“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.

June Updates: a New Open Letters Monthly and a Fun Q&A!

Junecover

First of all, the June issue of Open Letters Monthly is up! I won’t itemize all of its contents, because I hope you’ll come over and have a look for yourself. But I will mention that it is the first issue in a while to include something by every editor. We’re pretty proud about that. My own contribution is this month’s “Title Menu” feature. We’ve always talked a lot about the popularity of the so-called “listicle,” but most of the ones we’d seen around just didn’t seem substantial enough for the lofty aspirations we have for long-form writing at OLM. Then it occurred to us that there’s no reason a list has to be trivial, or that long(er)-form writing can’t be fun. So we’ve been experimenting with our own version of the listicle since January, with all kinds of cool topics from memorable birth scenes to art crime to books that might (or might not) be poetry. Mine lists eight books inspired by George Eliot — there are others, I know, but these are ones I’ve particularly enjoyed.

In other news, I had mentioned not long ago that I would be participating in a Q&A on Twitter organized by the folks who run the Atlantic’s #1book140 club.* For a while I thought maybe it wasn’t going to happen after all, since #1book140 decided not to officially read to the end of Middlemarch (I’m not sure how much participation they usually get in their discussions, but it did seem to me that things weren’t exactly hopping on the hashtag). But it did! They talked Stephen Burt into being the Q to my A, and he and I had a grand old time going back and forth for an hour last night. He had a lot of interesting questions for me. One in particular that I had never thought about before was how the most famous “takeout quotations” from the novel change when you look at them actually in the novels. The Atlantic people are putting together a ‘Storify’ of our conversation, so when it’s ready I’ll be sure to post a link to it so you can find out not just what I said about that but which character in the novel I most identified with at 18, and what quotation I would choose if I ever opted to get a Middlemarch tattoo! I so much enjoyed exchanging ideas and favorite moments from the novel with someone else who’s excited about it: it made me realize that I’ve been thinking about it in the abstract recently more than I’ve actually been reading it. Hooray for having put it on my book list for 19thC Fiction in the fall term and having an excuse to go once more into all the details.

*In case you’re wondering how good this has been for the stats over at Middlemarch for Book Clubs, you’ll be glad to know that it has increased the hits there by literally dozens. 🙂

Georgette Heyer: Romantic but not Sexy?

heyer cotillionI’ve just finished Cotillion, which is one of my favorite Georgette Heyer novels so far. Like The Grand Sophy (which was the one that helped me finally “get” why people enjoy Heyer so much), it’s laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s also very sweet. I was so pleased with the resolution to the romance plot, which turns on its head the expectation that the dashing rake will settle down under the influence of a good woman — or just that the dashing rake is in any way the best marriage prospect. Sure, he’s the sexiest one . But this time sexy just means  trouble — and in fact, so far I haven’t read another Heyer that is as explicit about someone’s rakish behavior, including his intention to make a beautiful young innocent his mistress (or one that is as blunt that this young girl’s mother will happily prostitute her daughter if she can’t score a rich husband for her). In this one respect, Cotillion is not just one of the funniest Heyers I’ve read but also, in the interstices, one of the darkest.

It got me thinking, though, that while Jack’s sexiness is set up as a particular kind of problem in Cotillion, due as much to his particular character as to the behavior itself (he’s quite the smug amoral rascal, is Jack), I have found Heyer’s novels generally much more romantic than sexy: in the ones I’ve read (still a relatively small sample, I realize), there’s been really no perceptible acknowledgement of desire, little of the frisson of physical attraction. And I’m not thinking just in comparison to other more contemporary Regency romance novelists I’ve read (Mary Balogh, for instance, whose books are both much less funny and much more sexually explicit, or Cecilia Grant, whose books conspicuously up-end conventions), but in comparison to 19th-century novelists including Jane Austen (the obvious comparison) or George Eliot.

I’m thinking, for instance, of the intensity of the scenes between Anne and Wentworth in Persuasion. Remember when he helps get her naughty nephew literally off her back?

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew that Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. . . .  neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor anybody’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was, and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.

Persuasion-coverAFOr, a bit later, when he assists her into Admiral Croft’s carriage:

Yes; he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She was very much affected by the view of his disposition towards her, which all these things made apparent. This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. He could not forgive her, but he could not be unfeeling. Though condemning her for the past, and considering it with high and unjust resentment, though perfectly careless of her, and though becoming attached to another, still he could not see her suffer, without the desire of giving her relief. It was a remainder of former sentiment; it was an impulse of pure, though unacknowledged friendship; it was a proof of his own warm and amiable heart, which she could not contemplate without emotions so compounded of pleasure and pain, that she knew not which prevailed.

She’s so overcome with her feelings that “Her answers to the kindness and the remarks of her companions were at first unconsciously given.”

Or the equally intense encounters between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, when for all their hostility they can hardly take their eyes off each other? Their deliciously awkward encounter at Pemberley is quite erotic enough without a wet shirt: “They were within twenty yards of each other, and so abrupt was his appearance, that it was impossible to avoid his sight. Their eyes instantly met, and the cheeks of each were overspread with the deepest blush.”

