I know it’s only February. I’ve attempted to read – again – what Virginia Woolf called “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
And I hate it.
You, dear readers, might know something of the book. Written in 1871-1872 in by George Eliot, and published in serial form, it depicted the life and times of people living in the fictional English town of Middlemarch. George Eliot, I should mention, was not male. Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans wrote under a pseudonym so her books would be taken more seriously. Women writers of her day wrote “light romances”; she didn’t want to be included in that group. This book, full of very real, multifaceted people, many consider her masterpiece. I wanted to read it and love it. But I didn’t.
Why? Good question.
I find no fault with the writing itself. It’s dense prose, descriptive with many wonderful turns of phrases fully depicting the mindset and lives of the time period. Like this one, describing the friendship that developed after Dorothea rejected her suitor:
She was perfectly unconstrained and without irritation towards him now, and he was gradually discovering the delight there is in frank kindness and companionship between a man and a woman who have no passion to hide or confess. (p. 72)
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ Pride helps us, and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts – not to hurt others. (p. 62)
Women had no hope of a good future unless they made themselves marriageable. They earned their feminine badges through studying “arts lite” – sketching, dabbling in piano and voice, perhaps a bit of baking. The general (male) consensus was that females didn’t have the brain capacity to pursue studious pastimes. No one taught them Greek or Hebrew, even if they wished to learn them. Women provided decoration, amusement, and the ability to procreate along with companionship. Kinda like a beautiful cocker spaniel. But this fusty mindset, a relic of the time, didn’t bother me.
I didn’t like any of the main characters. There. I said it. Dorothea, with her idealistic ascetic religiosity married to Mr. Casaubon’s dry intellectualism made me ill. I despised beautiful, blonde Rosamond Vincy Lydgate with her finishing-school snobbery and overinflated ego. I liked Dr. Lydgate for a few minutes, then realized he had no backbone to deal with his wife’s extravagant ways.
Most of the main characters dreamed a little too much before they actually got married. They each entered matrimony with starry-eyed notions. Then, the day-to-day life of a married couple became a rude awakening. Jealousies, unspoken expectations, prejudices and frustration cropped up quickly. It all saddened me. Yes, these things do happen. I could relate to bits and pieces of the characters but their obtuseness bugged me. Did Dorothea really miss the fact that Casaubon had no feeling, no passion? He could never return her dogged devotion. Nor could Lydgate see beyond the pretty face and figure of Rosamond to her true nature. I guess I could say the novel pits realism against idealism.
Several other characters people the book, but I won’t mention them here. As I read the book, I also realized I’d read it before. Or, I should say, tried to read it before. I had that deja-vu feeling. Ah, old age! Thou mockest me! I didn’t get as annoyed this time, but I still couldn’t finish it. Who could blame me? I made it to page 119. The book is 838 pages.
I did skip ahead to the end. I wanted to see if Dorothea at least found happiness. She did, despite the death of her husband early in their marriage. But she gave up her fortune to marry her now-deceased husband’s cousin. Will Ladislaw, idealistic himself to some degree, made a much better match for Dorothea.
So I amend my former complaint. I did like Middlemarch, a little. Dorothea grew on me. Pain and suffering deepened Dorothea’s compassion and kindness. She still saw the best in people, but armed with love and not expectations. When she did remarry, it was for all the right reasons.