Happy Birthday, Marian Evans!

Durade GEThe woman we now refer to almost exclusively as ‘George Eliot’ was born on this day in 1819. Imagine the bicentennial celebrations we’ll be having in a few years! I hope so, anyway. Remember all the hoopla for the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice? Surely the author of Middlemarch deserves at least as much fanfare — even if her books almost never leave us feeling altogether like celebrating.

I’ve written so much about George Eliot here over the years (and here — more than once — and here, and here) that it almost feels redundant to say anything more. And yet there always turns out to be more I want to say, which is one of the reasons I admire and appreciate her novels so much. Little did I know when I plucked a random edition of Middlemarch off the bookstore shelf for reading on the train during a youthful odyssey across Europe that the book would end up making more difference to my life than anything else I read or saw or did during those eventful six months. “Destiny stands by sarcastic,” as she said herself, “with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (Whatever your experience, she always turns out to have anticipated it in a wise, witty, or tender saying.)

I don’t know a more apt or moving tribute to George Eliot than Virginia Woolf’s:

Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her – sex and health and convention – she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.

I’ve never had the opportunity to lay a literal bouquet on her grave. The next time I travel to England, I hope finally to make it to Highgate Cemetery — my own modest pilgrimage in honor of a brave and brilliant woman whose work has been an inspiration, a provocation, and a comfort to me for almost three decades. Until then, my own writing — thin and inadequate as it inevitably is by comparison — is the best tribute I can offer.

George Eliot and “Fine Old Christmas”

snowfall

I don’t usually think about George Eliot and Christmas together, and when I do, it’s usually by way of Silas Marner, which is a lovely secular version of the Christmas story (among other things). Rereading The Mill on the Floss for my class this week, though, I was struck by this little passage, which somehow had never really stood out to me before:

Fine old Christmas, with the snowy hair and ruddy face, had done his duty that year in the noblest fashion, and had set off his rich gifts of warmth and color with all the heightening contrast of frost and snow.

Snow lay on the croft and river-bank in undulations softer than the limbs of infancy; it lay with the neatliest finished border on every sloping roof, making the dark-red gables stand out with a new depth of color; it weighed heavily on the laurels and fir-trees, till it fell from them with a shuddering sound; it clothed the rough turnip-field with whiteness, and made the sheep look like dark blotches; the gates were all blocked up with the sloping drifts, and here and there a disregarded four-footed beast stood as if petrified “in unrecumbent sadness”; there was no gleam, no shadow, for the heavens, too, were one still, pale cloud; no sound or motion in anything but the dark river that flowed and moaned like an unresting sorrow. But old Christmas smiled as he laid this cruel-seeming spell on the outdoor world, for he meant to light up home with new brightness, to deepen all the richness of indoor color, and give a keener edge of delight to the warm fragrance of food; he meant to prepare a sweet imprisonment that would strengthen the primitive fellowship of kindred, and make the sunshine of familiar human faces as welcome as the hidden day-star. His kindness fell but hardly on the homeless — fell but hardly on the homes where the hearth was not very warm, and where the food had little fragrance; where the human faces had had no sunshine in them, but rather the leaden, blank-eyed gaze of unexpectant want. But the fine old season meant well; and if he has not learned the secret how to bless men impartially, it is because his father Time, with ever-unrelenting unrelenting purpose, still hides that secret in his own mighty, slow-beating heart.

The immediate context is Tom’s return from Mr. Stelling’s school for the holidays, and the emphasis on coziness and fellowship helps bring out both his happiness at being at home again and the novel’s larger emphasis on home and family as the roots of memory and thus morality. The penultimate sentence here does something rather different, though, doesn’t it? It introduces (on a small scale) a Dickens-like critique of exclusion from these blessings, a quick but painful sketch of the unhappiness the season exacerbates for those unable to rejoice in its warmth and bounty. I find the personification of Christmas, and then ‘his’ characterization as the son of ‘father Time,’ strategically interesting. The “fine old season” could just as easily be winter, especially given the evocative descriptions of the snow, but we can’t do anything about winter, (sadly!): its sorrows are indeed “unresting.” Christmas, however, is what people have made of the season: it is the consolation we’ve come up with for its cold and privation. It is, in other words, a man-made, not a natural (or a supernatural), phenomenon. Eliot’s personification reminds us of that, and hints that we could perhaps do something about “unexpectant want.” The “rich gifts” of Christmas, after all, really come from us.

I’ve been trying to think of other explicit Christmas scenes in Eliot’s novels and am coming up blank. Anyone?

