Friday, July 22, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH Thoughts: George Sand v. George Eliot

Greetings, readers! I am the crazy person who suggested we read George Eliot's big fat Victorian tome, Middlemarch. You might want to throw a big fat book at me now, right? Go ahead, I'm a fast one, you won't hit me. You might also be wondering why I wanted to read this book. The simple answer is, because it conquered me before. I am right around the crack in the spine where I gave up before. It honestly feels good to (almost 17 years later) be passing the mark where I lost interest.

But the point of my blog post today is a little off the beaten path. I was telling an English-major friend of mine that I was currently hacking my way through this book with a mental machete and we had a little mix-up moment. He asked me if I had seen the "cute movie" about George Eliot, at which point I was pretty incredulous. "Cute" is not a word Dorothea Casaubon would ever utter or use when talking to her crusty, pedantic, cold-hearted jerk of a husband. We quickly realized he had mixed his female nom de plumes mixed up! He was referring to the movie Impromptu, which is about George SAND. My next thought was, "Evangelical Mary Ann Evans clearly predates the saucier Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, right?"

(The French George.)

The pants-wearing, scandal-causing, Chopin-lovin' George Sand wrote her most famous novel, Indiana (1832), long before George Eliot wrote Middlemarch (1871-1872). I was blown away by this switcheroo. George Sand and her persona and milieu (Romanticism) feel so much more modern than George Eliot and her many references to Greek literature and Protestant Church history.

(English George.)

Both women were rebels, in different fashions. Mary Anne Evans openly lived with a married man and his 3 children, and then eventually married a different man 20 years her junior, while George Sand, a few decades before, was smoking cigarettes and hanging out with Franz Lizst. Most pointedly, both women wrote novels about the folly of entering into bad marriages for the wrong reasons, although Sand's Indiana was clearly much more "Escandalo!" than the often petty small-town machinations depicted in Middlemarch.

Just a little literary food for thought. Two women, both taking "George" as a pen name, both leaving different marks on the literary world. The works of George Eliot still live on, even if it is mostly through BBC adaptations (or in online reading groups), while Sand's are largely forgotten - but the cult of her personality lives on. Don't get your Georges mixed up ever again!

Monday, July 11, 2011

MIDDLEMARCH: Thoughts on Weeks Two & Three: Regrets

Jan van Eyck, Arnolfini Wedding (1434)

More apologies for the long absences. It's wedding season, the baby is keeping us busy, etc. But it's Saturday, the baby is in the Jumperoo, and it's time to get my MIDDLEMARCH blogging on!

Through Books Two and Three, it's become clear to me why Virginia Woolf said so famously of MIDDLEMARCH that it was "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." And why is it a novel written for grown-up people? Because the book so precisely depicts the regrets, disappointments, disillusionment, resentments, bitterness, and envy that suffuse grown-up life. The major theme of the novel, so far, seems to be regret -- a cornerstone grown-up sentiment. We regret our career paths, the first loves we let get away, opportunities we let pass, choices we did not make -- and choices we did.

An interesting example of this is the friendly Vicar Farebrother, whose obsession with his amateur collection of animal specimens suggests that he has gone into the wrong line of work:
"Ah! you are a happy fellow," said Mr. Farebrother, turning on his heel and beginning to fill his pipe. "You don't know what small items about a variety of Aphis brassicae, with the well-known signature of Philomicron, for the Twaddler's Magazine; or a learned treatise on the entomology of the Petateuch, including all the insects not mentioned, but probably met with by the Israelites in their passage through the desert; with a monograph on the Ant, as treated by Solomon, showing the harmony of the Book of Proverbs with the results of modern research. You don't mind my fumigating you?"

Lydgate was more surprised at the openness of this talk than at its implied meaning -- that the Vicar felt himself not altogether in the right vocation. The neat fitting-up of drawers and shelves, and the bookcase filled with expensive illustrated books on Natural History, made him think again of the winnings at cards and their destination. But he was beginning to wish that the very best construction of everything that Mr. Farebrother did should be the true one. The Vicar's frankness seemed not of the repulsive sort that comes from an uneasy consciousness seeking to forestall the judgment of others, but simply the relief of a desire to do with as little pretence as possible.
(Ch. 16.)

Farebrother seems to have reconciled himself to the path he's chosen, but is willing to share his professional frustrations with a near stranger like Lydgate. Lydgate, of course, is eminently happy in his chosen work. The memory of his opening an anatomy textbook for the first time as a child is recounted as a type of revelatory moment.