And speaking of blushing, what about Dinah, in Adam Bede? She can’t be in a room with Adam without becoming suffused with feeling: “It was as if Dinah had put her hands unawares on a vibrating chord. She was shaken with an intense thrill, and for the instant felt nothing else; then she knew her cheeks were glowing, and dared not look round.” The details of Arthur Donnithorne and Hetty’s affair may have been specified to what some contemporary readers found a shocking degree, but we know what they do (and what consequences it has), not what they feel in the moment.* It’s impossible to miss, though, that Dinah’s attraction  Adam is both physical and nearly irresistible.

millflosspaperbackAnd speaking of physical attraction, what about Stephen and Maggie in The Mill on the Floss?

 Who has not felt the beauty of a woman’s arm? The unspeakable suggestions of tenderness that lie in the dimpled elbow, and all the varied gently lessening curves, down to the delicate wrist, with its tiniest, almost imperceptible nicks in the firm softness. A woman’s arm touched the soul of a great sculptor two thousand years ago, so that he wrought an image of it for the Parthenon which moves us still as it clasps lovingly the timeworn marble of a headless trunk. Maggie’s was such an arm as that, and it had the warm tints of life.

A mad impulse seized on Stephen; he darted toward the arm, and showered kisses on it, clasping the wrist.

Are there “mad impulses” in Heyer? There may be, but so far I have yet to detect any such erotic undercurrents. More, I have sometimes felt mildly uncomfortable at the romantic resolutions precisely because the relationship considered as a sexual relationship seems inappropriate given the heroine’s youth — not just in years, but in outlook and behavior. This was most conspicuous to me in The Corinthian, but I had a similar reaction, if milder, to Sylvester, and even to Cotillion — where things are not improved in that respect by Kitty’s openly thinking of Freddy as a big brother pretty much until they finally kiss. Even Esther squirreling away Alan Woodcourt’s flowers in Bleak House seems more like an adult awareness of sexuality than anything I’ve read in Heyer.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I’m not complaining: just observing, and then wondering what, if anything, the novels’ aura of innocent fun might have contributed to their enduring popularity. Unlike the 19th-century novels I’ve quoted, her novels surely would not “bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.”

I’ll be interested to hear from those of you who’ve been reading Heyer longer than I have. Do you think I’m right that her novels give us love but little or no desire? Might it be Heyer, not Austen, who fits G. H. Lewes’s remark that “there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot”? Or am I missing something (see fn below!), or have I just not read the sexy Heyers yet?


*This is arguably not true. It hadn’t occurred to me until I read the notes to the Broadview edition of Adam Bede, for instance, that in this scene after he kisses Hetty in the woods, we may be meant to understand that Arthur has an erection:

Arthur too was very uneasy, but his feelings were lit up for him by a more distinct consciousness. He hurried to the Hermitage, which stood in the heart of the wood, unlocked the door with a hasty wrench, slammed it after him, pitched Zeluco into the most distant corner, and thrusting his right hand into his pocket, first walked four or five times up and down the scanty length of the little room, and then seated himself on the ottoman in an uncomfortable stiff way, as we often do when we wish not to abandon ourselves to feeling.

I may just be being equally obtuse about the sexiness in Heyer — there may be signifiers I’m just not attuned to.

Why Do I Like George Eliot So Very Much? My Top Ten Reasons!

Eliot Drawing

A wise man once told me that the introduction to my long-imagined book should represent “the passionate peroration you’d deliver verbally about ‘Why George Eliot?’ if it came up in intelligent company.” After drawing up my inventory of everything I’ve written about George Eliot over the years, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed by the particulars, and so I thought I’d get back to basics of that kind, without a lot of second guessing about what counts as a unifying idea or what I’d be able to make an appealing ‘pitch’ for.

For some reason, in my head the peroration is always in response to the question “Why do you like George Eliot so very much,” which is of course a modified version of Charlotte Brontë’s challenge to George Henry Lewes to explain his admiration of Jane Austen. Though I enjoy and admire Austen’s novels, this question still seems perfectly reasonable to me, though given the extraordinary heights of contemporary Austen-mania, it’s one that sounds more contrarian now than it would have in 1848! What I appreciate most about Brontë’s question is the interesting conversation it begins: the clarity of Brontë’s catalog of complaints about what she saw as Austen’s limitations, and Lewes’s intelligent acknowledgment of those limits even as he concluded that Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” Given her own very different experiences and sensibilities, it’s no wonder that Brontë could not see greatness in a writer who had, she thought, no poetry. And Lewes’s answer, and his more extensive commentary on Austen in his essay on “Lady Novelists” (included in this collection, if you’re interested!) both point us towards yet another standard of excellence — one realized in the novels of the woman who became Mrs. Lewes.

Conversations about authors we love should not be approached in a competitive spirit. After all, there’s no need to rank writers, or to pit them against each other; happily, literary greatness is not a zero-sum game. As Henry James says in “The Art of Fiction” (included in that same collection),

There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory.

“Nothing, of course,” James also observes, “will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it; the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.” But establishing the grounds of our admiration — clarifying them both for ourselves and for others — may contribute to appreciation, which is a more complex, or at least more self-conscious, response than that “primitive” liking. The process is inevitably self-revelatory, because our preferences convey, implicitly at least, something about the kinds of people we are — or aspire to be. But that, again, is no grounds for either discomfort or disagreement: if (James again) “the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” so too the community of readers can, happily, contain multitudes — those who, say, admire Flaubert above all others, and those who … don’t.