This Week In My Classes: Reading Against the Grain

adambedeI have really enjoyed rereading Adam Bede for my graduate seminar over the past two weeks. Though I know the novel reasonably well, I have never spent the kind of dedicated time on it that I have on Middlemarch or The Mill on the Floss  — or, for that matter, on Romola. I’ve never even assigned it in an undergraduate class, I realize! Still, I do have a half-finished (well, maybe one-third-finished) essay on it for Open Letters that was (is?) going to focus on the line between explaining and justifying, between understanding and forgiving. This is a problem raised in most of Eliot’s novels, but Hetty’s infanticide is an extreme test case: there’s nothing abstract about the consequences of her crime, nothing diffuse or dispersed about the damage done, as there is with, for example, Bulstrode’s lies or Tito’s betrayal. “Children may be strangled, but deeds never,” says the narrator rather chillingly in Romola, but it’s really only in Adam Bede that there’s a literal child to mourn rather than an intangible (if irrevocable) fault.

Though the novel is called Adam Bede (a faintly puzzling choice that we talked about several times in class), Hetty is by far its most interesting element: both the drama of her story (especially the still-gripping-after-all-these-years journeys in hope and despair) and the meticulous care with which Eliot presents her vain, shallow, artless, and ultimately tragic character. Critics sometimes accuse Eliot of being hard on her beautiful women in general and on Hetty in particular. It’s true we’re shown Hetty in a very unflattering light, despite the emphasis on her kitten-like charms. That seems to me the only plausible option, though, if we are going to go through the moral exercise the novel sets for us of sympathizing with “more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people.” The point is not to help us see Hetty in a kindly light, to show us that she’s somehow better than she seems — but to show us that however irredeemably selfish she is, however incapable of self-reflection, nonetheless the onus is on us to “tolerate, pity, and love” her. Dinah, of course, is our model for that moral transcendence, and though she herself is rather a dull character, I think the meeting between the two women in prison is thrilling. (I wrote a little bit about it near the end of this essay on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch.)

So, there’s all that, and luxurious landscapes, and dramatic rescues, and Mrs. Poyser to boot — what’s not to love?

But I had much less fun rereading some of the critical articles I’d assigned, even though they are smart and well-argued and thought-provoking and all the things that they should be. I was trying to figure out why, and what I came up with was that in many ways they position themselves against George Eliot, against Adam Bede as she offers it to us. I’ve been reading and writing for so long now outside of academic parameters that I’ve become less accustomed to the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” or to readings that are less interested in the discussion the author is overtly having with us than in undermining or second-guessing or critiquing the terms of discussion the author has chosen. I would never argue that such critiques are illegitimate; often, too, they establish a valuable chiaroscuro in a robust appreciation (who today can love Dickens, for instance, without also conceding that his women often disappoint?). It would be naive, or worse, to pretend that there’s nothing objectionable to be found — even in George Eliot! (Yes, her politics are cautious to the point of conservative; yes, she’s essentialist about gender; yes, she can be less than rhapsodic about coarse peasants; etc.) I think that right now, though, for me it’s less rewarding to do or read criticism that digs in on these issues when there is so much that is progressive and aspirational, and also beautiful, in her writing. What are we to do with Adam Bede, after all, if we conclude that it perpetuates or advocates a vision (a version) of society that we reject? Close it and put it away for good?

Almost certainly not, of course, and I don’t think that’s what any of the critics we read are saying either. Usually (as I take it) the implicit subtext is something more like “read it in a more complicated way,” or “approach with skepticism.” Don’t, in other words, take Eliot’s words for granted, which is exactly the mantra I’ve been insisting on in my Introduction to Literature class — except that there, the purpose is not to catch out or undermine the author but to appreciate their artful use of language to serve their ends. That approach is consistent with ultimately finding those ends problematic, but it’s still overall a more positive exercise. (That seems both right and necessary as a first step: you can’t effectively critique what you don’t thoroughly understand, after all.)

Writing this, I am plagued by a sense that I’m being inconsistent, maybe even hypocritical. I definitely resist some books and read them, if not suspiciously, at least with something quite other than appreciation. I’ve also committed a lot of time and thought to the importance of ethical criticism, which is fundamentally about questioning the implications of an author’s literary strategies, as much as or more than it is about identifying their overt or covert political commitments. Maybe I still haven’t rightly identified the source of my annoyance, then — or maybe what it comes down to is just that I prefer my Adam Bede to the Adam Bede I saw in some of the critical essays. The miraculous thing about great books is that all these versions can coexist, that all these things can be going on at once. Love, too, can coexist with criticism — even my love for Middlemarch, which is complicated but not diminished by my anxiety that there is something potentially dangerous about its most beautiful moments.

