Category Archives: Books, Reviews, and Reading

Final Thoughts on Middlemarch

I promise I’ll be done talking about Middlemarch soon, guys. But, now that I’ve finished it and I have a month’s worth of perspective on the novel (which is to say I’ve been unabashedly reading Middlemarch‘s weight in books the New Yorker would sneer at), it’s time to revisit the reason I read it in the first place: Rebecca Mead’s article in the New Yorker circa February 2011, in which she compared George Eliot to Jane Austen and, after calling Jane Austen “cruel”, ultimately said that George Eliot’s work was superior.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

I had bangs when I started reading Middlemarch.

Approximately two and a half years later, I finally feel like I can answer the questions that Ms. Mead’s article posed for me, which hinge around the following quote from her article:

Eliot admired Austen…but George Eliot…went on to surpass her precursor. She is as adept as Austen at the ironic depiction of high and middle-class society…But Eliot’s satire, unlike Austen’s, stops short of cruelty. She is inveterately magnanimous, even when it comes to her most flawed characters; her default authorial position is one of pity…A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.

The short version of my answer is: yes and no.

On the question of Eliot’s having surpassed Austen: I suppose this is an obvious yes, if you judge “surpassing” to be established by the number of pages published, or the number of words used, or even the volume of their respective bodies of work. Eliot published 7 novels, various poems, and a number of other works; Austen published only 6 novels, 1 novella, and died with two novels unfinished. However, Austen’s works have an enduring charm and popularity that I wouldn’t judge Eliot’s works to be close to reaching.

On the question of Eliot’s inveterate magnanimity: On this point, Ms. Mead and I actually agree. Nearly all of even the most odious characters in Middlemarch are afforded authorial asides which sympathetically outline the defects of their personalities and their weaknesses, in a voice that resonates with pity. Even Casaubon’s insecurities she is able to describe sympathetically:

…a perpetual suspicious conjecture that the views entertained of him were not to his advantage…The tenacity with which he strove to hide this inward drama made it the more vivid for him; as we hear with the more keenness what we wish others not to hear…there was strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account — namely, that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out.

Or consider her depictions of Rosamund’s disappointments in married life:

The Lydgate with whom she had been in love had been a group of airy conditions for her, most of which had disappeared, while their place had been taken by every-day details which must be lived through slowly from hour to hour, not floated through with a rapid selection of favorable aspects.

That she made Rosamund’s shallowness simultaneously sympathetic and even relatable is certainly notable. And in all honesty, I did enjoy parts of Middlemarch very much: I learned many new words (sciolism, batrachian, energumen, to name a few); I sometimes laughed aloud; and occasionally I even stopped in my tracks to savor something she’d written:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

But on the question of Austen appearing cruel by contrast to Eliot: I would still never describe my Jane Austen as being cruel.

“A reader marvels at Jane Austen’s cleverness, but is astonished by George Eliot’s intelligence.” Why does it seem like there is a value judgment attached to those words — clever versus intelligent? I would argue that both authors were both clever and intelligent, and that the crux of the argument is not which is better, but rather, can — even should — the two be compared?

To my way of thinking, George Eliot and Jane Austen wrote entirely different types of books. If you took one of Jane Austen’s novels, and loaded it down with social issues and a host of major and minor characters à la any Charles Dickens novel, and layered over the top of it a heavy authorial voice which occasionally verged on preachy regarding those social issues, you might get something like George Eliot.

Jane Austen was a storyteller. The point of her books is not to study social issues of the day, like the education of women, or the ills of poverty. In her books, she introduces us to characters, people we identify with and recognize in ourselves and around us even today, and tells us a story about those characters. I fear I will never understand the voices in this world which discount the good telling of a good story as being beneath, as being somehow less than, somehow inferior. Story is powerful. Stories teach.

I think A. L. Kennedy says it better than I ever could in one of her blogs on writing for the Guardian newspaper:

…because I have an interest, of course, in story — in pure story and how powerful it can be…they aim to transport, to suspend reality, and they do. They penetrate and delight and return us to ourselves, slightly altered, slightly more than we thought we could be… The story is both an unlooked-for beauty and a lovely misdirection and…it means that, for a while, we can believe in miracles and people who’ve never existed and a range of exhilarating and puzzling and moving possibilities… I like to stare at the undeniable power behind it all — the huge amoral force of story. We are the ones who chose to be dark or light, chose the stories we tell ourselves and others: in work, in play, in love…in all our lives.