OUPMm

This has become rather a long preamble! My reluctance to launch willy-nilly into simplistic lists is one of the many, many reasons I’ll never be a contributor to BuzzFeed or BookRiot. But enough is enough: time to get on with it.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: the top ten reasons I like George Eliot so very much. These are not the only qualities I value in a novelist — not a definitive list of what I think makes a great novelist. Nor are they qualities I think she has exclusively – coincidentally (!), other novelists I greatly admire share many of them. They are simply an outline of the qualities of this novelist that make this reader so appreciative. They are, in point form, my “passionate peroration”!

  1. Her intellectual richness and breadth. Her novels are full of complex ideas about many aspects of human experience and society. I always learn from them, and they always give me a lot to think about. This is not to say that I always agree with what I think she’s saying, but it always seems worth trying to follow her thinking.
  2. Her emphasis on sympathy for our imperfect fellow humans. I find her vision of how we can make life better for each other both beautiful and morally valuable.
  3. Her insistence on the moral significance of art — her understanding of fiction as both an artistic and a philosophical form.
  4. The importance she places on historical and social contexts for people’s behavior. We can’t understand people unless we understand their circumstances, and understanding is a crucial part of sympathy. Understanding and sympathizing are not the same as excusing and forgiving, though.
  5. Her use of literary form to support as well as convey her ideas. Her books are profoundly artful, not just ‘philosophy teaching by examples.’ Reading them is an entire experience.
  6. The sophistication and beauty of her language. All this talk of philosophy and ideas should not be taken as indicating that she isn’t worth reading just for the quality of her prose. It’s also striking to me how varied its cadences are, both within and across books. She has her leaden moments, to be sure, but she is capable of both poetry and inspiration as well.
  7. Her humor, which ranges from sly wit to deft irony to outright comedy.
  8. Her tenderness and pathos. Though at times there is a certain ruthlessness to her, or at least to her narrators, at others she can, with the utmost delicacy (and sometimes with sheer Dickensian sentimentality) rend your heart.
  9. Her people. Amos Barton, Mrs. Poyser, Maggie Tulliver, Tito Melema, Dorothea Brooke, Gwendolen Harleth, Grandcourt: they are distinctly, memorably, themselves, complete with their own histories and families and, my favorite thing, voices. Sure, Adam Bede is a bit too upright, and Felix Holt is wooden in his virtue, but the number of her amazingly good characters (and characterizations) completely overwhelms the weaker ones. Her dialogue is every bit as sharp as Austen’s (and less confined to drawing rooms), and her psychological insights are often astonishing.
  10. Her emphasis on people as members of families and communities. Both her stories and her morals urge us to see ourselves as connected to others — to turn away from egotism and selfishness and to ask, as Dorothea eventually does, “Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” Though I sometimes think this principle has its dark side, I still find it truthful and inspiring.

Lists are artificial things, and 10 is an arbitrary number, but there’s actually a useful discipline in trying to isolate the things that really matter to me in this way. Some of these items certainly overlap, many of them are intricately connected, and there’s plenty more to be said about all of them, but looking over the list, I’m satisfied: imperfections of presentation aside, yes, these are the reasons I like her so very much. What do you think — did I miss any of your favorite things about her?

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: the beta launch

OxfordJust over a year ago, I got somewhat exercised over a news story claiming that Middlemarch is the kiss of death for book clubs. My annoyance was exacerbated by the number of links it got from other sources, which added up to quite the anti-Middlemarch buzz for a while.

My first response was a post on this blog that included a list of 10 tips to help book clubs that wanted to read Middlemarch but felt they could use a little support. In that post I also made a bold pronouncement: “I’ve decided, therefore, to put together an online site to encourage and support reading Middlemarch–whether in book clubs or on your own.” I was and am well aware that there’s no shortage of information about George Eliot and Middlemarch already available, but the work of finding and filtering with an eye to what might be useful and illuminating for book clubs (rather than, say, scholars) is not insignificant, and having relevant basics gathered in one place might — or so I thought and hope — simply be convenient.

middlemarchsite

At long last, I have a full (if not necessarily finished) version of that site now up for people to take a look at. As you’ll see if you visit it, it’s not a very fancy thing — it’s just a free WordPress site. I chose what I hope is a clean, easy-to-read theme and set up what seemed to me like simple but useful categories. At this point I feel very aware of what is not there (many more topics could be covered under ‘contexts,’ for instance) and also of how what is there reflects my own interests and idiosyncrasies as a reader and teacher of the novel. Depending on the response to this draft version, I could certainly end up adding more material. But I’m not sure I want to try to neutralize my own perspective: good discussions arise from encounters between different people’s minds, and I wanted the site to convey the sense that there’s a person behind it. That’s why I let myself be kind of chatty, including in the questions.

There are lots more excuses explanations I could offer for what I’ve done so far, but I think I’ll leave it at that for now. I welcome feedback, here or at the site, particularly from people who might some day — or have already — chosen Middlemarch for reading with their own book clubs!

