Saturday, July 21, 2018

Trying Not to Go A.S.U. (a post with many strained metaphors)

A.S.U. It stands for "All Spun Up," and in my hands, it can be just as deadly. It's also a weakness of mine. Here is a fictional-but-might-as-well-be-real conversation:

COLLEAGUE: Hey! How's your summer going?

ME: Oh my god. So busy. There are all the things and I've only gotten half of them accomplished which I suppose is typical but this fall I've got This Many classes plus The Same Many independent studies plus Big Committee X and Y plus organizing the events and this is supposed to be my research semester and o my god ALL THE THINGS...

COLLEAGUE: [flees in terror, resolving never to speak to me again]

This is me. This is what I do. I say yes when I've resolved to say no, I panic, and then I talk myself into a greater panic.

So, I'm gonna take this like a twelve-stepper: one day at a time. One task at a time. Or maybe a marathon runner, who focuses on the next mile, rather than the whole 26.

This will be for my sanity. But it will also be for the sanity of the people I work with. I want to be a positive force in my work life. But I need to secure my own oxygen mask first.

And remember: the correct answer to "How is your summer going?" is "Not bad! [omit details that will send me into ASU territory and shift the topic] But I want to hear about you!" Cheezy, but it keeps me out of the bad place, right? 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Getting Stuff Done, Summer Edition: A Couple of Tips

A belated welcome to summer to everyone out there. And to all the academics, there's this:

Yes, most of us probably begin the summer with an overly ambitious list of Stuff I Will Accomplish (otherwise known as Write All the Things). Some of us were also dumb enough to take on some teaching-related projects, which provide equal doses of fulfillment (yay! students who want to learn stuff!) and recrimination (boo! i should be writing!). I'm going to try to chronicle these for myself a bit this summer, but that'll be later. Right now is the unsolicited advice portion, which I hope will be helpful to others (and even to myself, if I can manage to take my own advice), whether your degree of self-overload is insane or merely unreasonable.

1. Don't beat yourself up. I've learned the hard way, over and over, that I always think I can do more than I can actually do. I still set overly ambitious goals for myself, though those have moderated with time. But I also learned to count 70% as a win. Hey, a C is a passing grade, right?

2. Remind yourself to do a little every day. For me, this means that The Chore Chart is Back. Over spring break, I had tons of categories in there because the need was urgent. This time, I've stripped them down to the following: write something, read or transcribe something, do something student- or teaching-related,[1] do a chore, try to do three physically healthy things.  The daily goal is to be able to check off four of the five categories. As I said in the previous post: I'll do just about anything for a gold star.

3.  Don't forget that you're not just a collection of deadlines. The "do three healthy things" goal is part of this for me, but yours may be "do something with family or friends" or "go to religious services" or "go outside." I don't personally care for the phrase "self-care", for reasons I won't get into, but I guess that's more or less what I'm talking about here. A fat lot of good an impressive CV will do you if you turn into a troll-beast. You're a person. It's easy to forget that during the semester. Use the summer to hit the reset button on that idea, and see how far into the fall it can carry you.

That's it. For the moment. In a couple of days I'll check back in with something really cool that I did with my students recently, one of those things where I didn't regret saying "yes" one bit.

[1] Yes, I actually somehow said yes when I was supposed to say no, and now I've got weekly meetings with students all summer, and syllabi to revise, and and and.... It'll all be to the good, but only if I tackle it one thing at a time.

Monday, May 7, 2018


Another Very Short Post, because it's time to get going for work. I now stand at the precipice of Summer Break: one week of courses, one week of finals, one week of frantic grading and commencement exercises.

But this is also the time that things start to surface. All those promised writing projects that I put in cement overshoes and let sink to the bottom are floating to the top, bobbing up like unquiet corpses, staring accusingly with sightless eyes: "You promissssseed...."

Yep. Summer of the walking dead, coming to a theater near you.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

End-of-Semester Questions

... and things are much as normal; i.e. No Time To Post. But here are the eternal end-of-semester questions:

1. Why do faculty (myself included) assign all their major papers to be due in the final two weeks of the semester when we KNOW from experience that this will cause us pain and distress?

2. Why does the time crunch seem to leave some faculty time for writing long, crazy missives (and even longer responses to said crazy missives) to faculty online discussion lists? How are they doing this? Are elves doing their grading?

3. Where can I get some grading elves?

4. Do students not know where my office is until the last three weeks of the semester? Does it disappear like Brigadoon for the rest of the semester?

5. Why do I assign so much written work?

6. How is it that I have already booked my summer solid with work obligations?

7. Seriously: Where does one pick up those elves? And do they have relatives that do things like shop for groceries and do laundry?

Please feel free to add your own questions to the list...

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Here beginneth the week of tea and murder.

Three times now, in the last two weeks, I have laid down to bed at night, only to experience (for the first time ever) heartburn so painful that it drove me out of bed, dressed again, and to the store at midnight to get OTC medicine.

This morning, after ingesting my usual double-strength french press of coffee before work (and god it was delicious; I make a truly excellent pot of coffee), I realized that this might be the problem.

So, for one week, beginning tomorrow, I am giving up coffee. As an experiment. As a substitute, I plan to drink green or herbal tea. And probably kill people.

Consider this your warning.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Getting Stuff Done (and its exact opposite)

Spring Break, I got stuff done.

I should explain: I am gold-star motivated. That is to say, you give me an opportunity to earn some completely meaningless recognition, to check of the maximum number of things, and I'll do it. I am much more competitive against myself than I would ever dream of being against another human being. To give an example: in the sixth grade, the math teacher gave us the textbook and told us that our grade for the year would be based on how many of the pages we completed (with a satisfactory grade). I can't recall now how she combined this with actual teaching, but I can recall that about two thirds of the way through the year I had handed her back the book and said, "I'm done. What do I do now?"

