Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A short study in contrasts

I don't have a well-formed review to write here because I need to focus my brain on getting through the next few days, but I've been thoroughly enjoying Middlemarch, which I started since I didn't order Mortal Love.  I was reading two long books, Middlemarch, and the latest from Ken Follet for the wives club book club.  Follet’s book is nearly 1000 pages, but I skimmed the last 400 in a few hours. I couldn’t/wouldn’t give the book any more time, even though the historical bits about WWI were interesting. All the characteristics of a bestseller: pedestrian language, love affairs galore, predictable characters.  

Meanwhile, Middlemarch is worth savoring. I rarely get more than one or two chapters read a day, but I usually find a corner to bend down every time I read. I was reminded of reading Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, about diagramming sentences, when the author picked several sentences from James Fenimore Cooper to diagram as an example of long unwieldy writing.  She also quoted Mark Twain making fun of Cooper’s effusiveness.  Some of Eliot’s sentences could surely rival or top Cooper’s for length.  But after reading at the fourth grade level (or lower?) in Follet’s book, I was happy for the challenge of Eliot’s vocabulary and structure. (I do, however, find Dorothea’s goodness a little too good. She really didn’t recognize Casaubon’s pinched ways or Ladislaw’s devotion? And she smiles radiantly a few too many times.)

To illustrate the differences, a couple of selections:
From Fall of Giants:

Ethel, daughter of a coal miner and one-time housekeeper to an earl, listens to her father speak at a memorial service: “Ethel was proud of him. This honor acknowledged his status as one of the principal men of the town, a spiritual and political leader. He looked smart, too: Mam had bought him a new black tie, silk, from the Gwyn Evans department store in Merthyr.
He spoke about resurrection and the afterlife, and Ethel’s attention drifted: she had heard it all before. She assumed there was life after death, but she was not sure, and anyway she would find out soon enough.”

From Middlemarch:
Dorothea, like Ethel, turns her thoughts to a man she thinks she loves and admires, her fiance: “Mr. Casaubon would tell her all that: she was looking forward to higher initiation in ideas, as she was looking forward to marriage, and blending her dim conceptions of both. It would be  a great mistake to suppose that Dorothea could have cared about any share in Mr. Casaubon’s learning as mere accomplishment; for though opinion in the neighbourhood of Freshitt and Tipton had pronounced her clever, that epithet would not have described her to circles in whose more precise vocabulary cleverness implies mere aptitude for knowing and doing, apart from character. All her eagerness for acquirement lay within that full current of sympathetic motive in which her ideas and impulses were habitually swept along.. . . something she yearned for by which her life might be filled with action at once rational and ardent; and since the time was gone by for guiding visions and spiritual directors, since prayer heightened yearning but not instruction, what lamp was there but knowledge?”

You’d think that, with all the improvements in education and opportunity, the contemporary writer would outwrite his predecessor. A sad commentary or just a difference in style?


BettyDuffy said...

I think sad commentary. Who's writing like that these days? Who has such command of the language? I don't even recognize any archaic words there--just challenging words that say precisely what the author wants to say, and then some.

On Dorothea's goodness, I think her flaws are rendered very delicately, and also clearly, in her relationship with her sister. I love that scene when they're going through their mother's jewels, and Dorothea just can't quite let her sister get away with all of them, in spite of her lofty beliefs on self-adornment. She takes just one small set--but it is the best set.

Emily J. said...

Hmm, did that part about jewels seem faintly familiar?

Melanie B said...

Well, to be fair there were probably quite a few writers of Follet's caliber in Eliot's time. Their books haven't survived while Eliot's have because she is a master stylist as well as a great storyteller. We tend to forget the lesser lights whose works don't last.

I am enjoying Middlemarch-- now that I've got a replacement copy from the library after Dom made me throw away the copy that fell into the toilet-- but very slowly.

I do love that scene with the jewels. I think I'm with Betty in that I don't see Dorothea as too good to be true so much as very naive. Her faults certainly come out with her sister. But I think that a certain self-centeredness taints all her relationships. She is unable to see Casaubon for what he is because she's too busy using him as a canvas for projecting her ideals. In the same way she refuses to see that Sir James is in love with her because it doesn't suit her desire for who she wants him to be.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm loving Eliot's style. She has the most original and evocative metaphors! (Has anyone got to the one about the scratched surface and the candle?) If she were pithier, she'd be quoted more often, but I'm glad she isn't because there is so much richness in her "verbosity."

Dorothea was my favourite character the first time I read this (nearly a decade ago), thanks to the explicit comparison to Sta. Teresa, but today I'm finding myself drawn to Fred Vincy. He seems to have more room to grow as a character, and Eliot delivers as generously when it comes to process as when it comes to prose. Any other Fred fans?

Emily J. said...

I want to hang out here:
"One evening in March, Rosamond in her cherry-coloured dress with swansdown trimming about the throat sat at the tea table; Lydgate, lately come in tired from his outdoor work, was seated sideways on an easy-chair by the fire wit one leg over the elbow, his brow looking a little troubled as his eyes rambled over the columns of the Pioneer, while Rosamond, having noticed that he was perturbed, avoided looking at him, adn inwardly thanked heaven that she herself had not a moody disposition. Will Ladislaw was stretched on the rug contemplating the curtain-pole abstractedly, and humming very low the notes of 'When first I saw thy face'; while the house spaniel, also stretched out with small choice of room, looked from between his paws at the usurper of the rug with silent but strong objection."

I like Fred, too, E. He seems more real than Will Ladislaw, who tosses his ringlets a bit too much for my taste. But I'm fond of the vicar in the wrong career, Mr. Farebrother, too. Rosamond, despite her pretty clothes, irritates me.

Melanie B said...

Enbrethiliel, I especially love the metaphors that reveal the particularly Victorian interest in science and classification.

I was just thinking last night that I like the Fred and Mary subplot so much better than Dorothea or Rosamond. I've just got to their first introduction and I really do like Fred at first sight.

Emily, Oh yes! That scene is so cozy. I want to be there.

Enbrethiliel said...


Dorothea was easier to relate to when I was younger and Will seemed more romantic. =P

Rosamond seemed shallow to me from the start.

But everyone is rendered in such perfect three-dimensional form--warts and all--that I suspect that if I were a character in one of Eliot's ensemble casts, nobody would like me very much either. LOL!