Article Review: "Middlemarch and Me," part 1: Middlemarch, Mead and Thirkell

 

A commenter (thank you Amaryllis) called to my attention the article \”Middlemarch and Me\” by Rebecca Mead in a recent issue of The New Yorker.[1] I had not had the time to write a review of the article before I, for the first time, read an Angela Thirkell book (also, thank you Amaryllis.) It is not surprising that coming to both of them on the recommendation of the same person I would find myself considering Mead’s article in light of my reading of Thirkell, and Thirkell in the light of my reading of Mead’s article. Nor is it surprising that I would find myself thinking (and rethinking) Middlemarch.
I had initially planned to write one long post about Mead’s article but decided that for purposes of clarity (and to avoid trespassing on the time of any readers) I should divide it into three parts: Mead’s contribution to the presumption/claim that Middlemarch is a great book / book to particularly value; Mead’s contribution to the ongoing debate of the relative “literary worth” of Austen versus Eliot; and the article’s utility / worth to someone who does not already value Middlemarch as a great, if not the greatest, English novel and Eliot as a great novelist.
The Mead article’s utility / worth to someone who does not already value “Middlemarch” as a great, if not the greatest, English novels and Eliot as a great novelist.
I begin by admitting that which before the eyes of many scholars is a mark of shame. I do not like Middlemarch. It is a book whose initial reading I remember as an experience of almost unrelieved drudgery. I read it before the point in my life when I decided that it wasn’t actually evil to not finish a book once I had begun reading it. One might think that any book first completed in such a fashion is unlikely to become a favourite upon a second reading yet it has been my experience that a bad “first time” is not an insuperable barrier to later enjoyment and appreciation. But this has not been the case for Middlemarch. At irregular intervals I return to the book, usually after someone whose taste in books I admire tells me that they have just reread or are currently rereading it. Buoyed up with their enthusiasm I crack the covers of my copy yet again and settle down to, if not enjoy then not actively dislike, what has been more than once described as the finest novel in the English language.
Each attempt leaves me further frustrated. “What is it,” I ask myself, “that I so dislike about this book.” I read other people writing about Middlemarch and fortified with their insights I open the book again. Yet each time I return to it I find it no more interesting, insightful or inspiring and so each time I finally give up and return the book to its place on the shelf near Gaskell (whose Cranford I love) and my Galsworthy collection (that needs rereading every several years) below my collection Austen’s novels (each of which is reread at least once a year) above Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time sequence and my well-thumbed Trollope novels. I gaze at the books ranged above it, beside it and below it and wonder—just why is I don’t like Middlemarch? It is obviously not because it is so long, nor because it is centered around the concerns of a small group of people in the English countryside, nor that issues of marriage loom so large for many of the characters.
My own frustration with reading Middlemarch leads me to welcome articles such as Mead’s—articles that seem to hold out the hope to me that finally I might achieve the ever elusive appreciation of the book. Alas, once again one of the book’s supporters fails to move me any closer to liking or even admiring the book. Indeed many of the things Mead finds most praiseworthy I feel are either commonplace achievements to be expected of any competently written novel or lie more in the intellect and imagination of the reader than in the book itself. Those (and more) I will write about in later postings.
However, one thing did strike me as I read Mead. Not for the first time I was taken aback at another reader’s identification and patience with Dorothea. Mead describes herself as identifying with Dorothea Brooke in “yearning for a significant existence.” Unlike Mead I neither identified nor empathized with a woman I found maddeningly obtuse. I, unlike Mead, did not fail to notice “a slight touch of stupidity” about Dorothea. Indeed I thought that Casaubon’s scholarly and intellectual shortcomings were writ so large that only a type of self-will toward martyrdom could explain Dorothea’s response to him. Increasingly over years it seemed more and more to me that faced with the perfectly unexceptional (in the Austen sense of the word) Sir James as a likely husband Dorothea turned to Casaubon as a way to avoid a life of ordinary pleasures and triumphs. I did not believe that Dorothea feared the stifling, aching banality of such a life as much as she feared finding out that such a life would not be stifling for it was she who was banal.
Having finished the article and still feeling shortchanged of insight into the attraction of Middlemarch I picked up the Angela Thirkell ominbus that I had just brought home from the library. The volume includes Ankle Deep, High Rising and Wild Strawberries all of which were written quite early in her career as a novelist. Elizabeth Bowen, in her introduction to the collected works, says of Ankle Deep, the earliest published of the three, that it is:
the least pleasing . . . . Mrs. Thirkell just gets away with her plaintive heroine—only just though. Aurea is a temperature-lowerer, if there  was one. That the full-blooded Valentine, her lover in name and would-be lover in fact, puts up with her whimsical dilly-dallying is amazing . [2] (viii)
Not the most promising of descriptions but having decided to read one of Thirkell’s early works I plunged into Ankle Deep.  I have much to say about the book, most of which I will save for a separate review, but one of the things that struck me most on this first reading is how the book managed to make the internal life of unexceptional people interesting. Each of the main characters in the novels is offered the opportunity to recognize an occasion calling for moral strength though not all are aware that that has happened. Each of them must make decisions that will have repercussions throughout the rest of their lives and yet, again, they are not universally aware of the fact that that has happened. Most of the characters are simply living their lives, as do most people, each seeing themselves at the centre of their own drama and each treating others, even others that they are in love with, as surfaces in which they can catch a glimpse of their own reflections.
Thirkell describes well the casual egotism that is an element of most of us. She does not rail at it even as she makes the reader aware of the ramifications of its attendant misreading for others. Thus I disagree with Bowen’s characterizations of both Aurea and Valentine. The latter is not noticeably more full-blooded than others. Even in the deepest throes of love Valentine remains essentially himself. The reader sees within the character in the now the older man he will grow to be. He is a man of his class, education and time and though he may venture occasionally to the margins of what is expected of him from his social circle he, both the reader and Aurea come to realize, is never seriously tempted to step across them.
I also disagree with Bowen’s characterization of Aurea as plaintive. Thirkell puts in the mouth of one of her characters a much better insight into the nature of Aurea’s character. Vanna tells Aurea that she has  “an inward eye” and then goes on to explain exactly what she means by that:
\’Aurea can’t see very far in front of her, and what she sees doesn’t really exist,’ said Vanna comprehensively. ‘She couldn’t as a girl, and she can’t now. She lets ideas fill up the foreground, and spends her time pretending that facts are like ideas, which they aren’t. She can only see what is inside her own imagination. When you met her again the other day, Arthur, you told me that she hadn’t grown up very much, and that’s why. When she meets facts she runs away from them mentally, or winds them up in a cocoon of imaginings. She lives, I should say, largely in an idealized past, or an imaginary future. You can’t change her, Arthur, so don’t try.’ [2] (86.)
It was after reading that passage that I realized that Thirkell had explained to me what it was that I disliked about Dorothea Brooke. Aurea had an inward eye and so did Dorothea. I dislike the fact that Eliot ascribes philosophical meaning and intensity to the very shortcoming that Thirkell describes as a character flaw that is neither grand, nor tragic it is pedestrian. Aurea herself comes to see that:
Aurea came back and hugged her mother tightly. Then she went upstairs to bed. Her story has no end. Only, in time, she will be able to look back steadfastly on those few weeks, acknowledge her own folly without blenching, and laugh not unkindly, at her own pitiful inexperience. What she will think of Valentine by then is another question; but compassion will never be wanting.” [2] (159)
 To return to the initial paragraph of this posting I was surprised that what light Mead shone on my struggles with Eliot, Middlemarch and Dorothea Brooke was due to my disagreements with  Mead’s understanding and appreciation of all three. On the other hand I was surprised and charmed by the insight that Thirkell gave me into my own responses to all three. I don’t know if these reflections will lead me to another reading of Middlemarch but I do know that I am looking forward to the unread Thirkell novels awaiting me in the omnibus by my side. 
[1] The New Yorker 14 Feb. 2011: 76.
[2] Thirkell, Angela,  1966  An Angela Thirkell omnibus / with an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen  Hamish Hamilton, London,

