Notes on Middlemarch

That Whitsun, I was late getting away…

Philip Larkin

Middlemarch ... New edition

I have written before about May’s skip-in-the-step. Over two or three weeks from mid-April the world turns green, a callow lime, then in another two or three weeks in mid-May the earth gets very warm, retaining that moist dawn chill.  Time was I would feel an urge to load up my panniers and cycle to a wooded area well away from London to make it with enough sunlight to pitch a tent, to make it to last orders in a village inn and be woken up under canvas by the dawn chorus. May in England was a happy interlude for the people between the hard work of sowing and seeding and harvesting. The pastoral exuberance became tied in with the church calendar, Ascension Day and Whitsun following on from the unwaveringly pagan May Day. The days off are still in the calendar making it a prelude to summer, when working for the man briefly becomes a sideshow.

Around this time of year a long time ago in student days I spent a weekend at the cathedral city home of my then girlfriend. That was the first time I met her father, an erudite, witty and world-weary history teacher at a boys school. He was enclosed by a scruffy armchair and engrossed in a thick, compact leather-bound volume. The book was Middlemarch, and he remained defiantly in the same position for most of that weekend, interrupting his absorption only for occasional barbed commentaries on the family activity around him and for a few hours on the Sunday when he drove us to hear Evensong. It added to my intrigue in the novel first stoked by my English teacher telling me that this was the best in the language, though it was never on our syllabus.

I finally read George Eliot’s ‘Study of Provincial Life’ (as she subtitled the novel) over several months of last year, largely while crouching for my early morning evacuations or belly down on my bed, head and elbows embracing my pillow, during the eyes’ and brain’s final efforts of the day. Occasionally I would sit in our own armchair in the silence of living room, may be on Sunday morning, before upstairs stirred. But I read the book in snatches of time, the short intervals between duties and distractions. Words imprinted in fast delible ink on my consciousness, before skittering off who knows where, like the surrendered leaves during last year’s stunning and mild autumn, the backdrop to my sojourn in the county of Loamshire.

What can I say which has not already been said and re-said about Middlemarch? We can expunge first all the superlative clichés.  Tour de force, masterpiece, being in the presence of greatness, inspiring awe and plumbing the depths of humanity.

Her prelude, which like most of the content of this long read, quickly forgotten, used the trope of Saint Teresa of Avila to forerun Dorothea Brooke. I was at first completely unsympathetic to Dorothea, with her puritan maid foibles seeming to cloak a hermetic monomania. Dorothea is the object of patronizing, hagiography, ‘the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp’ speaking with the musician Ladislaw in sad ‘recitatives’. After several chapters of Dorothea’s stultifying interiority, it was a relief to meet Mrs Cadwalader, introduced as the ‘high-coloured, dark-eyed lady with the clearest chiselled utterance’, and later described as having a ‘mind, bracing injection of acerbic vim and humour.’ This early heroine sprays about bile and sarcasm, some about her own life choices, having been ‘obliged to get my coals by stratagem, and pray to heaven for my salad oil’.

Dorothea had been steeped in Rome, the post-nuptial sojourn imposed by Casaubon, and suffered the disorientation that the city induces in all of us who live non-epic lives, with its ‘oppressive masquerade of ages’, ‘everywhere like a disease of the retina’. But through her intense though brief psychological incarceration with Casaubon she is renewed as the redeemer of souls, a craved-for bolt of pure kindness.

The author’s muse is an intricate galaxy, aware of the universe. She describes her undertaking: ‘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, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevance’s called the universe.’

Eliot never allows sentimentality to obtrude unchallenged by perspective: like when she deploys with exquisite irony the ease with which Sir James Cheetam’s overcomes the disappointment of being spurned by Dorothea, knowing that Celia would be a worthy back-up; like when she perceives how in courting you flinch from strutting to impress when you realise you may have given offence, with Will Ladislaw ‘taking the usual course from detraction to insincere eulogy’; like on the snobbery of Mr Vincy’s middle class, equating any former female teacher as a ‘woman who had had to work for her bread’; like on the tedium inflicted on the childless who are expected to admire ‘rapturously’ in the presence of someone enjoy someone’s (Celia’s) baby, like a model for Saint Catherine; and like on the clock-ticking intensity of the uncomprehending silences as Lydgate and Rosamond’s marriage degenerated – ‘the total missing of each other’s mental track, which is too evidently possible even between persons who are continually thinking of each other.’

