It will be Lady Day tomorrow.
The Annunciation, nine months before the Feast of the Nativity and liturgical in origin, but I always think of it as a wonderfully rural sort of day too for the fact that it is still, by tradition, the day when farm rents may be paid, and I have no doubt the population of Middlemarch might have been aware of it too. Because whilst there is no doubt this is a town, it is a town surrounded by countryside as George Eliot was keen to demonstrate towards the end of Book One Miss Brooke...
'... almost all meadows and pastures, with hedgerows still allowed to grow in bushy beauty, and to spread out coral fruit for the birds. Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood... these are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls.'
Now a confirmed advocate of this method I truly am discovering Middlemarch anew with the instalment reading, by far the best way to read it in the midst of a busy life and to the point where I feel boringly evangelical about it all whenever I meet a Middlemarch refusnik. Read like a Victorian, a hundred pages seems the perfect length for me to feel sufficiently engrossed yet not overwhelmed.
I was browsing some old newspaper cuttings recently, Hermione Lee talking two years ago about the biography she is writing on the life of Penelope Fitzgerald. Unlimited access to Penelope Fitzgerald's personal and much annotated library is yielding unexpected riches. Teaching texts from the years when the family fell on hard times and Penelope taught English literature...
'written in a battered old Signet paperback of Middlemarch, she marks, as she often does, details of when and why the book was bought....
"1982. Most reluctantly bought when Nancy told me I'd got to teach George Eliot, whereas she'd previously said T.S.Eliot. 1995. Why on earth was I reluctant?"
By my calculations, a woman I revere for her extensive literary intellect and understanding of the human condition didn't read Middlemarch until she was in her late 60s. And I start to wonder whether an increasingly meaningful appreciation of a book like this does come with age. Instead of having it thrust under our noses as young under- graduates how much better perhaps to have it waved in front of us at a time when many of us need our specs on to even catch the title.
I am bringing something very different to this read ten years on from my first and I suspect it takes maturity to note, as Penelope Fitzgerald did in her marginalia of a chapter in Middlemarch, and given her preference for 'fictional treatments of restraint, emotions trammelled down...'
'a delicate chapter, low-keyed emotions but minutely traced.'
Now of course I absolutely want to know which chapter that might be, and each one I read I then reflect on those words and try to decide.
In fact plenty of chapters seem to fit, especially in Old and Young.
George Eliot seems in complete control of all this doesn't she??
I am feeling that I am in a very safe pair of authorial hands and in a way that I often don't feel with Charles Dickens...dare I say it. Dickens's need to pad out to his word count often feels apparent to me; George Eliot must have been under similar constraints yet I have no sense of the superfluous. Granted there are times when I have to read a page over several times to plumb the depths of her intellect, but when I get there I marvel.
Quietly assertive with her reader as she starts to describe her characters, and should the name Bulstrode be suggesting a rather stocky, rubicund balding chap think again...
'Do not imagine his sickly aspect to have been of the yellow, black-haired sort; he had a pale blond skin, thin grey-besprinkled brown hair, light grey eyes, and a large forehead...'
That's us told then.
But slowly the town of Middlemarch is being populated. More new faces slip in from the wings alongside those I have already met. I am learning other facets of their characters, and I am starting to make my assessments and my judgements...
Fred Vincy creeps up a little in my estimation (Penelope annotates him as "poor Fred" ) while Mary Garth warms my heart with her down-to-earthness..
Then there is Rosamund ...eeeek, I am not feeling the love,
'Her garment seemingly made out of the faintest blue sky, herself so immaculately blond, as if the petals of some gignatic flower had just opened and disclosed her...'
Can't you just imagine George having fun with this, writing that with tongue-in-cheek and then reading it to...er George, and the pair of them guffawing together.
And Lydgate, well what do we make of our friend Tertius I wonder??
I am sure I have read somewhere that Dr Lydgate may have been literature's very first General Practitioner, which sends me scurrying to an invaluable book that has been on my shelf for years Medicine and Literature, The Doctor's Companion to the Classics by John Salinsky..
'Our boy is very confident and very ambitious. He means to make a name for himself as a medical scientist but he also wants to shine the bright clear light of evidence-based medicine on the dubious clinical practices of the older Middlemarch doctors...not suprisingly, their reaction to Dr Lydgate is like that of your average Primary Care Group members when the clinical governance person sends round a circular : sceptical, derisory or downright hostile. As you can see the medical scene hasn't changed much in 170 years.'
Poor Tertius, shocks in store for him indeed and his 'spots of commoness' will out, but I feel his heart is in the right place and I think George Eliot wants us to feel that too. He is fallible which I like... he can put his size twelves in it good and proper, and in the most hapless of ways, yet we are reassured that he is 'morally lovable' should we be in any doubt. It is likely to be agony to watch given there is much 'bigwggism and obstructive trickery' to come, and because Rosamund has the good but impecunious doctor in her sights, and in the words of John Salinsky...
'Rosamund is not the sort of girl who can be trusted to be sensible with a credit card...'
We have had that most famous of lines about the roar on the other side of silence, but best of all I think I liked this...
'They found Naumann painting industriously, but no model was present; his pictures were advantageously arranged, and his own plain vivacious person set off by a dove-coloured blouse and a maroon velvet cap...'
Now over to you.
... and for those who like to plan ahead we will re-convene here to talk about Book Three Waiting for Death (which should plop through your imaginary Victorian letterbox on April 1st) on the weekend of May 19th/20th 2012.