Your College Professors Lied to You about the Value of Middlemarch

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Be warned: I wrote this review before I finished reading Eliot’s other works. I contend that she suuuucks and is not the feminist hero you deserve. I have receipts. More on that later. What you need to know for this review is that when you consider Dorothea’s fate in the context of Eliot’s other novels and some of the bullshit opinions Eliot professed in print in her own damn voice, you will see that Middlemarch is not the crown jewel of a shining career, but costume jewelry sitting on a dung heap. Eliot sucks. I will prove it. Later.

Before I started this project I considered Middlemarch my favorite Victorian novel. Now it doesn’t crack the top ten. Don’t misunderstand me; Middlemarch is a great English novel. Truly.  But. . .it is one of the only books I admire that I have no desire to read again. I liked it less on a second and third reading. I’m not sure I will ever make a fourth attempt.

Let’s talk about what makes this book great, then discuss where it falls down. Middlemarch is famous for being the first novel that follows a woman’s life past her marriage. George Eliot beat Thomas Hardy to that distinction by two years. To give her fair credit, Eliot’s portrays her young bride with greater psychological intimacy. Given that the English novel treated marriage as the one great crisis of a woman’s life after which she ceases to be interesting, Middlemarch is refreshing and fascinating.

Dorothea Brooke’s characterization is masterful. I especially appreciate her introductory scene. Her more materialistic little sister wants to divide up their dead mother’s jewelry, a task that Dorothea has put off, because she’s too pious and unworldly to concern herself with something so trivial. Or so it would seem. After condescendingly acceding to her sister’s whim, Dorothea becomes captivated by the beauty of the gems, “trying to justify her delight in the colours with a mystical religious joy.” Eliot very effectively sets up the contrast between Dorothea’s determination to live righteously and her sensual enjoyment of the world.

Dodo, as her sister calls her, passionately desires a life of “glorious piety.” She wants to make a great intellectual contribution to the world. Sadly, she is ruinously limited by her gentlewoman’s education. She has learned only what was thought proper for her gender and is insufficiently versed in any subject to make meaningful contributions. So, she busies herself trying to improve the lives of the people who live on her uncle’s estate, a hobby the people of Middlemarch consider eccentric. The real tragedy of the novel lies in Dorothea aspiring to a “manlier” achievement than improving the lives of others. Why did we and do we still—among many circles—value purely intellectual achievement over social justice?

Amazingly, women continue to have meaningful thoughts and experiences after marriage. However, English novelists of yesterday were not wrong in identifying choosing a husband as the most significant moment in a woman’s life. Assuming that her parents were not excessively controlling, this was the only chance a woman had of controlling her future. Men of Dorothea’s means could choose their profession. Dorothea cannot enter the church or become a politician or a doctor. So, she decides her role in life will be as helpmate for someone undertaking the type of intellectual endeavor she admires.

This compassionate, intelligent and energetic young woman picks Dr. Casaubon, a shriveled old prune of a curate, as her life’s companion. She chooses not the man, but his academic project “The Key to all Mythologies.” Everyone in town thinks “No, girl. Why? Please stop. You’ll be miserable.” Dorothea assumes that they dislike Casaubon because of his age and appearance, not because he’s secretly not a man, but a dried-up twig that is incapable of love.

They both find being married to each other a bit of a pain. Casaubon has the gall to not see much value in having a lovely young wife. Tragically, Dorothea comes to understand that Casaubon is not the scholar she thought him to be. Casaubon’s young cousin, Will Ladislaw, not knowing how much it will hurt Dorothea, reveals that his “Key to all Mythologies” is out of date and essentially worthless. It is absolutely heartbreaking to witness Dorothea’s gradual realization that she has thrown her life away on a loveless, meaningless marriage. She didn’t know! She didn’t even have the requisite education to recognize that Casaubon’s great project was pointless. It’s horrible. She wanted to be married to a Blake or a Locke, but she ended up with a prune stuck on top of a twig. It’s horrible.

