Monday, December 28, 2009

a simple and comprehensive programme

I am about to give away several plot points from Middlemarch. Beware.


"Why, yes," said the Rector, taking up the newspaper. "Here is the Trumpet accusing you of lagging behind - did you see?"

A while ago, maybe it was last year, a publishing house decided to release a range of abridged classics, at which, I remember, several newspaper journalists published online articles, laughing, "Who reads all of Middlemarch anyway? Who would read Middlemarch for fun? Is abridging really heresy?" I was mystified. I'd read Middlemarch years before and liked it so much I used to hold the book in one hand and go on with whatever I was doing with the other (my parents owned a palm-sized onionskin copy with a dark cover, deep navy blue). When it seemed that everyone had begun agreeing that it was boring I wondered if I'd been wrong, or somehow read it wrongly, or if I was misrepresenting it to myself in retrospect: really, reading it had not been a happy experience, I had suffered, I had dragged myself through it, it had been a chore.

Re-reading the book two weeks ago (two-dollar secondhand Penguin, orange spine), I realised that I had enjoyed it, and I still do, and I was mystified all over again. Why didn't these journalists want to finish it? Why did they think no one else would want to finish it? How could they have written those articles with such confidence? (I remember the tone being confident, a little scornful.) How could their experience of Middlemarch be other than mine? I was being Sir James, who struggles with the idea that other people can have notions that are not also his.

Sir James paused. He did not usually find it easy to give his reasons: it seemed to him strange that people should not know them without being told, since he only felt what was reasonable.

"For," the author writes, "the egoism which enters into our theories does not affect their sincerity; rather, the more our egoism is satisfied, the more robust is our belief." I thought Middlemarch was an enjoyable book, how could anyone else not think it was an enjoyable book?

"I do wish people would behave like gentlemen," said the good baronet, feeling that this was a simple and comprehensive programme for social well-being.

There are several ideas running through Eliot's book, and this notion of an unbridgeable gap between one human brain and another is one of them. She approaches it prolifically. There is the case of Sir James, who decides to be a friend to Dorothea even after he has realised that he doesn't understand her (in the scheme of the book he is a good man and this is one of his good qualities: he senses the gap and does not recoil - not a perfect human being, "Sir James Chettam's mind was not fruitful in devices," but not a coward, not mean, therefore good); and there is rich Peter Featherstone who tells his maid to burn a document and is stymied when he discovers that her obedience is conditional after all; and there is the younger man, Lydgate the aspirational doctor, who marries Rosamond assuming that she will dote on him for his brain - and it's a fine brain, but she doesn't, because this is his idea of a quality he deserves to be admired for, not hers. The course of his life is altered, not by this mistake alone, but by dozens of other assumptions coming around it. The townspeople get the wrong idea about him, then, thanks to this, he finds himself in financial trouble (at first they employed him, he incurred a debt expecting them to go on employing him, they do not), then an action of his is misinterpreted; his reputation receives a coup de grâce, and his career veers off-course.

And let it not be supposed that opinion at the Tankard in Slaughter Lane was unimportant to the medical profession …

Sometimes the clash takes place between two people, sometimes between one person and a crowd, or one person and the public opinion, or one arm of society and another, or one person comes up against the thrust of history. Complacency can be buttressed by something as temporary as physical satisfaction.

"But what was that other thing you meant?" said Lygate, who was nursing his leg as comfortably as possible and feeling in no great need of advice.

She goes at it like War and Peace, pulling focus from that knee up to a mob scene, pressing her point home by showing it now here, now there: it becomes the dominant force in the universe, her universe. Mr Brooke is complacent too, but his complacency is attached to money and status - he's a landlord, he feels his tenant farmers must like him - not that he talks to them all that much - he sort of just - assumes -

"This looks well, eh?" said Mr Brooke as the crowd gathered. "I shall have a good audience, at any rate. I like this, now - this kind of public made up of one's own neighbours, you know."

The weavers and tanners of Middlemarch ... had never thought of Mr Brooke as a neighbour, and were not more attached to him than if he had been sent in a box from London.

Over and over, Eliot's characters discover that what they imagined were immutable laws of the universe, laws they had grasped and could control, are mutable after all, and, in fact, depend on the wills of other people. Over and over they are taken by surprise. It shouldn't surprise them at all, for in Middlemarch this happens everywhere, all the time, to everyone - and yet, without fail, every character is shocked, embittered, dismayed, shaken, made pensive. Like death, disappointment is assumed to happen, but it is not supposed to happen to me. The author is compassionate. "I feel sorry for him," she says of Mr Casaubon. Mr Casaubon is unbearable. But we bear him. She bears him. Look, she says, and through paragraphs she leads us into his mind, see, how all of this unbearable behaviour makes sense from his point of view, see how human it is? And yet - she brings us outside him again and we look at his unhappy wife - Mr Casaubon remains unbearable. This is part of the book's cleverness. Compassion, it says: we should have - not love, necessarily, but compassion. We're making these mistakes too, without knowing it.

So too, myself and the abridged-classics journalists. I imagined that everyone liked Middlemarch - they expected that everyone didn't. They expected the reader to agree with them, or perhaps to react in some interesting and controversial way; I didn't agree with them,and my reaction was not controversial or interesting. We could have been worked into Middlemarch somewhere, something very minor (I'm visiting the neighbourhood as a friend of somebody - I'm the fiancé of a friend of Fred Vincey - and I have been given a slight name, like Jane Hayward, that will not draw attention away from the principals, and the journalists are Tipkin, Tupkin, and Bounder), but we would have served as part of the general instructive example.


  1. Lovely and clever review of a great book. I'm not sure I have anything to add to this!

  2. It's a funny book too, very dry. "Mr Brooke's conclusions were as difficult to predict as the weather: it was only safe to say that he would act with benevolent intentions, and that he would spend as little money as possible in carrying them out." I'd forgotten that.