Thursday, December 29, 2011

Marriage in Middlemarch

Maybe it's a sign of a love for gossip that I've been enjoying the peek into people’s marriages in Middlemarch.  Unfortunately - or fortunately for my curiosity, the two Eliot features most prominently are the ones that are failing.

Even if it turns out that he is a genius of a doctor, Lydgate certainly doesn’t seem to be a very good judge of women. First he falls for a black widow of an actress and then Rosamond, who has her own means for sucking the life out of a man.  I’m wondering if she has any redeeming qualities.  Is the case of the Vincys a warning of sorts to parents? If you spoil your children, they’ll either turn out self-absorbed like Fred (who at least is earnest) or selfish and conniving like Rosamond.

While the marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon seemed gloomy from the beginning, I initially thought love existed between Lydgate and Rosamond.  In both cases the couples don’t seem to know their chosen spouses very well.  Although it was aggravating that Dorothea was so blind to Casaubon’s pinched true nature, you have to admire her devotion to her vows and her persistence in trying to make Casaubon happy.  But I can’t say I can think of anyone I’ve ever met who had this kind of relationship. 

On the other hand, the relationship between Rosamond and Lydgate is immediately recognizable.  He fell for her beauty and from her behavior during courtship imagined her the model of femininity. She imagined him to be a potential savior of sorts who would raise her up from her present circumstances.  But then she turns out to be less flexible and docile than he imagined, and he doesn’t live up to her hopes for a more exciting life. It’s almost painful to read about how they destroy their relationship that seemed so promising: he expects her to be obedient; she’s secretive; he believes he knows best and shouldn’t trouble her with the money issues, but he’s irresponsible for buying what he couldn’t afford.  Meanwhile, she seems to have no care for preserving their state. At least he attempts to protect their relationship by trying to keep alive the image of what he loved about her, while she seems determined to tear him down with her secrets and silent treatment. 

It’s hard to imagine that the Lydgates can repair their relationship, unless Rosamond has some kind of conversion experience and recognizes her selfishness, and Lydgate stops treating her like she’s child, even though she acts like one.

Since Casaubon dies, the possibility of a relationship between Will and Dorothea is out there if both parties were willing to throw riches and public opinion to the wind.  But I still don’t think they seem suited to each other.  Even though she’s idealistic, he seems too romantic for her.  Is public opinion right in this case?
Maybe I have lost my sense of romance because I also think Mary Garth should marry Farebrother and not Fred.  Fred seems destined to disappoint her since he can’t seem to get over his love of a good time. Farebrother is so kind and companionable that you can imagine and healthy relationship between him and Mary. 

At least Mary has a good example of marriage in her parents. The Garths seem to be the most happily married couple in Middlemarch.  She recognizes his faults but still loves him for his goodness, and he recognizes her intelligence and good sense. Theirs is the one marriage that seems built on honesty and respect for each other, in addition to being genuinely affectionate.

Ironically, the little glimpses into the Bulstrode’s marriage seem to suggest that they can weather trials.  If Mrs. Bulstrode can still feel compassion and pity for her husband, even though he has deceived her, perhaps they can pull through their downfall.

I’m embarrassed by how little I remember from this book the first time I read it.  Thus, this quote from Robertson Davies on my new “Reading Woman” calendar from my mother-in-law jumped out at me: “A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”  (I know everyone is supposed to use interactive computer calendar apps, but this calendar has great art and good quotes and lots of space for writing stuff to do; it makes me happy.) 

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?