Tag Archives: George Eliot

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.

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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:

002

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 Defense of Jane Austen

Or, George Eliot versus Jane Austen: By a Partial, Prejudiced, and Ignorant Admirer

George Eliot at 30

Jane Austen

I recently read an article in The New Yorker called “Middlemarch and Me”, by Rebecca Mead, about George Eliot’s life and works and the author’s relationship with them over the years. Near the middle, Ms. Mead contrasts the differing popularity levels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.

This is probably as good a time as any to confess that I am, entirely unnecessarily and ridiculously, hyper-protective of Jane Austen and her novels. No doubt this issue will come up again on this blog, so it’s best that you know this, dear reader, and the sooner, the better.

Most likely because of my nutty protectionist philosophy concerning Jane Austen, I find that whenever people talk about her work in terms of its widespread popularity, it always seems to me as though there is some kind of implied insult. I am sure that wasn’t what Ms. Mead intended by describing Austen’s novels with the phrase “crystalline, comic novels of medium length.”

Mead continues:

“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.”

I sat stupefied. Cruel? My Jane Austen, cruel?

I have to preface the rest with a caveat: I am significantly less acquainted with George Eliot’s work than with Austen’s: my entire exposure is comprised of a class I took in the “later 19th century English novel” in which Daniel Deronda was assigned. A moment of truth: I couldn’t finish it. Gwendolen Harleth, the principal character, was impossible for me to like. She was selfish, stubborn, spoiled. Significantly lacking in wisdom, with one poor choice after another she saddled herself with a life of misery.

I’m wondering at Mead’s assertion related to Eliot’s “pitying” even her most flawed characters; wondering whether authors should stand in positions of pity over their characters. Positions of sympathy, yes: sympathy which expresses understanding for what and how a character feels, the thought of having been in a character’s place, of having felt her sorrows and her joys. Pity seems rather to convey a sense of superiority, of feeling the pain of another’s position without the acknowledgment of sharing in that character’s position.

In Daniel Deronda, Gwendolen ultimately does grow as a character, but the journey is long and arduous; her ending, while just, is not happy in any traditional sense.  One might argue that Austen, by giving her characters both just and happy endings, displayed more magnanimity than Eliot.

But I struggle the most with what Mead describes as Austen’s cruelty. Certainly Austen never flinched from an honest rendering of the ridiculousness residing in any one of us, and one notices her cleverness, reading her novels. But I also admire the intelligence in her observations of the world and the people in it. Jane Austen noticed things; and it is these details, captured with her sense of good humor in sympathy with human nature, which make her work so dear.

In my partial, prejudiced, and ignorant opinion, of course.

Article citation: Mead, Rebecca. “Middlemarch and Me.” The New Yorker 14 and 21 February 2011: 76-83. Print.