 

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Preview #1 – Choosing an Edition

I’ve been working industriously on my Middlemarch for Book Clubs website. I hope to have a “beta” version of the whole site ready to make public by the end of June, but I thought it would be helpful for me to get some feedback on a couple of pages sooner rather than later. One reason is that I’m especially concerned about finding the right tone (not too didactic, but clear and practical; enthusiastic but not gushing), as well as the right balance between too much and not enough information. But also — and this is particularly important for a page like this one on choosing an edition — I can’t be sure if I’m providing the right information. I’d be glad to know if you think I’m on the right track, or, if not, what changes or corrections or additions you’d suggest.

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Choosing an Edition

GENERAL CONSIDERATIONS

The first thing to consider is whether you want everyone in your group to use the same edition of Middlemarch. Even if you think that this would be a good thing, it may prove impractical, as people may already own copies, or may prefer one version over another for their own reasons. My classroom experience (as well as experience in my own book club) has taught me that it can be frustrating trying to talk about a long book when people quite literally can’t get on the same page. This is one reason to encourage people to use some system of navigational aids, like post-it notes! However, because Middlemarch is divided into Books and then into chapters, it’s not that hard to find common reference points.

The next question is whether you want to use a ‘popular’ or a scholarly edition. With a novel like Middlemarch, I think it’s a good idea to have a reliable, well-edited text with thorough annotations–not because you must consult them, but because you may want to. Scholarly editions not only include thoughtful introductions and explanatory footnotes (helpful for everything from literary allusions to historical contexts) but also point out changes made to the novel over its publishing history. One of the most interesting of these in Middlemarch is a tweak to its Finale that might spark some debate among the members of your book club, especially if you’ve talked along the way about how far Dorothea is responsible for her own bad choices.

RECOMMENDED EDITIONS OF MIDDLEMARCH

Oxford

Oxford World’s Classics: This is the edition I usually assign in my classes. It’s readily available, Felicia Bonaparte’s introduction is illuminating, the notes are good but not overwhelming, and the layout is readable and leaves enough room for annotations. In the current printing, there are two paragraphs out of order: bonus points for the person in your group who spots them! (I’ve notified the press and subsequent printings may be corrected.)


penguinPenguin Classics
: This is another fine, reliable edition, with a good introduction by Rosemary Ashton; it has the benefit of also being available as an e-book, which may be an advantage if some of your members use e-readers.


nortonNorton Critical Edition:
This edition is the most scholarly of the options, in that it conveniently packages a scrupulous edition of the novel with a selection of critical essays about it. If that’s the kind of thing your book club likes, this is the edition for you. If you doubt you’ll want to read the criticism, however, I recommend an edition with larger type!


broadviewBroadview Press Edition:
This handsome edition of Middlemarch is supplemented by contemporary reviews and documents (rather than the mostly 20th-century critical materials included in the Norton). It is annotated in great detail, with special attention paid to the role of the visual arts in the novel; it is the only one of these editions that includes illustrations. The footnotes do occasionally almost overwhelm the novel itself. This edition is also available as an e-book.

There are [will be] links to some free electronic full-text editions of Middlemarch on the ‘Links’ page. I don’t particularly recommend these for reading the whole novel, though of course you may find them fine for your purposes. The searchable e-texts are great, however, for finding lines you remember but forgot to mark with post-its!

The Stage Swarmed with Maggies: Helen Edmundson’s The Mill on the Floss

Last night I attended the Dalhousie Theatre production of The Mill on the Floss that I mentioned here: I was invited to give a short talk to the “Patrons” on opening night. As I explained to the attendees, I wasn’t there as an expert on Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, though I had read through most of it in preparation for the night. So, rather than pretending to explain things about the play, I tried to set up what I take to be some of the central problems of the novel so that we could all have them in mind as we watched — not to see if Edmundson “got it right” or anything as reductive as that, but to see what she did with the material, how she reworked or rethought it for a different form.

As I worked on my notes (and it isn’t easy deciding what you’ll use your precious 20 minutes on, when you love a novel as I love The Mill on the Floss), it was form that I kept thinking about. So many things about The Mill on the Floss make it seem such an unlikely choice for the theatre. There’s the ending, for one thing, but of course there are ways of evoking large-scale natural phenomena on stage: nobody expects torrents of actual water to sweep the scenery away. But what about the narrator? Though she does plot and dialogue with the best of them, so much of the wit and wisdom of George Eliot resides in her masterful exposition. What is The Mill on the Floss without my favourite chapter, “A Variety of Protestantism Unknown to Bossuet” (which contains not one line of dialogue, not one step forward for the plot) or without the great meditation on “the shifting relation between passion and duty” and the moral failure of the “man of maxims”? How will we understand Maggie’s dilemmas, her “labour of choice,” without the reminder that our striving for something better might lead us astray “if our affections had not a trick of twining round those old inferior things — if the loves and sanctities of our life had no deep immovable roots in memory”?