Meanwhile Rosamond’s wish fulfilment is projected onto Will, in whose

presence she felt that agreeable titillation of vanity and sense of romantic drama which Lydgate’s presence had no longer the magic to create. She even fancied — what will not men and women fancy in these matters? — that Will exaggerated his admiration for Mrs. Casaubon in order to pique herself. In this way poor Rosamond’s brain had been busy before Will’s departure. He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui. She constructed a little romance which was to vary the flatness of her life: Will Ladislaw was always to be a bachelor and live near her, always to be at her command, and have an understood though never fully expressed passion for her, which would be sending out lambent flames every now and then in interesting scenes.

True likeability is only truly embodied in Mr Farebrother, who ‘without grins of suppressed bitterness or other conversational flavours which make half of us an affliction to our friends’, may be the only character bucking the narrator’s maxim that ‘We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.’

Of course there is irony in every paragraph, but it is trumped by compassion and sympathy. This is especially true when the narrator herself intervenes on behalf of the tragic half-villain Casaubon:

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 ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

I personally can relate to the delusions of intellectual grandeur which are the object of the narrator’s patronising meditations, as Casaubon vainly clung to hopes that ‘there might still be twenty years of achievement before him, which would justify the third years of preparation’, as he was ‘carrying his taper among the tombs of the past.’

One of the most poignant scenes in literature follows Casaubon receiving his unhappy prognosis from Lydgate. Dorothea, restraining her angry urge to lash back out at his cruelty, sees his frailty, and waits for him at the top of the stairs.

“Dorothea! … Were you waiting for me?”

“Yes. I did not like to disturb you.”

“Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching.”

… She put her hand in to her husband’s hand, and they went along the broad corridor together.

This is akin to Lear and Cordelia in their last moments

We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.

When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down

And ask of thee forgiveness.

The claustrophobia of relationships gone sour is mirrored in proud Lydgate and vain Rosamond, each deluded severally, though even at their lowest ebb there are little gestures of affection, soft touches.

And then there is Bulstrode, ‘his terror of being judged sharpens the memory’, so that ‘a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present… it is a still quivering part of himself, bring shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame’. Bulstrode was able to marry his religion with his business of profiting from lost souls so that by arguing that they were compatible, they became compatible. An army of misdeeds ‘like the subtle muscular movements which are not taken account of in the consciousness’ evaporated before the rhetorical question ‘Who could use money and position better than he meant to use them?’ A reasoning which the narrator points out is ‘no more peculiar to evangelical belief than the use of wide praises for narrow motives is peculiar to Englishmen.’ It is the self-justifying refrain of every millionaire in the world.

Dorothea explains her beliefs after the last vestiges of hope in her marriage had vanished:

“That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil — widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.

And she stops Will Ladislaw when he attempts to categorise this wisdom:

“Please not to call it by any name… You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life. I have found it out, and cannot part with it. I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl.”

Hearing from her uncle the fall from grace of Bulstrode and Lydgate, Dorothea was ‘full of health and animation, and stood with her head bare under the gleaming April lights’, and at the churchyard gate entreated alliance with Farebrother restore Lydgate’s reputation. She becomes the agent of regeneration as she rides to speak to Rosamond, at one with ‘the clear spring morning, the scent of greenery from out their half-opened sheaths’.

Later, as Will nears the redemption proffered by Dorothea, the narrator distils her formula further, – ‘pain must enter into its glorified life of memory before it can turn into compassion’.  Pain, via memory, into compassion: the equivalent of Wagner’s Parsifal, Durch Mitleid wissend, der reine Tor.

But Dorothea is able to go beyond compassion, after her last trial, a distraught night sleeping on the cold floor of the Manor,

She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving – perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.

This is her epiphany, seeing herself from the outside, part of involuntary palpitating life, and this in turn enables Rosamond to perceive and to recognise human kindness, unlocking the door to reconciliation with Lydgate. It is Shakespeare rewritten in prose.

To be reductionist I can say that the novel is a comedy. Like a new Taming of the Shrew, the evasion and courtship of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, in whose weaving dialogue, words are picked up like unwieldy tools, passing them back and forth turning them against each other. It is humanity in its various forms, no black and white caricaturing, weaknesses and secrets, all are deserving of some measure of sympathy, and the story ends with marriages  which both author and reader have been urging on, between Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, and with the resuscitation of the fallen marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond.

Middlemarch eschews Dickensian comeuppances, or the dark dissonant endings of pessimists and cynics. Life just goes on. Reckonings are mild and tempered. It is a pastoral Ulysses.

The growing good of the world depends on unhistoric acts.