Monday, January 15, 2018

Ardent Desires, Poor Execution (Middlemarch, book 1 chs. 7-12)

"The mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it." [ch. 9]
Welcome back to the second half of book 1, where everyone is as mistaken as they are certain (aren't we all?), but also where doubts begin to creep in. Also, despite the book being titled "Miss Brooke," the final two or three chapters move the action to several new characters who will form the center of the story for the next ten chapters or so. These are mostly from the middle class rather than the gentry, so if you haven't read my previous post on class society in Victorian England, you might check it out. They are, by and large, as self-unaware a bunch as the gentry we met in chapters 1-6, but they are not without their endearing qualities. In fact, I think the narrator is doing something sneaky here: holding up what she says is a portrait, only for us to discover that it's actually a mirror. As she notes in chapter 10, after chapters of poking fun at Casaubon's expense, "If he was liable to think that others were providentially made for him [...] this trait is not quote alien to us, and, like the other mendicant hopes of mortals, claims some of our pity." Awkward. 

That's just some general stuff that I'll be thinking about as I read subsequent chapters. But what about these chapters in particular? I've picked out a few themes, just to start the conversational ball rolling, but feel free to take this where you want:

Ardent desire vs. dispassionate rationalism[1]: Dorothea was our first example of ardent desire in the previous chapters, and she hasn't changed... much. The narrator notes (with that irony, again) that "she had not reached that point of renunciation at which she would have been satisfied with having a wise husband; she wished, poor child, to be wise herself." [ch. 7] In these chapters, Dorothea's desires -- for learning; to make an impact, for transcendence of some sort -- are frustrated one after the other as her sense grows that her marriage may not be the salvation she thinks, and may even take away some of her previous sense of purpose (the cottagers here don't need her help!). In response, she doubles down on delusion. Her marriage will be fine. It will be Wonderful. The estate is not grim, thankyouverymuch, Celia.[2] But Dodo isn't the only example of disconnect between passion and execution: We've got Ladislaw, a young gentleman (and son of a disreputable aunt) with artistic aspirations, but vague goals, and truly questionable methods of achieving them.[3] There's also Rosamond, whose desire is to be Anywhere But Here; she's not really thinking beyond that. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Casaubon, who lacks passion even for the scholarly work that consumes most of his life, much less for marriage. As the narrator observes, "He determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprise to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was." [ch. 7] Or, as Mrs. Cadwaller put it (in what was my first laugh-out-loud moment of the book): "Somebody put a drop of [Casaubon's blood] under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses." [ch. 8] He finds himself surprised that marriage doesn't transform him into a conventionally happy man. On the other hand, as my lead quote suggests, ardent desire doesn't seem to lead to happiness any more than dispassionate rationalism, does it? 

Middle-class aspirations: This is the bit where my most recent post about class in Victorian England comes into play. Where the first chapters were told from the perspective of members of the Middlemarch gentry, in chapter 10-12 we are drawn into the lives of the upper stratum of the middle class. The Vincy patriarch is mayor, but also a man of business, and while the amiable Mr. Brooke will invite him to a dinner party, he doesn't go so far as to encourage Vincy's daughters Rosamond to associate with his daughters. Meanwhile, the Vincy children, Rosamond and her good-natured but aimless borther Fred, are often appalled when their parents allow their middle-classness peek through. Rosamond appears to have fallen forthe gentleman-doctor Lydgate from afar, based on the fact that he is handsome, well-born, and, most importantly, not Middlemarch.

Perceptions and misperceptions of others: This is probably a theme that's going to recur throughout the book. We have entire chapters here -- 8, 10, and large portions of 12 -- that are devoted to people talking about other people and judging how they do or don't measure up to who they are supposed to be. On the rare occasions that they are admired, as in the case of Rosamond Vincy or Lydgate, it is because they fit so well into an idealized image that has, in some cases, been scrupulously curated. Even unassuming Mary Garth notes casually that she goes about her day fitting herself into the image of how a plain girl should be, "pretending to be amiable and contented." [ch. 12]

Finally, a few random quotes that stuck out for me:
  • Sir James accepts the fact that Dorothea ought to have "perfect liberty of misjudgment." [ch. 8]
  • On Rosamond’s attempts to pass out of the middle class: "She was admitted to be the flower of Mrs. Lemon’s school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female — even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage." [ch. 11]
  • Mrs. Vincy, on Rosamond’s complaints about her brother Fred: "A woman must learn to put up with little things. You will be married some day." [ch. 11]
  • On Rosamond’s curated personality: "She was by nature an actress… she even acted her own character, and so well that she did not know it to be precisely her own." [ch. 12]
That's what I got. What did you think? Oh. And book 2 is only ten chapters rather than twelve, so for next week, we'll read only five chapters (13-17) where, inevitably, people will make a whole new series of poor choices.

[1] I suspect that this contrast between ardent and dispassionate will have something to do with the religious reforms predating the time of the novel, so I'm going to make those the subject of my next interlude.
[2] Also, more repressed sensualism in her offhand remark about weeping with emotion -- still only hints here, but I think there's going to be something here eventually, don't you?

