Thursday, April 6, 2017
Wit and wisdom - Middlemarch by George Eliot
by AS Byatt
3 August 2007
What do I think of Middlemarch? asked the great American poet Emily Dickinson. "What do I think of glory?" And Virginia Woolf called it "The magnificent book, which with all its imperfections, is one of the few English books written for grown-up people". Many of what Woolf thought were imperfections are in fact strengths. It is possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel.
"Middlemarch" has a double meaning. One is Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. The other is to do with the central English provincial counties in which it takes place - a "march" or "marchland" in English is a border between counties. The novel is an image of a society, political, agricultural, aristocratic, plebeian, religious, scientific. Its ambitions are those of Balzac's Human Comedy, from which George Eliot learned much. It is a microcosm, local but also universal, containing bodies and minds, individuals, families and groups, birth and death, tragedy and comedy, Rome and Europe as well as middle England in Middle Earth.
It began, as works of art often do, with an unexpected connection. Eliot was writing a story called "Miss Brooke", and she began work on a story of a scientifically ambitious young doctor in a provincial town, and suddenly saw that these two were parts of the same whole. Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate could be called the hero and heroine of the work, though they do not meet until the end of the first part of the book, and one of the powers of Eliot's writing is that a large number of her other characters, for a time, or briefly, are the heroes of their stories and the centres of their worlds.
It is not a romantic novel, though it is a very passionate one. It is anti-romantic. It does not lead from frustrated love to fulfilled love to climactic marriage. It begins with the mistaken marriage choices of its "heroine" and "hero" and shows the inexorable workings of their coming to terms with their folly. Both are idealists. Both are very intelligent. Dorothea, young and beautiful, passionate and orphaned, desires to make something of her life. She tries to look after the poor and wants to dedicate herself unselfishly to a great man, who is doing great work. She accepts the offer of an elderly and pedantic clergyman, Mr Casaubon, who has spent his time constructing an unfinished Key to All Mythologies
Lydgate wants to make scientific discoveries as well as being a good doctor. Eliot describes convincingly how he is hit by an intellectual passion as a boy in a library, opening a book on the valves of the heart. She remarks wryly: "We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her or else fatally parted from her." She goes on to point out that we do not so frequently describe the scientific or intellectual pursuit of form and beauty that "must be wooed with patient thought and the renunciation of small desires".
She makes Lydgate's scientific passion solid and truly exciting. He wants to follow up the work of the French physiologist Bichat, who held the theory that all living bodies "must be regarded as consisting of certain primary webs or tissues, out of which the various organs - heart, brain, lungs and so on - are compacted, as the various proportions of a house are built up in various proportions of wood, iron, stone, brick, zinc and the rest".
"There are, believe it," she tells us, "passions of the mind." One of the reasons I loved her work when I met it was that she both showed people thinking intensely - as well as feeling - and knew and understood herself what they were thinking about. In an essay, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists", written when she was editor of the Westminster Review, she mocks the authors of what she calls "mind-and-millinery" novels, in which the heroines are horribly perfect: "Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues."
Feminist writers have criticised Eliot for this extraordinarily lively and funny piece - she is seen as letting down the sisterhood. I don't think so - she is saying that any writer, man or woman, who presents thinking and feeling people must be able to imagine the thinking and the feeling solidly, through and through. This she does herself. Dorothea is ignorant and wants not to be. Her moral instincts are good and unpractised. Lydgate is clever and industrious. But when we meet him we are subtly told that he has "spots of commonness". He likes to be liked. He likes his patients - John and Elizabeth - as people, Elizabeth a little more than John. He is a gentleman and likes to live well.
The irony is that these people, unusually thoughtful about things beyond the usual range of novels, are trapped by exactly what Eliot has described as the restrictive subject matter of novels - "how a man comes to fall in love with a woman". They both pay it too little attention, or attend to it in the wrong way.