6 thoughts on “Article Review: "Middlemarch and Me," part 1: Middlemarch, Mead and Thirkell

  1. Now, see, I was one of those girls who sympathized with Dorothea– I knew I wanted something, but didn't know what is was or how to go about getting it. I could sympathize with Dorothea, who didn't see any way to get what she thought she wanted, either, even when I was irritated by her short-sightedness, or disliking that tendency toward willing martyrdom by which she made herself and everybody else uncomfortable.(Tangential: do you know the story of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity? martyrs (the literal kind) of the early church, and both of them mothers of young infants when they were killed. In some moods, I think, \”Of course, marriage and motherhood are no reason to betray your principles, no matter how many husbands and fathers and magistrates tell you to shut up and get back to the nursery!\” And in other moods, \”But it must have been awfully hard on the children…\”)So you don't think that Dorothea has grown up, or is at least willing to try, by the end of the novel? As in the famous \”I will learn what things cost\”? Now I come to think of it, Dorothea reminds me somewhat of Alice Vavasor, in Can You Forgive Her? Another young woman who wanted, or thought she wanted, something more than the ordinary marriage to the suitable young man. She was interested in politics, but it never apparently occurred to her to work for women's suffrage or act in any other way on her own behalf; she thought her only possible role was to be married to a Member of Parliament and support him in his work. She was just luckier than Dorothea, and maybe a little more clear-sighted when it counted, and she was rewarded with both the suitable man and the wished-for life.I'm also reminded of Thirkell's Miss Pemberton, in Northbridge Rectory. A hundred years after Dorothea, she's a scholar in her own right, respected and independent (although not very well off). But in her heart of hearts, she thinks that her most important function in life is to support her friend-and-lodger, the equally impoverished scholar Mr. Downing, in his work, which she believes is more important than her own (even if she makes him and herself miserable in the process). There seems to be a lot of that kind of thing going on! But Miss Pemberton is another Thirkell character who faces a moral choice with courage and clear-sightedness.I've read a lot of Thirkell, but somehow I missed Ankle Deep! So I can't comment on that one.Except to say that this:Each of the main characters in the novels is offered the opportunity to recognize an occasion calling for moral strength though not all are aware that that has happened.is something that appear in all of her books, in one way or another; as usual, you put your finger on the essential point. The issues are generally small matters, there's no grand heroism in a Thirkell book, and no grand failures either, but there's a lot of respect for those moments of quiet strength.Wild Strawberries, eh? Those oh-so-charming Leslies– well, I'll let you read it for yourself!Also looking forward to your comments on Mead on Austen– to whom I thought she did considerably less than justice.And I'd better quit babbling on at midnight. I shall, as they say, watch for future installments with interest. 🙂

