Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot

In 2015 the BBC took a poll asking critics around the world to name the greatest British novel ever written.  The critics chose Middlemarch by George Eliot published  between 1870-1871.  Now, I don't believe too much in ranking classics. They all have their unique genius and admirers but what I will say is that Middlemarch is one of the greatest books I have ever read and I have read a great deal.

Middlemarch is also a novel that covers a wide range of topics:  love, marriage, religion, families, industrialization, class, medicine, politics, human nature and the narrator of Middlemarch doesn't hold back in giving her opinions and observations.  But I didn't mind because the narrator (possibly George Eliot herself) has great insight into why people behave as they do and why they make the bad choices they sometimes make.  There were characters I didn't like in this book, specifically Rosamond Lydgate and Edward Casaubon but even there George Eliot is able to flesh them out so that I had some sympathy.  And so now, on to the plot.

Middlemarch is set in England during the early 1830s and the novel begins with an unusual preface, a brief story about St Theresa of Avilla and how in 16th century Spain as a child she and her young brother set out from their home hoping to become martyrs. We then leave this brief tale and are introduced to Dorothea Brooke, the main character and heroine of Middlemarch. 

Dorothea is 17 beautiful, intelligent, upper class.  She lives with her sister Celia and her Uncle Arthur Brooke who has raised both young women since the death of their parents.  Arthur is a somewhat foolish character but he's done a good job raising his neices   The town of Middlemarch assumes that Dorothea will make an excellent match with some lucky fellow.  

But Dorothea is not like other young women.  Clothes, fine jewelry, wealth mean nothing to her.   She wants to do good in the world and had she lived in the twentieth century she might have joined a humanitarian organization but in 1830 she doesn't have this option.  And then while talking with Rev Edward Casaubon at a dinner party she is smitten. Edward is 50, a loner and a confirmed bachelor. A recluse who rarely leaves his estate and who has been working on a book The Key to All Mythologies for the past 30 years which he has yet to publish.  He's not a great catch but Dorothea is convinced there is so much more:

"It would be my duty to study that I might help him the better in his great work ... and then I should know what to do, when I get older: I should see how it was possible to lead a grand life here -- now -- in England.  I don't feel sure about doing good in any way now: everything seems like going on a mission to a people whose language I don't know, -- unless it were building good cottages -- there can be no doubt about that.  Oh I hope I should be able to get the people well housed in Lowick! I will draw plenty of plans while I have time".

Her Uncle knowing his neice Dorothea has made up her mind to marry Edward Casaubone decides to accept the situation "But you must have a scholar and that sort of thing?".  Dorothea's sister tries to talk her out of this marriage and the rest of Middlemarch is shocked as well:

"Good God!  It is horrible!  He is no better than a mummy!"

"She says, he is a great soul -- A great bladder for dried peas to rattle in!" said Mrs Cadwallader".

"What business has an old bachelor like that to marry?" said Sir James. "He has one foot in the grave."

"He means to draw it out again, I suppose."

Dorothea, after she marries Edward soon becomes aware of the mistake she has made.  They honeymoon in Rome and Dorothea wants to share the experience with Edward but he's been to Rome before and is bored.  Once back in Middlemarch he pretty much locks himself in his library spending all his time working on The Key to All Mythologies.  Dorothea is hurt and disappointed but she is loyal and tries to help him with his book.  Edward is not in the best of health and dies from a heart condition a year or two after their marriage leaving his estate to Dorothea with a stipulation.  She must never marry his young cousin Will Ladislaw.  Edward suspects that they are carrying on an affair which is completely untrue and once the contents of his will become known around Middlemarch it endangers Dorothea's reputation.  

The other main character in the novel is Dr. Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor who comes to Middlemarch hoping to set up his practice and make great discoveries in medicine.  Lydgate is similar in many ways to Dorothea.  Both characters are idealistic, they long to do great things to help humanity.  They can be stubborn and Lydgate can be quite arrogant but both have kind hearts and as with Dorothea, Lydgate makes a bad choice when it comes to choosing a marriage partner, the beautiful but spoiled and deceptive Rosamond Vincy.  She reeled him in during their courtship and turns into another person entirely after the wedding.  

There are a number of other characters that populate Middlemarch and George Eliot does a masterful job juggling these characters and plots and then during the last two hundred pages of the book you realize that what seemed like different storylines are coming together due to a scandal involving a minor character in the novel, the banker Mr. Bulstrode. 

I will end my summary here although this is a hard book to describe and summarize.  The great works of art need to be read and even quoting passages often doesn't give you the flavor of this novel.  I so admired Dorothea Brooke but I was truly smitten with Dr. Lydgate and for me that's what makes a book so special, falling a bit in love with one of the main characters. I do hope everyone who loves literature will read Middlemarch.  It's a long book, almost 800 pages and so you have to pace yourself but you will never regret the experience of reading this monumental work of art.

Middlemarch fulfills my 2021 Back to the Classics Category- choose a 19th century classic.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Books and Beyond - The Classics and Me

Currently reading Middlemarch by George Elliot.  I am almost near the end and I plan to post my thoughts in a week or two about this truly great novel.  I am in awe.  And it got me thinking about the classics in general, what I've learned and which great authors and novels I still want to read

Before I began my blog Reading Matters I had spent decades neglecting the great novels and their authors.  I think that's common for alot of us after we graduate from school.  We rarely visit the classics again.  I was taught Julius Caesar at Msgr Scanlan for example but until I started this blog in 2015 and more importantly began to participate in the Back to the Classics Challenge (hosted by Karen K at Books and Chocolate) it had never occurred to me to read anything else by Shakespeare.  I just felt that as great as he was without a teacher to guide me I wouldn't be able to undersrand his plays.  

But now in this year alone I have read Call of The Wild by Jack London, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.  I am also currently reading Middlemarch by George Elliot and later this year I will be tackling Macbeth and I am looking forward to it!  And once again thanks to the Classics Challenge in the past four years I have read Laura Ingalls Wilder, Giovanni Boccaccio, Zora Neal Huston, ALbert Camus, Charles Dickens, Anne Bronte, Willa Cather, Anthony Trollope, Herman Hesse etc etc.  

It begs the question does it pay to squeeze so many great novels into four or five year's worth of reading or is it better to read these great books one or two a year throughout the course of your life?  I think reading them in a more spread out manner is preferable.  Because cramming these masterpieces into four years during your later years means that rereading them a decade or two into the future may not be as possible and certain books benefit from a reread.  

Regarding the classics I have read since starting this blog my favorites are:

Middlemarch by George Elliot
New Grubb Street by George Gissing
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hursto
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 
Bel Ami by Guy deMaupassant 
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck
Belinda by Maria Edgeworth
Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell 
Call of The Wild by Jack London
The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope

And of the above novels my number one favorite is Middlemarch by George Elliot even though I haven't yet finished the book.  But I am almost finished and unless it falls apart at the end, which I doubt, Middlemarch will rank alongside Pride and Prejudice and Crime and Punishment as my all time favorite novels.  Books like Middlemarch remind us of why we read.

Finally, when do you reach a point where you feel you have checked off enough boxes in terms of the classics so that you can slow down and focus on the great authors you like?  I know I want to read something by Thomas Hardy.  Stendahl, Thackeray.  But there are so many other great writers I may never get around to and that's okay.  Because maybe after you have read enough from the classics' list you can start focusing on your favorite authors from that list.  Time is limited and so if you are a Bronte fan, as I am, better to read Villette by Charlotte Bronte than feel you have to read Homer's The Illiad, unless Homer is who you want to read.

Anyway those are some of my thoughts on the great books.