Having been housebound for the past two days, I was able to read this remarkable book about a family of fourteen, twelve children, of which six–six!–of the sons became schizophrenic in their teens and twenties. An amazing feat of research which follows the family’s story, as well as those of the doctors working to understand this puzzling, difficult and disabling disease.
The stand out here, was of course, Middlemarch. I had read it in college and remember thinking to myself, “am I really going to expend my youth reading about agricultural practices in 19th century rural England?”￼￼ But of course, it is so much more. Many people have called it the greatest English novel, and, to disprove this opinion, I would have to read a whole lot more English novels. So I provisionally agree. ￼￼
Last month’s reading of Faulkner required the antidote of Morrison, and I read her essays, and her first novel The Bluest Eye. ￼￼ Also of undisputed greatness–though censors the world over have been trying to suppress it for years. I doubt they’ve read it. ￼
The book that left me straddling the fence, wavering in opinion, and wondering about its suitability for prize-winning￼, ￼was the International Booker Prize winner, The Discomfort of Evening–which announcement and ￼ceremony I accidentally happened upon as it was taking place live￼ online. Prizes invite dispute, which enlivens book reading in general, so I welcome them.￼￼ The book was great, but green. ￼￼I was amazed to learn that the distinguished judges read all the contenders, starting with 128 books.
And if you haven’t already read Signs Preceding the End of the World, run don’t walk to your local bookstore, and pick it up curbside. ￼
Occasionally, in literature, good men appear. I am thinking of Martin Cunningham, in Ulysses, who always had something kind to say on behalf of Leopold Bloom. And here in Middlemarch I encountered another one.
The good Caleb Garth, whose kind nature was exploited by the n’er-do-well spendthrift and gambler Fred Vincy, who impoverished his family and expunged their savings–Garth is offered his old job back, as the manager of the farmland for the local gentry, and he has this to say:
“…it’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business; to have a chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle, as they say, and putting men into the right way with their farming, and getting a bit of good contriving and solid building done that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for. I’d sooner have it than a fortune. I hold it the most honorable work that is. … it’s a great gift of God, Susan. “￼
“That It is, Caleb,” said his wife, with answering fervor. “And it will be a blessing to your children to have had a father who did such work: the father whose good work remains though his name may be forgotten.”
It is because criminals are occupying the highest offices in the nation, because the gangrene of corruption has spread to the furthest corners of America, ￼because we are so endlessly subjected to the most repugnant appalling and reprehensible behavior￼–that this stood out so much for me￼￼: the modest but deep satisfaction that comes from honest work, giving much and leaving things better than they were found. ￼￼
￼Middlemarch is the story of a town, a community, a civil society, and its various personalities, their struggles with each other and themselves, ￼and their eventual fates. Their responses to cultural change, the introduction of new technologies and scientific discoveries. The perspectives of both maids and Lords. And one of the terrible things I realized as I read this book is that, in America, we no longer seem to be￼ living in a civil society. We’re being told that we don’t have it, and can’t.
In a civil society, there’s a sense of trust, fellowship, and solidarity. Even with deep disagreement, and political conflict–which are unfolding in Middlemarch in these chapters–all townspeople and members of the civil society, from the snobbiest Baron, to the filthiest farmhand, grant dignity, humanity and self worth to one another. ￼Discussion, irritation and exasperation results from differing points of view–but not hatred, contempt, violence or dismissal. The book shows arguments between opposed parties that are not inflammatory. Respect prevails. Any position counter to that of another, any dispute, any selfishness is superseded by that person’s membership in this community, town and society.
Which is still mostly the case in the United States, and in spite of our differences, we mostly agree. So why don’t we bring public conversations back around to the temper and mood of conversations the people are having in Middlemarch? Where has our civil society gone? ￼How do we get to a Middlemarch of our own?￼
Proceeding apace! After the evocative gothic image of the sanctimonious peaches-and-cream maiden marrying the cadaverous Casaubon, Middlemarch has quickly devolved into a village comedy with all the usual types: the aunt busybody, the congenial parson, the young rake, the dull but earnest suitor. I’m a jaded English Lit major, and have never been a fan of the Marriage Plot, general in 19th century novels, unless there is, say, a madwoman in the attic or an egregious breach of manners, say, nakedness in the drawing room. It’s all too genteel and proper, and I await some grisly murder or monstrous betrayal beneath the scrim of politesse. There was a recent interview with Emma Cline, whose first novel was The Girls, about a Manson-like murderer with a cult of young women. She has recently written a story from the perspective of a Weinstein-like protagonist, and her interviewer suggested there might be something wrong with presenting a predator and criminal in a way that might make him sympathetic. Cline rightly retorted that monsters and madmen are better subjects for stories than the upright and respectable, and doesn’t humanizing them serve us all better, enabling us to finally see them? I agree. Unless, say, the subject is repression itself. I’m thinking of Anita Brookner novels, or The Remains of the Day. There are no hard and fast rules anywhere in literature. But are we, with Middlemarch, headed towards Anna Karenina on the train tracks? The Ace of Hearts at the end of Tess of the d’Urbervilles? I know where this is going, I’ve read it already, and every other one of these Marriage Plot books. The women cannot win.