Appearing Elsewhere: “Middlemarch and the ‘Cry From Soul to Soul'”

Dorothea_and_Will_LadislawAn essay I worked on during my sabbatical on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch has just been published in Berfrois. The general themes will not surprise any regular visitors to Novel Readings (or readers of my other essays on George Eliot, particularly my essay on Silas Marner in the Los Angeles Review of Books). In fact, the germ of this essay was a blog post I wrote years ago on George Eliot and prayer; ever since then I have wanted to expand those passing comments into a fuller reading of Middlemarch along those lines, and now I have!

I’ve also written about Middlemarch in a somewhat less consoling way, in my essay on the novel’s “miserable morality” at Open Letters Monthly.

“Janet’s Repentance”: Revisiting a Scene of Clerical Life

scenes2I’m not sure when I last read George Eliot’s first published fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life. It might have been as much as 15 or 20 years ago that I read any of the stories right through, though I have certainly dipped into “Amos Barton” once or twice when thinking or writing about her realism and her intrusive narrator. I picked the book off my shelf again this week because I have been thinking (and will be writing) about scenes of visiting in Eliot’s novels. So many of her climactic moments are set up that way, with a sympathetic visitor bringing comfort or guidance to someone in crisis: Dinah visiting Hetty in prison in Adam Bede, for instance; Lucy visiting Maggie near the end of The Mill on the Floss; perhaps most notably, Dorothea visiting Rosamond in Chapter 81 of Middlemarch. The key thing, of course, is that these are human, rather than divine, “visitations” and thus neatly encapsulate her ongoing translation of religious beliefs into secular practices. As I was collecting examples, I had a vague memory of Edgar Tryan visiting Janet in “Janet’s Repentance,” so I thought I’d go back to the story and see what it adds to the pattern I’m exploring.

“Janet’s Repentance” is interesting for lots of reasons, including its grim account of Janet’s abusive marriage, which has driven her, in her misery and shame, to drink:

‘I’ll teach you to keep me waiting in the dark, you pale, staring fool!’ he said, advancing with his slow, drunken step. ‘What, you’ve been drinking again, have you? I’ll beat you into your senses.’

He laid his hand with a firm grip on her shoulder, turned, her round, and pushed her slowly before him along the passage and through the dining-room door, which stood open on their left hand.

There was a portrait of Janet’s mother, a grey-haired, dark-eyed old woman, in a neatly fluted cap, hanging over the mantelpiece. Surely the aged eyes take on a look of anguish as they see Janet — not trembling, no! it would be better if she trembled — standing stupidly unmoved in her great beauty while the heavy arm is lifted to strike her. The blow falls — another — and another. Surely the mother hears that cry — ‘O Robert! pity! pity!’

“Do you wonder,” asks our narrator, as the sordid tale unfolds, “how it was that things had come to this pass — what offence Janet had committed in the early years of marriage to rouse the brutal hatred of this man? . . . But do not believe,” she goes on,

that it was anything either present or wanting in poor Janet that formed the motive of her husband’s cruelty. Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself — it only requires opportunity. . . . And an unloving, tyrannous, brutal man needs no motive to prompt his cruelty; he needs only the perpetual presence of a woman he can call his own.

“A woman he can call his own”: that remark is strongly reminiscent of Frances Power Cobbe’s powerful 1878 essay “Wife-Torture in England,” in which Cobbe emphasizes the corrupting effect of presumed “ownership”:

The general depreciation of women as a sex is bad enough, but in the matter we are considering [spousal abuse], the special depreciation of wives is more directly responsible for the outrages they endure. The notion that a man’s wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property . . . is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery. Every brutal-minded man, and many a man who in other relations of his life is not brutal, entertains more or less vaguely the notion that his wife is his thing, and is ready to ask with indignation (as we read again and again in the police reports), of any one who interferes with his treatment of her, “May I not do what I will with my own?”

 (If you’re interested in reading more on this aspect of Victorian marriage and its treatment in Victorian fiction — try Lisa Surridge’s Bleak Houses and Kate Lawson’s The Marked Body, both of which discuss “Janet’s Repentance.”)

millIt’s also interesting how recognizable George Eliot is here. Many of the things she does better (or at least more fully, or with greater finesse) in her later novels are here already, such as the patient unfolding of social context — the “thick description” within which her plots acquire so much more meaning than their simple actions might indicate — and the pulsation between individual moments and philosophical ideas, facilitated by the narrator’s commentary on the action. Just as, despite her protective camouflage, Eliot’s friends “IRL” knew her when they read her earliest fiction, any readers of The Mill on the Floss know they are in familiar company when they see this anticipation of the famous “men of maxims” passage:

Yet surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him – which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion. Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and work, the life and death struggles of separate human beings.

