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[personal profile] coalescent
An extraordinary novel in many ways, one of which is the way in which I think this, from Rosemary Ashton's introduction to the current Penguin Classic edition, is dead wrong:
We have seen that Lydgate's own ideal of womanhood is damagingly limited and egotistical. So too is Casaubon's ... Yet there is some authorial ambivalence here. Just as, while criticizing Lydate's expectations of a wife, George Eliot seems also to blame Rosamond for not putting her husband's view and needs before her own, so with Dorothea she moves between sharp satire of Mr Casaubon's requirement of complete devotion in a wife and warm authorial endorsement of Dorothea's desire to serve her husband selflessly. (xvii)

I don't think there is any ambivalence here: all are being judged by the same criteria, which is the extent to which they are able to enter imaginatively into other's lives. Lydgate, Casaubon and Rosamond are criticized for (in different ways) failing to do so, or doing so only to a limited extent; Dorothea is praised because she does so, even though it is in many cases to excess.

The great strength of the book, of course, is the astonishingly generous omniscient voice in which it is told, which has time for every character's particular desires, and (though it chides) has sympathy with every one of its inhabitants. More people, I want to say, should write omniscient voice like this, and this well. The voice enables some of the things I enjoyed most about the novel -- its wit, and its social acuity -- things which, it strikes me, are what Jane Austen fans say they get from her writing, but which I have never been able to find there. For me, in fact, the voice was often the most compelling thing about the book; Ashton is right that
[Ladislaw] is the least successfully imagined character in the novel, partly because he is obliged by e plot to be rootless and have mysterious origins, and to function as a handsome, youthful foil to his fading older cousin Casaubon. (xv)

-- with the result that his relationship with Dorothea is supremely unconvincing (if entirely predictable; I'm a little astonished that Jo Walton can write "I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen in Middlemarch, even from half way through", because it's blindingly obvious that Dorothea is going to end up in a suitable marriage at the end of the book, it being unthinkable that she might live happily as an independent; the only questions are ones of detail, exactly how the marriage is going to happen), although he's not the least interesting character: that would be Bulstrode, most of whose chapters nearly put me to sleep.

I wonder whether that voice isn't ultimately a vice disguised as a virtue, in some ways; its message is -- quite rightly -- that we can never know the full circumstances of anything, never know another person entirely, but its existence undermines that message. Makes it a bit too comfortable. Although this was never a book where I sank through the page. I think that was in part because for all the precise delineation of the various relationships -- Rosamond and Lydgate's marriage is the best, because it would have been so easy to make one or other of them unambiguously the villain; this is where the narrator's limitless sympathy and empathy are most admirable, and the hard edge to their ending feels right -- the geography of the setting was more than a little vague. Every time I thought I'd worked out where one place was in relation to another, I would be (it seemed) contradicted, and my inhabitance of the book disturbed. Yes, reader, I wanted a map!

But it's a book I will probably return to in five or ten years, nevertheless.

Date: 2009-09-13 01:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] immortalradical.livejournal.com
I think you're right - there is a sort of 'warm chicken soup' feeling to Middlemarch, and this is encouraged by the qualities of the voice (which, again, we agree is the principal attraction of the novel). I think it'd be massively perverse to call this a vice, though: Eliot chose to elaborate upon her theme of our own unknowability to each other through her narrative, not style. The voice is perfectly suited to this approach.

I do, by the way, see some of the ambivalence referred to by Ashton: Middlemarch is a book which, as you point out, praises Dorothea for her imaginative sympathy ... but it is also acutely aware of its costs. The ambivalence lies, I think, in the space between the moral imperative of trying to imagine oneself into another's shoes, and the, for want of a less bald phrase, practical use of doing so.

Really pleased you enjoyed the book. :)

Date: 2009-09-13 02:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coalescent.livejournal.com
I think it'd be massively perverse to call this a vice, though

Yeah, I can't get on my full MJH-style ideologue about it, it's true. But I'd want to pin down a bit more where you see the distinctions between "narrative", "style" and "voice" before agreeing with you.

The ambivalence lies, I think, in the space between the moral imperative of trying to imagine oneself into another's shoes, and the, for want of a less bald phrase, practical use of doing so.

I can get on board with that, although I think there's a finger on the scales in favour of the moral imperative in this book. It's not quite what Ashton was arguing, though, I think.
Edited Date: 2009-09-13 02:03 pm (UTC)

Date: 2009-09-13 02:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] immortalradical.livejournal.com
I'd want to pin down a bit more where you see the distinctions between "narrative", "style" and "voice" before agreeing with you.

Well, voice is obviously part of style; otherwise, yes of course there's overlap between the two - but since they aren't the same thing, either, I'm not sure it should be demanded that they match each other.