So then it will be no surprise to anyone that, when I decided that I wanted to not piss away my spring break, I decided to make a chore chart:

Seriously: I posted this on my refrigerator. Like I was effing ten years old.

And it will be no surprise to anyone who knows me that this worked. By the end of spring break, I had filled in 49 of the 54 boxes. BOW DOWN BEFORE MY PRODUCTIVITY. AS GOD IS MY WITNESS, I WILL NEVER BE UNMOTIVATED AGAIN!

And then, the following week happened. I have missed all three of my exercise classes (though one of those was on accident). I have gorged on sugar and caffeine. I have written a total of 1000 words, read no new books or articles, and watched the grading pile up. I think I washed my hair once. I have spent a lot of hours that I have no idea where they went. I feel psychologically greasy.[1]

Do I need a new chore chart? Is there no way, even at almost fifty years old, that I will ever overcome my need for a gold star in order to do anything more demanding than putting on my pants in the morning?

[1] Though not literally greasy: my hair is of a type that only normally gets washed every three days, so while only washing my hair once is definitely a sign of my general apathy, the visible result is not as bad as it sounds. I may have problems elsewhere in my life, but anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I have Objectively Very Good Hair.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Naming Your Own Terms

This is just a short post that begins with two anecdotes from this semester:

1. Person asks me to review a book that I'm actually interesting in reading. They say "we need it in six weeks." I say, "Sounds interesting but I have a number of projects that I've already committed to over the next several months. I could do it, but only if you can wait until August." They respond, "Perfect! Where shall we send it?"

2. Person contacts me asking me to blurb a book. I respond about commitments, say "Not available till July." Response: July will be great; do you want it in hard copy or pdf?

Something that both of these have in common: they both respond to my offer to get back to them about four times longer than they want... within 15 minutes.

Lesson from midcareer: When you are doing work for free, you have a lot of power to set the conditions. You can say no, but if you want to say yes, you can say yes on your own terms.

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.


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!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Here's Why You Hate the Word "Webinar"


Awful, awful, awful.

But have you ever wondered why it's so awful? 

I think I've figured it out. Here's my pet theory as to why "webinar" sucks as a portmanteau: Because it's not a real portmanteau at all. The "web-" replaces "sem-", but "sem-" is not a prefix with a defined meaning that "web" is substituting for. The substitution is based on assonance. Which is fine if you are writing Old English epic poetry or a Tom Waits song, but not so much if you're trying to impart meaning.

Same goes for "webucator," which I have only seen one time, but which burned its way into my brain like sulphuric acid.


So: what other hideous edu-jargon do you hate and why?

(PS: my dad asked for more non-Middlemarch content. He made no specifications as to quality. Enjoy, Dad!)

Monday, March 26, 2018

Something New to Make Me Nuts

I've lived in Grit City Beach for 15 years. And I may -- MAY, mind you -- now have the financial resources to purchase a small home.

The question remains as to whether I have the emotional resources. I'll be doing this on my own, and that's both good and bad, in terms of organizing the whole process. Not to mention paying for it. But I thought that it might perhaps be amusing to view from the outside: "Book-smart person confronts the housing-industrial complex! Hilarity ensues!"

Here is my observation for the day: Why do so many condo-stagers paint the interior walls gray? Nothing says, "I want my condo to present all the warmth and charm of a high-priced chain hotel" quite like gray walls.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Submission and Rebellion (Middlemarch, Book Four)

A day late, but let’s get to it. Although this book is titled “three love problems,” I think that what really ties these chapters together is submission and rebellion.

The first of these comes from Featherstone. In life, his greatest — or maybe only — joy was making others bend to his will. Mary Garth was probably the only one who successfully resisted. Now, even after his death, Featherstone is making folks miserable, by making his relations attend his funeral. The first will is read, and most of it goes to Fred Vincy. But then the second will is read, and Fred gets nothing; it all goes to the executor, an apparent stranger, Joshua Rigg. The family goes off in a huff, and we only learn in book four’s final chapters who this Rigg is and why Featherstone has left him his entire estate. All of this apparently causes Mary Garth to feel some guilt (or does she? I have my doubts) about depriving Fred of his inheritance, though she tells Fred he’s better without it. Fred, deprived of independent means, reluctantly goes back to finish his education, possibly headed for the career in the church to which he is entirely unsuited.

We’ve also got the idea of wifely submission and rebellion, in two places. First, is the Lydgate/Rosamund marriage, which has happened all in a rush, with the Middlemarchers clucking in disapproval all the while. Lydgate seems to have thrown caution to the winds, as he spends himself into debt to set up the marital household. But he also is having some thoughts about how marriage works that are foreshadowing some possible disillusionment on the horizon: he has expectations of a docile adoring wife, with little thought as to what he needs to provide, other than someone to be adored. Is Lydgate on the verge of turning into Casaubon? That marriage isn’t working out so well, either. He becomes ever colder towards Dorothea under the growing suspicion that Dorothea disdains him as much as he secretly disdains himself. She teeters on the verge of hating him, but at the last moment collapses back into wifely solicitude.

  • Lydgate, looking forward to married life with Rosy: “Lydgate thought that after all his wild mistakes […] he had found perfect womanhood — felt as if already breathed upon by exquisite wedded affection such as would be bestowed by an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labours and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, get keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair’s-breadth beyond — docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from beyond that limit.”
  • Dorothea wonders of Casaubon, “And what exactly was he? She was able enough to estimate him — she who waited on his glances with trembling, and shut her best soul in prison, paying it only hidden visits, that she might be petty enough to please him, In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate.”

