Monday, July 14, 2014

Greetings from Maine! Some may remember me from last summer when I participated in the Don Quixote read and discussions. I loved that experience and the lovely librarians have been kind enough to let me participate in the Middlemarch read, albeit long-distance. Though you have not heard from me to date, I have been reading, after getting a late start because of my move in mid-June. I can tell you there is no better place to sink into a big Victorian novel than in rural Maine. After life in Ames Place for many years (and I do miss it), I feel like I've stepped back in time here, where the days move at the slower pace of, say, a Thomas Hardy or, well, George Eliot novel.

I first read Middlemarch in a course on Victorian novels in college forty years ago. In my callow youth, and hunger to simply plow through pages, I feel quite sure I missed almost all of the subtlety and wisdom and even humor in this amazing book. Though I'm sure there's much that escapes me this time around, also, I now have enough life experience to garner more of the tidbits Eliot has sprinkled on every single page. I think I'll focus this post, though, on something Rebecca Mead spoke about in her talk back on June 4, and that's Eliot's deep sympathy for each and every one of her characters. As a young man I'm sure I "sided" with Dorothea completely and blamed poor old Casaubon for everything that went wrong. Not so this time. Not only do I carefully attend to Eliot's overtly expressed sympathy for this character, but I read into his psychology a painful expression of habits of mind that all of us, if we can be truthful enough with ourselves, fall into at one time or another, if not habitually. Casaubon KNOWS his work is a failure; he realizes that he has spent thirty years on something that has fallen far, far short of the initial vision that initiated it; and he is not unaware, at some level, that all he is doing now is protecting his and its (the work's) reputation against that ultimate truth. Read again his ruminations, as filtered through the sensitive narrator, on pages 398 and 399.

Is he being unfair to Dorothea? Of course he is. Should he have known better than to marry her in the first place? Probably, though she certainly shares the responsibility for their marriage even if she is twenty years old. Is he less courageous than one would like to think one is oneself? I guess so. But the truth is, I can't read those paragraphs without being moved by how trapped Casaubon truly is. And he DOES try to act with rectitude at all times. Which of course brings us to the codicil. Was that unfair, even malicious?  Well, yes, though anyone who has ever felt jealousy would have to have a little sympathy for his motives. And there is no indication that, consciously at least, he was suspicious at all that Dorothea would want to marry Will; he really wanted to protect her--and, yes, his estate--from a man he distrusted and even hated. (Subconsciously, he seems to have suspected the dangerous affection that has grown up between Dorothea and Will.)

Anyway, these are some initial thoughts about the now-dead Casaubon, and about a larger quality of this book--its sympathetic and sensitive portrayal of each and every character.  I still love Dorothea, but I see so much more glaringly her faults and failures, and how much harm she can do in her early idealism. Sir James and Celia are so much more grounded. And, by the way, a character that back in college I would have just thought of as almost comic relief is now one of my favorites, dear old Mr. Brooke!  In an earlier blog Kathleen asked for favorite quotes or bon mots. One of mine is something someone says about Mr. Brooke early on (I think it's Mrs. Cadwalader speaking): "Brooke is a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mold, but he won't keep shape." Maybe Casaubon and Dorothea both would have benefited from less rigidity and more pulpiness!

Happy marching, all!

1 comment:

  1. I am so glad to hear that you enjoy Mr Brooke - I do too! You're right that he's funny, and much more. His perpetual equivocating is delightful, and highly adaptive, as well. It makes me think (oddly, but bear with me), of Gone with the Wind. Mitchell talks frequently about 'the wind,' which is the massive change taking place in the Reconstruction-era south. She observes that those plants in the landscape which are strongest and stand most firm will be yanked up by the roots when the wind comes through. According to her, it's the pliant grasses which will survive and thrive in the new era. I see Mr Brooke as a pliant grass. Interestingly, these are both novels which explore agrarian societies giving way under forces of industrialization and capitalism. Of course, Eliot is far more subtle but I find the comparison interesting.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Daniel. I look forward to reading more!