Our Middlemarch Book Club: Part One -The Toast

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If you’ve somehow missed being hounded by me to read (first) Middlemarch and (in the New Year) My Life in Middlemarch, you can catch up here.

So, I very nicely requested that everyone (who has any interest in doing so) read to the end of Book One (Ch. 1-12), a very reasonably-sized chunk of George Eliot’s masterpiece. If you haven’t yet done so, that’s perfectly fine. I anticipate this comment thread/discussion will remain open and active over the next few weeks, and you can drop in any time to chat.

One of the reasons I picked a smaller-than-customary portion to begin our discussion with is to recreate the experience of Eliot’s original readers, who were given the novel in eight volumes, the first six with two month gaps, and the last two with only one month gaps. We will not be stretching our discussion out nearly so long as that, but this first volume–“Miss Brooke”–does benefit from being exactly itself, and no more.

I asked Rebecca if she had anything she’d like to say about this first little expedition into Middlemarch, and although she’s mainly excited to have the pleasure of watching Toasties encounter the text themselves, she felt it would be helpful to point out that Eliot’s original critics and readers had no idea what to make of Vol. 1, and that the novel as a whole was a slow burn, culminating eventually in tremendous anticipation for each subsequent release. If you, like they, find the prelude heavy-handed and Dorothea completely incomprehensible, you’re in good company. She drew my attention to the original review of Vol. 1 from The Spectator, which professes that any attraction to Casaubon on Dorothea’s part “leaves the impression of something slightly unnatural and repellent,” a sentiment I must confess a certain sympathy for.

I, too, am chiefly interested in hearing about the questions and complaints and enjoyments and favourite sentences and mystifying sentences that have occurred to you during your read, so I will not belabor this introduction unnecessarily, but there are one or two things I’d love to draw your attention to as you move forward.

George Eliot, first, was an exceptionally radical woman, even when taken out of the context of the immediate age in which she wrote (I’m going to call her George Eliot, instead of Mary Ann Evans, because we are mostly concerned here with her writing, and I’m only going to touch very briefly on her life; when we find ourselves in Mead’s own book, that will change.) She was an atheist, a very personal realization that impacted her intensely, and which you can watch infuse the great driving after purpose and work and creative fulfillment that marked her life and that of her characters. She met and fell in love with George Lewes when she was 32, and within three years had made the decision to live with him as his wife, although they never married, and chose to conduct her private life in exactly the manner that dovetailed with her own, deep ethical sensibilities, which only rarely overlapped with what the society of her contemporaries deemed acceptable. Then, too, she was ugly, as was Lewes, a fact that almost everyone who encountered her spoke of as though it had been a dream, so quickly was it forgotten. “Behold me literally in love with this great horse-faced bluestocking,” Henry James said of her. It’s not completely unimportant to her work, I think, and I enjoy reading Middlemarch knowing that Eliot never mistook conventional beauty for meaning more than it does, or forgot that it is not a mandatory component of having, as Eliot did, the very richest and deepest of human intimacy with a lover.

That brings me to the only other thing I want to talk about before we get to our discussion: the un-romanticism of this novel which stands in contrast to the extraordinary depiction of the variations of human love it contains. Not necessarily the love of two very young people (or one very young person and a young-looking vampire) who eventually overcome whatever artifice separates them and are married, which is a story with which we are all familiar, but the manner in which Eliot is able to quietly encourage and praise the other kinds of love one may encounter over the entirety of a life: parental love, the love between friends, the enduring and evolving love of two people who have been together for many decades, and the late-flowering love that one might find unexpectedly in life, and the great comfort it can provide. I won’t go any further into this thought now, because it’s the subject of what I believe to be one of the best parts of My Life in Middlemarch, and I want you to discover it for yourself.

So, then, let’s talk about Middlemarch. My favourite sentence? “Riding was an indulgence which she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it.” Let’s talk about Celia, let’s talk about Casaubon (who plays Casaubon in the movie in your head?), let’s talk about this early version of Dorothea, and let’s talk about how easy it is to assume people feel differently than they do, based on your own desires.

Please speak excessively, and, again, come back anytime. We have to prove wrong those who say Middlemarch murders book clubs.

(For our next conversation, we’ll meet on Dec. 16th and read through the end of Vol. 3.)

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