Firstly we musy say a very Happy Birthday to George Eliot, born this day in 1819 and not looking a day older may I say.
Study guides to novels come and go and I have a cupboard full of them... essays, casenotes, analyses, theoretical interpretations the lot, and I had resolved, prior to this year-long read of Middlemarch that I was absolutely not going to read them. It would be a discipline because I love them for the extra dimensions they offer, and perhaps that would give depth to these posts beyond just my ramblings about this month's section. But this has been about me engaging with the book for pleasure, not for study, or for an exam.
And I was doing really well until these arrived on Saturday.
I will write more about the Connell Guides another day but I can't deny that my heart leapt at the thought of all that lovely reading with a very accessible and informative guide alongside. I know that might seem sad, but those years of study showed me how much there is to miss, and I just don't like missing it now, so when my eyes lit on Middlemarch by Josie Billington I am afraid my resolve dissolved. A 'little peek' turned into a 'full-on' read.
Truth be told I had been feeling a little jaded with this month's reading. I blame Emile Zola and Edith Wharton who have both been jostling for my attention and pushing poor old George out of the way. In the end I reluctantly set aside The Fortune of the Rougons (brilliant) and The House of Mirth (even more so) to spend some time with Dorothea... ho hum boring old Dorothea.
I really do have Josie Billington to thank for reviving my spirits and getting me here today with a renewed understanding of our Dodo.
The Connell Guide to George Eliot's Middlemarch asks seemingly simple questions that belie the depth of the answer that Josie Billington offers....
Why so many stories?
Why does the narrator have so much to say?
What does the novel have to say about marriage?
What are people looking for in Middlemarch?
Is Middlemarch a feminist novel?
Whilst Sebastian Faulks's cover quote suggests that this book would be invaluable for any student, I would argue that these are perfect little handbooks for any reader, student or otherwise (students get lectures after all, the rest of us may not) who wants to extract more from their reading of the book than a first read might reveal.
Reminding me in spades of George Eliot's skills as a writer came the question 'Is Dorothea Brooke idealised?' ...
'Dorothea, with whose viewpoint the reader sympathetically identifies without ever fully accepting or approving it...'
Yes, that's me.
George Eliot's big experiment, subsequently emulated by Henry James in The Portrait of Lady, that narrative skill of hovering between first and third person in order to present a mixed reality one that...
'...lies elusively between the conventional categories of true and false and right and wrong.'
Josie Billington argues that this is most evident in Dorothea and in many ways helped to explain my swithering about and trying to decide what I 'really' make of her. One minute I find her crushingly boring, the next I warm to her, yet hitherto inexplicably.
George Eliot cleverly meant it to be like this for a reader I think. Any rush to judgement constantly checked and balanced by that mixed reality.
Plenty going on in Book IV The Widow and the Wife.. Will's prolonged departure which allows time for several more plot lines to shape up and be revealed, not least Will and Dorothea's feelings for each other, but also the Bulstrode scandal and his blackmail by Raffles, the progress of Mary and Fred's romance, the loss of Baby Lydgate and Family Lydgate's underlying money worries.
A wonderful juxtaposition I thought...Rosamund and Tertius on their beam ends thanks in part to his gambling and her fiscal mismanagement...
'Rosamund, accustomed from her childhood to an extravagent household, thought that good housekeeping consisted simply in ordering the best of everything...'
and deciding what will have to go, whilst the next chapter catalogues the success of Mr Larcher in selling the contents of a house because he has bought another mansion fully furnished and has far too much.
My recent read of The Missing Ink by Philip Hensher has me on a constant 'handwriting-in-fiction' alert, and so I wasn't going to miss Fred Vincy's woeful demonstration...
'...the vowels were all alike and the consonants only distinguishable as turning up or down, the strokes had a blotty solidity and the letters disdained to keep the line - in short, it was a manuscript of that venerable kind easy to interpret when you know beforehand what the writer means.'
or Caleb Garth's reaction to it...
'The deuce!' he exclaimed, snarlingly. ' To think that this is a country where a man's education may cost hundreds and hundreds, and it turns you out this!' Then in a more pathetic tone, puching up his spectacles and looking at the unfortunate scribe, 'The Lord have mercy on us, Fred, I can't put up with this!'
Remembering too how unexpectedly moved I had been to see George Eliot's entirely handwritten manuscript for Middlemarch in the British Library.
I have, thanks to Josie Billington, been considering anew the web of connections within the novel, and how, if you spend long enough in any community, those connections will start to be made.
I then for some reason recalled the stupid ball of string team building game we used to have to play at multi-agency child protection training years ago... all sitting in a circle and the policeman would keep hold of the end and throw the ball to the social worker who kept hold too before throwing it to me, the health visitor who would throw it to the GP who would throw it right back at me, and so it went on. This presumably to demonstrate the tangled web of connections between us all whilst making a nice cat's cradle web in the process... but then I thought you could sit George Eliot's characters in that ball-of-string circle and likewise make a beautifully complex pattern that wouldn't seem quite so daft.
Currently I am feeling mostly warm towards our Dodo, proud of Will Ladislaw for taking the honourable stance, sad for Tertius, cross with Rosamund, strangely sorry for Bulstrode, still spitting feathers about Casaubon's codicil in the will, and loving Celia and the baby with its 'sacred ark otherwise known as a cradle'.
But given George Eliot's skill this might all turn on a sixpence in Book VII Two Temptations which we will gather here to discuss over the weekend of January 19th/20th , before our final Team Middlemarch discussion on Book VIII Sunset and Sunrise, very appropriately in the Middle of March 2013.
So over to you...