And speaking of Casaubon in relation to submission and rebellion, is he on the verge of turning into the late Featherstone? Along with his growing knowledge of his own failings and his wife’s knowledge of those failings is the fact that he can’t seem to make Ladislaw — who has taken employment with Mr. Brooke, who has purchased one of the local papers — leave just because he orders him to. This all combines into a suspicion that Ladislaw is setting himself up to swoop in and marry Dorothea and claim Casaubon’s lands, once Casaubon has died of his heart condition. He begins thinking of how he can change his dispositions to thwart this imagined plan, telling himself that this is for Dorothea’s own protection. On obligation and its limits:
  • The narrator speculates on Casaubon’s opposition to Ladislaw’s new employment with Mr. Brooke: “He had disliked Will while he helped him, but he had begun to dislike him still more now that Will had declined his help.”
  • Ladislaw refuses to accept Casaubon’s directive for him to leave off his employment with Mr. Brooke and to leave Middlemarch entirely: “Obligation may be stretched till it is no better than a brand of slavery stamped on us when we were too young to know its meaning.”

And there’s a more political submission and rebellion going on at Tipton Grange: Mr. Brooke’s paper seems to be a platform to launch him into politics as a reformer. This causes the Middlemarchers to cluck with disapproval yet again. But in this case, they may be right to do so, pointing out that Brooke doesn’t put any of these reform principles to practice on his own estate — something that is brought home to him in an encounter with one of his own tenants who defies his authority and promises that the reformers will come to sort out landlords like Brooke himself. 

  • The narrator, describing two views of the tenant lands on Mr. Brooke’s estates: “An observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freeman’s End: the old house had dormer-windows in the dark-red roof, two of the chimneys were choked with ivy, the large porch was blocked up with bundles of sticks, and half the windows were close with grey worm-eaten shutters. […] the mossy thatch of the cowshed, the broken grey barn-doors, the pauper labourers in ragged breeches who had nearly finished unloading a wagon of corn in to the barn, the scanty dairy of cows being tethered for milking […] all these objects under the quiet light of a sky marbled with high clouds would have made a sort of picture which we have all paused over as a “charming bit,” touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest, with the sad lack of farming capital, as seen constantly in the newspapers of that time.”[1]

And finally, a bit of good, old-fashioned Mrs. Cadwaller snark, just because: “Oh my dear, when you have a clergyman in your family you must accommodate your tastes: I did that very early. When I married Humphrey I made up my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn’t have the end without them.” 

I think that's what I've got here. What will happen next? Will Lydgate turn into Casaubon? Will Casaubon turn into Featherstone? Will Dodo and Mary Garth form a feminist collective? And what of that paper with Bulstrode's signature that Mr. Rigg's stepfather unintentionally spirited away from their curt meeting? Tune in two weeks from now to find out when we return to discuss book five...

[1] And since this quote is also a good critique of the limits of Romanticism, let's have another, equally pointed one: Dorothea, to Ladislaw, who is on the verge of slapping a label on her ideas about what constitutes the good: “Please not to call it by any name. You will say it is Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life.” You tell him, Dodo.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Rethinking Things (Middlemarch book 3, chs. 28-33)

Hello all! After a long absence, some of you may be wondering whether the title refers to me rethinking my decision to take on this book. No! I'm finally getting to appreciate much about it, despite my issues with the pacing. I'm loving the sly asides and observational wit (mostly from the narrator). I'm even loving, in a melancholy way, how we are seeing what remarked to a friend this weekend was "watching the death of idealistic aspirations in real time." It's sad. But it's also so beautifully drawn that I can't help loving it.

I will rethink one thing, though: I've been very bad about getting to posts weekly, and I don't expect that the back half of the semester will make that any easier. So I've rethought how often we'll meet to discuss what. From now on: Every other Monday, and we discuss a whole book. These are usually 10-12 chapters, so a chapter a day is still the right pace. But putting together the posts really takes some time and thought, and the books are meant to cohere as a whole, so taking the analysis book by book makes sense.

But this week, we're still talking about the back half of book three "Waiting for Death." Cheery title, no? I like it, because it refers directly to the Featherstone chapters, but indirectly to the experience of death-in-life that seems to hang over several of our characters, who are doing a lot of rethinking on their own. The quick synopsis, then the themes. Dorothea is back home with Casaubon, and seems to be reconsidering her choice of life and husband: everything at Lowick manor seems dull to her, and the portrait of Causaubon's disgraced sister (or was that his aunt?) -- the one who made the supposedly "bad" marriage -- is the only thing with life in the place. Likewise, Casaubon himself is sort of wondering why marriage isn't solving all his problems and making him automatically happy. The mutual dissatisfaction comes to a head during a minor passive-aggressive non-argument between the two over whether Ladislaw can come for a visit (C has said no before consulting D), and Casaubon has a heart attack. Lydgate is called in to treat him and prescribes restful diversions, for which Causaubon has nothing but contempt. Dortothea shows real concern about Casaubon, though in the context of what we've seen so far, I have to admit I'm not sure why. Also rethinking things is Lydgate, who, after being cautioned that Rosy is actually attached to him, decides that he is attached to her as well, and the two get engaged. (Oh! I forgot to mention that Celia and Sir James are engaged, too, and seem to be the only genuinely happy people in this whole mess at the moment). Finally, Featherstone is rethinking things on his deathbed. Turns out that he has made two wills, and as he lies dying, he orders Mary Garth to unlock the box and bring him one to burn... and she refuses. Good for you, Mary!