Which seems like the best words, really, to end this on.


If Middlemarch Were Written In Emojis

Last month, I spent a lot of time texting various friends about my progress finishing Middlemarch. Especially on that last night: “90%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” “95%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (You get the idea.) Often when I’m texting my friends, I use a lot of emojis. Emojis are like stickers for text messages. And stickers are cool.

But all that time texting about Middlemarch and using emojis got me wondering, what if Middlemarch were written mostly with emojis? It might go something like this:


My deepest apologies to George Eliot.

Roughly translated, it goes like this:

Dorothea is basically an angel. Blinded by her ideals, she marries Casaubon, a man old enough to be her father. They honeymoon in Italy. Dorothea, unhappy, is crying, when she is espied by Ladislaw, who more or less instantly falls in love with her. Dorothea remains very unhappy in her very unhappy marriage.

Rosamund is the prettiest girl in town and has the worst sort of princess manners. She loves a doctor. They marry. They have no money. There is ensuing anger, sadness, disillusionment, and tears.

Mary and Fred have been friends since they were children, and they love each other. Eventually they get married.

Interspersed throughout are various lengthy interludes spent with minor characters and endless prosing.

Eventually Dorothea and Ladislaw marry.

As the author herself might say, finis.

A Middlemarch Milestone

051Y’all, something major happened on Sunday night: I hit the midpoint of Middlemarch. If you’ve been paying attention to the epic saga of my reading of Middlemarch, you realize what a big deal this is. You’re also, probably, really bored of hearing about it, I know. But I’m almost there, folks. Bear with me. I’m determined to finish it before the end of July!

It’s fitting that the midpoint, according to my Kindle, anyway, happened on a page that involves a conversation between a character who had been first introduced maybe fifty pages previously, and a brand-new character introduced in that very chapter, because that, my friends, that pretty much sums up Middlemarch.

So many words! So many tangents! So many subplots and minor characters which will receive a whole chapter’s treatment! And so many people making such terrible choices!

But this is it, y’all. Let’s finish this thing.

One Pair of Hands

I decided to ease my way into nonfiction this year with Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Hands. Reading it was only partially in keeping my with 2013 reading resolutions, but it was something to start me on the nonfiction path (where I would hopefully continue until I found myself reading some piece of narrative nonfiction that my brother-in-law might enjoy).

But before I can even talk to you about the book, I must address the truly terrible cover gracing the US version of this memoir, which is unlikely to entice you to read the book. My sister is a graphic designer and I like to think of myself as having imbibed from her a sense of what is “good design” and so feel that, despite my lack of design embellishment on my own blog, I am qualified to say that this is an unequivocally ugly book cover:

image via Amazon

image via Amazon

So ugly, in fact, that I actually checked the book out over at Amazon UK, and considered getting the UK version instead, because the cover over there is considerably less offensive to my taste and design sensibility. I suppose since the publisher here in the US (Academy Chicago Publishers) has, mystifyingly, classified this book on their website as “Fiction & Poetry” rather than “memoir” or “nonfiction” (or even, given the subject matter, “Food & Cooking” — that’s an available category, too!), the cover only seems to exhibit the same shocking lack of judgment. (Um, #librarianproblems … right?)

screenshot of ACP "Our Books" page

screenshot of ACP “Our Books” page

Upon further investigation, I discovered that Academy Chicago was simply reusing the illustration by Dione Tegner used on the cover of the 1961 Penguin edition. Still, one asks oneself, why that illustration, and why with the orange border? It’s somehow less offensive on the 1961 Penguin.

Well, if ever there were a time not to judge a book by its cover, that time is now. One Pair of Hands tells the story of how, after being expelled from drama school, Monica (a great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens) eschewed the debutante’s life of parties and chose instead, on the sole experience of a few cooking courses, to try her hand at being a cook-general.

The ensuing stories of life in service, Monica’s various failures and successes and the unreasonable demands of many of her employers, are a hilarious glimpse of life below stairs, and rather more Gosford Park than Downton Abbey: you won’t meet a benevolent butler like Carson in these pages.