  2. This is a test.I wrote a long response last night, and Blogger swore it posted it– but I don't see it now?Was it me? Was it it? Was it you?If this works, I'll try to write it again after work, if I can remember to think the same things twice!Let's see.*clicks Post *

  3. Ah, thank you, I realised why i liked Middlemarch- your description of Aurea and Dorothea is a description of me by someone who doesn't like me much. I also liked the bitchyness of the authors tone – why I like Austen, actually. I came here by way of slacktivist, I have been reading the posts and comments for over 5 years. I dont comment because usually someone else says what I thought first and better. I enjoy your posts very much.

  4. Amaryllis — that disappearing post was, for some reason I don't understand, dumped into the spam box by the automatic filter. I know not why. I unspammed it when I realized what happened. I'll respond to it more detail later since you make a number of good points.@lauralawson: your description of Aurea and Dorothea is a description of me by someone who doesn't like me muchThe funny thing is that I didn't dislike Aurea the way I did Dorothea. Vanna's (Thirkell's) description of Aurea helped me to separate the aspect of Aurea that I found annoying from Aurea herself. Indeed it helped me to realize that in many ways it describes aspects of me.Thanks for your comment on my slacktivist posts — I have an advantage when it comes to posting quickly — I am a touch typist (I learned to type before I had moved from printing to cursive writing) and when I am angry/moved there seems to be a direct conduit between my brain and my fingers.

  5. I like Middlemarch, but I don't particularly identify with Dorothea – and in fact, hers are not my favourite sections of the book. However, my husband can never get on with Eliot either; I wonder if his take might ring some bells?His view is basically that he finds Eliot's tone grudge-settling: it gives him the impression that she identifies with certain characters and uses them to vent frustrations present in, or bestow validation absent from, real life. I don't know if I agree with him or not; in a way, I think it's impossible to test. But if it were the case, it might create an odd sense of dissonance, because that's a very raw motivation and rather an unsophisticated one – the kind of motivation teenage writers get chastised for, among other things – yet her style is highly accomplished. (He finds her style rather weighty and self-regarding as well, but I don't agree with that…) Presuming you know an author's emotional relationship with their work is pretty much going where Muses fear to tread, but Eliot does have a curious combination of personal-seeming engagement and purported neutrality. She assumes the role of ominscient narrator and goes a lot into describing characters' thought processes and perspectives, but the result does tend to the didactic rather than towards universal understanding – it's just extremely well-argued didacticism. Really, she has good guys and bad guys as much as a pulp author; she just gives them subtle and complex motivations. I suspect that may actually be one reason why so many people enjoy her: they have the struggles and partisanship of an easy read combined with the good writing and psychology of a highbrow one, so it's kind of the thinking woman's pulp. Maybe. It's more an idea I'm trying on for size than a definite opinion. But if that's the case, it might explain why 'whether or not you identify with Dorothea' seems to be such a common question when it comes to liking or disliking Middlemarch. It's usually pulp stories that get people saying 'I don't want to read about a hero I don't like', but maybe that's what's going on here?

  6. Kit First, an OT (sort of) comment — your husband sounds like someone I would love to spend several evenings at the pub with discussing books. He seems often to have articulated exactly what it is that I was feeling about a book or type of books.Second, also an OT comment — I appreciate opportunities to discuss books with people who don't take it personally. I was almost not kidding about the \”shame\” aspect of not liking Eliot. I had professional colleagues who basically interpreted \”I don't like Eliot\” to mean \”I am an ill educated reader who doesn't appreciate the great works in the English language.\” And, as I said, I find it makes no sense given the other things I like.Now, to the meat of your comment. I think your suggestion thatEliot does have a curious combination of personal-seeming engagement and purported neutrality goes a long way to nailing down my unease with Eliot. I feel comfortable with personal engagement (because I can contextualize and even discount it) but engagement disguised as neutrality gets my back up. As I typed that I realized that that is what men often do to women — claim that their (male) experiences are actually objective reality and that my experiences are wrong or lesser or different or subjective. Like you I dread/dislike/fear going where Muses fear to tread — but to me Eliot's didacticism seems to be an intelligent woman's attempts to make logical and ethical those things which she has internalized from a male dominated world that a woman ought to feel. Does that make any sense to you?

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