Okay, on to the themes:

Transcendence and its Opposite: This is a so-far-minor theme in Rosamund Vincy's goals with Lydgate: he's not just handsome; he represents something that it Not-Middlemarch. But the search for transcendence looms largest in the whole Dorothea/Casaubon pairing (and maybe with Ladislaw as well, once he comes back in). Dorothea, for all her intellect, is starved for something to take her beyond a too-average present. She thought she had that with Casaubon, but he's taking her in precisely the opposite direction. In fact, there's a passage from chapter 29 that I think is one of the saddest in the whole book: "For my part, I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy, to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self -- never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted."
Control: This is all over the place in these chapters. Casaubon asserts his control over "his" household by peremptorily refusing to invite Ladislaw; Dorothea accedes but does not submit by telling her husband that he was wrong to assume that she'd argue -- that is, to presume to know her mind. Featherstone tries to control everyone around him, even as he lies dying. His relations try to control the outcome of his testament by hovering around, making skeptical noises about the "outsiders" who might be taking everything away.

Rethinking the conventions of the romantic novel: This is probably my favorite thing about these chapters. When I started out, I wondered if this would be a slightly more intellectual Jane Austen novel: who-marries-whom with a dollop of cultural critique. But these chapters have put the final nail in that coffin, in several ways:
  • Marriage is not the climax and happy fulfillment; rather, it is something we place too many romantic hopes in: "Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty;[1]  it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape,[2] with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight." [ch. 28] 
  • Mary Garth! In a typical romantic novel, she would be the long-suffering model of virtue who sits quietly and patiently until some pleasant-but-secondary character recognizes and falls in love with all these things. Instead, she resists Fred Vincy's advances, and even is the one person to stand up to bullying Featherstone. Best of all, the narrator makes it clear that even her inner heart is her own: "She had always seen the most disagreeable side of Mr. Featherstone: he was not proud of her, and she was only useful to him. To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth, and Mary was not one of them." [ch. 33]  I heart Mary sooo much.

That's what I've got, so feel free to comment on any of these, or jump in with your own ideas, quotes, complaints... And two weeks from now (that's Monday the 19th) we meet to discuss Book 4: "Three Love Problems." When I saw this title, I was sure that this would mark a return to the dreaded "who will the girls marry?" plotlines. But with these past chapters behind me, I am certain that Eliot has something else in store for us. And if nothing else, we'll get to see what's in Featherstone's will! Will Fred Vincy get a big settlement that gets him out of debt and saves Mary Garth's family from the debt he imposed upon them? Will it all go to the grasping relations? Stay tuned..

[1] Note to self: make this a theme later. I kind of love it.

[2] OMG, this, too.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

In Lieu of Middlemarch, a Tale from My Brain

First of all, Middlemarch post is delayed a week for international travel. For those of you asking "Where should I be caught up to?", the post next Monday will cover the final chapters (28-33) of book three, "Waiting for Death."

But, since I don't have anything on that story today, I'll tell you another one, this one from my own brain. Which is a strange, strange place sometimes.

This week begins a crazy time of conferencing. This weekend, I have a weekend symposium in Frankfurt. Next weekend, it's the Medieval Academy in Atlanta. I, meanwhile, reside in a place in the Pacific time zone. So this week has required a lot of mental preparation. Over and over again, I've been repeating the litany: "Teach on Monday; Laundry/pack on Tuesday; Leave for Germany on Wednesday; Arrive on Thursday; Return home on Sunday; teach Monday-Weds; leave for Atlanta on Thursday; present on Friday; Return home on Sunday; teach on Monday..."

It's a long litany, and not an interesting one, but it's been helping me by cementing in my mind that there's a precise order to everything, and if I stick to it, I'll be more or less fine. Tired, but fine. The papers are done, anyway.

So, today (Tuesday) I had set aside as my calm-before-the-storm day off, a day to charge the batteries before two weeks of chaos. I was going to meet a friend for morning coffee, then go to yoga, do laundry, pack, etcetera. And this morning, I woke up at 4:30, because I was a little cold. As I found another blanket and resettled in, I reminded myself that I needed to remember to take my passport info to the coffee shop, because yesterday when I had tried to check in for my flight, I didn't have what I needed with me.

And then it occurred to me to wonder: Why would the airline send me a check-in notification two days before the flight, rather than the usual one day?

And then it hit me.

Oh, shit.

And at 4:30, I was suddenly wide awake, checking my e-mail. Yes indeed: I had miscalculated my departure. I'm not leaving tomorrow.

I'm leaving today.

Happy travels!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Thinking of Money (Middlemarch chs. 23-27)

“Think no ill of her, pray: she had no wicked plots, nothing sordid or mercenary; in fact, she never thought of money except as something necessary which other people would always provide.” (chapter 27)

This week’s chapters find us back with the wide and varied middle of Middlemarch: those striving to move from the middle class to the gentry, those hanging on to their middle-class livings by their fingernails, and still coming up short, and those for whom money (or other people’s lack of money) is a way to exert power. But it’s also about a self-absorption that afflicts most of the characters.

A quick synopsis: We learn of how Fred Vincy has gotten into financial trouble, and has thought to get out of it by “investing” in a horse that almost immediately kicks a groom and then lames itself. Worse, his most recent debt extension has Mary’s father, Mr. Garth, as a cosigner. He confesses to Mr. & Mrs. Garth, who will now have to use their savings for their son’s education, plus whatever Mary has saved up. And we meet Mr. and Mrs. Garth, in-laws to spiteful Featherstone, but about as far from him in temperament as one might imagine. Anyway, Fred confesses to Mary, who is angry at him: first for lowing the money; second for caring more about his reputation with her than the real harm he has done. But she does soften to him a little, and when her father comes, who turns over her savings, and assures him that she won’t become engaged to Fred. Meanwhile, Fred takes to his bed with what turns out to be misdiagnosed typhus. This occasions a conflict between Lydgate, who is now treating him, and Dr. Wrench, who provided the original mistaken diagnosis. The petty feud is grist of the rumor mill in Middlemarch, but the illness and Lydgate’s attendance on the Vincy household throws him into closer contact with Rosamond. Here, too, are signs that Middlemarch may swallow Lydgate up, in yet another way.