Dorothea’s secondary dream in life is to be a good old-fashioned martyr. So, she smothers her bitter disappointment along with all sense of self-worth and dedicates herself to the thankless and empty task of trying to be the best wife she can be to Mr. Prune. Seeing Dorothea as some sort of angel/Madonna figure, Will Ladislaw falls in love. This is where the book jumps off the rails for me. I understand why Eliot thought it necessary for her character to be otherwise perfect, except for her one failing of not loving her husband. Her point is that an otherwise perfect woman can end up in this situation, because young women were kept in such a state of ignorance that it was nearly impossible for them to choose a spouse wisely. If Dorothea had other flaws, she might be considered simply an insufficient wife, not a paragon of virtue who fell into a trap laid by society.  The problem is that paragons of virtue are horribly dull and out of place in a work of realism. Also, Will’s worshipful love for angelic Dorothea is a bit nauseating.

Eliot’s original conception for the novel was to simply tell the tale of Dorothea’s failed marriage. She then decided to add in several other stories she was working on, combining them into the sweeping story of a few years in the life of the town Middlemarch. She further explores the theme of poorly thought out marriages with Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. Tertius is a youngish doctor and Dorothea’s male counterpart. He wants to improve the world through medical innovation. As Dorothea’s energies are wasted on her marriage, Lydgate’s energies are fruitlessly expended on petty local politics and his femme fatale of a wife. Caught up by pretty Rosamond’s charms, he imprudently marries without the means to keep his wife in the style she is accustomed to. Instead of helping her husband, Rosamond mercilessly sabotages his attempts to live frugally. Lydgate’s story is tragic. If I’d written this book, I would have killed off Rosamond and married Dorothea to Lydgate. They are perfectly suited to each other morally and intellectually. I’ll never get over my sorrow over Lydgate’s fate. Instead, Dorothea ends up with Will, whom I do not care for.

Another subplot is the 1832 Reform Bill. Ironically, Dorothea’s uncle supports this effort to raise up the common man, even though he is uninterested in expending the time, thought and money to improve the lives of the people who live on his own estate. That is the most cogent point Eliot makes about the Reform Bill. For me, the rest of her treatment of this subject fizzles out without making much impact. I won’t pretend to be overly interested in Victorian British electoral politics.

Another subject Eliot dedicates herself to is religious hypocrisy. The banker Bulstrode brays loudly about piety and abstinence, representing himself as the most righteous guy in town. Meanwhile, he fleeces his customers and business partners, has a shady past and totally kills a guy. The last sentence makes Bulstrode’s story sound interesting and potentially entertaining. It is neither of those things. He is so tiresome. Every Bulstrode scene drags. I may have mentioned before that I have a hard time stomaching heavy handed expounding on themes that seem obvious to me. I already know that pillars of the community who use religion to gain wealth and status are horrible, immoral hypocrites. I knew Joel Osteen was trash before Hurricane Harvey hit. Sure, this theme was less trodden in 1874 than in 2017, but it still bores me. I’m not Eliot’s perfect reader when it comes to this plotline. That doesn’t mean she didn’t execute it well.

As for Mary Garth and Fred Vincy. I like them. That is all.

I have many more thoughts about Middlemarch. My copy is heavily annotated. Well, one of my copies is. I have a second, prettier copy that I don’t write in. I really do admire this book. It is mostly beautifully written. What Eliot does well in this novel, she does incredibly well. Her depiction of the consequences of bad matches is innovative and important. Really. This book was revolutionary for me when I read it in my early 20s. I didn’t enjoy it as much in my early 30s as I hoped to.

