Though I suppose in a technical way the bicentenary year really ended with George Eliot’s birthday on November 22, why stop celebrating before we have to? My only regret is that I’m not actually teaching any of her novels this term–in fact, because of my sabbatical, I haven’t taught any George Eliot in 2019 at all! Shocking! So I haven’t been able to integrate any bicentenary activities into my classroom time. I did point out to the students presenting in Women & Detective Fiction on November 22 that it was an especially auspicious day, but they didn’t seem convinced or otherwise excited. 🙂
My own contributions to the bicentenary since attending the big conference in the summer have both come to fruition in the last week or so. The edition of the TLS that recognizes George Eliot’s 200th includes my review-essay on novels about or inspired by her, including Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s new In Love With George Eliot, as well as essays by renowned Eliot biographer Rosemary Ashton and scholar Gail Marshall; it also reprints Virginia Woolf’s well-known TLS essay from 1919. That’s excellent company to be in!
And speaking of excellent company, also in honour of the bicentenary I was invited to be a guest on the CBC Radio show ‘Sunday Edition,’ to talk to host Michael Enright about George Eliot and Middlemarch. You can listen to the interview here if you are interested, or just read the story, which includes some highlights as well as a photo of me post-interview looking perhaps a bit flustered but also genuinely happy to have my battered teaching copy of Middlemarch in hand. Inevitably, no doubt, there are a few questions I wish I had answered a bit differently (including being a bit more precise about ‘the Catholic Question’ – but on the other hand, would anybody really have wanted me to get into the weeds about it?), but overall I think I represented Team George well. I only wish I had taken more opportunities to quote directly from the novel. I really do think the best advocate for Middlemarch is the novel itself.
As I browsed through it in preparation for the interview, I stopped to reread many of the moments I love the best–the description of Lydgate’s discovering his vocation in Chapter XV, with its poignant commentary on “the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats,” for instance:
there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman’s glance.
Or the passage in which Mr. Casaubon, having met with Lydgate about his prognosis, confronts his own mortality:
Here was a man who now for the first time found himself looking into the eyes of death — who was passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die — and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first. To Mr. Casaubon now, it was as if he suddenly found himself on the dark river-brink and heard the plash of the oncoming oar, not discerning the forms, but expecting the summons.
This is the scene that leads first to his cold rebuff to Dorothea’s proffered sympathy and then to this moment, one of the most quietly moving in the novel but also one that shows us both the beauty and the cost of its doctrine of sympathy:
“Dorothea!” he said, with a gentle surprise in his tone. “Were you waiting for me?”
“Yes, I did not like to disturb you.”
“Come, my dear, come. You are young, and need not to extend your life by watching.”
When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.
I don’t know if Middlemarch is, as the CBC headline proposes, “the greatest English novel of all time.” I think Eliot (for reasons I discuss in the interview) can reasonably be called the greatest Victorian novelist, and Middlemarch is certainly her greatest book, but there are other models of the novel and other ideas of greatness: as Henry James said, the house of fiction has many windows. One of the things I said to Michael Enright during our conversation was that our judgments of any given novel will depend on what we think the novel (both the particular example and, I think, the genre as a whole) is for. I’m not (much) interested in defending Middlemarch to people who don’t like it, but I am always happy to explain what I think is wonderful about it. I wouldn’t be much good at my job, also, if I didn’t believe we can all learn to read books–all books, any book–better than we do, if someone will just help us along. I hope my interview does some of that work for listeners, and of course for readers who want even more help, there are lots of resources at my Middlemarch for Book Clubs site.
But, as I often say and said in the interview too, I loved Middlemarch when I read it as an ardent teenager with really no understanding of the multiple layers I see in it today. In fact, it is possible that the pressure to declare it, defend it, or dethrone it as “the greatest English novel” hinders rather than helps, by making it seem less accessible than it really is. In any case, I loved it then and I love it now, and any book that withstands multiple rereadings over more than three decades is surely worth celebrating, as is its brilliant author. So, happy 200th birthday to George Eliot, and I can’t wait to teach Middlemarch again in 2020.