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.

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