Why do I dread reading the classics so? Yes, they can be wordy, and say in 40 words what we now say in 20 or 15. Yes, they describe a whole lot more of the world around them than faster-paced novels (even my beloved mysteries can be guilty of this fault!)do. The very best of novels written, however, that have stood the test of time and are considered among the best - why do I resist reading them? I, who love words, and reading, and books, so much?
I am delighted to report that I am thoroughly enjoying Middlemarch. To my great surprise. I don't know why I feel classics are boring; it might be a result of reading too much Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway when I was 16 and 17 years old, forced reading in schools, years before I could properly enjoy it. Classic novels weren't written for children or young adults; they were written for adults to enjoy. Or maybe my mind was slow to mature, because I certainly read Agatha Christie, Mary Stewart, and Helen MacInnes by the time I was 14! They aren't of the calibre of classics, though, being written for adventure, thrills, and easy reading. Maybe this is what makes classics in general terrifying to the average reader, because they are boring for teenagers who are filled with hormones and their social circles, and are books written for older people who have some experience to relate to the subject matter.
There are subtleties of perception and portrayals of characters that can only come with experience and wisdom. We can see the change in writing in Jane Austen's work, from Northanger Abbey when she was in her twenties, to Persuasion, which was her second to last work completed, in her late thirties, and one of her best books, I think, as well as a classic of the English novel. That mature expression as she delicately portrays Anne Elliott's discovery of her own strength of character against what those she loves want for her, could only come after observation and experience. The same holds for Middlemarch.
In no way to do I want to give you the idea that Middlemarch is boring! There are turns of phrases that are specifically English and 1850's dialect, though I find this increases the beauty of the novel - it was written then, and it can't be more than that, and I am getting an authentic view of life as it was in a small provincial town in England in the early 19th century.
What I have decided to do because this novel is 688 pages long, is write about it a little every day or so. Instead of doing one long post, you will get my daily impressions of this novel, and make your own mind up if you want to read this novel. At the very least, I want to write about what delights me in this book, and why I am enjoying it so much. and my very real pleasure in discovering that the classics are not dead at all.
I will of course write about other things over the next few weeks! So there will be a journal-like entry about Middlemarch in my posts, so those of you who want to read about my thoughts can go to it, and those who don't, who never want to pick up a classic again, can skip right over it.
MIddlemarch, where I am: page 128, chapter 16.
I have met all the main characters by now. Dorothea Brooke, the principal female protagonist, intelligent, ardent, who longs to do something in the world to make it better, but doesn't know how to achieve it; her sister Celia Brooke, considered not as bright as her sister, but has better perceptions about people than does Dorothea. Mr Causabon, the man Dorothea marries, who is writing the key to all the world's mythologies. Mr Tertius Lydgate, the doctor newly come to Middlemarch, who also wants to make a difference to the world through medicine, both practicing it and investigating it to further knowledge; and Rosamund Vincy, beautiful, calculating, shallow, and her brother Fred, charming, intelligent, and a gambler. There are assorted other people in the story who enliven it, add depth and allow Eliot to comment on all the structures that make up 19th century English town life, from banking to the reforms in voting in government, to Rosamund's father running for mayor. This is a novel about people taking their place in the world, and how the world acts on them. It is filled with ambitious people and the lazy, the contented and the bitter. In the first 128 pages I have seen Dorothea and her sister quarrel and make up believably as sisters do, and the deep ways of knowing about their characters that siblings have growing up together. I have seen Rosamund begin to daydream about married life with Lydgate just because he is the new man in town, Fred ask for money from his rich, miserly uncle - and make no plans to work, preferring to have others support him. There are all sorts of characters in here, and it is delightful to see this English town spring to life before my eyes.
Eliot has richly imagined the town so that all the people know each other fairly well - as well as anyone can know another socially, without giving him or her much thought, because each is preoccupied with securing or keeping their place in the world. These are people each with their own life, in a town that if you or I moved there tomorrow, would still feel much the same in how people relate to each other.
I am so curious now: what happens after Dorothea marries Causaban, who has been a lifelong bachelor until now, and is almost double her age? Will Celia get the neighboring baronet? Lydgate and Dorothea, who if you read their character analysis you will see they are made for each other, both desiring the same things in life, have met and neither was impressed with the other - which is so true to life!!! Lydgate has met Rosamund and only has eyes for her, and Dorothea has about to marry Causabon. Fred has asked his plain second cousin Mary to marry him but he is in debt to her father and she won't while he can't support himself. And Rosamund has her eyes set on the man who can raise her station in life and hopefully expose her to a higher social circle. This is Eliot's plan, as she says in the novel itself: "I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web...." p117.
What I like best so far is that Lydgate has ambition and a desire to do real good in the world. I like this sense of purpose, a calling. Dorothea feels the same need for a calling, but she has few avenues open to her to even explore what it could be. I like this in these characters, I like that this book is about people wanting to be part of the world and affect it. It's refreshing, so either I have limited my own reading in the past while, or it's a subject that currently is only discussed in psychology and mental health books - that idea of real calling, not just money, but to do service, to explore and learn and give to the world. Maybe we have been guilty of limiting fulfilling a calling to ambition to stock markets and businesses, and we can see how well that is going these days. I have my university degree in English LIterature, which is of course the Arts, and if most of the Western governments had their way, the arts would not be offered at university any more. What would we do without a way to express our selves in the world? To reveal the world as it is, through film, drawing, or writing? If I cannot see through Eliot's eyes, or hear through Beethoven's or Mozart's, I am the poorer, and so are all of we. At least in my opinion! Imagining the world gives us all soul. To have a calling is to live with that soul. And already, in 1869, in Middlemarch, pursuing a dream is worked on by the world, so that it is the rare person who achieves anything like it:
"For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as their ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change!.....
"Lydgate did not mean to be one of those failures...." p120
That is one of my favourite passages so far!
And, of course, my dream, my calling, has been to be a novelist, so even as I read Middlemarch, I am in awe at how easily she writes about each character and makes them individual. I know each of them a little by now, even though I am only a little way into the novel. This is a rich novel, music for my eyes and soul.
And a last thought: maybe the books that become classics are ones that we can feast on again and again, that we never tire of because they reveal us to ourselves, no matter where we live, nor at what year. This is not to say classics aren't being written now, though I often look at the books being published and wonder, what of any of these, will we be reading 100 years from now? What will matter? i don't come up with any real answers, as I'm hardly perfect at picking books for the general taste!! uh oh, I'm already sounding like a 19th century writer!!
Happy reading, everyone!