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Middlemarch.jpgGeorge Eliot has many strengths, but a surprising one is her facility with confrontations.  People facing down one another verbally is difficult to depict for many reasons: confrontations are tough to observe (or participate in) because so many people tend to avoid them; and then when confrontations do occur, they're often emotional, nonsensical and frustrating.  Verbal confrontations are so troublesome that authors may even feel uncomfortable writing them: Jonathan Franzen, for example, disperses his characters in The Corrections just before they can all meet (and fight) at Christmas.  (Physical confrontations are much easier to portray on paper: they're less ambiguous, require less - or no - dialogue, and tend to end with a winner.)

But George Eliot is a master of the verbal showdown.  Time and again, her characters face off and, with devastating directness, collide verbally with profound consequences and stunning language:

  •  Mary Garth stands up to Peter Featherstone, when the old bully - even as he lays dying - wants to use her for his manipulative ends ("I will not let the close of your life soil the beginning of mine" p. 316);
  • Tertius and Rosamond Lydgate attack each other over his debt and her deceptiveness;
  • Camden Farebrother demands that Mary Garth reveal her affection for Fred Vincy;
  • Nicholas Bulstrode coldly denies Tertius Lydgate a loan with the words: "My advice to you, Mr. Lydgate, would be, that instead of involving yourself in further obligations, and continuing a doubtful struggle, you should simply become a bankrupt." p. 684;
  • Middlemarch's municipal politicians publicly humiliate Nicholas Bulstrode by insisting that he make an accounting of his past deeds or resign from his leadership roles;
  • Dorothea Brooke's and Rosamond Lydgate's startling heart-to-heart opens the way for Dorothea's reconciliation with Will Ladislaw.
The list could go on and on and on.  The engine of Eliot's plot are these gorgeously-crafted confrontations, in which her characters speak, not like people, but in that much-harder lingua literatura: dialogue that reads believably on the page because - without realizing that we're flattering ourselves - we think we speak like that.

Eliot's astonishing skill with confrontations is all the more unexpected because the British are stereotypically not confrontational: the general image is that they avoid ruffling the surface in order better to maintain the stiff upper lip. 

But Eliot plainly thinks well of confrontations.  Dorothea's first mistake with Edward Casaubon, for example, is not confronting his claims of intellectual superiority.  Celia's blunt exposure of her sister's flaws is a sign of love ("by opening a little window for the daylight of [Celia's] understanding to enter among the strange colored lamps by which [Dorothea] habitually saw" p. 820).  Fred Vincy is likable because he squarely faces his failures with the Garths.

In this respect, Eliot is modern.  Transparency, honesty, forthrightness and directness - whatever the consequences in terms of discomfort, loss of face, humiliation, or instability - are modern values.  That Middlemarch - not a modern place - is nonetheless a hotbed of confrontation is an instance of literary argument: Eliot endeavors to persuade her readers to accept modern values by illustrating their basis in established (even timeless) behaviors; rather than a descriptive "study of provincial life," Middlemarch is a normative vision of the transition from pre-modern to modern. 

In so doing, Eliot fulfills an obligation identified by Caleb Garth, Eliot's salt-of-the-earth pro-modernity atavist: "The young ones have always a claim on the old to help them forward."  (p. 563.)  By providing so many elegant and vital examples of human confrontation, Eliot shows us latter generations how to live with the courage of the convictions she urged us to adopt.

(Photo courtesy of BBC)

A proper answer to Marianne

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A philosopher fallen to betting is hardly distinguishable from a Philistine under the same circumstances: the difference will chiefly be found in his subsequent reflections . . . .
George Eliot, Middlemarch 644 (1871-2, 2006).

Reading this quote immediately put me in mind of a conversation I'd had with a Kenyan friend, Marianne, about my interest in Karen Blixen, Denys Finch-Hatton, and their social set.  "They weren't like the 'Happy Valley' crew that came in the decade after they arrived," I'd told her.  "The 'Happy Valley' group just got drunk and slept with each others' spouses."

