The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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March 15, 2013

Team Middlemarch, Book Eight: Sunset and Sunrise

Despite the constant anxiety of that summer, on August 2, 1869, Marian began what is generally held to be her masterpiece:  Middlemarch:  A Study of Provincial Life. She set it in the town of Middlemarch, Loamshire, at a time when surveyors were laying out a railway and when the imminent passage of the First Reform Act was creating the general feeling that things could not stay the same.
      For the character of Tertius Lydgate, Marian drew liberally and literally on the struggles of her late brother-in-law, Dr. Edward Clarke, the son of a squire who had arrived in Nuneaton full of ambition but who rapidly ran into local hostility and debt. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch as a young doctor, the son of a baronet, wanting to raise the standards of his profession and to make scientific discoveries. He hopes to introduce a fever hospital that might, in time, develop into a medical school. ...
      In May, [her publisher John] Blackwood visited the Priory and for the first time heard Marian's account of her new book. She was full of doubt, as always, but he returned to Edinburgh convinced  that the work in progress would be 'something wonderful -- English provincial life.' By November, however, she had put aside the Lydgate story and begun another about a Miss Brooke, drawing on the theme of difficult marriage she had long had in mind. ...
      In 1870, shortly after her fifty-first birthday, Marian changed her plan for the new novel. She decided that she would combine the story of Miss Brooke with that of Tertius Lydgate.  The resulting book, still to be called Middlemarch, would be written in eight parts and would now tell of two disastrous marriages. And yet by year's end Marian had written only a hundred pages of 'Miss Brooke.' In her ritual end-of-year entry into her journal (written on the Isle of Wight, where they spent Christmas), she summed up 1870:  'In my private lot I am unspeakably happy, loving and beloved. But I am doing little for others.'
      Progress with Middlemarch continued slowly.  By mid-March 1871, Marian complained in her journal, 'It is grievous to me how little ... I manage to get done.'  Yet by the beginning of June, Blackwood held the first part of Middlemarch in his hands and pronounced himself 'intensely delighted with Miss Brooke.' He expected she would repeat, if not excel, her previous triumphs. When he read the second part a month later, he worried that it introduced completely new characters, but added, as 'you beautifully express it, we never know who are to influence our lives.'
from George Eliot in Love, by Brenda Maddox

Looking back, I wish I had read Middlemarch differently, this first time, but then again I already know how much I'm going to enjoy my first re-reading. :) 
In Middlemarch a wife could not long remain ignorant that the town held a bad opinion of her husband.  ... To be candid, in Middlemarch phraseology, meant, to use an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, or their position; and a robust candour never waited to be asked for its opinion. Then, again, there was the love of truth -- a wide phrase, but meaning in this relation, a lively objection to seeing a wife look happier than her husband's character warranted, or manifest too much satisfaction in her lot; the poor thing should have some hint given her that if she knew the truth she would have less complacency in her bonnet, and in light dishes for a supper-party. Stronger than all, there was a regard for a friend's moral improvement, sometimes called her soul, which was likely to be benefited by remarks tending to gloom, uttered with the accompaniment of pensive staring at the furniture, and a manner implying that the speaker would not tell what was on her mind, from regard to the feelings of her hearer. On the whole, one might say that an ardent charity was at work, setting the virtuous mind to make neighbour unhappy for her own good.

This last book does make it clear that Middlemarch is a book about marriages:  there's Lydgate and Rosamund {she's such a wonderful character, it's a little sad to see her change}, Mr. and Mrs. Bulstrode {George Eliot's portrait of Mrs. B. is very moving}, and Fred and Mary {we knew that was coming} and  Dorothea and ... {That's the trouble with reading a literary biography just as you're finishing a very long novel ... biographies don't have spoiler alerts!} There's a lot of drama in this last book - fervid looks and sobbing and fainting and lying on the floor. And as in the seven earlier books, there's humor, and turns of phrase that come out suddenly, and make you gasp or smile or nod, and the realization that (though there's no reason why this shouldn't be true} people then and now are fundamentally the same.

I read Middlemarch with Team Middlemarch at dovegreyreader scribbles, and I'm grateful for this impetus to finally read it.


JoAnn said...

How would you read it differently? Not spread it out over such a long period? Just curious... I want to read it eventually.

Audrey said...

Hi, J...
Yes, I think that was it. We read each of eight books about two months apart and it was hard to remember what had happened last...and hard to stop reading when it was good! (which was often). In this case reading it as a group didn't outweigh that, at least not for me. I'd think your VF marathon worked better. :) I'd definitely recommend it - it's wonderful!

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