[3] There is a bar here in Grit City Beach where a Famous Dissolute Writer used to hang out. At any given time, you can find at least three men in their mid-twenties to early thirties who will tell you that they, too, are writers, but who seem to think that the path to writerly success is to drink to excess where the Great Man did. This, to me, is Ladislaw. I shake my middle-aged head and wait for him to either grow up or die of liver failure.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This may belong on the previous post, but for anyone with time for reading very long posts as well as Middlemarch, The Little Professor goes into great detail about obscure 19th-c religious novels, which would no doubt help with following what Eliot is talking about:

MS1964 said...

I don't have a LOT to say -- thinking mostly about social structure, property, and gender as I read this. I remarked somewhat snarkily last night that it seemed to me that Eliot had written a Jane Austen novel. But then I started thinking about Trollope, and Gaskell, and the Brontes, and, later Galsworthy and even Julian Fellowes... and, well. I wonder if a good novel MUST engage with social structures in some way? I'm sure there are plenty of examples that don't. So, maybe it's what a good novel is to me.
Missed your weekly interlude! Well done. I'll volunteer -- or perhaps volunteer Joe -- to take on the Eliot piece. He's the expert, not me. Unless someone else wants to -- but I have been reading up a bit.

As for "what's going on" - I think another big part (that always surprises me about these novels) is the Catholic-Protestant political wrangling. If it keeps on being a theme maybe we'll want to talk about Catholic Emancipation, Peel, et alia.

Finally. I am not sure I like any of these characters, yet. But I might have a little sympathy for Casaubon in the way the narrator does-- he's such an idiot.

Good Enough Woman said...

Staying on Dorothea for a moment, it seems to me that Eliot is playing with (or even "complicating" as we say these days) Wollstonecraft's ideas with those of writers like Sarah Stickney Ellis. In 1855, Eliot wrote an essay reviewing works by Margaret Fuller and Mary Wollstonecraft, so she was very familiar with Wollstonecraft's work even though many others at that time considered Wollstonecraft to be a bit of a pariah at the time (and J.S. Mill didn’t even tip his hat to her in his own “Vindication”). Eliot notes that Wollstonecraft's Vindication is "eminently serious, severely moral, and withal rather heavy." As radical as MW's life was, in her Vindication, she justifies women's education by highlighting its value for wives to be good companions and for women to be good mothers. I've always thought that MW was just offering the premises that would appeal to those in power (even if she had others in mind), but it seems like Dorothea sees education too much in that vein: as a way of complementing others rather than as ideas for idea’s sake, or even for her own sake.

Sarah Stickney Ellis (1812-1872) supported women’s education, but as with MW’s argument, she focused on how education could benefit men and offspring. When it came to the ever-present “woman question” of the Victorian period, Ellis (like Queen Victoria) argued against a widening circle of life for women, arguing that they should be at home in traditional roles to keep men moral and make the hearth and home happy places so that men wouldn’t spend all of their time being rude at the pub. She focused on women being nurses and care-takers, and she argued they were naturally self-sacrificing.

Eliot seems to be jumping right into debates about the “woman question” and what role learning and ideas should have in women’s lives.

Oh, and she seems to be carrying on with some of Austen’s interest in sense and sensibility—how they differ, the values of each, etc.

I have just finished Book One and will start to think about about the middle-classers.

PhysioProffe said...

Maybe I just didn't read closely enough, but I was totally thrown for a loop when all those other motherfuckers suddenly appeared: Vincy, Rosamond, Fred, Lydgate, someone or other's lazy shiftless son traipsing around Europe, etc. I was mostly just confused & all "Who the fucke are these people and why are they here?" So good to know they are supposed to be the upper middle class of Middlemarch, distinct from landed gentry Brookes, Cinnabon, Sir James, etc.

Sarah C said...

Well, not much to say this week other than that I am beginning to like one character: the narrator. She funny.

What Now? said...

I'm with you, Sarah, in liking the narrative voice! She's the one observant, insightful, thoughtful, critical but compassionate voice in the entire novel.

I'm interested in the upper middle-class characters particularly because they were mostly absent in Silas Marner, which I read last fall, and which was set in the early 19th century in a village.

I also liked Fred's very modern take on English vernaculars: "All choice of words is slang. It marks a class. ... [C]orrect English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets" (Ch. 11). However, I don't know if he really thinks that or is just trying to annoy his sister.

I'm reading the Penguin Deluxe edition, which has an introduction by Rebecca Mead. She notes that Middlemarch was first published "in eight novella-sized volumes over the course of a year, beginning in December 1871" (ix). It's interesting to me to imagine laying down the first volume, "Miss Brooke," and not getting the second volume, "Old and Young," for another four weeks. What would I be thinking about in the intervening days? What would I be anticipating when the next volume arrived in the mail? I like that we are essentially doing the same things as the original readers, albeit in half the time.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ MS1964: I was wondering about that myself for the first several chapters. And I do think it can function on that level, and be perfectly fine. But I'm finding that most of the historical context that I'm picking up (and that I'm delivering in dribs and drabs) is helping to deepen my appreciation. But yes: a LOT of it is "who will marry whom" at least on the surface.

@ What Now: I liked that comment about slang, too. That whole conversation made me think about modern talk about code-switching, and even more specifically about the code-switching that working-class academics do to "pass."

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Cphysioproffe: Glad it's helping. I'm doing all this contextualizing to help myself, but I was just going to flail until you agitated for a bit of summary. "Dammit! Now I gotta learn something!"