On Money, and how it might be used and abused:
  • [Mr. Garth] was one of those precious men within his own district whom everybody would choose to work for them, because he did his work well, charged very little, and often declined to charge at all. It is no wonder, then, that the Garths were poor, and ‘lived in a small way.’ However, they did not mind it.” [ch. 24]
  • Mr. Featherstone’s opinion of Caleb Garth: “…felt himself ill at ease with a brother-in-law whom he could not annoy, who did not mind about being considered poor, had nothing to ask of him, and understood all kinds of farming and mining business better than he did.” [ch. 26]

On Self-Absorption:
  • “[Mrs. Garth] had made Fred feel for the first time something like the tooth of remorse. Curiously enough, his pain in the affair beforehand had consisted almost entirely in the sense that he must seem dishonourable, and sink in the opinion of the Garths; he had not occupied himself with the inconvenience and possible injury that his breach might occasion them, for this exercise of the imagination on other people’s needs is not common with hopeful young gentlemen. Indeed we are most of us brought up in the notion that the highest motive for not doing a wrong is something irrespective of the beings who would suffer the wrong.” [ch. 24]
  • “Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! The scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere e impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection, These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person…” [ch. 27]

And now, with apologies for the bullet points nature of this week’s post, I'm going to sign off. I’m at the office almost four hours after my last class ended, I’ve eaten an egg, a piece of cheese, and an orange all day, and I really need to post this and go home. But please do jump in!

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Bestest Week Ever

Considering that I came down with the flu on Sunday and am still suffering symptoms, you'd not think that this was the Best Week Ever (lately). But it was. My old blogfriend Squadratomagico does Friday Facebook posts asking what was the best thing that happened all week, and for once, I had trouble picking one. And so right now, with a stuffed-up brain, here are some of the truly excellent things, all of which happened between Monday and Thursday:

  • Little Brother and Youngest Nephew arrived in town for a visit to the Beehive and points south. There was beach time and delicious food and general silliness.
  • My last M.A. student (for the forseeable future -- we've had to temporarily shutter my field in the grad program) just got notified that s/he's been accepted into one of the best Ph.D. programs in the country for hir field.
  • The students in my Mediterranean seminar absolutely killed it last night, in a week where they -- undergrads and grads -- had to read 450 pages of Pirenne, Braudel, Goitein, Horden & Purcell, and Abulafia, and process it all. They totally got into it. One undergrad even professed his love for Braudel by calling him "the Beyoncé of the Mediterranean."
  • I got reimbursed for my major travel expenses for one of two upcoming conferences.
    I'm mostly caught up on grading and lectures and stuff, and even ahead in some places.
  • I knocked out a near-final draft to the second of two upcoming conference papers, and can now return to writing on the "Sometimes an Adequate Notion" chapter of my book.

Okay, so I'm still going through about a box of kleenex a week, and don't feel like I can ride my bike or do yoga without exhausting myself and/or making others ill. And my body is drained of all moisture. But even with all that, life is excellent this week.

How about you guys?

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Least Partial Good (Middlemarch, chapters 18-22)

A quick recap: Most of these chapters are set in Rome, following Dorothea, Casaubon, and Ladislaw (remember him?), but the first one is set in Middlemarch, finishing off the election of chaplain, in which Lydgate surprises none of us by going along with the general consensus and voting for Bulstrode’s candidate Tyke, rather than for Farebrother, whom he obviously prefers. Meanwhile, in Rome, Dorothea is beginning to realize that she’s made a terrible mistake when she runs into her nephew-by-marriage Ladislaw, still on his aimless European tour to find himself and his purpose. He’s fallen in with a German painter named Naumann, and has caught the Romanticism bug, which appeals to his spirit (he being sort of an off-brand would-be Byron, minus the talent and the true commitment to self-destruction). Ladislaw begins to develop feelings for his aunt by marriage, seeing in her a kindred ardent spirit, and realizing at once what Dorothea has slowly been coming to: that she’s not going to be happy with a dried-up old stick like Casaubon. Dorothea may be feeling something for Ladislaw as well, but she is still committed to her course, trying to smooth over the bumps in her marriage even as she is becoming increasingly dissatisfied with it, and seeing the flaws in both her new husband and her own decision-making abilities. Casaubon, for his part, is coming to a disturbing realization of his own: that Dorothea may be capable of not worshipping him unconditionally.

Oh: And Casaubon doesn’t know German! For you non-historians out there, the Germans were at the cutting edge of historical scholarship in the mid-19th century — though probably more in Eliot’s own time than in the period that the novel is set in. Basically, this fact about Casaubon is meant to communicate that what seems like erudition is really antiquarianism, and that even if he ever finishes his book, it will never amount to much.

On Middlemarch as academic novel: As I read chapter 18, which is the very last Lydgate chapter before moving to Rome, I couldn’t help seeing the committee of medical men (by the way, does anyone know why medical men are the committee to elect a chaplain?) as an academic department — and the kind of ugly, dysfunctional portrait one gets in academic novels. I was particularly struck by this quote: “[They] concealed with much etiquette their contempt for each other’s skill. Regarding themselves as Middlemarch institutions, they were ready to combine against all innovators, and against non-professionals given to interference.” And, of course, in the end, Lydgate, like most academics, goes along to get along, laboriously convincing himself that he’s doing the right thing, while all the while that little voice in his head tells him that this is wrong. Anyone want to take bets on how long until he’s assimilated into department culture?

