Thursday, 22 January 2009
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Middlemarch. I will never again look at the classics with foreboding in my heart. I'm not about to jump into reading only classics now! Not when I have 80+ books on my immediate TBR shelf! Some of which do contain some classics, I am happy to add. I am going to anticipate War and Peace with a lighter heart, though. And maybe even Ulysses.....
I feel like for the first time, I understand how great a 'classic' novel can be. The richness of the characters, the depth of their natures, so precisely rendered by Eliot, made me feel like I had just stepped over a bridge into Middlemarch. That indeed, somewhere in the mists just over there, lies this tiny town, inhabited by such a range of people that the town feels real. It's not just the characters either; Eliot takes time to notice the weather, the gardens: 'He found Mary in the garden gathering roses and sprinkling the petals on a sheet. The sun was low, and tall trees sent their shadows across the grassy walks where Mary was moving without a bonnet or parasol.' p 424. Families gather to eat, ride different kinds of horses, live beyond their means in a house they can't afford. The townspeople hold meetings, attend a rally, and we see the ranks close against what is different, or new. This is a wonderful, great, deep novel, that contains so much observation about life and people.
Look at how Mr Farebrother, a clergyman is introduced: "Before it ceased Mr Farebrother came in - a handsome, broad-chested but otherwise small man, about forty, whose black was very threadbare; the brilliancy was all in his quick grey eyes." I can already see him, and Eliot then spends the rest of the novel revealing how he is brilliant, and why he is poor.
This line is perfect: "But of course intention was everything in the question of right and wrong.' p 580. Simple, and clear, and true.
'"I know the unhappy mistakes about you. I knew them from the first moment to be mistakes. You have never done anything vile. You would not do anything dishonourable."
'It was the first assurance of belief in him that had fallen on Lydgate's ears. He drew a deep breath, and said, 'Thank you.' He could not say more; it was something very new and strange in his life that these few words of trust from a woman should be so much to him.' p 626 You can see the characters of Dorothea and Lydgate here - Dorothea being her passionate, outspoken self, setting out to see if she can restore Lydgate's position in Middlemarch, and Lydgate, too proud to ask for help, humbled when someone offers it anyway. That is the richness of Middlemarch, that these are ordinary, mortal people George Eliot is writing about. There are smart people, dull people, ordinary labourers and landed gentleman. This novel is about Dorothea and Will, Lydgate and Rosamond, Mary and Fred, and it's about love, and what happens in a marriage as two people find their way to each other - or not, as is the case with Dorothea and Mr Causabon. This book is like a slice of English society at 1830, which was Eliot's intention, and to show how the changes to the Land act, and Parliament, were felt in the distant countryside, by ordinary people. There are the old ways - the old doctors - and the new ways used by Lydgate. People who have always been Middlemarchers, and newcomers.
There is so much that is good and delightful in this novel, that I can hardly begin to tell you. Partly I don't want to give too much away for those readers who are reading it (Bybee! I'm looking at you!) or perhaps thinking about reading it soon, or might give it a try. It's a chunky novel, I don't deny it, but it doesn't read like one. Instead, it's like being immersed in a quieter time of English life, when the life in the town still revolved around the mill, the wool industry, as well as general trades, when the main purpose in life was to settle in a career one hopefully liked, and marry. Sounds a bit like now, doesn't it? In Eliot's novel, Fred, Will, and Lydgate are the prime examples of young men trying to find a career - only Lydgate does has a dream of what he wants, a clear career he is aiming for, as the novel opens. Fred finds an unexpected one that he does well at. Will does find his calling, which is due to the changes in public life. I can't say it without giving it away! However, all these careers come in the way it does it real life - some fail - Lydgate can't do what he wants because of choices he makes, that end up pulling him away from the life he dreams of, so that he regards himself as a failure. Fred succeeds almost inspite of himself, and Will - Will finds that there is only love, after all. These characters are so vivid, so much so that I wanted to yell at Fred, that I cried as Lydgate finds himself squeezed and squeezed some more until there is no room for dreams, that I longed for Will to do something. Have a goal, man! It is refreshing to read about the dreams of people setting out in life, and then seeing what life wroughts into them. It seems to me that novels have become smaller as the 20th century ended, so that a book wasn't centered around goals about making a mark in the world, it was about one's immediate world only. Middlemarch has ideas, and discusses politics (in a very amusing way, I might add), and the characters all have opinions - rightly or wrongly, they all think and have their own ideas, and it is fun to watch them collide as the characters intersect.
Above all, Middlemarch is about love, all the different ways people love, the quiet contentment and little discords that fill married life, about good matches, and about how people learn about one another. One of the best things about Middlemarch is that characters reveal depths as things happen - Mrs Bulstrode, who is Rosamund's aunt, finds herself faced with a terrible choice, and though it costs her everything, she makes the one she can live with. That part had me crying, in fact, a few scenes in the book had me crying. I didn't cry when Mr Causabon died, but I did cry before he died because of Dorothea and what she was doing to herself in order to make her marriage work. There are characters to dislike as well as love in Middlemarch, but they aren't one dimensional bad people, pure villains; they are are rich in motivation and they have longings and desires. Eliot gives them good sides as well as the bad. Even Ruffles the ruffian (I can't help it, she named him!) doesn't deserve the death he gets, and revelation of the darkness in Bulstrode is fascinating to watch. Characters are stupid - if Rosamund has a genuine original thought in her head, I believe the world would stop spinning, honestly!, they are mean to their relatives, they are kind - Caleb Garth deserves a medal! his generosity and faith changes two lives so very much, and affects a third sadly - I couldn't help but feel sorry for Mary Garth's other admirer. There are laughs, as well as tears, and Dorothea and Celia do come across as real sisters. It was just so refreshing, and humbling, to see how good a book this is.
I don't really have anything bad to say about this book. I have not come across a book like this in a long time. This is not to say we are not writing good novels now, it's to say a novel as large and well-crafted - a canvas of life - as Middlemarch doesn't come along very often.
This is a book I am so happy I read, and that I already love.