Our Middlemarch Book Club: Part Two -The Toast

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Home: The Toast

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.

I thought our last discussion was delightfully engaging and sprightly, and I really appreciate how many of you have dived into a seemingly-staid task with such vim. The book only gets better (at least, I feel that way), and I hope that you’re beginning to pick up speed.

Like last time, I don’t want to blather on too much about Middlemarch myself before we get to the important business of communally enjoying/being frustrated by it, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how funny it can be, even (especially?) in moments of gravity. While we’re wincing at Fred’s attempt to placate Mr. Bulstrode, the absurdity of the scene can’t be mistaken, and the early comedy that is Lydgate and Rosamond talking and thinking past each other makes the solemnity and finality of a bad 19th century marriage all the more grim.

This segment of the novel, I feel, is so rich in its character studies. When we re-encounter our Miss Brooke (now Mrs. Casaubon) in Rome, I think we understand her a little better for having gotten to know her contemporaries and neighbors in her absence. We’re also beginning to see, as with Lydgate and Rosamond, that Eliot’s characters’ playful insistence on creating imaginary friends and lovers and confidantes for themselves instead of accepting their realities and true motivations is swiftly curdling into unhappiness and harm.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excerpts from this segment of the novel:

Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. 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.

On a mostly unrelated note, an excellent poetical pairing for Dorothea’s discomfiting Roman holiday can be found in Ted Hughes’ account of his own honeymoon with Sylvia Plath, “You Hated Spain,” which you can read online in various purloined forms, or purchase via Birthday Letters.

Rebecca Mead (who will be doing this cool event at the NYPL at the end of January, in addition to our Strand Toast Encounters of the Third Kind in March) wanted me to mention, as well, that as these two volumes were being published in early 1872, Eliot had only completed about half of Middlemarch, which must have provided what actors like to call “motivation.” Can you imagine? It’s interesting, too, to wonder how reader reactions to the earlier volumes might have shaped Eliot’s choices (if at all! She doesn’t seem the type, but publishers have changed very little in the last few hundred years, I expect.)

(For our next conversation, we’ll meet on Jan. 6th and read through the end of Vol. 7, while “Eye of the Tiger” plays.)

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