The narrator of The Mill on the Floss is someone special, to be sure, and the novel is inconceivable without her.  But the play is its own thing; it has its own structure and logic. It offers no substitute for the historical and philosophical commentary (for instance, it doesn’t, as far as I noticed, give any of the narrator’s best lines to characters, the way the famous opening line of Pride and Prejudice becomes Elizabeth Bennet’s line in the BBC adaptation). It does draw a lot of its dialogue directly from the novel, and noticing how much of the script is right out of the novel is a good reminder of just how great George Eliot is at voices (her characters, as I’ve talked about here before, have wonderful specificity: there’s no mistaking any one of them for any other one). It was particularly delightful seeing the Dodson sisters completely embodied (go, Mrs Glegg!). In a more general way, seeing not just familiar people but familiar objects (such as Mrs Tulliver’s tea pot) appear in front of me, in tangible form, was both disorienting and quite moving. For all the vividness and intensity of the novel, my engagement with it is often quite abstract, so that even its tragedies over time lose their visceral clutch. Though watching a play is not, for me, ever as immersive or total as watching a film can be (it’s just harder to lose the awareness that this is acting — which is not a criticism, just a difference in the experience), seeing the physical objects right there, hearing people actually say the words, makes the novel’s truths that much more real. And while we joked a bit in the introductory session about how the play is the Twitter version of the 500-page novel, its minimalism also made some aspects of the story particularly, affectingly, stark, especially Maggie’s suffering and isolation as an unconventional girl. She seemed so beleaguered, throughout the play: I wanted to jump out of my seat and go be on her side!

The most interesting feature of the adaptation is its use of multiple Maggies. It’s not that surprising a gimmick to have different actresses play Maggie as a child, a teenager, and then a woman. But Edmundson goes further: rather than replacing each other in chronological order, the Maggies coexist — not literally, in the action of the plot, but on the stage. This device allows Edmundson to dramatize the moral and emotional conflicts that Maggie faces as she grows up. Young Maggie retains her passionate impetuosity and her painful devotion to Tom; ascetic Maggie struggles between the yearning of her conscience towards an idealized right and the fellowship offered by Philip; grown-up Maggie responds to Stephen in spite of herself. The multiple Maggies literally push and pull each other according to their own loves and loyalties. What ending could possibly be right for any of them, never mind for all three of them? When the ending finally came, one of them lay with Tom, while the other two were flung aside. Again, the physicality of their bodies made the tragedy George Eliot imagined for us more real, even as their overtly symbolic roles neatly laid out the thematic lines of the conflict.

Overall, then, it was a thoroughly stimulating evening. The cast all played their parts with commitment, and they did an impressive job with what I imagine is a pretty challenging script. The three Maggies in particular were busy all the time. By the time the final trial by water came, I felt that everyone in the theatre was thoroughly engaged, and then shocked by the concluding catastrophe. (“It’s so sad! I feel like crying!” said my immediate neighbour.) My only disappointment was that we only got to give them all one round of applause: I thought they deserved at least one more curtain call, if only to let us catch our breath and remember that life goes on and “nature repairs her ravages.”

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch

(cross-posted)

As I have posted several times here (and there) about my unfolding project on Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun, I thought it was only fair to post the conference paper I delivered on Sunday at ACCUTE, which is the first concrete result of the research and thinking I have done so far. Tempering justice with mercy, I won’t put the entire paper, especially because I can’t figure out how to put only the first bit on my front page. The paper was written to be read aloud, and the time limit was strict (20 minutes): both of these requirements have certain effects on both style and substance. Beyond that, I have only myself to blame. In italics is some material I wasn’t sure I’d have time to read (mostly, I didn’t). And so, without further hemming and hawing…

But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch

Ahdaf Soueif’s 1992 novel In the Eye of the Sun has been called ‘the Egyptian Middlemarch,’ a comparison invited by its numerous intertextual gestures towards George Eliot’s masterpiece—most conspicuously, its epigraph is the famous ‘squirrel’s heartbeat’ passage. Critical work on the novel so far has focused on Soueif as a postcolonial writer and thus on her Arab or Egyptian perspective, on issues of national identity or the possibilities of “cultural dialogue” (Massad 74), and on her works as examples of cultural and linguistic hybridity (Darraj, Malak). Though I believe that these are not just inevitable but also illuminating approaches to Soueif’s fiction, including In the Eye of the Sun, I also think it is important not to limit the range of questions we ask of a text because it appears to fit into a particular category (in this case, the postcolonial novel). In doing so we risk enacting a kind of literary essentialism by which our interpretation of a text is determined by the geographical origins of its author. Priya Joshi notes that the “persistent critical reference to writing from once colonial lands as postcolonial” may inhibit attention to their particularities:

When does it end? For how many years after empire ends does writing have to be “post” before it can become itself? . . . does it ever end or does all literature from once colonized lands always bear the stamp that comes with the appellation “colonial”? . . . The danger, therefore, of preserving any part of the term “postcolonial” is that it ultimately eviscerates the possibility of conducting a historically grounded or specifically directed study. . . . (233)

A particular danger seems to me to be that reading a text as “postcolonial” means fixing it in a certain relation to the world, and especially to the literature of the “colonizer”–often viewed within postcolonial studies as “a vehicle for imperial authority” (Tiffin et al.). The work of Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and many others on the ways 19th-century novels are “implicated” or even complicit in imperialism, for instance, has established a near-normative paradigm that predisposes us to find a confrontational (or at least corrective) relationship between a “postcolonial” author or critic and any given Victorian text he or she might invoke. I will argue that Soueif’s allusions to Middlemarch work against this oppositional paradigm. Rather than writing back against Eliot’s novel, Souief writes with it, sharing and extending some of its central ideas about how we perceive and live in the world, ideas that are not determined by national identities or other historical contingencies but appeal to “a commonality of human experience beyond politics, beyond forms” (In the Eye of the Sun 754). The two novels coexist, that is, in a literary version of the space defined by Soueif in her non-fiction writing as the ‘mezzaterra,’ or common ground. There, “differences [are] interesting rather than threatening, because they [are] foregrounded against a backdrop of affinities” (Mezzaterra 7).