Dorothea marries her elderly clergyman and goes on a wedding journey to Rome, where she is overwhelmed and part-terrified by the vast and looming presence of ancient and modern art - a shock to someone reared on "art of the hand-screen sort". Casaubon, who is always accompanied by images of dusty windowless corridors and a dripping candle, disappears into the stacks of libraries. Eliot's description of the horrors of the honeymoon - strengthened by the conventions of Victorian decorum - is both deeply tragic and deeply comic. Dorothea has expected to be carried away on a flood of feeling, and is reduced to floods of tears. Casaubon has already uneasily reflected that his "stream of affection" has turned out to be "an exceedingly shallow rill". We do not know, but are invited to imagine, the embarrassments of the shared bedroom. Dorothea does not even know what it is that she is not experiencing. She is reduced to being "a victim of feeling". But Eliot's greatness consists partly in the breadth of her imagination - she is equally able to convey poor Casaubon's sense that his new wife, far from being a protection against his sense of inadequacy, is a perpetual threat and reproach.
Then Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's young artist cousin, who remarks casually that the Key to All Mythologies is already out of date; Casaubon has not read "the Germans", who have done the work. Dorothea is now also a threat to Casaubon's self-esteem. Lydgate's mistake is quite different. He marries Rosamond Vincy, the daughter of the mayor of Middlemarch, who flatters him, and flirts with him, and traps him into believing that he has inadvertently led her to expect a proposal - and he is too good-natured not to propose, and not astute enough to see he has been trapped. Rosamond turns out to be manipulative, complacent, spendthrift and stupid. She miscarries because she insists on riding with Lydgate's rich cousin. She interferes in his family relations. She destroys his research, and turns him into a practitioner who alleviates the gout of the rich in seaside resorts.
Middlemarch was published serially, and its early readers expected the novelist to contrive the eventual marriage of hero and heroine. She did not. She wrote against "compensation" in fiction - the idea that at the end of a story the characters are compensated for their suffering by a happy marriage, or unexpected riches. As a young woman she wrote a long review of Riehl's Natural History of German Life, and she wrote of her own work in terms of natural history. She saw her writing as a series of "experiments in life", and wished, she wrote, "to trace the gradual action of ordinary causes rather than exceptional". She not only used images drawn from the natural sciences, but saw the world of her novel as a microcosm in which all the parts related to the whole.
There is the hunting and shooting baronet, happily married to Dorothea's sister; there is the Puritan banker Bulstrode, who ends up committing a crime; there is the feckless Fred Vincy, Rosamond's brother, and Mary Garth, who loves him, and is also a heroine in her parts of the tale - a sensible, thoughtful, responsible woman, who is also loved by the clergyman Farebrother, who collects insects. All these have real moral problems, real passions, real tragedies and real moments of wit and humour.
All are held together by one of the most complicated and brilliantly worked metaphors anywhere in fiction. It is a metaphor of a web, or a tissue like those Bichat worked on. It is both a field of force, a trap like a spiderweb, and a pattern of invisible connecting links between humans meeting each other's eye. We meet it in Mrs Cadwallader, the vicar's wife, who sees Middlemarch itself as a spiderweb of gossip, which connects to the idea that Lydgate is doomed by the common consciousness of the society he is in: "Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably." And earlier we have had an image of Mrs Cadwallader's matchmaking as a waterdrop under a microscope - which under a weak lens shows an actively voracious creature, but under a stronger one shows "certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom".
"Municipal town and rural parish gradually make fresh threads of connection," Eliot observes, showing how these work as the railways are installed, or elections take place. There is a virtuoso description of the way in which Rosamond "entangles" Lydgate with an interwoven gossamer web of glances. This is connected to a wonderful image of Rosamond's egocentric gaze arranging all scratches of fact into a pattern centring on her, as a candle will arrange the random scratches on a mirror into a pattern round its light. Dorothea's gaze is trapped in Rome: she stares at statues with marble eyes "that seemed to hold the monotonous light of an alien world", while the red drapery hung in St Peter's basilica - "for Easter", Eliot mistakenly believed - entangled her gaze and "spread itself everywhere like a disease of the retina". Biology, society, the self and others are linked through this powerful metaphor with proliferating implications. It has been said that good novels are in some sense a metaphor of themselves. The fine threads and interconnecting hairs of this set of metaphors - all of which modify the others - show the form of the world of the novel, as well as of the minds of the characters.
When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god's eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work - as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of "the wit and wisdom of Eliot". But the truth is that she is wise - not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. Here is Casaubon, having just been told he is mortally ill: "When the commonplace 'We must all die' transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness 'I must die - and soon', then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first."
And here is Dorothea struggling with newlywed misery: "That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. 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. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity."
The language and the images are wholly adequate to the complexity - and to the knife-like painfulness - of these reflections.