On sensuality and rationality: Eliot has several times hinted at a deep vein of sensuality — a capital-R Romantic spirit — in Dorothea, and how scrupulously Dorothea has suppressed that in herself. But apparently she can only do this for so long. Her time in Rome — and her realization that her new husband will never see what she sees — has become the trigger: “What was fresh to her mind was worn out to his, and such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” Perhaps the painter Naumann sees her most clearly: “a sort of Christian Antigone — sensuous force controlled by spiritual passion.”

On doing the least partial good: in chapter 22, Dorothea, speaking with Ladislaw ostensibly about art, veers into a discussion of life and its little turning points: “I see it must be difficult to do anything good. I have often felt since I have been in Rome that most of our lives would look much uglier and more bungling than the pictures, if they could be put on the wall.” In both Dorothea and Lydgate, we see people whose great purpose is slowly eroded by their own small compromises (Lydgate) or idealistic but ill-informed decisions (Dorothea). This is where the title for this post comes from: a quote in chapter 20 in which the narrator tells us that “in Dorothea’s mind there was a current into which all thought and feeling were apt sooner or later to flow: the reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good. There was clearly something better than anger and despondency.” All things told, this is probably the best she can do. But the phrase “the least partial good” I read as Eliot’s wry inversion of the core of Utilitarian philosophy (the “felicific calculus” of “The greatest good for the greatest number” — see my interlude of a couple weeks ago). Dorothea is neither a Romantic like Ladislaw nor a Utilitarian; she is starting to see that it will take most of her effort to cause as little unhappiness as possible.

Gah. That’s a grim note to end on. So let me finish on the one laugh-out-loud quote in this week’s reading. From chapter 18, in which the learned gentlemen of Middlemarch are debating the Tyke-versus-Farebrother question: “Nobody had anything to say against Mr. Tyke, except that they could not bear him…”

That’s it. Next Monday we begin a new book (“Waiting for Death” — sounds fun!), and we’ll take the first five chapters (23-27) in which we return to likeable, hapless Fred Vincy.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Getting Romantic: A Middlemarch Interlude

Welcome to your latest installment of “The Victorian Era by and for Nonspecialists.” If you find me wrong in any particulars – especially if you are a specialist! – please leave corrections in the comments section.

As we turn to the second half of book 2 next Monday, we are going to return to Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome on their honeymoon. I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a spoiler to tell you that they’re going to bump into Will Ladislaw again. Remember Will? He’s the young man of artistic temperament with no particular goals. But understanding him – and maybe his and Dorothea’s interaction – requires understanding another cultural movement around this time: Romanticism.

Romanticism was, to put it very roughly, the artistic equivalent to Methodist emotionalism, but in literature, painting, even architecture. The movement in general is a conscious rejection of artifice in favor of nature, of cold rationalism (like the Utilitarians) in favor of mystery and the exotic; a belief that the imagination can create something truer than reality, a glimpse behind the veil of sense perception into the world of the transcendent/sublime. The movement had different variants in different parts of Europe. In Germany, for example, it was linked with mythology (think Wagner) as much as it was with nature. English romanticism was less nationalist-mythologizing. Rather, literature, poetry, and painting manifested the movement primarily in three themes: pastoralism (as a rejection of industrial modernity), exoticism/orientalism, and a fascination with the glories of past civilizations -- and, through their ruins, a fixation on the evanescent nature of even the greatest of human achievements. These themes also were reflected in architecture, where the fascinations were with both the gothic and the eastern, as symbols of mystery.

The movement also gave birth to a new type of artist: the "Romantic hero" (perhaps best personified by Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and their circle) is a genius who rejects worldly concerns and defies moral convention for their class in order to pursue higher truths. Like a certain young man we have met…

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Did I really just do that?

I may be off by a few days.  I may have a few more proofreads and some footnotes to format. But...


I think I just wrote an 8,000-word article, start to finish,[1] in the month of January.

Holy moly.



I wonder if I could do that again?

[1] To be fair, I'd done 90% of the research already. And the idea had been kicking around in my head for over a year. But the writing. I wrote the thing. All of it. In a month.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

On Being Swallowed Whole (Middlemarch, book 2, chapters 13-17)

“For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shaped after the average and fit to be packed by the gross is hardly ever told in their consciousness, for perhaps their adror in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, til one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly.”  --ch. 15

Well, better late than never, right? The reading a chapter a night is going well, but distilling my reading into a coherent narrative and set of points to ponder and actually getting that post up has been problematic. In my defense, I can only plead that the first week of classes (see previous post) swallowed me whole.

And speaking of getting swallowed whole, that seems to be what is happening to Lydgate. In this first half of book two, Lydgate, who has come to Middlemarch so that he can do his work independent of the opinions of his more academically luminous medical brethren, finds himself entangled in a different set of orthodoxies: the matter of the election of a chaplain. Mr. Bulstrode, a local power broker, has hinted that he will underwrite Lydgate's plans for a hospital, organized according to Lydgate's reform principles. But Bulstrode also has a candidate that he favors for chaplain, and while he never comes right out and says so, Lydgate understands that this might be a quid pro quo. Bulstrode's power comes not just from money, but from the network of personal obligation that he has woven throughout the influential of Middlemarch society. And while Lydgate sees the trap ahead of him, we leave these few chapters with him still uncertain as to how to avoid it.

