This year I read Middlemarch for what I think is the fourth time. (Okay, this time I mostly listened to it on audiobook while at the gym.) Even so, it was still one of the most memorable and influential books I read this year, as it is every time I read it.
I was twenty when I read Middlemarch for the first time, and it changed everything for me. I had never had a single observation about myself or any of my fellow human beings that was as deep and precise as the ones George Eliot delivered with thrilling regularity. The book changed my sense of what was possible, not only in terms of writing — that didn’t really enter into my thinking yet — but in terms of something more important: in terms of life, the trying and difficult business of trying to understand myself and get along with other people.
Middlemarch is famously full of beautiful thoughts about empathy and the quiet kinds of goodness that often go unrecognized in the world — thoughts that are lovely and sharp and not nearly as saccharine as they might sound out of context — but that’s not the aspect of the book I am most impressed by, at least not now (although I do find the novel to be morally inspiring and did especially on my first reading, when I was introduced to a type of ethical thinking that was completely new to my callow young ears).
Perhaps I’ve grown cynical in my thirties. At least, today, I seem to like Eliot best not when she is being good and wise in a general, benevolent way but when she is being shrewd and a little cutting — about an individual character or ironic about some particular absurd and yet all-too-common social tendency. The story of passionate young Dorothea Brooke’s bad marriage to an older clergyman is well and good, but what I keep coming back for aren’t the epic overtones or windswept vistas (not that there are many of those), but the many moments in which Middlemarch reads a lot like a comedy of manners, one that just happens to be both very expansive and very humane.
Take the character of Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s fatuous, ineffectual and all-too-believable bachelor uncle: Mr. Brooke fancies himself a man of the world and an intellectual; he wishes no ill to anyone but is so lacking in self-awareness that he is mostly ridiculous. Eliot paints this minor character masterfully. We overhear him, at dinner, sententiously informing a companion “that the Reformation either meant something or it did not, that he himself was a Protestant to the core, but that Catholicism was a fact,” and we know just what he is like as a dinner companion. At such moments, we also recognize Eliot’s ear and novelistic skill, something wholly separate from those famously stirring sermonettes about obscure Saint Theresas and squirrels’ hearts beating. Eliot peppers Mr. Brooke’s speeches with “you knows” and tic-like repetitions (“He will be here to dinner,” he tells his niece in characteristic fashion. “He didn’t wait to write more — didn’t wait you know”). Such quirks of speech are so true to life and yet comparatively rare in novels. But it is by such close observation that Eliot manages never reduce Mr. Brooke to a caricature — on the contrary, he is too familiar in his (mostly) harmless ineffectuality.
In any case, those are the types of thing I was most struck by on this particular reading. Below are some bits that I liked so much that I paused the treadmill to make note of them on my phone.
- “The great safeguard of society and domestic life is that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
- Of young Will Ladislaw, a dilettante-ish young man confident in his own abilities and taking for granted that things will work out for him: “He held that reliance [on the universe] to be a marker of genius; and certainly it is no mark to the contrary; genius consisting neither in self-conceit nor in humility, but in a power to make or do, not anything in general, but something particular.”
- “It is one thing to like defiance, and another to like its consequences.”
- Of Fred Vincy, another blithely optimistic young man: “The difficult business of knowing the soul of another is not for a young gentleman, whose consciousness is made up primarily of his own wants.”
- Of Lydgate, an intellectually ambitious young doctor: “He gave orders to his tailor for every requisite of perfect dress, without any notion of being extravagant. On the contrary, he would have despised any ostentation of expense; his profession had familiarized him with all the grades of poverty, and he cared much for those who suffered hardships. He would have behaved perfectly at a table where the sauce was served in a jug with the handle off, and he would have remembered nothing about a grand dinner except that a man was there who talked well. But it had never occurred to him that he should live in any other way than what he would have called an ordinary way, with green glasses for hock, and excellent waiting at table. In warming himself on French social theories he had brought away no smell of scorching.”
- Will Ladislaw again, who has begun to fall in love with Dorothea, and is unable to spend as much time with her as he would like (due to her husband, Mr. Casaubon): “Will wanted to talk to Dorothea alone, and was impatient of slow circumstance. However slight the terrestrial intercourse between Dante and Beatrice or Petrarch and Laura, time changes the proportion of things, and in later days it is preferable to have fewer sonnets and more conversation.”
- Of beautiful Rosamund Vincy: “Certainly small feet and perfectly turned shoulders aid the impression of refined manners, and the right thing said seems quite astonishingly right when it is accompanied with exquisite curves of the lip and eyelid. And Rosamond could say the right thing; for she was clever with that sort of cleverness which catches every tone except the humorous. Happily she never attempted to joke, and this perhaps the was the most decisive mark of her cleverness.”
- More on Rosamond: “What she liked to do was to her the right thing, and all her cleverness was directed to getting the means of doing it.”
- Now Rosamond and Lydgate, whom she has married and who has just learned that she has gone behind his back to hinder him in a plan to economize (he has bought too many of those well-tailored clothes and green hock glasses, and they are on the verge of bankruptcy). He is angry that she will not help cut back expenses; she is unrepentant: “Lydgate flung himself into a chair, feeling checkmated. What place was there in her mind for a remonstrance to lodge in? He laid down his hat, flung an arm over the back of his chair, and looked down for some moments without speaking. Rosamond had the double purchase over him of insensibility to the point of justice in his reproach, and of sensibility to the undeniable hardships now present in her married life. Although her duplicity in the affair of the house had exceeded what he knew… she had had no consciousness that her action could be called false. We are not obligated to identify our own acts according to a strict classification, any more than the materials of our grocery and clothes. Rosamond felt she was aggrieved, and this is what Lydgate had to recognize.”
- Advice to the now-widowed Dorothea from the salty wife of the rector: “You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same name as other people call them by. To be sure, for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad: they are taken care of then. But you must not run into that.”
- Of Rosamond, Ladislaw, with whom she is carrying on a flirtation, and Dorothea, whom he still loves: “she [Rosamond] secretly cherished the belief that he had, or would necessarily come to have, much more admiration for herself; Rosamond being one of those women who lives much in the idea that each man they meet would have preferred them if the preference had not been hopeless.”
- Rosamond’s thinking about Ladislaw: “He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due the conditions of marriage, 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.”
- “There is a pale shade of bribery which is sometimes called prosperity.”
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