And Janet’s appeal to Mr. Tryan — “It is very difficult to know what to do: what ought I to do?” — is one that has echoes across Eliot’s oeuvre, including in a passage in Middlemarch that is central to my thinking about the broader question of religion in Eliot’s fiction: “Help me, pray,” says an overwrought Dorothea to Dr. Lydgate; “Tell me what I can do.”

The big difference, though, is that in Middlemarch the appeal may have the same impulse as a prayer (“an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer”) but it is directed at a doctor, and it’s not even really his medical advice she wants but something more fundamentally human, some guidance about how to be in the circumstances. The transformation from sacred to secular is even more distinct in the climactic encounter between Dorothea and Rosamond much later in the novel. But in “Janet’s Repentance” not only is Janet asking a clergyman (and an Evangelical one, at that) for help, but his advice is religious advice — and it is not undercut, or translated into humanistic terms, by the narrator. David Lodge notes in his introduction to my Penguin edition that “Janet’s Repentance” is “a completely non-ironical account of a conversion from sinfulness to righteousness through the selfless endeavours of an Evangelical clergyman.” He goes on to suggest that Eliot’s “religion of Humanity” is just below the surface, but it’s certainly not visible the way it is in her later works. It’s true that Tryan’s kindly fellowship is essential to his success as a religious ambassador: “Blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another!” says the narrator. But it’s trust in God that Tryan recommends, and that brings Janet peace.

Durade GEThe ending of the story is a bit of a disappointment: like Anne Brontë’s Helen Huntingdon, Janet feels obliged to stand by her man as he pays the final price for his cruel and self-destructive behavior. I think that in both cases this affirmation of ‘proper’ wifely devotion is important to direct our attention to the sins of the husbands. Brontë has a more political point to make, though, about the structural as well as ideological failures of marriage, while Eliot’s story focuses us more on the internal moral life and on the redemptive value of compassion and faith. Janet also does not get the hard-earned Happily Ever After that Helen enjoys, at least, not in this life: as Lodge points out, Eliot “even compromised with her belief in immortality to the extent of allowing her hero and heroine a ‘sacred kiss of promise’ at the end.” Disappointing, as I said, and surprising, from an author who wrote so stringently about the immorality of acting on the basis of future expectations rather than immediate consequences:

The notion that duty looks stern, but all the while has her hand full of sugar-plums, with which she will reward us by and by, is the favourite cant of optimists, who try to make out that this tangled wilderness of life has a plan as easy to trace as that of a Dutch garden; but it really undermines all true moral development by perpetually substituting something extrinsic as a motive to action, instead of the immediate impulse of love or justice, which alone makes an action truly moral.

Was she catering to her as-yet unconverted audience, do you suppose, in setting Janet up as a memorial to “one whose heart beat with true compassion, and whose lips were moved by fervent faith”? Or practicing what she herself preached by inhabiting, as fully as possible, a point of view different from her own?

This Week In My Classes: Micromanaging Middlemarch

OxfordMaybe there should be a question mark in the title of this post. I hope there should be! But I’m not sure, and that makes me just a little anxious.

It is always hard to find a good balance between showing students what’s interesting and important in the novel we’re studying and letting them explore and discover things on their own. But it is particularly challenging with a novel as dense as Middlemarch, and I fear that — in recent years especially, as I’ve become more certain of my own ideas about the novel — I have become a little too controlling during our class time.

In my defense,  Middlemarch is long, our time is short, and an inductive or Socratic approach guarantees some serious inefficiency in arriving at anything like a thorough understanding of the novel. More than that, it’s flat-out unreasonable to expect anyone reading the novel for the first time to keep good enough track of the details (whether of plot or of narrative commentary) to put the pieces together confidently into an interpretation they feel ready to defend. It takes a lot of time and rereading to do that! And that’s not even taking into account the kinds of contextual information — historical, political, theoretical — that helps make sense of things that happen in the novel, or that enriches a reading that otherwise might focus (of necessity) quite superficially on the plot.