Another theme, one that we've encountered before, is personal ambition. Chapter 15 gives us a biographical sketch of Lydgate who has, until now, been "a cluster of signs for his neighbors' [and readers'!] false suppositions. We see the formation of a man who does not mean to be average, and who sees Middlemarch as an opportunity to prove himself, away from the constraints of academic medicine. The one time he deviated from his path to fall in love with an actress -- and possible murderess, as it turns out -- the lesson he took away was that deviating from his purpose would only bring him grief.

Along with sense of purpose, and thwarted purpose, we have deviated purpose. As much as Lydgate has sacrificed all to follow his calling, Mr. Farebrother (one of the two candidates for chaplain) seems to have sacrificed his true love -- for entymology, of all things -- to pursue a respectable career in the church in order to support his family. He seems relatively cheerful, but the meeting between Farebrother and Lydgate seems to be a way for the narrator to emphasize how difficult true independence can be.

And then, there's how "sense of purpose" intersects with all that love stuff. Fred Vincy, offended by Mr. Featherstone's casual cruelty towards Mary Garth, seems to open the door to a match between the two of them, but Mary insists that she's not interested in idle men. Will this prompt aimless Fred to develop some aims? Or will it just be too much trouble? On the other end of the spectrum, Farebrother proposes Mary Garth as a potential partner to Lydgate, but Lydgate, burned by love and consumed by his own work, disregards this. He had also flirted gently with the much more conventionally appealing Rosalind, who left a small party convinced that she and Lydgate had a future together, but for Lydgate, even Rosalind could not pull him away from his own goals.

What will happen to Lydgate's sense of purpose as Middlemarch devours him will not, one thinks, be good.

  • On having one's sense of purpose get diverted to serve the purposes of others: “Not only young virgins of that town, but grey-bearded men also, were often in haste to conjecture how a new acquaintance might be wroght into their purposes, contented with a very vague knowledge as to the way in which life had been shaping him for that instrumentality. Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably.” (ch. 15)
  • Regarding independence: “Very few men can do that. Either you slip out of service altogether, and become good for nothing, or you wear the harness and draw a good deal where your yoke-fellows pull you.” (ch. 17)


Monday, January 22, 2018

First Day Observations

  1. I haven't been in the classroom since last May. More importantly, I haven't been in my classroom clothes since last May. Spain included a lot of delicious cheese. You do the math.
  2. My classes are packed. Seriously: all of them are full to capacity. This is unusual for medievalists. But damn, it's not easy leading a discussion in these big classes.
  3. I have almost all my classes prepped and ready through March. Because February is going to be a haze of travel and writing and course prep. 
  4. This begins my fifteenth year on the tenure track. Why do I still feel like a rank beginner?
  5. If there were any class in which to have an interrupting mansplainer, did it have to be my gender class?
  6. This is not a Middlemarch post. In case you hadn't figured that out by now. But that will come tomorrow.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Religious and Philosophical Landscape: A Middlemarch Interlude

First things first: I promise that this isn't on its way to becoming The Middlemarch Blog.  I'm aiming to post three times a week, with only Fridays being about the book. Regular programming will resume soon, I promise. It's just that right now, with the ramp-up to the semester, I've had precious little time to post about the many things medieval and modern that I've been thinking about. And for the next few weeks, one of the remaining two posts per week is getting folks -- and myself! -- up to speed on the context of the novel so we know what the heck is going on. So this is one of those "Middlemarch interludes."

Once again, corrections and emendations from more expert commenters are welcome.

This past week's reading had a leitmotif of "ardent" versus "rationalist." And here, Eliot may be drawing on a big change that took place in English religion about a century before her time, and that was still a very fraught issue during the time the novel is set in. Previously, the major conflicts in English religion, broadly speaking, were between Protestants and Catholics, with the Anglican church (or Church of England) representing the former. As noted in the previous post on the upper classes in Victorian England, political position, whether in parliament or in the provinces, was often tied to membership in -- or even clerical position within -- the Anglican church. The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw some fringe movements within the broader body of Protestant believers, but these sects -- folks like the Quakers, for example -- never had the large-scale membership that would make them anything but a fringe curiosity.

That all changed in the late eighteenth century with the rise of two important movements: Utilitarianism, and evangelicals/Methodists. These seem to have arisen and become popular in part as spiritual responses to the social and political upheavals associated with the "triple revolution" of the mid-eighteenth century: changes in industry, agriculture, and an explosion in population, especially in the cities. I'm particularly interested in these new religious movements because they each representing one of the approaches to life (rationalist vs. ardent) that we saw a lot of in chapters 7-12 of the novel. Not saying that these characters in Middlemarch are Utilitarians or Evangelicals, but they do represent a growing debate in English society that has its roots in these new religions.

First, the Utilitarians, and their avatar, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham's Utilitarian philosophy rejected the premise that one's actions should be dictated by abstract ideals that characterize most religious practice. For Bentham, "good" is defined by its outcomes: that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Bentham even referred to a "felicific calculus": individuals, institutions, and actions are only as good or as bad as the results they produce.

On the other end of the scale, we have evangelicals (later "Methodists"), represented by John Wesley (1703-91). In contrast to the Utilitarians, evangelicals were emotional, personal, and individualistic in their philosophy, embracing an emotional and personal faith based on individual experience of a salvation that is based in grace, but manifested in an individual's godly works. Some of this latter included the ascetic tendencies we tend to associated with Wesley and his followers: renouncing things like drinking, dancing, and frivolity. But evangelicals also embraced philanthropy, and a strong social reformist streak that blended with moral censoriousness. Despite this philanthropic side, it would be a mistake to think this was a theology of social revolution: Wesley supported the social hierarchy, and urged his followers to look for their rewards in the next world, not this one. Nevertheless, the individualism of this movement appealed a great deal to the middle classes, who saw moral reform as a key to self-reliance.

