In the middle of March, I fished Middlemarch out from under the bed, where it had been peacefully collecting sluts’ wool since before Christmas, put into the orange bag (courtesy of its colour, impossible to leave behind anywhere by accident) and took off for China. This was the easy part: harder, was fielding the questions.
“You’re going where? To do what? Why?” To the People’s Republic of China, to pick up a little boy and shepherd him through emigrating to the US, because –
Because the pay-off of having a large family is that it can tick over by itself, without me, for a little while. Because Pentimento dared to ask, and that’s an honour. Because hitherto, I’ve lived hobbled by fear and caution; my worst sins have been of omission. (Let’s, if we must, sin boldly, for once.) Because I still feel treacherous towards my former church community, and I wanted to kick myself out of Paradise New Zealand, for a while. Because my sister has received a diagnosis of cancer identical to that of our late aunt: life is short. Because taking off suddenly for the unknown is good practice for dying.
Nowhere on the list was a desire for pure tourism, a tiki-tour, a look-see, an OE, a tirotirohaere. “Du mußt dein Leben ändern,” says Rilke, in response to seeing the “archaic torso of Apollo”; “you must change your life.” But I’m afraid of change; change is the last thing I ever want. Home’s where life is, in the personal space. Life-changing art, life-changing events, can wash over me, eventually, if they must, while I sally on with the Brownian motion of daily life.
All the same, I couldn’t help but see some sights. I saw a branch of the yellow Yangtze River, heard someone exclaim, “La-la-la-la-lei!” and saw people river-swimming with barrels tied to their backs. (“The Story of Ping”!) I saw a piece of brocade that took a man five years of his life to make. I saw three cities bearing the weight of history. I saw multitudes of people living busy lives, and I left for the States having shed some xenophobia, and having tried chickens’ feet. (They’re delicious! Chewy!)
More than that, I found the Church is Catholic, that at Mass my English responses could join the Mandarin and Cantonese, that the Rosary group accepts temporary members at the drop of a hat, and that the Sign of the Cross is the most universal prayer of all.
But the great overarch of the experience was the sight of a transcendental father-son relationship springing into existence in an eye-blink. Did you ever, as I did, read the New Testament and see adoption as faintly second-best, a faute-de-mieux, a concession? Maybe you never have: I think this may be the Calvinist mistake, the toxic run-off from the forensic view of justification. We Calvinists were too busy thinking of ourselves as criminals let off the hook by a clever legal dodge to think of ourselves as children adopted by God the Father. Thank God, I know better now, having seen adoption in action. It's not a lesser relationship. I now know God, my Father, the Church, my Mother, and find brothers and sisters everywhere, even in China: it’s a heady experience for a former Protestant, orphaned by sola scriptura and left to scratch out a faith, alone. I can sympathize if little Jude occasionally disbelieves in the glories of a family of his own. I can hardly believe that I’m part of my new Catholic family, either. Such riches. Unfathomable.
Betweentimes, I read Middlemarch, in swathes and in snatches, in airports and hotel rooms and houses half a world apart. It’s possible that a Victorian classic has never been read before in such disparate locations and conditions. Look, I liked Middlemarch, but I wished it hadn’t taken to page 250 for the plot to thicken. Also, I wondered who George Eliot thought she was writing for. Some of it - the natural history, the doctoring, the politics, the politics of doctoring - had the painfully over-researched quality of a Tom Wolfe work. Furthermore, wherein does Middlemarch’s readership consist? Does the same individual take equally lively interest in elaborate emotional interplay AND young scamps in strife AND Reform politics?
When I think about this, I believe the natural place of Middlemarch is not so much the reading group as in the reading-aloud group. Such a group has scarcely existed since the Victorian extended family ceased to gather round a common hearth, taking out busywork of all sorts while thrusting an open book into the hands of the most gifted reader-aloud. Nonetheless, one can see that in an extended family group, Middlemarch may come into its own. There’s something there for everyone, old and young, male and female, and the langours of any single passage may find ready attention in one ear, whose eager interest buoys the flagging attention of the others present. Fred Vincy’s doings for the teenaged boy, Dorothea’s for the blue-stocking daughter, politics and economics for the wonkish Darwin type.
Sadly, nothing short of a nuclear winter would assemble such a group again, for thirty-six hours of reading, and even if so, their pooled knowledge would be hard-pressed to explain all the references beached by the receding tide of memory. Middlemarch has slipped beyond the grasp of the average reader – its concerns require too much knowledge of the immediate past. It has passed irretrievably into the province of the specialist. Nothing, especially not margin notes, will save it. Nothing will save Tom Wolfe, either, but I suspect his run will be much shorter.