Sunday, January 7, 2018

An Indecent Proposal (Middlemarch book 1, chs. 1-6)

"We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, 'Oh, nothing!' "

Historiann asked me last week to talk about why this book. Well, the first answer is: I crowdsourced it, and it got the greatest number of enthusiastic recommendations. But the second answer is: it also got the greatest number of people who were decidedly not entranced by it. I figured: a polarizing book, written by a female author who used her married lover’s first name as her pseudonym at a time when female authors were mostly known for characters who felt things rather than thought things? How could I not read it?

The book is long, and is divided into 8 books, each of which has about a dozen chapters. Monday posts will cover half a book (5-6 chapters) each. I hope that people will use these posts to share  insights both serious and silly. I’ll get to mine as we go. Commenters Laura and What Now offered a recommendation for a Middlemarch reading guide (, put together by Rohan Maitzen, who is a professor of Victorian literature at Dalhousie University. I took a look, and it’s good. I plan to lift from it as needed. But let me throw out a few observations, maybe to get us started:

  • The characters: Thus far, we have met Mr. Brooke, his nieces Dorothea (a.k.a. “Dodo”) and Celia, Sir James Chettam, Casaubon, and Mrs. Cadwaller. Friends on Facebook who have begun the reading have noted that the characters are not particularly likeable, and I have to agree — at least in that no one (except maybe Celia) has any self-knowledge. But what does a cast of problematic individuals set up for us as readers? Celia, Dodo, and Casaubon stand out; any insights on the other characters?
  • The Setting: I think that this is going to be a big deal. After all, the book is called “Middlemarch,” which suggests that the place is as much of an influence as any of its inhabitants. But I’m not sure I have much to say here yet. Anyone else? Or do we put a pin in this for now?
  • The historical context: Hoo boy, this book makes me realize that I don’t know squat about early modern England, and I desperately hope that some commenters in there will help us fill in the gaps. So far… um… reform? To paraphrase a friend on Facebook, CASAUBON DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THE COTTAGES!!! And speaking of Casaubon…
  • That appalling proposal: Discuss.
  • The narrator: In her reading guide, Maitzen urges us not to confuse the narrator with the author. She also reminds us to look for the sardonic. What do we think, for example, of her reference to people who are born “a cygnet among ducklings”? What do we think about the prologue, and the framing it tries to set up? For me, it brought up…
  • The Woman Question (or: Are you a Dodo or a Celia? Take our quiz!): The author seems to be presenting us with two versions of Victorian womanhood, one conventional, the other unconventional. Or is she? Celia is likeable, but is Dorothea at all sympathetic? When she jumps at the chance to marry Casaubon, is she making a rational choice, in her own way? And for those who have peeked into the author’s own history, how does her own unconventional life frame how we think about her female characters thus far? There are also some hints at repressed female sensuality/sexuality in these earlier chapters; what about that?

That’s what I’ve got for the moment, but I’ll be peeking in and out of the comments as we go along this week.

Next Monday: we finish book 1 (chs. 7-12) and meet back to discuss!


heu mihi said...

I'm not officially joining in because I haven't read *Middlemarch* in five years--but I've read it 3 times, because I *loooove* it.

Just chiming in to tell you that. And to add that I also rather love Dorothea--I was surprised that she was classified as not particularly likable! Although I suppose I can see it, if I think about it. I'm just so sympathetic to Dorothea, even though she's entirely unlike me in nearly all ways. There's something very touching and tragic, to me, about that weirdly misplaced idealism.

What Now? said...

I read Middlemarch once, 23 years ago, and I had some memory of the plot and characters but -- it is now clear -- no memory at all of the tone. My memory of Dorothea was, as Heu says above, that she was a touching and tragic characters, so I might honestly not have been up for re-reading the novel (I'm seeing so much tragedy in the world around us these days that I'm trying to protect myself from more tragedy in the novels I read).