I’m going to use the rest of my time to bring out what I see as “affinities” between Eliot’s novel and Soueif’s. I’ll start with some basic information about Soueif and In the Eye of the Sun (assuming that most of you are familiar with Middlemarch). Like Asya al-Ulama, the protagonist of In the Eye of the Sun, Ahdaf Soueif was raised and educated in both England and Egypt. Though she began publishing fiction (written in English) as early as 1983, In the Eye of the Sun was her first full-length novel. It attracted a lot of mostly positive attention from high-profile critics including Edward Said (in the TLS), Frank Kermode (in the LRB), and Hilary Mantel (in the NYRB). Essentially a Bildungsroman in its structure, the novel is heavily autobiographical. Like Soueif, Asya, the child of Cairo University professors, is raised in a cosmopolitan milieu in which English language and culture are as familiar as Egyptian or Arabic. Also like Soueif, Asya aims to follow her mother into the University’s English Department (“To hear her father when he had to give his occupation for some form or another say ‘University professor,’ you would know for sure there was no other job in the world worth having” [450]). While an undergraduate at CU she falls in love with Saif Madi, older, worldly, self-confident. Though Asya somewhat inexplicably adores him, from the beginning there are hints that all will not go well with them: Saif makes Asya feel tongue-tied, naïve, inadequate (“I talk plenty to everyone else, but he seems so clever, I just don’t want to look stupid in front of him by saying something not particularly profound” [107]); to suit his taste, she begins choosing clothes that are “much more subdued,” mostly beige (227, cf 651). One of their most serious early conflicts is on an unexpected subject. “’What was the argument about?’” Asya’s mother asks Asya’s friend Chrissie:

‘It was about George Eliot, Tante’
‘George Eliot? … But why were they arguing about George Eliot?’ ‘I think Asya was saying she was a great writer and he was saying she wasn’t.’
‘I thought you were supposed to care about literature. [Asya protests]. . . And anyway that wasn’t what it was about, it was about him. He hasn’t read her and yet he can sit there and say she’s not worth reading. If it’s not Sartre or the Spanish Civil War or Camus or someone he already knows than it’s worth nothing. . . . I thought he was…available to—to life. But he’s got a closed mind. He actually makes me think of that passage where she says Mr. Casaubon’s mind is like a—an enclosed basin. (298)

As Asya says, George Eliot is here really just the occasion for one of a series of struggles between Asya and Saif that, whatever their explicit topic, really turn on Asya’s right to her own point of view. The alienation between them worsens during the years Asya is in England studying (as Soueif did) for her Ph.D.; for Asya, the failure of their sex life (in nine years they never fully consummate their marriage) becomes both symbol and symptom of the deeper failure of intimacy between them.

Disillusioned by the realities of both her married life and her (dull and unrewarding) scholarship, Asya resolves to resign herself to her narrowed lot, to

create meaning in her life by striving to be the best person she can, not in the ways that appeal to her, not by spooning aid porridge into the mouths of rows of starving children or bringing comfort to shrapnelled soldiers or . . . or writing Middlemarch, but in the more difficult way that has been allotted to her—for the moment—and to draw strength that while she is doing her best for those whose lives most immediately touch her own, she is not at a standstill; she is working towards making her own life the way she wants it. (462-3)

But Asya finds renunciation “á la Maggie Tulliver and Dorothea Brooke” very difficult (303), and eventually in her frustration and loneliness, she begins an affair with an English business student, Gerald Stone. Characters from 19th-century novels continue to serve as her reference points:

You’ve committed adultery, you’ve done it, [she reflects after her first night with Gerald] you’ve joined Anna and Emma and parted company forever with Dorothea and Maggie—although Dorothea would have understood—would she? Yes, she would; she would not have approved, she would have urged her to renounce, to stop, to send him away—but she would have understood; she had a great capacity for understanding. (541)

The affair is sexually liberating for her, but unfortunately Gerald proves shallow and emotionally parasitic. Eventually she confesses the affair to Saif; although she insists it is meaningless and Gerald is “irrelevant,” Saif is outraged, and the resulting conflicts, some of them violent, destroy the remnants of their marriage. Asya eventually does complete her doctorate and then returns to Egypt, not only to teach English literature, but to work with a program offering sex education and birth control to Egyptian village women.

Aside from Soueif’s intertextual allusions, there’s not a lot in In the Eye of the Sun that brings Middlemarch immediately to mind. Their plots have little in common besides the bad marriages. Futile scholarship is another shared element, though, as Said remarked, “in many ways Asya is her own Casaubon” (her Ph.D. research, for instance, is essentially a key to all metaphors, and she stores her index cards in stacks of boxes reminiscent of Casaubon’s pigeonholes [379]). Both are very long books! But other overt parallels are hard to discern. The novels diverge most significantly in their forms. Middlemarch, of course, presents a web of complexly interrelated plots and characters unified by the narrator’s sage moral, philosophical, and historical commentary. The novel’s subtitle, ‘A Study of Provincial Life,’ indicates its aspirations to breadth and objectivity. As my overview of In the Eye of the Sun shows, Soueif’s novel in contrast is intensely personal, a priority also reflected in its form—as a Bildungsroman, it focuses almost entirely on Asya and is told almost entirely from Asya’s point of view. No narrative interventions put her experiences in broader perspective.