You will meet one or two fallen soufflés, the rare considerate employer and the more common inconsiderate one, tremendously amusing anecdotes, and one failed actress with considerably more self-confidence than I’ve ever had, who created a role for herself and brazened out the performance to its conclusion, which, all told, makes for highly entertaining reading.

The Tortoise and the Hare

cover illustration by Florence Broadhurst, image via Goodreads

cover illustration by Florence Broadhurst, image via Goodreads

I’d just been through a spell of reading a bunch of books in a row that were all the same, with a few exceptions here and there, but finding myself without anything to say. I wanted to read something that was different from what I had been reading, something that would challenge me, other than Middlemarch (progress since last Middlemarch mention being more or less exactly equal to zero). So I turned to a book that I’ve had for a while which I was a little afraid to read, because when I first picked it up and read the first chapter, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that the book was going to be sad, and set it aside.

I wasn’t wrong. Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare is one of the saddest beautiful books I’ve ever read.

Set in the early 1950s, The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of an unhappy marriage – the story of its slow but (to my mind) certain disintegration.

Evelyn Gresham is a successful barrister working in London, who at each weekend comes out to the country to his young, beautiful wife, Imogen, and their son. Imogen is some years younger than Evelyn, and her whole married life has been consumed with ensuring her husband’s happiness – or if not his happiness, at least the absence of disruption in his limited leisure time.

We soon see that Evelyn seems not to appreciate Imogen, or any of her efforts on his behalf. Their son, also, does not respect Imogen, and Evelyn, who never respected his own mother, instead of standing up for Imogen, rather undermines her with their son.

The Greshams’ nearest neighbor is Blanche Silcox, a sturdy, tweed-wearing, country woman who fishes, and rides, and shoots, and drives a car. Blanche is someone of whom it is said that “the Chinese do not make many ugly carpets, but one of their very few had been unerringly chosen” by her. No one could be more different than Imogen, who is excessively feminine, and beautiful, and whose appreciation of beauty is intense.

As Imogen learns of Evelyn’s spending increasing amounts of time at Blanche’s home and in Blanche’s company, our sense of fear and dread grows with hers. At one point, when Imogen has been questioning the amount of time he spends with Blanche, Evelyn responds with a typical absence of grace:

“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”

One reviewer said on Goodreads, “This is domestic fiction of the early 20th century at its best, but only for the most steely hearted.” I don’t consider myself entirely steely-hearted, and although I essentially read the book over the course of three evenings, sometimes fortified with Skittles, I had to take short breaks and read something else in between those evenings.

Really it is a beautifully-written story. For me, it wasn’t beautiful writing in the sense that single sentences strike you almost with the force of a prose poem, something you’d want to write down and read over and over again, savoring the texture and the sound and the feeling of the words in your mind and maybe even saying them aloud. But the writing was beautiful: beautiful in its economy, its intelligence, and its sharpening to an almost painful clarity the emotions of a scene and the essence of each character.

I finished the book yesterday evening, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, or the many questions the story left with me that I’m eager to discuss with someone. Questions that might be considered spoilers, if unlike me, you don’t view the ending of this story as a foregone conclusion, questions like:

  • Who was the tortoise and who was the hare? I think a case could be made for Imogen, for Blanche, and even for Cecil. (My apologies for dropping a character-name otherwise unmentioned, but Cecil was my favorite person in this story and I may have to do a whole other separate post about how she could be the tortoise.)
  • Did Evelyn ever really love Imogen? Does he love Blanche? Does he maybe love no one but himself?
  • Knowing of Ms. Jenkins’s dislike of Virginia Woolf (and perhaps all of the Bloomsbury Group), did anyone else read the Leepers and Zenobia as possibly a critique of that set?

But most of all, what I would like to know is, was the ending happy? I can’t help being reminded of something Barbara Pym wrote in one of my favorite novels, about a book that was “well written and tortuous, with a good dash of culture and the inevitable unhappy or indefinite ending, which was so like life.”

If you’ve read the book, I hope you’ll weigh in with some thoughts! For my part, I would like to think the ending was on the happy side of indefinite, that most of all, there was hope for Imogen to achieve the happiness she tried to create for others.