But then I taught Silas Marner in the fall -- the first time I'd ever taught anything by Eliot, and the first time in years that I'd read anything by her -- and realized that Eliot creates a soothing critical distance from all of her characters. In Silas Marner, all of the characters are faintly flawed and at least slightly ridiculous, which keeps me from being overly emotionally engaged in the twists and turns of their life. At the same time I was teaching Silas Marner, in another class I was teaching Jane Eyre (it was a very Victorian fall), which is one of my all-time favorite novels. All three of the Brontes write passionate novels that cause me to weep and gnash my teeth, and I love that, but it's also kind of exhausting. Eliot, on the other hand, seems to sit back a little and gently mock all of the characters, so I don't weep or gnash my teeth at all and instead smile in amusement. I can't read any of the Brontes at bedtime, but I'm finding reading Eliot at bedtime soothing.

So it will be interesting to see if, as Dorothea's story unfolds, I wind up agreeing with Heu about Dorothea's character being touching and tragic (which was my old memory of the novel) or if I retain that distance.

At the same time, I disagree with the assertion that the characters are unlikable. Instead, I find them all -- including Celia -- faintly ridiculous in an amusing sort of way.

It's been a few years since I reread Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, but I recall that she much prefers Jane Austen and George Eliot for that emotionally detached tone and criticizes Charlotte Bronte for her passion. I don't agree with Woolf on that point -- I think they're all good in different ways -- but I was certainly thinking about that quality of detachment as I was reading the first chapters of the novel.

nightgigjo said...

I am not quite done with chapter 5, but I'll jump in anyway.

I have found Dorothea to be a very sympathetic character. She isn't self-aware AT ALL, it's true. Her feelings about small dogs, paired with Celia's observation that she doesn't know what's around her EVER, are a nice little jab at her inability to focus on where she is, what she is doing (to steal a phrase). This, coupled with her 'misplaced idealism' (as heu mihi said above), is so very much the girl I was as a teen. No clue what was actually going on, but going through life with a blythe (and, at times, desperate) hope that everything was happening For A Reason and that everything would turn out for the best.

Her doting on (and acceptance of? haven't read that far) Causubon is so centered on her as a learning being, though. She clearly longs for a larger world than her own, and latches onto this academic as a way to escape the life she has. She wants to learn, to build, to be more than she would be allowed under normal circumstances. I can see hints in the text that James would be good for her in that respect - that he's interested in her building of cottages, and actively encourages it - but there is enough about his very similar inability to see anything that doesn't fit his prescribed worldview that they might not be so good for each other after all.

Side note: The way Dorothea thinks about marriage in general - as an opportunity (?) to essentially become more pious by putting up with a husband's trying behaviors - seriously makes me wonder if she is attracted to men at all. (Maybe this is simply a commentary on her naivete or sexual repression, as you mention above, but the thought occurred. More reading is definitely required.) She appears to be less interested in the man himself than as the means to her own ends.

More later, perhaps. I'm still thinking on this, and I still have to finish Chapters 5 and 6!

PhysioProffe said...

I really dislike Dorothea and Cinnabon (I'm calling him this), they are both so simultaneously absurdly pompous and delusional. Sir James & Celia are much more sympathetic. I thought it was pretty hilarious how the narrator in Chapter 5 pissed all over both Cinnabon's shitty proposal and Dorothea's delusions about what marriage ought to be.

PhysioProffe said...

BTW, can someone give a few sentences summarizing all the contemporary religious & political background? The Whigs, radicals, liberals, catholics, protestants? What is this all about?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Comrade PP - I had exactly the same problem with the context. I've run to a friend here for a loan of a basic textbook, and I'm going to be reading the chapter on the 19th century, because I, too, am lost.

I actually found Dorothea sympathetic, if irritating. She's desperate to make her mark on the world, but is faced with precious few avenues to do so. I'd agree that she's deluded herself, and I see trouble on the horizon, but what other option does she have? Change her name to "George" and write novels? ;-)

Sarah C said...

So I know that sympathizing with and liking characters is not all the there is in literature (and since I mostly read really weird modernist lit, "liking" characters is not really a thing), but I am finding it hard to get into an 800page Victorian novel in which I find myself hating all the characters from the get-go. So I'm curious to discover whether we'll find another motivation as we go along (or, what will we love, if we don't love the characters?). [NB, I read this once before, about 15 years ago, and recall nothing other than a sense that I liked it.]