"Which is what they [Blixen and friends] did, too," she replied, challenging my categorization criteria.  

"Well, yeah," I admitted, recalling Bror Blixen's alcoholism and philandering, Karen Blixen's affair with Denys while she was still married to Bror, Deny's affairs while he was with her, the wine-swilling, dope smoking and opium taking that went on in Karen Blixen's parlor . . . .

What could I say?  Yes, Blixen & Co's behavior paralleled that of the Happy Valley entourage, but Blixen et al. were . . . cultured?  Karen and Denys read poetry and listened to classical music?

The question needled me until I read that above-quoted passage from George Eliot, and then I understood my own reasoning.  The colonists of Blixen's generation - perhaps because of their proximity to the Victorian era and its endorsement of exploration and discovery, especially by amateurs - were remarkably reflective about their lives in Africa.  An astonishing number of them wrote books about their experiences: Bror (African Hunter), Karen (Out of Africa, Shadows on the Grass), Llewelyn Powys (Black Laughter), Beryl Markham (West with the Night), Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (My Reminiscences of East Africa), to name but a handful.

By contrast, the Happy Valley menagerie - Idina Sackville, Lord Errol, Diana Delamere, Alice de Janzé, Sir Jock Delves Broughton - bore a much closer resemblance in their conduct to Los Angelinos in the 1980s.  They were too busy being drunk, stoned and otherwise zonked out of their minds - and in-and-out of each others beds, trousers and every other locale and crevice - and shooting each other - to do much reflection, never mind writing.  Though a number of books have been written about them - White Mischief, The Bolter - reflection is not a characteristic attributable to their modus vivendi.

Yet reflection - that most distinctly human activity - is what interests me.  The critical mind that perceives, questions what it perceives, and experiments in the arrangement of those perceptions into coherent narratives - along with the benefits and limitations of such an approach - is what captures my attention.  

However much damage the colonists of Karen Blixen's era wrought - ecological destruction, biodiversity diminishment, discrimination, denial of human rights, theft of land - they were reflective about their actions.  Why those philosophers were unable to prevent themselves from being as harmful (to themselves, and to Kenya) as the Philistines that followed - and whether their reflectiveness made any difference - is a question worthy of reflection.

86 Chapters was enough

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George_Eliot.jpgActors - and I used to number myself among them - are taught to leave an audience wanting more, and I've found that maxim a valuable to guide to determining at what hour to exit a party: erring on the early side invariably saves grief to a greater extent than staying would have reaped pleasure.  (I've overstayed enough welcomes to feel confident in this conclusion.)

Middlemarch is a clear example that novelists, also, should take this lesson to heart.  After 86 chapters and 830 pages, Middlemarch could not accused of skimpiness in need of a "Finale" to bulk it up; nonetheless, a "Finale" has been provided, by what motive of George Eliot's (other than graphomania) I cannot guess.

The "Finale" gives rise to virtually the only criticism that can be leveled at Eliot's monumental achievement - namely, it deprives the reader of the satisfaction of imagining the lovers' futures.  Dorothea and Will's marriage is a happy ending . . . until I learn in the "Finale" that she subordinated her life to his career, stayed at home and raised kids.  Fred and Mary's impending life together at Stone Court is a happy ending . . . until the "Finale" reveals the provincial normality - utter boringness - of their lives together.  Tertius Lydgate's freedom from debt is a happy ending for his marriage with Rosamond . . . until the "Finale" kills him off from diphtheria in his middle age, and she marries an older, wealthier man.

Without the "Finale," I could have imagined Lydgate enjoying a scientifically-enriched middle-age when, free from the constraints of earning money, he was able to devote himself to his experiments.  I could have imagined Will deciding to leave politics and apply his management skills to running charitable endeavors that Dorothea dreamed up.  I could have imagined Fred becoming a prosperous businessman and finding an outlet for his "naughty" instincts by traveling - with Mary - around the world in a Victorian-era adventure.

