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.”
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?