As for context, I'm curious too since I know one of the themes is changing society (re: TRAINS, I'm just sure of it) but I'm also curious of literary context....specifically, did the public know that Eliot was a woman when she was publishing? When did they find out? Was she trying to write with a man's "voice" and to "pass" or simply (like many) using a male nom de plume for publishing reasons? I ask specifically because I wonder how much she's trying to be subversive and how much she just wants to get published without hassle. Does that make sense? I'm wondering whether some of the subversive stuff about Dorothea wanting education and impact (in addition to piety and self-denial) is meant to sound believable to contemporary audiences as part of male-authored fiction?

It's funny that What Now? brought up Woolf's characterization of Austen and Eliot as writing controlled rather than passionate fiction because I am just right now reading A Room of One's Own for the first time and this part really struck me. She wrote that C. Bronte had more genius but wrote with too much rage. I disagree entirely, and think Woolf herself ought to have written with more rage. I love rage in fiction. I think we need more of it (perhaps that's just where I am at the moment), and Woolf has always struck me as too distant (except in Orlando, where the passion throbs on each page; not coincidentally, I like Orlando the best of all her works).

Woolf also, I think it's interesting to point out, writes that Eliot should rather have been a historian or biographer than a novelist. This is an interesting insight, especially as I think (as someone noted above, maybe in OP) we may decide that the book is more about the region/society than about anyone individual or group of people. But are we fixated on liking or disliking the characters because that's what we've been conditioned to think about when we read fiction (or maybe Victorian fiction specifically)?

Amstr said...

I read and wrote a seminar paper on Middlemarch nigh on twenty years ago. I managed to spell Dorothea's name "Dorthea" through the entire 30 pages, and my professor circled each misspelling in red pen. However. Confession: I didn't actually finish reading the book at the time. I had a time crunch for my seminar paper deadline and ended up reading Cliff's Notes to make sure I hadn't missed any Dorothea sections in the last third of the book. I've been meaning to finish it for years, and Notorious, you've provided the motivation and accountability to do so.

This professor of mine read Middlemarch every year. His oft repeated adage was, "You don't read Middlemarch. Middlemarch reads you."

Notorious mentions Middlemarch (the town) being important to the novel. And it is. The opening is focused on the Brooks family, but the novel expands to encompass all the life in the town (or much of it). It's a portrait of a place, through the stories of the people. Another novel(ish) in this vein is Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell (shorter and more vignettes than a story with a through-line). I highly recommend the BBC mini-series to get you in the mood for reading about Victorian life (

One of the big things I remember from my earlier study of MM is the narrator's voice. She (I think of her as a she) is witty and critical and sometimes empathetic, or at least giving a knowing nod every once in a while. And the narrator is FUNNY! I do remember laughing out loud reading this book 20 years ago.

I was surprised this read by all the politics and religious discussion--my English Renaissance Lit PhD (with its accompanying forays into classics, 18th c, Victorian, and other periods of Brit Lit) came in handy, though I was still scratching my head at some points. Sorry not to have a quick resource to recommend for the historical context.

I do think there's something noble about Dorothea reaching for knowledge and wisdom, but Casaubon is so, well, unattractive (in personality, manners, appearance, age). She strikes me as very 20--idealistic, naive, passionate, dim about so much (I love that her nickname is Dodo).

I think, too, that FEELING a thing to watch for. Dorothea thinks she's being rational, but she's not exactly. After his disappointment in losing Dorothea, Sir James must "conquer all show of feeling" by showing up at the Grange and acting like nothing has happened.

And the end of Chapter 6, though moralistic, starts off well: "We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinnertime." Don't we all.

PhysioProffe said...

With respect to the life of the town, I thought the dialog between Lady Cadwallader and the woman working at the guard house about the chickens was amazing!

Bruce V. said...