But many of the other adults in the book seem less than satisfied, thwarted even, with where they've ended up life. Casaubon is, of course, the prime example of this. His own creeping insecurities and anxieties become more obvious to the reader -- and Dorothea -- during the disastrous Roman Holiday. Casaubon fears that he will never live up to the image he has cultivated among others in Middlemarch: the brilliant scholar producing a profound, pathbreaking work. Dorothea, with Will Ladislaw's help, begins to see this, too. During her honeymoon, the full scope of her marital mistake begins to become clear to her:
How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither? I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight -- that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.
(Ch. 20.)

The preceding passage remarkably illustrates the suffocating, claustrophobic sense of enclosure and limitation that can come with the realization that the person you've married is not the person you thought (or hoped) he or she would turn out to be. In the time of MIDDLEMARCH -- an era before divorce parties -- such a realization would likely have been pretty devastating -- and terrifying.

Of course, in Book Three, we learn that Dorothea may find an early escape from the "enclosed basin" of her marriage to Casaubon, when he has some kind of fit or seizure in his library. The mercenary and always calculating Rosamond Vincy considers Casaubon's new illness not such a bad prospect for Dorothea:
"Of course she is devoted to her husband," said Rosamond, implying a notion of necessary sequence which the scientific man regarded as the prettiest possible for a woman; but she was thinking at the same time that it was not so very melancholy to be mistress of Lowick Manor with a husband likely to die soon.
Rosamond's rather heartless and cynical take on Mr. Casaubon's health is of a piece with the general behavior of the relatives and would-be heirs who swoop down upon Featherstone as so many vultures as he staggers, crankily, through his final illness. Mr. Vincy, we see, is positively giddy with the news that Featherstone's health has taken a turn for the worse:
He came again in the evening to speak with Mr. Vincy, who, just returned from Stone Court, was feeling sure that it would not be long before he heard of Mr. Featherstone's demise. The felicitous word "demise," which had seasonably occurred to him, had raised his spirits even above their usual evening pitch. The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action. Considered as a demise, old Featherstone's death assumed a merely legal aspect, so that Mr. Vincy could tap his snuff-box over it and be jovial, without even an intermittent affectation of solemnity; and Mr. Vincy hated both solemnity and affectation. Who was ever awe struck about a testator, or sang a hymn on the title to real property? Mr. Vincy was inclined to take a jovial view of all things that evening: he even observed to Lydgate that Fred had got the family constitution after all, and would soon be as fine a fellow as ever again; and when his approbation of Rosamond's engagement was asked for, he gave it with astonishing facility, passing at once to general remarks on the desirableness of matrimony for young men and maidens, and apparently deducing from the whole the appropriateness of a little more punch.
(Ch. 31.)

The themes Eliot focuses on in the book so far -- regrets, cynicism, professional envy, jealousy -- brought to mind, for me, a more recent author: John Updike. Updike seems like he could be a distant literary cousin of Eliot's: both authors chose settings outside of the city (Eliot's Middlemarch, Updike's settings in rural Pennsylvania), focused on the often disappointing realities of work and marriage, and worked with Van-Eyckian precision and realism. Updike, like Eliot, was most interested in the realities of people's finances, prospects, living situations, resentments. Both authors are hyperrealists, working, at times, at a microscopic level of detail. (Compare Eliot's "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence" (Ch. 20) with Updike:
Upstairs, in a slanting closet off of what once must have been a boys' bedroom – its walls pricked with dozens of thumbtack holes and marred with ends of Scotch tape used to hold posters – he finds stacks of Playboys and Penthouses from the early Seventies. He fetches from out beside the kitchen steps, under the slowly revolving electric meter, one of the big green plastic trash barrels he and Janice bought yesterday at Shur Valu; but before disposing of each magazine Rabbit leafs through it, searching out the center spreads month after month, year after year, as the airbrushing recedes and the pubic hair first peeks and then froths boldly forth and these young women perfect as automobile bodies let their negligees fall open frontally and revolve upon their couches of leopard skin so subscribers' eyes at last can feast upon their full shame and treasure. An invisible force month after month through each year's seasons forces gently wider open their flawless thighs until somewhere around the bicentennial issues the Constitutional triumph of open beaver is attained, and the buxom boldly gazing girls from Texas and Hawaii and South Dakota yield up to the lights and lens a vertical rosy aperture that seems to stare back, out of a blood-flushed nether world, scarcely pretty, an ultimate of disclosure which yet acts as a barrier to some secret beyond, within, still undisclosed as the winter light diminishes at the silent window. Outside, a squirrel is watching, its gray back arched, its black eye alert. Nature, Harry sees, is everywhere. This tree that comes so close to the house he thinks is a cherry, its bark in rings. The squirrel, itself spied, scurries on.
(RABBIT IS RICH) (emphasis added).

(The parallel of the squirrel in both passages was so startling to me that I considered, for a moment, looking into whether Eliot had been an influence on Updike. But I'll leave that thought for another day.)

Your thoughts on the book so far?