It’s true that, as Steve recently argued about Wuthering Heights, it is perfectly possibly to have a thrilling reading experience “without a speck of annotation,” or its in-class equivalent. My own first reading of Middlemarch was innocent in just that way. But in class, we come to study Middlemarch, not (just) to praise it, and I believe strongly that “expert guidance” can enhance that reading experience in myriad ways — else how would I show up for work every day? At the same time, it’s my job to train students to read well themselves, not just to show them how well I can read! With that in mind, I proceed in all of my classes through a blend of lecture and discussion, laying out facts and, where it seems appropriate, big-picture interpretive frameworks, but also asking open-ended but purposeful questions that begin with observations and then build towards interpretations by looking for connections and patterns. Even when I am outright lecturing, I’m not “just” transferring information (something I think is in fact easily undervalued) — I’m also modelling the process; class discussion is a collaborative way of doing the same thing. The further along we get in our discussions the less distance there is between observation and analysis, because (if all goes well) the early classes demonstrate the most fruitful lines of inquiry, or lay down tracks to pursue as we continue our reading.penguin

But, again, open discussion has built-in inefficiencies, and with Middlemarch — both because I love it so and because I have worked hard myself to connect its ideas across its many parts — I am always tempted to minimize them by doing more demonstrations, more set pieces of explanation. For instance, over time I have developed a range of detailed of lecture notes that focus on particular themes or problems (interpretation and misinterpretation, say, or reform, or religion) and trace them through examples from across wide swathes of the novel. This is precisely the kind of thing that’s hard for students to do: by the time they get to Chapter 31, Chapter 15 is a long way behind them; by the time they get to Chapter 77, how much detail can they remember of Chapter 43? I also have a few favorite examples of the novel’s formal properties that I like to work through with some care so that they see how its structure reflects its central ideas. Again, these are hard things to notice on a first reading (the chronological shifts especially), so it seems right that I should steer the class pretty closely through all of this. But it’s not good if my well-meaning guidance precludes their — and my — finding out what they are interested in or letting them work out connections on their own, or if it means I am just using our class time to insist on my own way of reading the novel. That’s sort of what they are there for, but in some important ways it is not what they are there for at all!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking at them without interruption for the whole class period! Last week, precisely because I’ve been worrying about this micromanaging tendency, I did not stick rigidly to my notes but consciously tried to throw out more open-ended questions and see where they took us. It’s pretty clear, though, that for many of them the novel is a lot to manage on their own (I’m not sure I want to know how many have fallen behind in the reading). When not a lot of answers are forthcoming, what’s a micromanager  control-freak  enthusiast responsible teacher to do but fill in the gaps herself?

But I’m hopeful that they are oriented reasonably well in the novel now. We’re heading into sections that lend themselves to genuine debate, too, and that should give the discussion some good momentum. Toomorrow, for instance, we’ll consider whether Dorothea should have promised Casaubon to “carry out my wishes . . . [and] avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” His request prompts a painful inner struggle for her, so presumably there are genuine reasons on both sides. And we’re not far from Raffles’s death, which raises lots of interesting questions about culpability. Overt crises in the action typically help bring more abstract problems (here, about sympathy and morality) into focus and make them seem more urgent.

I do have more specific ideas I very much want us to “cover” about Middlemarch — points I think it is genuinely important to make, moments I believe we should pay particular attention to — before we reach the end of our allotted time for the novel. What I have to keep in mind is that it is impossible to actually cover everything we might conceivably address. Even my own “must-do” list is incredibly partial (Fred and Mary, for instance, always seem to get short shrift, which is all kinds of wrong). But that’s OK! “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending”: the narrator says so! I just need to keep my inner Casaubon under control . . .  Still, it’s both funny and frustrating to realize that it is getting harder rather than easier to find that ideal balance with this, my favorite book of all to read and teach.

#1book140 Q & A: Stephanie Burt and I Talk Middlemarch

OxfordThanks to the folks at #1book140 for including me in their 2-month Middlemarch read-along, for setting up a Q&A with me and Stephanie Burt, and then for preparing this Storify of it! We both really enjoyed going back and forth about this great novel, as I hope you can tell.

I am capable of going on at much greater length about Middlemarch: if these 140-character tidbits whet your appetite, you might enjoy this list of my top 10 reasons for liking George Eliot so very much, this essay on the miserable morality of Middlemarch, or my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. You can read the Storify of Rebecca Mead’s#1book140  Q&A here. You can read Stephanie Burt’s review of her book here; and you can watch her wonderful TED talk about why people need poetry here.

Addendum: Here’s the missing first part of my answer to Stephanie’s first question, without which some of what follows may seem a bit garbled!

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