The caution against conflating narrator and author is very helpful. DB is such a pill in part because the narrator keeps telling us she is, among other things, self-righteous and inconsistent (“No jewelry for me….Ooooooh, jewelry so pretty and now how do I manufacture a spiritual justification for aesthetic pleasure?”). But Dorothea is also quite admirable. She attacks difficult intellectual and social/moral challenges – sophisticated learning and what we are calling The Cottages – with courage and zeal. And she’s 19, after all. Very few people in any station of life have it together at 19. Is that the author’s view?

Cinnabon’s (love that) proposal is horrific to me because it’s all about his needs, with the final manipulative the final manipulative twist: if those needs aren’t met, his life will be that much worse for having had the idea that they might have been. He can’t even manage a cliché or two about winter evenings in front of the fire or walks in spring’s blooming meadows. Summary: “I choose you because it will benefit me.”

Mrs. Cadwallader is a wonderful character. She’s almost the comic flip-side of DB, complete with pony-phaetoned thrift, just about as self-righteous and lacking in self-awareness.

What Now? said...

Yes to all those annoyed with Casaubon, but in Eliot's hands, even he has his moments, awkward and pitiful though they are. In the first conversation that he and Dorothea have after they're engaged (in Ch. 5), he says, "I have been little disposed to gather flowers that would wither in my hand, but now I shall pluck them with eagerness to place them in your bosom." And then the narrator says, "No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention; the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog or the cawing of an amorous rook. Would it not be rash to conclude that there was no passion behind those sonnets to Delia which strike us as the thin music of a mandolin?"

(I had to look up the "sonnets to Delia," which were written by Samuel Daniel and published in 1592. They were popular through the 18th century, according to Wikipedia, but clearly Eliot was not a fan.)

So no one wants his or her speeches of romance to be compared to a dog's barking, and clearly Eliot is making fun of him, but I think the mockery is kind of gentle here; he's clearly doing his best to be amorous in this speech. And of course "Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid," which is making fun of her as well.

And along those same lines, even "good guys" such as Sir James are problematic. He likes Dorothea's fiery spirit, but (in Ch. 2) he thinks that her "excessive religiousness" will "die out with marriage," and his love for her is clearly pretty temperate: "In short, he felt himself to be in love in the right place and was ready to endure a great deal of predominance [from her], which, after all, a man could always put down when he liked."

That's what I mean by Eliot's mocking all of the characters.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Regarding Mrs. Cadwaller (who is a nice character sketch of a certain provincial type that Eliot is gently skewering): I've been starting in on the next bit, and somewhere in chapter 8 or 9, she has the honor of pronouncing the first of one of those laugh-out-loud lines (for me) that Amstr refers to.

One of the interesting things to me is how much some characters (Celia, Mrs. C.) are astute observers, while others (Dorothea, Casaubon, Mr. Brooke) are trapped in who they've already decided that a person is, to the point where they can't see what's right in front of them.

Amstr said...

RE: sonnets to Delia

I took a Petrarchan sonnets class and we had to read some of Daniel's work. It's definitely Petrarchan--mopey and lovelorn and maudlin--and not the best of its type.

Good Enough Woman said...

When I read (part of) MM in grad school, I remember finding Dorothea relatable. That tells you something about me (and my reading skills?) in my mid-20s.

But now, as someone who's expertise lies in c18 Brit lit, as I read about Dorothea and Casaubon, I just keep thinking about all of those young, female c18 Brit lit characters who ran away from home so they wouldn't have to marry the old dudes their fathers had chosen for them.

Also, I read "Cat Person" yesterday, and (for better or worse) I keep thinking of the regret that Dorothea might feel when she realizes she will have to see Casaubon naked and sleep with him. She tries to distance herself from the bodily and material, but surely she will be confronted these things as some point?

If I were Celia, I think I'd really go off on her.

As for the historical/social/literary contexts, I have a little bit of knowledge and will chime in when I can. The cottages are interesting to me because married women could not own property until 1882 (Married Women's Property Act), so Sir James's response to Dorothea's property ideas is interesting and, also, much more material (of course) that her other interests. Perhaps Dorothea focuses on ideas because she has more control over them?