You might like Middlemarch if:

  • you’ve ever wondered what Lizzy Bennet’s life was like after she married Darcy
  • you like books that are good

You might not like Middlemarch if:

  • you have a short attention span

Final Thoughts: Middlemarch is a great book. It deserves its revered status. I simply have some qualms about certain parts of it that prevent it from being an enjoyable reread. Unfortunately, these qualms knock it down several positions on the list of my favorite books. You should absolutely read it, if you haven’t. May I suggest that you also read Far from the Madding Crowd? It also follows a young woman past the point of her first marriage. The themes are very similar. FFTMD is more concise and frankly more entertaining that Middlemarch, in my humble opinion. Just kidding, in my exalted and lofty opinion. No, I’m just one lady who was read a lot of books. My thinking on this matter does not fit with the scions who determine the status of novels within the English canon. Take it for exactly what it is: the opinion of one lady.

 

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Romola: George Eliot’s Fantastic Foray into Historical Fiction

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Romola, George Eliot, 1862

TW: rape

Mmm, George Eliot wrote a book about 15th century Florence and it’s everything you dreamed it could be. Ok, you have never dreamed about a George Eliot novel set in 15th century Florence. That’s ok, I made a wishlist for you.

Wish List for George Eliot Novel about life in 15th Century Florence:

  • heroine with a name that is somehow both very British and very Italian.
    • Nailed it. Romola.
  • well-researched
    • And how. The details of art, architecture, daily life and political life in Florence are incredible.
  • historical figures appearing as characters in the novel
    • So many. You may have heard of that evil Borgia Pope. He’s in it, kind of. So are many more obscure figures.
  • a tragic love story
    • Yes! But this is George Eliot we’re talking about, so the love story goes wrong in an unconventional way.

You don’t need any knowledge of medieval Italy to understand the story. Tito Melema, a Greek fellow who has been sailing around doing who knows what for years, makes his way to Florence after a shipwreck. Just like us, the readers, Tito knows nothing of Florentine politics. When he falls in with a savvy set of fellows who patronize the same philosophical barber, the fellows explain everything to him and vicariously to the reader. Thanks, George Eliot, for that handy literary device.

Wealth has become concentrated in the hands of the elite. The people are suffering. A French conqueror approaches. A political/religious movement centered on the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola gains momentum.

Sidebar: I just compared Romola and A Tale of Two Cities in my head for the first time and I will state the results for you. Eliot does a better job of weaving the lives of fictional characters into historical events. Yes, A Tale of Two Cities is spectacular, but it’s weirdly abstract given Dickens’ propensity for microscopic focus on his characters. His allegorical and apostrophic descriptions of conditions in Revolutionary France are stunning. I said “damn” aloud the first and second time I read a particular passage about hunger. It’s a masterful novel, but the lives of the characters recede in importance, making way for historical events. Out of all the characters in all the Dickens’ novels I have read, I care least about the characters in A Tale of Two Cities. Including whatshisname and his big sacrifice.

In Romola, historical events and events in the lives of the characters converge so beautifully that during the scene depicting Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities I found myself thinking:

  • I can’t believe this is happening/actually happened in the past. How crazy that this friar became so powerful he got mobs of people to sacrifice the signs of wealth they had accumulated. He’s running Florence now.
  • I can’t believe Romola’s vain aunt was so confused and frightened, she gave up her fake hair. Get home safe, auntie.
  • I’m very worried for poor Tessa, I hope she gets back safe.
  • Will Romola discover her husband’s secret?
  • Yikes!

I never knew I could experience so much emotion over medieval Florentine politics.

Anyway, back to the plot. Tito meets a beautiful young woman named Romola. Romola’s life centers around her father who is an aging, infirm, nearly blind scholar. When she meets Tito my heart swelled right along with hers. I thought “Yes, girl. You will finally have something in your life that brings you joy! You will get out of that dark study and into the bright beautiful world with this bright beautiful man.” I was so happy for them, but Tito is not what he seems to be. Eliot develops a profound contrast between Romola’s dutiful sacrifice for her father and Tito’s selfish shirking of his filial responsibility. He seems like such a golden boy, but one decision leads to a complete moral decline. It hurts to read. Hurts good.

