Monday, April 2, 2018

Setting the Table (Middlemarch, book 5)

I will confess, that I found book 5 a bit difficult to plow through, even with the extra time of spring break. I think that in many ways, this is what they call in TV series a “table-setting episode” — there have been a number of big transitions, including a couple of high-profile deaths, and now our friends (and enemies) in Middlemarch readjust. The adjustments at this point are minute, but one expects that they will be the foundation for bigger changes to come.

Dorothea visits the Lydgate home only to find Lydgate gone and Ladislaw visiting with Rosamund. She is disconcerted to find him there, and he is disconcerted that she has seen him in some situation where his attention was devoted to something other than her. Dorothea departs to visit Lydgate at the hospital, which she is interested in as a charitable enterprise. Rosy begins to suspect that Ladislaw adores Dorothea, and he confirms her suspicions by speaking of Dorothea in worshipful tones. Lydgate returns home that evening and tells Rosy that he thinks Dorothea will donate to his new hospital. Dorothea — no surprise — is taken with the idea of using her money for reform, and even Casaubon does not object. He does, however, continue to be suspicious of her, and in the midst of some feverish late-night work tries to extract a promise from Dorothea that she will obey his (unspecified) wishes unquestioningly once he has died. She suspects he is talking about his book, and fears being entombed in a worthless work project that will occupy the rest of her life, but decides overnight to consent rather than risk taking away the one thing Casaubon seems to be living for. But when she finds him in the garden to give her consent, she finds that he has died.

Lydgate is having troubles of his own: His hospital has been having funding problems for two reasons: the Middlemarchers loathe his chief backer, Mr. Bulstrode, and they mistrust this young newcomer has thought to come in and overturn standard medical practice thereby giving offense to the doctors of Middlemarch — and causing suspicion among some of their patients, who think him a quack for refusing to dispense medicines as the standard treatment. Rosamund expresses her own doubts about the suitability of the medical profession in general, but Lydgate insists that to love him is to love his profession, and she agrees not to quarrel with him on this subject. but we also learn that Rosy is pregnant, and Lydgate’s bill-collectors are, unbeknownst to her, beginning to call for payment.

Ladislaw continues to adore Dorothea, and she begins to suspect that she may have feelings for him as well — a bit of self-knowledge that, ironically enough, bubbles to the surface when she finds out that her late husband had added a codicil to his will to prevent her specifically from marrying Ladislaw after his death. Mr. Brooke and Sir James find it monstrous, as it casts a poor light on Dorothea, possibly raising suspicions in the community that this was what she had been planning. The both wish they could keep it from her as long as possible, but they disagree on Ladislaw himself: Sir James wants him sent away; Mr. Brooke is finding him too useful in his political campaign to let him go. But when Mr. Brooke turns in a disastrous performance at the political speeches — pro tip: only ONE glass of sherry before you give your job talk! — he sees an opportunity: Brooke resolves to give up both the candidacy and the paper, leaving Ladislaw unemployed and at loose ends. Brooke hopes that this set of circumstances, though unplanned, will prompt Ladislaw to go abroad, and away from Dorothea. Ladislaw is ambitious, but his adoration of Dorothea wins out, and he determines to stay.

The one thing that Dorothea does as the new mistress of Lowick is to decide to give her husband’s old clerical post to Farebrother, on Lydgate’s recommendation. And as Farebrother is preparing to take up his new post, his female relations urge him to take a wife. No sooner has he begun to contemplate the notion of Mary Garth than Fred Vincy shows up on his doorstep, begging him to intercede with Mary for him. Mary makes no commitment either way, but figuring out that Farebrother himself might be interested, knows that she must be definitive here and not give him hope; she replies that she has long felt affection for Fred, and could not throw it over so easily just because someone else came along in the interim. Farebrother takes the hint, and rides off, promising to convey her feelings to Fred, and to work to find him worthy employment.

