I’m reading Middlemarch because it’s sort of ridiculous that I haven’t. “Your whole Victorian…thing?” a friend once said; “Completely unvalid until you’ve read Middlemarch.”
“I don’t think unval–”
“UN!” he said dramatically before giving me a finger-poke to the chest “VALID!”
Also, recently, my friend Catherine IMd me, excited to discuss the brilliance that is Middlemarch. “I *mumble*n’t really *mumble*d it,” I said.
“Maybe I mis-typed it,” she said. “I meant Middlemarch, by George Eliot? The nineteenth century novel? Because surely you’ve read Middlemarch by George Eliot?”
“Um, no I haven–”
“Shh. I can’t hear you when the world doesn’t make sense.”
I’ve tried many times to slog through Eliot’s novel. Each time feels like this is when I’m going to finish it. And then, each time, right around the time Dorothea visits the house and maybe there’s some chickens or something — right about then (the existence of chickens notwithstanding) is when I start wondering what some other characters might be up to.
To put it another way: I read Elizabeth Kostova’s terrible idea of a novel,The Historian*, to get away from anyone connected with Middlemarch. (Proof that if there is a God, she’s a Middlemarch man.)
[* Something I wrote about The Historian: The novel also suffers from Convoluted Bad Guy syndrome, where the Bad Guy acts like he’s controlled by Rube Goldbergian forces so that, instead of taking the easiest way (e.g., killing the protagonist and destroying all the evidence that leads to the Bad Guy), he does things like strangles cats and appears mysteriously in paintings. Maybe Evil needs some time management courses; maybe Evil is suffering from some kind of low self-esteem. What I want Evil to know is: Dude — you can totally do it! You can go out there, and you can get the job done in one fell swoop, rather than in these awkward step-by-steps, and you’re going to have a great day. I believe in you, Evil! GO GET ‘EM!]
Anyway. I’m reading Middlemarch. Again. Because I’m always reading Middlemarch. Here’s how far I’ve gotten, and some thoughts I have about the novel so far.
It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing — so much so that I’ve printed out a portion of it to keep at my cubicle at work. (This is what you have to look forward to, once you’re an adult: decorating your drab workspace with the words of others while trying to feel like every decision that brought you to this moment wasn’t a complete waste of time. Bon voyage!)
Yet it’s also what gives me the first glimmerings that the reading itself is going to be challenging. That opening sentence, to me, is a corker: “Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa.” In the five times that I’ve tried — and failed — to get through Middlemarch, I always read that opening clause not as a question — Who hasn’t thought about Saint Theresa when thinking about the history of humankind? — but as a descriptive sentence instead; that Eliot is going to tell us who this person is that cares to know the history of man.
This is, of course, entirely my fault as a reader. The sentence is perfectly understandable once you get to where Eliot wants to take you. But it’s also this kind of writing that makes me a little sympathetic to anyone who says they’ll have no truck with nineteenth century literature. This sort of convoluted writing doesn’t welcome the reader in. It’s no, “Dombey sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new.”
There are sentences of modern writing that are as convoluted as the opening of Middlemarch (for instance, any single sentence that Faulkner wrote under the heading Absalom, Absalom); the difference, though, I think, is that, after re-reading Middlemarch‘s opening, you understand the sentence (though you may, like me, still not be entirely clear on what the “mysterious mixture” is; sure, it seems like it must be “the history of man” but it’s an odd way of expressing it, no?); that’s a good sentence. Any sentence that one reads multiple times and finds still impossible to suss out? That’s bad writing. Too often, bad writing is sloughed off onto the reader as if it’s her fault; she’s not up to the challenge of literature or something ridiculous. But that’s not the case. Good sentences can be challenging initially, but they’re always solvable. Bad sentences play frustratingly with the reader’s goodwill. So, though that opening is challenging, it’s not a bad sentence.
Anyway — that’s my pretty lame attempt at expressing how I stumble often, out of the block, when reading the novel.
What’s beautiful about the Prelude is Eliot’s argument, and I’ll quote it here: “Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.” Especially the idea that one can be as important to the very fabric of the universe as Eliot considers Theresa, and still look back at one’s life as if it were “only a life of mistakes.” We mistake how necessary we are.
Dorothea Brooke, whom we’ll meet in a second in Chapter 1, is a Theresa desperate for an epic life. She’s going to be one of the martyrs we’ll meet who quietly — at least in terms of a far-reaching narrative — sacrifices herself. This tiny metaphorical death, though, is maybe more important than St Theresa’s life because it’s so much more attainable. Eliot is talking about each of us here; Eliot is saying that we’re all worthy of epic enterprises — that life itself is an epic enterprise — even if ultimately we end up being a “foundress of nothing.”
But I’m telling you guys: there’s some stuff with chickens coming up that’s going to be super irritating. Don’t let this love poem to the Prelude fool you.