Tag Archives: Middlemarch

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.


So today is kind of a big deal day. Milestones and all. Yesterday, I finished Middlemarch. And then today, I turned thirty. I’m not actually sure which of these was a bigger deal.

I’ll be honest: I had some ups and downs approaching this birthday. One thing I can say with certainty that I learned in my twenties is that sometimes, you just need to have the meltdown so you can move on. Maybe that means you just need to watch the movie that never fails to make you cry, so you can cry about all the other things you really need to cry about too. (I can’t be the only one who does this.) So that happened this month.

But I did a lot of other things, too, in addition to finishing Middlemarch; good things, happy things (dare I say, happier than reading Middlemarch).

I went hiking with friends, and oh! the wildflowers! Tiger lilies, columbine, shooting stars, and glacier lilies!

columbine, glacier lily

columbine, glacier lily

There was ice cream and conversation.

Six flavors of rainbow sherbet, one cup.

Six flavors of rainbow sherbet, one cup.

I made Momofuku Milk Bar birthday cake with my mom. It was delicious.


And then this weekend, I’m headed down to Ashland, Oregon, for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be awesome. Like this brand new decade.

It's high time for big wishes.

It’s high time for big wishes.

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.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Middlemarch.

One of the many ways I reconciled myself to the idea of not majoring in English in college was my knowledge, even then, that I am perfectly terrible at completing required reading. A significant number of works considered classic I find myself unable to read, including (a moment of truth!) Dickens. How it came about, then, that I forced myself through all those accounting textbooks and read practically every single page of each assigned chapter remains a mystery to me.

I think what’s always hung me up about Dickens, and, frankly, George Eliot, is the sheer quantity of characters and tangential plotlines. I am a person who reads for character in that I like getting to know characters – but I want to relate to them in some way, to champion their causes, and to feel their joys and sorrows; at the very least I want to sympathize with them, even if I can’t fully relate. But particularly with Dickens, and to a certain extent with Eliot, there are so many characters, and sometimes so much time is spent on characters about whom I care less than little, that it makes for very hard going. My attention wanders. I stagger the truly dull points with other material: froth fiction, or magazines, or books where things happen (much more quickly), or books I know I’ll enjoy because I’ve read them before.

image via an anthropologie mailer

The first Valentine I received this year was from Anthropologie, encouraging me to treat myself for the holiday. It included the graphic off to the left.

I had a brief moment of panic where I thought about privacy on the internet: had Anthropologie gotten access to my GoodReads account, and seen the amount of time Middlemarch has been “in progress”? What information about us do the search engines we prefer really capture? What are the implications for me as a person and society as a whole? Reason returned when I realized, beyond the extreme unlikelihood that they would customize an ad for each customer, that if they had, they probably would have chosen Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, as it’s been “in progress” for (probably much more than) twice as long – yet I’m significantly more certain I’ll enjoy Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, if I could only just devote a lot more time to it.

But perhaps you have had the same question, reading this blog. Is she really reading Middlemarch? Yes. She is. Just very slowly. The speed of my progress is defeated by the depth of character details without any way to easily classify these characters as “good” or “bad”. (This is clearly not what impedes me with Dickens, as good-bad classification there is generally easy; it’s solely the quantity of tangents and characters that waylays me.) It may be a gaping weakness in my character and reading habits that I search for the characters I like best in stories. And where I’m struggling in Middlemarch is that there isn’t anyone I really like, except (so far) the Vicar, Camden Farebrother. But he’s only recently come on the scene, so it’s really too early to say.

Or maybe I just subconsciously wanted to go through an entire year of holidays with Middlemarch.