Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Book Review in Progress: Middlemarch

I am currently wading my way through Middlemarch by George Eliot (Marian Evans). I chose to read this book somewhat arbitrarily after I finished Anna Karenina and A Study in Scarlet (I had just watched the new Sherlock Holmes). Incidentally, if you're looking for a somewhat quick read that still engages your brain, give Sir Arthur Conan Doyle a try. There are endless short story options as well a full length novels (including A Study in Scarlet) and the premise of the Sherlock Holmes story is well known enough that you do not need much of a back-story.

At any rate, after surmounting Tolstoy's monstrous pinnacle, I freely admit I was looking to turn off my brain for a bit. I absolutely loved Anna, but she wore me out. So much so, that I even considered taking a detour into Forks for a few weeks but resisted the temptation (and the angels rejoiced). So after considering Chesterton (decidedly lighthearted with that lovely talent of turning mac and cheese into nouilles et fromage en casserole, which is, I think, a talent reserved for British authors) and Dickens, who is likely my favorite author. But I had just read Great Expectations by the latter and I'm really not sure why I passed up Chesterton but at any rate, after a few weeks of searching for a lighter, shorter, less character-driven novel than Anna, I decided to read Middlemarch.


Could I have picked anything less appropriate? Over 900 pages long, this novel is a subtle and quiet kind of story painted against the backdrop of the tedious banalities of a Victorian province, Middlemarch. An that is how the story feels at first glance, tedious and banal. I can see how this tediously banal, backdrop is essential to tell Evan/Eliot's story but, heaven help me! I have prided myself on my ability to endure what lesser folk would call 'boring.' I admit I was taken down a few notches, which is really very good for my character. I had to force myself to continue by sheer tenacity, but, oh, I am glad that I did!

This particular passage just made me giddy and I very nearly dropped my precious kindle and did a happy dance.

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman's "makdom and her fairnesse," never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of "makdom and fairness" which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires? In the story of this passion, too, the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting.

The appeal here for me is manifold, not the least of which is the description of woman's enchanting nature upon man. Liberated and enlightened as she may be, a girl still appreciates that. Vanity aside, the description of our romantically sympathetic nature delighting in the "twanging of the old Troubadour strings," placed against our relative disinterest in those other pursuits which, unlike Love, are won not by slaying dragons and seeking treasure but rather by "industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires" is positively masterful. Placing the two side by side as she does makes us recognize how we are simultaneously wooing Love and wooing Life and are dismally less interested in the latter.

She continues:

And not seldom the catastrophe is bound up with the other passion, sung by the Troubadours. 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 ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly.

That middle-life frustration that may or may not lead to the crisis is the fruit of just such a Scrooge-esque encounter between a man and the ghost of "Aspirations-Past." The real tragedy is not just the disappointment of a man's expectations but the realization that the world is utterly indifferent to it. Of course this tragedy applies to both sexes, especially today, but it seems to be felt more intensely by the male half of the species. I will not, at present, venture to guess why but it seems to make the sufferer even more pitiable.

She walks, perfectly balanced, upon the fine line between poetic metaphor and practical analysis:

Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions; or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman's glance.

This is a neat idea, the spread of conformity and degeneration of innovation through infection. It paints a more depressing picture than perhaps is accurate but is definitely a well suited backdrop for the story being told. So I trudge onward through the desolate landscape of Middlemarch hoping to find more pieces of treasure hidden in the dust along the way.

In His grace,
Sarah Elizabeth

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