Herbert Spencer thanked George Eliot for that phrase, describing her as '...the most admirable woman, mentally I have ever met.' Which seems like a bit of a back-handed compliment that obviously does not take looks into account. They were rumoured to be engaged apparently and George Eliot's letters to Spencer, only made public in 1985, reveal a woman 'passionately and self-abasingly attached, begging for crumbs of attention if not love.' This according to A.S. Byatt in a piece about George Eliot. Spencer spurned her affections and made no secret of the fact that this was because she was ugly, and it is to her credit that George Eliot remained on good terms with Spencer when this became apparent. Me...I'd have done damage, but I thought it might be something to keep in mind as I read Miss Brooke with its accounts various of women various.
So the Brougham is in the coach house, the horses are blanketed and stabled, the groom has nipped off to do whatever grooms do and it's time for us to take tea and talk about our first instalment of Middlemarch, Miss Brooke.
How are you all doing Middlemarchers??
As on previous team reads I will offer a few reading moments that have chimed with me and be warned it won't be a deep and meaningful resume, and I usually let my thoughts jump all over the place so there will be plenty I miss, but hopefully all enough to trigger your own thoughts about favourite moments and wider thoughts too. I tend to jot down a few as I read to start the ball rolling and please do add your own in comments here, so that we can have an ongoing natter, and not only today but perhaps bookmark the Team Middlemarch link and come back to this post until the next one arrives (schedule at the end)
I've had a lovely time since the arrival of Book One, primarily because in the past I have only ever read Middlemarch with a view to having to write an essay on it and then sit an exam, but with all that consigned to the mud at the bottom of the pond what has risen to the surface as I read Miss Brooke is how funny and dry is George Eliot's humour. Small unobtrusive moments I know I never spotted during those intense and pressured reads ten years ago, this is subtle humour unlike Dickens who, dare I suggest and by comparison, does a lot of look-at-me arm waving to draw attention to his funny moments, and then eggs the comedy pudding to the limits, and how much I am enjoying getting to know the community that is Middlemarch and in this very different frame of mind.
Dear earnest Dorothea, no time for 'guimp and drapery' and not to be found stitching a sampler but head down over some architectural designs for worker's cottages, whilst sister Celia is far more focused on dishing out Mama's jewellery. I never drive past these old cottages in Tavistock (built for the workers by the Duke of Bedford in 1850) without thinking of Dorothea, she would have been as thrilled with these, as I am with my little ceramic tile depicting them.
I love Celia this time around, especially that moment when she hurls the 'light javelin' of disparagement about Mr Casaubon's noisy soup-eating in Dorothea's direction, having already said that she can't bear his moles with hairs. Dorothea's feelings meanwhile 'gathered to an avalanche.'
And Mr Casaubon, that 'ghost of an ancient' with the 'smile like pale wintery sunshine', whose entreaties of love in Dorothea's direction resemble the 'cawing of an amorous rook.'
I was constantly smiling at George's (I'm sticking with George) humour... what about that hilarious moment when Sir James Chettham, courting Dorothea's attentions, arrives with a lap-dog 'one of nature's most naive toys' under his arm. Clearly meant as a gift for Dorothea but consigned to the groom when Dorothea professes to hate them
'I am so glad I know that you do not like them...here John, take this dog, will you...'
And Mrs Cadwallader and the matriarches of the community discussing their medical symptoms and offering their scathing verdict on the engagement...
'Really, by the side of Sir James he looks like a death's head skinned over for the occasion. Mark my words: in a year from this time that girl will hate him...'
And so the scene is set. George Eliot has started to populate her community. Rosamund Vincy and her mirror, Tertius Lydgate and his ideals, Mary Garth and Mr Featherstone and his money, Fred Vincy and his debts and the community elders, Bulstrode et al with their opinions and their resistance to change.
As a nod to serious comment I had treated myself to a read of A.S.Byatt's essay in her collection Passions of the Mind entitled George Eliot: A Celebration and to remind myself why I chose this book when everyone else might more appropriately be reading Charles Dickens in this bicentenary year. A.S.Byatt outlines her own encounters with Middlemarch...
'I taught it with a passion because it I perceived it was about the growth, use and inevitable failure and frustration of all human energy - a lesson one is not interested in at eleven, or eighteen, but at twenty-six with two small children, it seems crucial. George Eliot's people were appallingly ambitious and greedy - not always for political, or even exclusively sexual power...they were ambitious to use their minds to the full. to discover something, to live on a scale where their life felt valuable from moment to moment...'
A.S.Byatt goes on to argue with admiration and respect for George Eliot...
'She had no real heir as a 'novelist of ideas' in England...her heirs are abroad, Proust in France, Mann in Germany. Which brings me to another reason for loving her: she was European, her roots were Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Balzac...not just Jane Austen. She opened gates which are still open.'
It is evident as I am reading A.S.Byatt's novels, and as she herself admits, that she has imbibed those lessons about populating a novel with a wide variety of interrelated people,
'whose processes of thought, developments of consciousness, biological anxieties, sense of their past and future can be made most scrupulously available to readers...'
to say nothing of the technicalities and scope offered by George Eliot's speciality, the intervention of the authorial voice, all things I am noticing whilst marvelling at the serendipitous way all these reading planets have aligned.
But that's for another day, now it's over to you Team Middlemarch, settle down and make yourselves comfy and do converse in comments while I hand around the napkins, the dainty china and the comestibles, today a receipt from Mrs Beeton's for Honey Cake.
If you are reading to the nineteenth century schedule we start Part Two Old and Young on February 1st
Next Brougham halt :: W/E of March 24th-25th