Some deeply negative streak in Eliot animates that "Finale," subjugating the possibilities for the characters' futures to her overarching insistence that provincial society provided no outlet for the intrinsic greatness of her characters.  While I am sympathetic to her perspective - indeed, I think she is probably right that circumstances hamper potential in most cases - she has, as Mr. Brooke is fond of saying, "gone too far" with the "Finale" and should have "pulled up in time."

Leave it - as Gone with the Wind was left, with readers arguing whether Rhett will come back or stay away forever - with the readers wanting more, a desire they'll fulfill in imaginative dialogue with the characters' futures.

(Picture of George Eliot courtesy of BBC)

A pinched-faced provincial romance

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In the Introduction to the 2006 Penguin Classics edition of Middlemarch, Rosemary Ashton writes:

Perhaps it is wrong to try to reconcile the opposing tendencies of Middlemarch, not only its passionate airing of the case for extending women's opportunities and its putting them back in their wifely place again, but also its expression of a general belief in progress, "the growing good of the world," simultaneously with its exhibiting of the individual failure of the two main characters to achieve their ideals.
(p. xix)

Despite Ashton's abdication of this reconciliation, I think these polarities are (already) reconciled in the text by Eliot's conservative perspective on romantic love.  Eliot appears to find romantic love a force that will not be denied; for which sacrifice is either worth it, or for which society encourage people - men and women - to sacrifice (a view that she might complicate, but doesn't condemn).

Will Ladislaw, for example, seems stricken with the most adolescent type of romantic love, a two-dimensional devotedness that probably goes far towards making him among the least-developed of the novel's characters.  Notwithstanding his insistence to the contrary, if he couldn't have Dorothea, I'm entirely confident that he'd find someone else in a couple of years time.

Dorothea Brooke, for her part, would no doubt have gotten over Will (whom she doesn't even realize she loves until 786 pages into the book) and realized her St. Theresa-potential if she'd stayed single and been a bit more persistent about finding an Albert Schweitzer (or Mother Theresa) outlet for her money.  

Still, Will and Dorothea's love will not be denied (by Eliot, or by Dorothea), and neither Eliot nor Dorothea think it error to give up property for this match, despite its most mediocre results.

Similarly, Mary Garth would have been much better off marrying Camden Farebrother; he's a richer, fuller person than Fred Vincy.  With Farebrother, Mary would have had a more interesting life and more possibility for realizing her potential in educational, charitable, humanistic and theological directions.  Still, both Mary and Eliot are satisfied that Mary should grow white-haired with the man who "always loved her" since she was a child - even if their marriage entails Fred wasting his education and Mary not bothering to educate their boys.

In the same vein of self-destructiveness, Tertius Lydgate squanders his potential as a medical scientist simply to avoid realizing that he no longer loves Rosamond.  ("In marriage, the certainty, 'She will never love me much,' is easier to bear than the fear, 'I shall love her no more.'" p. 652.)  He'd rather be without his career ambition than without his romantic love for an undeserving object.

This attitude about romantic love is the narrow conservatism that curbs Eliot's progressivism.  She cannot seem to imagine a liberating valence for romantic love, as would be the case if Dorothea married Tertius and the two of them joined forces to reform the health care system in Victorian England - a possibility at which the book hints, but dares not dwell.

Why Eliot couldn't imagine this outcome for her characters is an interesting question.  In her own life, her partner and common law husband, G.H. Lewes, was her agent.  Plainly, Eliot herself was familiar with partnerships that advanced the professional and economic - as well as sexual and emotional - well-being of both partners.  All the same, the men in Middlemarch - Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, Tertius Lydgate, and Fred Vincy - obviate this possibility with their pinched views of ideal womanhood - uncritical devotion, beauty, adoration, goddesses on pedestals.

Perhaps without intending to do so, Eliot has illustrated a dynamic more complicated than her stated belief that society suppresses opportunities for individual realization of potential; in Middlemarch she shows - more powerfully than what she says - that individual's compromises (or refusals to compromise) with their romantic inclinations are as powerful an obstacle as any society has constructed. 

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Eliot, George category.

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