Except, have you heard of Miss Marjoribanks, by Margaret Oliphant? I hadn’t either, until today’s London Review of Books arrived in the mail and I read this article by Tom Crewe, where he writes:
“The novel tells the story of Miss Marjoribanks, and of her return, after finishing her schooling, to live with her widowed father in Carlingford, where already
preparations and presentiments had taken vague possession of the mind of the town, as has always been observed to be the case before a great revolution, or when a man destined to put his mark on his generation, as the newspapers say, is about to appear. To be sure, it was not a man this time, but Miss Marjoribanks; but the atmosphere thrilled and trembled to the advent of the new luminary all the same.”
Doesn’t this sound good? Read on, that article has choice excerpts. Miss Marjoribanks never gets married! Or does she? I have ordered a copy. Apparently Mrs. Oliphant wrote 98 books, so this may be the start of something I can’t finish. But first, let’s find out what happens to Dorothea Brooke. I have forgotten the details. It’s not looking good for her, let’s all agree.
And before I go, I quite enjoyed Chapter 13, and the argument between Mr. Vincy and Mr. Bulstrode, with its suppressed insult, insinuation, veiled threat and oblique jabs. So English. Bulstrode is emerging as a villain, a character it gives one pleasure to detest. If the result of all this repression is vicious and amusing banter, and elegant eviscerations, OK OK, I’m along for the ride.
Middlemarch, like many many-paged books, seems to be a top candidate for lockdown reading these days, 819 pages in my Penguin edition. I just read the long, dense, and repetitive Absalom, Absalom again, it being timely, given that it is about how great wealth and power requires the exploitation and degradation of women and black people–and by extension, all people of color, children and non-hegemons–but more on that book later. If you’ve decided to read a big book, by all means, leave us a comment and let us know what it is. A few friends of mine turned out to be reading Middlemarch too. Hooray! We will read together.
I’ve already read Middlemarch though. I read it in college for a Victorian lit class, but I remembered very little about it other than that I’d disliked it. I’d skimmed. And when I read the first 50 pages, I remembered why. Dorothea Brooke’s youth and beauty are extensively described in the opening chapter, as well as her priggishness and sanctimony. She has an admirable desire to live the life of the mind, and learn from brilliant scholars, and this is what leads her to marrying, against the hopes and advice of the surrounding community , the Reverend Edward Casaubon. He is about thirty years older than she is, near 50, and his physical repulsiveness and decrepitude is described by her younger sister Celia who struggles to hide her revulsion. He has hair growing from moles on his face. Fortunately she didn’t describe his breath, but it hangs miasmatically in the book’s atmosphere. And this is as far as I got, page 51. I am encouraging myself to continue after this unpromising beginning, though if it develops along gothic lines, well then that’s another thing. But George Eliot, famously, didn’t submit to the 19th century marriage plot so why does Dorothea Brooke?
I was also put off by discouraging passages encouraging defeatist positions on women’s potential and possibility. The prologue extols the admirable qualities and goodness of Saint Theresa, and how so many women are not given the opportunity to fulfill their promise. And what to make of epigraphs such as “Since I can do no good because a woman, Reach constantly at something that is near it” which precedes chapter 1, and casual observations by the characters that even a man’s ignorance is superior to a woman’s intelligence, whose intelligence is downgraded to “cleverness”, like a dog performing tricks? Again, George Eliot’s anachronistically liberated life could have informed the lives of her characters. Why didn’t it?
So, we have begun. I’m sure to discover what is great about this novel soon. I just haven’t yet.
Reading 1,046 books. In prison. I’ve often dreamed of having enough time to read everything on my list, but this might be going a bit far.