All in all, a pretty slow book, this book five, until OMG THE LAST CHAPTER WHAT IS BULSTRODE’S SECRET PAST HOW WILL THAT SCOUNDREL RAFFLES USE IT TO BLACKMAIL HIM HOW IS L. INVOLVED WHAT SORT OF NASTINESS IS ABOUT TO OOZE TO THE SURFACE IN MIDDLEMARCH?!?

We’re entering gothic novel territory here, folks. But before we head into what I assume will be darkness, let’s enjoy the themes from book five:

  • Sincerity and pragmatism come up in two situations: first, in the argument that Lydgate and Ladislaw have over politics. Brooke, has no real political convictions; he tells Ladislaw that what he wants from his young assistant in advance of the speeches is “not ideas, you know, but a way of putting them.” Ladislaw is dismayed, but also willing to make use of the tools at hand to achieve a good end, while Lydgate argues that real reform demands real reformers. Ladislaw is also, in a bit of a familiar touch, utterly cynical about the role of the press, noting that people read only what confirms their opinions: “Do you suppose the public reads with a view to its own conversion? We should have a witches’ brewing with a vengeance then — ‘Mingle, mingle, mingle, mingle. You that mingle may’ — and nobody would know which side he was going to take.” Ladislaw, I think, would be right at home in the current political climate, although perhaps not happily so.
  • On a true calling: The second time we see an allusion to sincerity and pragmatism comes in chapter 52, when Mary rejects the idea of marrying Fred if he goes into the church. What she wants is for him to find a true calling: “Fred has sense and knowledge enough to make him respectable, if he likes, in some good worldly business, but I can never imagine him preaching ad exhorting an pronouncing blessings, and praying by the sick, without feeling as if I were looking at a caricature.” Fred, separately, seems to agree, though he doesn’t have any idea of what that calling might be. But, as the narrator noted in chapter 46, “Our sense of duty must often wait for some work which shall take the place of dilettantism and make us feel that the quality of our action is not a matter of indifference.” She was referring there to Ladislaw, who had really taken to Reform with all the sincerity that his patron Mr. Brooke lacked, and found that working for a political cause truly appealed to his romantic idealism.
  • On self-fashioning: in the final chapter, moments before Bulstrode’s happy daydreams of future gentility are burst by the arrival of Raffles, the narrator remarks that “The memory has as many moods as the temper, and shifts its scenery like a diorama.” Mr. Bulstrode has decided to reimagine his past in a better light in order to slip more comfortably into a self-fashioned future. One might say something very similar of Rosamund, who, as the narrator notes, is “not without satisfaction that Mrs. Casaubon should have an opportunity of studying her. What is the use of being exquisite if you are not seen by the best judges?” And Fred Vincy is trying to fashion himself to please others, but whether it will be his father or Mary Garth that he pleases is anyone’s guess. It certainly won’t be himself, because he has absolutely no idea what he wants to do with his life, other than enjoy it from day to day.

Have at it!

6 comments:

MS1964 said...

Great commentary, Notorious. I confess... I am not done with book 5! CASAUBON DIES? No, it's okay, totally saw that coming. But I would have commented (had he not died so soon) that I was finding your previous comment (I think you said this) that Casaubon and Lydgate were parallel characters to be quite apt... and interestingly, I was finding myself much more interested in Casaubon! Plodding through the Lydgate and Rosy to get back to Edward and Dorothea... well. Now I'm going to have become interested in someone else, I see, and soon. Raffles?

Devorah Dumes said...

I'm really glad you're focusing on Middlemarch. I just finished it for the third time. Each time I reach the end I feel like I've just finished War and Peace. And I mean that in a good way: everything wrapped up neatly (the lives you care about, anyway), and that profound final sentence.

Amstr said...

I missed having Mrs. Cadwallader in this section. She brings much needed levity in the midst of all the death and politics.

In the Dorothea thread, the theme of self-determination came up a lot. Earlier in Book 5, Dorothea pushes against the trap of her marriage in certain ways, inwardly if not outwardly, and once Casaubon dies, she has the opportunity to determine her path in life, as long as her family doesn't get more restrictive and in the way.