These differences might seem like indications that Soueif rejects the premises of Eliot’s formal choices: that comprehensive understanding (promised via multiple plots) and universal norms (established via the narrator’s commentary) are discredited in Soueif’s postmodern, postcolonial world. If this were the case, we would, I think, be led towards an interpretation of In the Eye of the Sun as an example of postcolonial ‘talking back,’ or at least revision, asserting difference, contingency, and resistance in the face of imperialistic presumptions of universality. Such a reading would be consistent with Amin Malak’s claim that “dislocation between the realm of Western literature and the reality of the Middle Eastern world constitutes a leitmotific feature that runs throughout Soueif’s fiction” (134).Yet these conclusions seem inadequate to the actual uses of Middlemarch (and, just btw, other “Western” texts) in Soueif’s novel and to the similarities in theme and ethos that the novels manifest despite their surface differences.

For instance, though In the Eye of the Sun is far more focused on one individual life than Middlemarch, Asya’s story is carefully placed and contextualized historically. The Six Day War breaks out as Asya studies for her university entrance exams in 1967; as the novel proceeds we learn of Nasser’s sudden death and the decline of his version of pan-Arabism; we watch the dawning of the Sadat era; we hear about the beginnings of civil war in Lebanon; we witness, on Asya’s return to Cairo in 1980, the increased Islamist influence signalled particularly by the presence in her classroom of veiled students. The stories of Asya’s friends and family also put human faces on regional conflicts and politics: her friend Chrissie loses a lover in the 1967 war; her friend Noora marries a Palestinian, Bassam, and as a consequence is disowned by her family; her sister Deena’s husband Muhsin ends up in the infamous Tora prison for leftist activism against Sadat’s government. Malak points to this integration of “the private history of a woman and her family with the political history of the nation” (146) as a typical feature of postcolonial writing; a Victorianist would also readily identify it as a form of the “history by indirection” typical of novels by Scott, Thackeray or George Eliot, which also portray and thematize intersections between private and public life, between the individual and the historical.

I’d like to walk through two more examples of subtle but persistent thematic congruity between In the Eye of the Sun and Middlemarch, both of which, I think, further discourage an oppositional or postcolonial reading of the relationship between these two novels and move us towards the idea of a literary mezzaterra or common ground…

[Here I move into a comparison of the passages I looked at in this post, arguing that although they seem very different, overall both novels move us towards the same conclusion: that sympathy is the antidote to cruelty or suffering, on whatever scale. Then I argue that, while urging the necessity of acknowleding that everyone has, as Eliot’s narrator says, “an equivalent center of self,” the novels also dramatize the necessity of acknowleding your individual needs, a particular challenge for the female protagonists.]

One answer to the question “why always George Eliot,” then, is that despite their different origins and contexts, and despite the conspicuous differences in the particulars of their novels, there are strong affinities between Soueif’s vision or ethos in In The Eye of the Sun and Eliot’s in Middlemarch. I suppose this might seem an unremarkable conclusion, given that Soueif signals as much by her choice of epigraph (!). But in fact in the context of postcolonial discourse there is something unexpected about it. It points us towards a theory of literary relations according to which Middlemarch need not be read as the Western text and In the Eye of the Sun the Eastern—or Middlemarch need not represent Victorian literature, or English literature, or colonial literature and In the Eye of the Sun need not be, or stand for, Egyptian, or Arabic, or post-colonial perspectives. This need not be seen as returning us to a problematic universalism. For one thing, both Soueif and Eliot are too intensely conscious of the role of history in determining character and values. Instead, I want to come back to the notion of the mezzaterra, an arena in which “differences are foregrounded against a background of affinities.” Said concludes his review of In the Eye of the Sun with a question that (especially coming from him) cannot be seen as wholly rhetorical: “Who cares about the labels of national identity anyway?” (19). Soueif’s sympathetic invocations of Middlemarch (or, I would also add, her entirely non-ironic choice of a line of Kipling for her title) show setting aside such labels, including the label “postcolonial,” lets us focus on things we share (including our global literary inheritance) and thus “inhabit and broaden the common ground”(Mezzaterra 23). (Said: “In fact, there can be generosity, and vision, and overcoming barriers, and, finally, human existential integrity.”)

The Other Sides of Silence

I’ve begun trying to organize my ideas about In the Eye of the Sun. At this point I’m finding that the questions and confusions in my head about the novel’s relationship to Middlemarch are increasing rather settling into some kind of order. I’m hopeful, of course, that this mental chaos, while disconcerting this close to my conference deadline, is evidence of the interest and complexity of the interpretive project I’ve undertaken, as well as of the wider range of ideas I’ve brought to my latest re-reading of Soueif’s novel thanks to my excursions into postcolonial theory, modern Egyptian history, the story of Cairo University, and other materials directly by or about Ahdaf Soueif. I often reassure my thesis students that things inevitably get messy for a while, especially in the ‘discovery’ phase, when you are moving past the provisional hypotheses of your research proposal and actually looking at how the pieces you’ve assembled relate to each other and finding out the ‘unknown unknowns’ (a much-derided phrase I’ve always felt some sympathy for, despite its source, as one of the great challenges of research is precisely that you don’t always know what you don’t know until your work is well underway).