It's not quite what Ashton was arguing, though, I think.

No, it isn't - and I didn't mean to suggest it was, merely that, Ashton's muddy thinking aside, Middlemarch remains ambivalent in other, connected, ways.

Date: 2009-09-13 02:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coalescent.livejournal.com
I was having a debate with [livejournal.com profile] grahamsleight recently about voice, you see -- does it include subject matter, or not? I tend to think not, generally -- that it's the personality that emerges from style.

But my point here is that if the voice matches the narrative but the style doesn't, that's still a weakness.

remains ambivalent in other, connected, ways.

Right. Then yes, I agree.

The thing I do sort of agree with in the post by Walton that I linked is that Eliot is very interesting on political/technological change -- but slightly frustrating (given my reading preferences) in the extent to which it's kept in the background here. Are any of her other books more direct on that?

(Also, which classic should I be reading next? Not that this will happen soon: all sf to the end of the year now, for me.)

Date: 2009-09-13 02:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] immortalradical.livejournal.com
I tend to think not, generally -- that it's the personality that emerges from style.

Then on this, too, we agree - something's wrong here, surely? Voice is very much for me the tonal qualities of the style, and not a function of subject matter (or, as I probably imprecisely call it above, narrative).

Are any of her other books more direct on that?

Well, you won't be surprised to hear that I really like the way all that change and churn is at one remove from the events of the novel proper. Eliot does tend to be interested in how people strive (usually impotently) against circumstance - so it suits her to gesture towards those circumstances whilst not giving them a front-and-centre treatment. I think you're reading the wrong writer if you want careful analysis of the social fabric. (Remember, too, that the events of Middlemarch are not contemporaneous for Eliot - they're 30 years in the past for her. Daniel Deronda is her only novel set in her own milieu.) Try Dickens. :P

(Moby Dick! Or maybe Crime and Punishment.)

Date: 2009-09-13 02:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coalescent.livejournal.com
I think you're reading the wrong writer if you want careful analysis of the social fabric.

Perhaps; I just get the sense she'd be really interesting on it if she did do it.

(The historical nature of the book is one of the reasons I think I get on with Eliot better than Austen, by the way. Middlemarch contextualises more, so it time-travels better.)

Crime and Punishment

Not War and Peace? :-p But I've already got a copy of C&P, actually..
Edited Date: 2009-09-13 02:57 pm (UTC)

Date: 2009-09-13 03:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] immortalradical.livejournal.com
Perhaps; I just get the sense she'd be really interesting on it if she did do it.

Maybe; but, again, her fiction is so special for her sympathies with people, not movements. You might want to dip into Daniel Deronda some time - I suppose of all her books it's the one that engages most obviously with its contexts.

(The historical nature of the book is one of the reasons I think I get on with Eliot better than Austen, by the way. Middlemarch contextualises more, so it time-travels better.)

Yes, I would have thought so. (Note I will studiously ignore the chance to get back into that debate again. :P)

But I've already got a copy of C&P, actually..

Deal!

Date: 2009-09-13 03:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] abigail-n.livejournal.com
You might want to dip into Daniel Deronda some time - I suppose of all her books it's the one that engages most obviously with its contexts.

I've only read DD and Middlemarch, so I can't speak to all her books, but though DD does engage with its context it does so in a way that is blatantly condescending and imperialistic. I think it time travel much worse than Austen, and that's not even to mention its structural issues.

Date: 2009-09-13 04:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] immortalradical.livejournal.com
Yes. But Niall didn't ask whether the engagement was agreeable or not, and did suggest he just dip into it. :P

Date: 2009-09-13 03:02 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] abigail-n.livejournal.com
I think I'm going to have to reread this some time soon - I can remember loving it, and a few of the things I liked most about it, but not to such a degree that I can engage with anything you're saying here.

which classic should I be reading next?

Vanity Fair. There are some similarities to Middlemarch - sprawling social novel with a cast of dozens emphasizing the subjectivity of the human experience - but darkly, acidly funny where Middlemarch is grave. Also, given the kind of 19th century characters you've been encountering, you need a bit of Becky Sharpe in your life.

Date: 2009-09-13 03:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] immortalradical.livejournal.com
Vanity Fair would clearly drive Niall batty, though. (Good call!)

Date: 2009-09-13 03:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] abigail-n.livejournal.com
But Moby Dick wouldn't?

Oh, wait...

Date: 2009-09-13 03:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coalescent.livejournal.com
The object of the exercise is not to identify the books most likely to annoy me. :-p That said, Vanity Fair appeals more than Moby Dick.

Date: 2009-09-13 04:28 pm (UTC)
nwhyte: (books)
From: [personal profile] nwhyte
IAWTC!