Finally, we should note that elements of this evangelical philosophy existed within the Anglican church -- a small faction to be sure, but one that focused on promoting individual faith and societal reform (many such Anglicans, for example, were deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement) from within existing structures.

So, to the characters: they're all Anglicans, but to what degree do they represent either of these philosophies, for all their Anglican affiliation? Casaubon seems very Utilitarian to me, while Dorothea is clearly a reformer in the evangelical mold. Keep an eye out for this in chapters 13-17, and more, as they unfold...

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.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Banging on about Class Again: A Middlemarch Interlude

Confession time: I’ve been having a hard time getting into Middlemarch. And the reason is pretty simple: I have no idea what the heck is going on.

When I read Don Quixote (last year’s “big read”) for the first time, one of the reasons that I was able to appreciate it was that I got the references. I knew enough about Spain and the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century to get the little allusions and jokes scattered throughout that marvelous near-1000-page novel. As I read the first chapters of Middlemarch for last week, I had the strong sense that Eliot, like other Victorian novelists, was relying on her own readers’ sense of the recent past to be able to get the jokes. I don’t; therefore I didn’t get it. As any historian will tell you, Context matters.

So, I approached a colleague who teaches modern Britain and begged her to lend me a textbook. And I started reading. And lo and behold! I actually am starting to get what’s going on!

So, as a public service to Comrade Physioprof (who asked for it) and my other commenters (who didn’t, but who might appreciate it), I’m going to post a short series of “Middlemarch interludes” midweek, in which I cover some of the context — the quick-and-dirty textbook version of a nonspecialist. Beginning today, and over the next month, I’ll cover the following:
  • Victorian Class society in the period of the novel
  • The intellectual and spiritual revolutions predating the time of the novel
  • Political reform in the period of the novel
  • Society & Culture in George Eliot’s time (about 40 years after the time of the novel)

I would also love for someone out there to take a fifth post, about a month from now, on George Eliot herself — about 500 to 800 words to give the nonspecialists some context. Any Victorian lit specialists out there? Get in touch!

Okay, so that’s a long prelude to a first post. Here’s the real post:


Middlemarch is set in the provinces in the English midlands during the short period between 1829 and 1832. As we’ll see in a couple of weeks, these few years were a time of momentous political and social reform in Britain. But the novel deals broadly with class society in early Victorian Britain, in a time of frequent boom and bust cycles,[1] so it’s appropriate to start there. Society in Victorian England can roughly be divided into three major groups, each with their own subgroups:

  • The landed classes were made up of two distinct groups: the titled hereditary aristocracy (about 300 families), and the much more numerous landed gentry (about ten times as many families). Since the Brooks family and their associates are members of the latter, they’re the ones I’m going to focus on here. The gentry had a paternalistic attitude to the poor, especially those on their lands, but this was not part of any egalitarian impulse; they were fine with the social hierarchy just the way it was. Work for pay, including trade/merchant work, was considered demeaning, with the exception of “the professions”: clergy, military, law, and medicine. The gentry in their parishes (a political subdivision as much as an ecclesiastical one) were also closely linked with the Anglican church, and country squire and parson were the two complementary faces of authority in Victorian provincial society. As for women of the gentry, marriage was their main life goal, but this did not necessarily make them dependent, as they came to marriages with annual incomes settled on them by their fathers (contrast this with the more dependent situation of middle-class women, below).
  • The middle class aspired to the wealth and status of the gentry, and kept a servant or two, a country house, and income-producing land when they could. Unlike the gentry, paid work remained central to their lives — for men, that is: the aspirational culture of this class, however, meant that women were not part of the workforce. Since women of the middle classes also lacked the income settlements of their counterparts in the gentry, they were much more dependent on their husbands, and it could be argued [?] that middle class was more patriarchal than the gentry — the familiar tropes of “separate spheres” and “the angel in the house”, after all, centered on the women of the middle classes. This was also the sector of British society most likely to be drawn to nonconformist religions like the Methodists or even some of the more fringe sects like Quakers or Unitarians… but we’ll get to that next week, okay?
  • The working classes: I deliberately use the plural here because these were several distinct strata, ranging from artisans to semi-skilled laborers in the factories to unskilled manual labor in the mines or on agricultural estates. They did, however, have some common features. First, they were shut out from political participation (then again, so were the middle classes, until the 1830s, but we’ll get to that two weeks from now). Second, everyone worked: men, women, children. No angels in the house here. Third, they had little to no formal schooling. [2] The working classes were also targets of evangelical reformers, especially temperance reformers. Finally, this period saw the beginnings of growth in trade unions, which were as much a source of social fellowship as they were an economic negotiating body.

All right. That’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think? Next Monday we’ll meet here to discuss the second half of book 1, and sometime in the middle of next week I’ll post an interlude covering all those nonconformist religious sects that I’m sure are going to play a role in future chapters. And remember: Anyone who’d like to take a crack at summing up the author’s life and career in 500-800 words, drop me a line!


[1] The novel itself is set in the midst of a pretty big boom cycle, fueled by over-speculation. A few years after the end of the novel’s story, the huge boom was followed by an equally huge bust that took England over half a decade to climb out of. The author knows this, but her characters do not. All they know is that things are chugging along quite well, economically speaking.

[2] Not that they were thoroughly illiterate. In fact, members of parliament found working-class literacy possibly dangerous, and passed laws to tax newsprint, making newspapers unaffordable to most working-class folk — though pamphlets with diverting or lurid tales or moralizing messages came cheap.