Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Middlemarch was hefty and glorious and absorbing, the perfect book to read on vacation. Well, the perfect book for me, at least. It's not your James Patterson. It's the literary equivalent of a chocolate layer cake. Delicious, worth savoring, but maybe not the kind of thing you take on an airplane.

Maxine pointed out to me that Middlemarch was a 'community read' at the Reading Middlemarch blog (which has now moved on to Tolstoy and Stendahl), and I poked around there a bit. Rachel claims that There are Dodo people and Lydgate people.

Dodo, Dorothea, is a higher-class young woman with spiritual aspirations. She marries Casaubon, an older man and a scholar, hoping to expand her intellectual horizons by helping him with his work. Too late, she realizes that Casaubon is more closed than open, his work is meaningless, and he is as incapable of entering into her goals as he is of consciously realizing his own deficits.

Lydgate is the tentpole of the second main plotline and Dorothea's mirror. A young doctor with great goals for reform, he is drawn into a bad marriage and political machinations that destroy him.

I am neither a Dodo person or a Lydgate person. I found both of them a teeny bit annoying. Dodo in her unrepentent idealism was going to come to grief inevitably; it's only by authorial grace that she get s ahcnace at a happy ending after her husband's death. Lydgate waltzes serenely toward disaster on every front.

The character who I felt the most sympathy for was Casaubon. Poor guy. He is as trapped by his character faults as all the other inhabitants of Middlemarch, but since his are intellectual and emotional he gets less sympathy and has less fun.

Casaubon is my personal nightmare. This description of him rung in my head for days:

He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life.
To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an
enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame,
and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too
languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight;
it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched,
thinking of its wings and never flying. 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. And Mr. Casaubon
had many scruples: he was capable of a severe self-restraint;
he was resolute in being a man of honor according to the code;
he would be unimpeachable by any recognized opinion. In conduct
these ends had been attained; but the difficulty of making his Key
to all Mythologies unimpeachable weighed like lead upon his mind;
and the pamphlets--or "Parerga" as he called them--by which he tested
his public and deposited small monumental records of his march,
were far from having been seen in all their significance.
He suspected the Archdeacon of not having read them; he was
in painful doubt as to what was really thought of them by the
leading minds of Brasenose, and bitterly convinced that his old
acquaintance Carp had been the writer of that depreciatory recension
which was kept locked in a small drawer of Mr. Casaubon's desk,
and also in a dark closet of his verbal memory. These were heavy
impressions to struggle against, and brought that melancholy
embitterment which is the consequence of all excessive claim:
even his religious faith wavered with his wavering trust in his
own authorship, and the consolations of the Christian hope in
immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten
Key to all Mythologies. For my part I am very sorry for him.
It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and
yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life
and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self--
never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have
our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness
of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action,
but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid,
scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would
make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon's uneasiness.
Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask
and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little
eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under
anxious control.


Maxine said...

I am afraid I could not sympathise with Causobon in the least. Not only did I hate his mean-spirited domination of Dorothea but he reminds me too much of all those cranks who submit manuscripts to a certain scientific journal and take themselves so seriously, even though their research does not build on any previous body of knowledge and has been done in isolation of other poeople's thoughts, contributions and evidence.

I think I identify with Dorothea because I made many of the same incorrect assumptions, and mistakes, as her when I was young, and hence cut myself off from a lot of opportunities I didn't realise I had.

I can never understand characters in books like Lydgate. I know people like him, I recognise the type but am not like that myself. I suppose I found him a bit exasperating.

I remember I read this book in the week or so after I had my second child, in a heatwave. It was rather suited to this strange time in anyone's life.

genevieve said...

Wow, Maxine, it will stay with you forever under those circumstances I am sure. One's mind can be unusually focussed just after a confinement (yes, it can, people.)

Agree with Mapletree, however - this is a fantastic description of the suffering of a scrupulous person, and a salutary yet warmly humane warning to all scholars to grow a bit of skin to protect themselves against the world, not use books to hide from it.
I especially like:
"his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: it was too
languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight;
it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched,
thinking of its wings and never flying.' Ouch. Reminds me of Oblomov in his bed.