Date: 2009-09-13 01:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com
Nifty review--and you hit on a lot of the things that Henry James did in his review for the Atlantic Monthly, as I recall. (Though he had a shade more dislike for Ladislaw--felt that he was a nebulous, unconvincing male of the sort often written by women.)

Date: 2009-09-13 02:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coalescent.livejournal.com
I can find this review, but it doesn't seem to have been published in the AM; is it the one you were thinking of?

I don't think there's anything to dislike about Ladislaw, really. He's just kind of there. And the range of other characters in the novel rather suggests to me that Ashton's right -- his blandness is a function of narrative need -- rather than anything about Eliot's ability to write or not write men.

Date: 2009-09-13 02:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com
That's the review--I remembered it as part of his collection of reviews, but I managed to elide them all into the Atlantic when he wrote for a number of magazines. (I just checked my source, which is Volume One of his collected criticism.)

I think Ashton is right; I just remembered that jab of James's as someone (I don't think it was Eliot, and I can't recover when and where I read it) said in a review at the time that James writes the same female character over and over--always the cause of a man's downfall.

Date: 2009-09-13 04:38 pm (UTC)
ext_6283: Brush the wandering hedgehog by the fire (Subversive male)
From: [identity profile] oursin.livejournal.com
I find I like or notice different things on re-reading Middlemarch. I've never greatly objected to the Bulstrode thread, though it has its melodramatic elements, and I think justifies itself entirely with Mrs Bulstrode's great moment - 'Look up, Nicholas' - coming out of the shadows and doing the unexpected and right thing (the parallelisms with Rosamund her niece are fascinating).

Ladislaw is a bit Fotherington-Tomasy: but I suspect that women readers may object to this less than men. I do not suppose that I am entirely unique in cheering when a beta, or at least, non-Byronic, male gets the heroine. His being the polar opposite of Heathcliff (except for dark secrets of origin) was why Rufus Sewell was such a bizarre casting choice in the TV series.

Date: 2009-09-13 04:50 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] coalescent.livejournal.com
I do not suppose that I am entirely unique in cheering when a beta, or at least, non-Byronic, male gets the heroine

Except that, unfortunately, Ladislaw has all the blandness that normally goes with alpha-Byronic heroes. (And he's so obviously and repeatedly signalled as The One for Dorothea, too...)

I didn't find the Bulstrode thread melodramatic (the most objectionably melodramatic moment is Ladislaw and Dorothea's first kiss, what with lightning flashing and rain lashing the windows...), just tedious. They seemed to lack the clarity that attended most of the other characterisations.

Date: 2009-09-13 07:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lady-schrapnell.livejournal.com
Oh - this is such odd timing: [livejournal.com profile] steepholm was reading Middlemarch recently, as he'll be teaching it this year, and they specified that edition (which is very inferior to the Oxford World's Classics, I think!) and I picked it up idly one day and read the very sentence you've quoted from the Intro. I didn't agree with it either.

I love Middlemarch and couldn't agree more with what you've said about the generosity of the voice. The 'vice disguised as a virtue' idea is really interesting. Off the top of my head, I'd think not, because of the whole scientific underpinning of the book - so the message isn't exactly undermined by saying that viewing perspective changes the perceived 'reality' completely, because it's constantly forcing us to consider how different people and relationships look from a shifted angle. (Or are changed by the act of observing?)

I really like Will, in an entirely soppy way, I'm afraid! But the Introduction to the edition I read helped a lot, because I loved the mythological basis for some of the contrasting of him with Casaubon, which would have been a bit heavy-handed otherwise. (When I was studying Middlemarch, I was struck by a critic's comment, and started making a list of resonances between it and Fire and Hemlock - it was surprisingly long! Always meant to write it up, but no idea where the list is now.) Also, he makes a nice Shelley figure who *is* a good husband as well as a crusader for justice. :)

Oh hell, I won't try to justify Austen. Just to suggest that if you've read Northanger Abbey and found it too silly, try to find the Oxford World's Classics with an intro by Terry Castle. It's fascinating on the ways in which Austen was engaging with the big social debates of the time. We also read an article by Isobel Armstrong on the same lines, the OU being *very* big on contextualization!

Or maybe one tiny rebuttal of her poor time-traveling too. A few years ago, a listserve I was on was shaken up by the addition of a new member, who threw her weight around and did the name-dropping act exactly in the style of Mrs Elton in Emma. Right down to organizing a meet-up precisely the way the picnic to Box Hill was organized. The only consolation I could take from the situation was thinking of how perfectly Austen's description of a small community in early 19th century England fit this online community.

Date: 2009-10-01 01:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com
Agree all the way through.

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