In any case, one thing I do know at this point is that time constraints–not just for the writing of the conference paper, but also for its presentation–mean I couldn’t address all the potential angles that have occurred to me even if I did sort them all out. So my main task in the next couple of days is setting the limits for this version of the paper, which I hope over the summer to develop into the fuller, more wide-ranging form envisaged in the proposal I submitted. I’m thinking right now of focusing quite specifically on the novel’s most overt gesture towards Middlemarch, which is its epigraph, taken from the famous ‘squirrel’s heartbeat’ passage in Chapter 20:

…and we do not expect people to be moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling for all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die on that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

There are a number of passages in In the Eye of the Sun which (on my reading, anyway) invoke a “roar … on the other side of silence,” but it is not easy to see just how they engage with this moment in Eliot’s novel–whether, for instance, they reflect, extend, or critique it. Here is one such passage, for example, from Part VI of Soueif’s novel. It is 1971 and the protagonist, Asya al-Ulama, is with her friends studying for their exam in 20th century poetry. One of the company is Bassam, a Palestinian; thinking about his experience of “living under occupation” leads Asya to a wider meditation on “all those bruised people: Palestinians, Armenians, Kurds, and of course the Jews themselves,” and then on “all the things that are happening right now … as they sit here studying for their poetry exam:”

secret deals being arranged in government departments, counterdeals in secret service meetings, ignorant armies moving silently by night,* people being thrown out of their houses, babies being tortured, people being tortured–this is the point where Asya’s mind starts to do a loop. People being tortured. Right now. As we sit here. Tortured. And what do we do? We go on studying for our exams. . . . But what else is to be done? What can be done? Can you get up right now and rush off to some prison — assuming you know where one is — and hammer at the door? … No. No, well, of course not, that’s stupid — and yet how can you just go on sitting here while someone somewhere is having live wires pushed up his rectum, his teeth pulled out of his head, her vagina stuffed with hungry rats, or having to watch her baby’s head being smashed against the —

Asya jumps up. She always jumps up when she gets to this bit. Now she goes out on the balcony and stands holding on to the stone balustrade and breathing fast and looking at the lights of the Officer’s Club. She daren’t look up at the sky because the darkness and the stars will make her think of how the earth is a tiny ball spinning round and round in space, and space is something she cannot even being to imagine.

When these panics come over her, Asya copes by trying not to think. It is easy to see not just the comfort but the necessity of being, as Eliot concludes even the best of us is, “well wadded with stupidity.”

Both passages turn on the possibility of being overwhelmed by too full an awareness of suffering in the world. But the specifics of that suffering seem very different. Dorothea is sad in Chapter XX because she has married the wrong man, because the “new real future which replaces the imaginary” for her is such a disappointment. The narrator acknowledges that her situation is commonplace and that to see it as a tragedy requires a recalibration of “tragic” to accommodate something so unexceptional. Much of the moral pressure of Middlemarch is precisely in this direction: towards extending our sympathies to those suffering through the petty trials of “ordinary human life.” The novel, we might say, encourages us to listen for the squirrel’s heartbeat, to risk casting off some of that protective padding (constituted largely of egotism), as Dorothea, in her sorrow, is just beginning to do:

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness that is no longer reflection but feeling — an idea wrought back to the directness of sense, like the solidity of objects — that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.**

On the other side of silence in Middlemarch, then, we have a vast accumulation of “equivalent centre[s] of self,” and the roar we hear (if, unlike Mr Brooke, we go “too far”) is a cacophony of personal feelings.

In contrast, in In the Eye of the Sun we hear “men from the Muslim Brotherhood [who have been] pumped up, blown full of water,” and then jumped on and exploded–screams of literal, physical (not metaphorical, moral, or spiritual) pain. Such acts are, indeed, unthinkable, and yet they are part of the everyday reality of Asya’s world: not of her everyday experience, of course, but part of the news she reads, the stories and rumours that circulate among her friends and family, the fears and motivations of people she knows. It is possible to find Dorothea’s “faintness of heart” at learning of Mr Casaubon’s deficiencies trivial by comparison to the sufferings enumerated in Asya’s versions of “Hamlet-like raving” about “all the trouble of all the people in the world” (Middlemarch Chapter 77)–and if In the Eye of the Sun were a different novel overall, I think this contrast might propel me towards a reading of it as critical of Middlemarch, taking the passage from Chapter XX as its epigraph in an ironic spirit (at best) and trying to show up the political inadequacy of its highly “self”-centered morality. I don’t think this is how the epigraph is in fact refracted through Soueif’s novel, though. My task for work tomorrow (if our ritual departmental “May Marks Meeting” allows) will be trying to explain why… I think it has something to do with the interplay of personal and political in both cases (both exemplify what Jerome Beatty calls “history by indirection”), and with the specific relationship of Dorothea and Asya to their husbands (within story space) and to the form of their novels.

(Trying to put even this much into something clear enough to post has been very helpful: I feel that I have, at least provisionally, cleaned up a little of the mess.)

*I just caught the echo of “Dover Beach” here, another tempting bit of intertextuality. That’s what I mean by things getting messier.
**Middlemarch is such a wonderful book.