Romola embarks on a transformative moral journey of her own that is not always a pleasure to read. Most of the time it is, but there is one moment that makes me want to break things. If I was afflicted with Bruce Banner’s condition, this one scene in Romola would make me Hulk-out. Romola finally sees her husband for what he really is. Distraught, she packs a few necessaries and runs away. On the road out of Florence she encounters Savonarola. The friar convinces Romola that it is her Christian duty to stay with her husband, because of blah blah blah, God, sacred vow, blah blah. Trash. Garbage. Smash it. Barf. Yuck. Shudder. “Go back to your husband” means going back to your marital duties. “Stay with your dirt bag husband who makes your skin crawl” means go be martially raped. “Go back and be raped” says the priest to the young woman. “Stay with him and be serially raped” said many Christians to many women throughout the course of history. How repulsive. This man has betrayed and abandoned Romola in every way short of permanently leaving their home, but she supposedly owes him her body until she dies. Garbage. Trash. Religion is mostly horrible.

Deep breath. Let’s move on. Despite this wretched moment, I became a bit obsessed with Girolamo Savonarola. The man, like all prophets, was a quack, but his fundamental message moves me. He was a socialist. He wanted to fix the problem of the wealthy exploiting the poor and he had a great deal of success. Then he was tortured and executed for standing up to power. How horrible. George Eliot brought him and his epoch in history to life so powerfully that I am very sad for this man who died 500 years ago. How wretched. His movement certainly does not meet contemporary standards of intersectionality—nothing does—but he fought for equality and paid a horrible price for it.

You might like Romola if:

  • you’re a student of art or Italian history
  • the thought of income inequality makes your heart thump
  • you love historical fiction
  • you’re ready to revel in the decline of a douchebag

You might not like Romola if:

  • you’re an anti-intellectual, free-market-loving, MAGA-hat-wearing turdblossom

Final Thoughts: What else is there to say? I love the book. It enrages me and saddens me, intrigues me and lifts me up. I recommend it. It is quite long and Victorian, so download the audiobook if you don’t think you have the patience for the written version. It’s worth a read or a listen.

Silas Marner: A Fireside Read to Warm Your Hearth and Heart

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Silas Marner, George Eliot, 1861

In the novella Silas Marner, George Eliot merges realism and fairy tale. Unlike most European folk tales, the story begins in a Grimm place and ends up somewhere homey and heartwarming.

The title character is an archetypal outcast, a weaver who, through the treachery of a close friend, is cut off from any avenue to human affection. Eliot describes his severely limited existence as the execution of weaving jobs and the accumulation of money repeated incessantly.

When a half orphaned, half abandoned child wanders into his home, Marner finds new purpose and his life becomes entwined with local families.

Silas Marner is a tale of second chances. Eliot posits that whether you’re screwed up or you’ve been screwed over, transformation and redemption are possible, uncomfortable and infinitely rewarding.

As in all her work Eliot is at her best when describing the English countryside and at her worst when condescendingly stereotyping its people. I could read page after page of her describing a flat, featureless stretch of land, but my eyes roll when she generalizes the characteristics of farmers. Her patronizing tone has some purpose in this novel, so it’s more bearable than in Adam Bede

Ultimately, Eliot creates a great deal of sympathy for a seemingly unlovable loner and the wastrel aristocrats he inadvertently becomes involved with. The book starts off a little slow, but my enjoyment increased with every page. Who doesn’t like a fairy tale re-imagined in contemporary times (granted contemporary for Eliot meant mid-1800s)?

You might like Silas Marner if:

  • you’re fond of outcasts
  • it would do you good to read a story of redemption
  • you’re fond of fairy tales

You might not like Silas Marner if:

  • you prefer tragic endings

Final Thoughts:

Silas Marner is an uplifting read, which is rare in the English canon. Authors usually chose to show how a character’s flaws lead to misfortune. Whereas, Eliot starts with unfortunate and flawed characters and shows how their choices lead to their redemption. I like it. It’s nice to read a story with an uncommon plot and an uncommon emotional arc. This is a great, short read for cozy autumn or winter evenings. I might have just convinced myself to read it again soon.