others, he shrank from pity; and if the suspicion of being pitied for anything in his lot surmised or known in spite of himself was embittering, the idea of calling forth a show of compassion by frankly admitting an alarm or a sorrow was necessarily intolerable to him." Poor sickly Casaubon (although as always with the 19th century, it's hard to figure out exactly what his symptoms are supposed to be) brings to mind another moment from the golden age of cable: Tony Soprano, in one of his moments of clarity, venting his anger at Christopher, says "I took pity on him. But people shit on your pity."

Our narrator is so very considerate and responsible in helping us to empathize with her characters and their foibles. But we still wouldn't want to be the Casaubon of this story any more than if Eliot took a more satiric approach. We want to be the center of the story, whose flaws are inevitably noble rather than foolish. Eliot is trying to paint a portrait of a whole community (and how much it takes, by her method, just to get one small provincial town - making you question those whole claim to capture nations), but she's no naturalist. This isn't Zola or the wire, where environment is all. Eliot believes, fiercely, in something called character. (Mad Men believes in it too, even though it's always telling us that it's an invention). And as long as we're in the world of character, we find ourselves jockeying for position in the narrator's favor. I'm not like that, not at all.

Of course, then there's Mr. Brooke, who really just is foolish, for whom the narrator makes no special pleas, and who is of course absolutely nothing like us or anyone we know.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"For My Part I am Very Sorry for Him": Special Pleading (Chapters 22-33)

(To the left: Victorian novel on the mantle of my bedroom in a Victorian mansion in S.F.).

My fellow reader has noted that he sometimes finds the narrator of Middlemarch invasive: he described her as another character. It's certainly the part that feels the most antiquated to the contemporary reader. The philosophic commentating of the Russians is more understandable to us than the character and situational commentary we get here. And yet. Most of the lines I find myself underlining in this section fall into this category. Witness chapter 29, which my correspondent also pointed to as a favorite. Dorothea is barely back from her honeymoon but already miserable enough t0 identify with the suffering evident in the photograph of an old aunt who had mad a bad marriage. There are multiple story threads in the book, of course, but Dorothea is a if not the central figure, certainly the closest thing to an Eliot stand-in. But the narrator positions herself in this chapter as the one who keeps us honest, who doesn't want us just to sympathize with the young Dorothea but with her not young and in many ways unappealing husband: "I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect." She wants us to understand his predicament, how he will give in to convention by marrying Dorothea but has no idea what to do with her, no idea that there is something to do. This is a result of convention, of course, but her judgments are also those of character: "His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity."

Elsewhere the narrator says: "People were so ridiculous with their illusions, carrying their own lies unique while everybody else's were transparent." In every other interview you read with a contemporary author or filmmaker, they talk about how they don't want to judge their characters, just to understand them. Now, if by this one means that you don't want to see them as simply bad and there fundamental different from the rest of us, or give your reader a quick dose of moral superiority, this makes sense. But in practice what it means is that the author will not trust herself with the non-moralizing kind of judgment, that is, discerning observation that looks at the character from the outside. Without this it's hard to have something like Austen's piercing but compassionate satire. (And of course, certain kinds of description, interior monologue and characterization invite the reader to far harsher and less compassionate judgement than what Eliot leads us to, but with less honesty about what they're doing.)

A lot of other stuff happens in this section, of course: its title, "Waiting for Death" refers to the machinations as the family waits for old Mr. Featherstone to pass. But more on all these threads later. In the meantime, to underline this point, a couple gems of narrative intervention:

- "The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots."
- "For the old man's dislike of his own family seemed to get stronger as hot less able to amuse himself by saying bitter things to them. Too languid to sting, he had more venom refluent in his blood."
- And one she gives to a character, just for balance: "Oh my dear, when you have a clergyman in your family you must accommodate your tastes: I did that very early. When I married Humphrey I made my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn't have the end without them." George Eliot pre-channels Oscar Wilde!