I was struck by Dorothea's mini awakenings. In Chapter 48, the narrator tells us, "It was another and rather fuller sort of companionship that poor Dorothea was hungering for, and the hunger had grown from the perpetual effort demanded by her married life. She was always trying to be what her husband wished, and never able to repose on his delight in what she was." When I first read most of Middlemarch in my mid-twenties, I think I read Dorothea as a cautionary tale, and she's not a bad one, as the following passage indicates:
"This afternoon the helplessness [of not being able to change her husband's mind to rightness re: Ladislaw] was more wretchedly benumbing than ever: she longed for objects who could be dear to her, and to whom she could be dear. She longed for work which would be directly beneficent like the sunshine and the rain, and now it appeared that she was to live more and more in a virtual tomb, where there was the apparatus of a ghastly labor producing what would never see the light."
Her disenchantment with Casaubon and her longing for connection increases, until that final moment where she decides to commit to duty rather than desire. What a mercy to her she finds him dead before she can make her promise!

In Chapter 50, we get some outside opinion on Dorothea's lot (with Sir James and Mr. Brooke discussing Casaubon's will, and with Celia as well as Lydgate). Lydgate forms "some true conclusions concerning the trials of her life": "He felt sure that she had been suffering from the strain and conflict of self-repression; and that she was likely now to feel herself only in another sort of pinfold than that from which she had been released." While Lydgate shows himself unwise in different ways, he is an astute observer of Dorothea's character and situation here. It's another mercy to Dorothea that she is not made to feel trapped by her family, even though their inclination is to protect her. Thank you, Lydgate!

And poor Mr. Brooke with his sherry. I love the moment when he loses his train of thought--"even couplets from Pope may be but 'fallings from us, vanishings,' when fear clutches us, and a glass of sherry is hurrying like smoke among our ideas." I once gave a wedding toast with the help of one too many beers, so I feel for Mr. Brooke here.

Riggs Featherstone seemed like such an interesting and mysterious figure in early books, but here, he seems kind of a non-entity, a placeholder to move us toward a more interesting Bulstrode story. That story, with it's connection to Ladislaw, promises to be deliciously soapy.

Unknown said...

Hmmm, interesting. As usual, our guide's remarks are so alert and thoughtful that a response seems feeble. Here goes anyway. I found Book 5 pretty riveting. The account of Cinnabon's final hours, and Dorothea's place in them, was especially revealing of character. Cinnabon is a true bully in his last actions and, of course, the codicil. Like Amstr, I was struck at Dorothea acquiring more self-knowledge, and that in postponing her answer to her husband's demand that he promise something that he won't reveal, she shows at least a little independence. She has come to realize that she made a truly bad marriage - what we readers all knew from the start! - even before its sudden end.

It was also interesting to see Ladislaw trying to make a practical place for himself in the world, even if it is under the aegis of the buffoonish Brooke. (I suspect most of us have made fools of ourselves in public, or at least not quite in private, under the influence of what my grandfather called "too much party.") One of the few times I enjoyed Cinnabon was when back in Book 3 (?) Brooke said, in effect, "Aquinas? Who can read that crap?" and C. replied, in effect, "Well, there's no 'For Dummies' version." I continue to find Lydgate an enigma: he's trying to do good, but he doesn't know how to go about it in his circumstances, especially when he faces opposition to his own brand of reform. Here perhaps is a parallel between Lydgate and Ladislaw? Both are committed to real change. Yet (therefore?) sincerity and pragmatism, as Notorious calls the theme, give them both trouble, Lydgate's worse in the measure that his ambition is greater.

As ever, anything with Garths is a pleasure: the scene earlier in the book with Mrs. Garth multi-tasking in her kitchen was utterly charming, not something one associates with Eliot in general. The more I learn about Bulstrode, the less I like him and the hints that Raffles has something on him are tantalizing. Yes, there's a lot of table-setting here, but we need to wait only until Book 6 (for once, I'm not behind!) for significant payoff. Question: Rosamond and Fred are both spoiled brats, but I have a m

Unknown said...

measure of sympathy only for the latter. How do others feel?

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