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Middlemarch Post #2 (Book One:  Miss Brooke): Throwing Victorian Shade

“Who can tell what just criticisms Murr the Cat may be passing on us beings of wider speculation?”  (I, IV) 

            What was I so worried about?  This novel is a delight to re-read.  So sure, maybe I recognize less of myself in Dorothea than I did in 1978, and more of myself in Mr. Brooke, Fred, and (shudder) Casaubon than I did back then or would care to now.  Our narrator is so wise!  And she has tricks to make you like the people you’re supposed to like but maybe wouldn’t like in real life, and have doubts about people you would naturally like in real life but maybe you shouldn’t.  The novel is so rich that I’ve decided to post about just Book One to start with.

            First a few random bits.  1) Back in 1978 we didn’t bother to learn about the politics of either the 1820s or of the 1870s, so I can’t help about that. (“The Reform”?  Maybe I’ll wikipedia it when I’m in the mood.). Of course the politics of the moment are filtered through the personalities of everyone  –beg pardon, of everyone who is anyone– in the region:  it is a delight to see Mr. Brooke presented in the early chapters as having vague ideas about change, as long as it doesn’t cost money, and while this is first worked out in his relationship to being Dorothea and Celia’s guardian, the topic is taken up later when Mrs. Cadwallader opens up the novel to the larger social scene.

            2) A question I was set (but chose not to answer) for my MA exams at Oxford:  “Why are there so many orphans in 19th c. literature?”  What does Eliot gain by making Dorothea and Celia orphans instead of girls with one or two good parents?  I think some of the answer lies in the freedom that having a neglectful uncle as guardian gives them.  But the real question, the one I do have trouble answering, is, Why don’t Celia and Dorothea almost ever think about their parents? Isn’t this the century that begins with Wordsworth’s Prelude and ends with Freud’s Oedipus, in which the child is father of the man, and all sorts of character traits arise from your relationship to your parents?  Eliot seems deeply uninterested in childhood per se, either real children or childhood as remembered. 

            3) Eliot’s extended metaphors.  Of course Eliot will find more than one use for a metaphor that characterizes somebody.  For Dorothea it is elevation elevation elevation.  But her interest in the sublime also means that Dorothea will wish to plumb depths as well as soar high, and this is part of her undoing, for she sees Depths in Casaubon that he does not in fact possess.  And Celia can criticize her sister for not seeing the things that are near to her.  (Remember that unassailable piece of Victorian moralizing:  Do the duty that lies nearest thee.) For extended metaphors, in this first book Eliot probably has the most fun working on Casaubon’s dryness –his wellsprings of passion are pretty much just puddles– and metaphors of graves, crypts, labyrinths and pyramids to describe his parched and moribund soul.  But Eliot is also known for extended metaphors for the act of interpretation, for “reading” people and situations.  Often they’re drawn from the nascent sciences:  my favorite in Book One is the way an observer of female society is compared to a scientist with a microscope examining a microorganism, toward the end of I, VI, vis a vis Mrs. Cadwallader’s activity:  “Even a  telescope…” wouldn’t see the causes and effects of her activity; “Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop” we jump to the wrong conclusion if we don’t have a strong enough lens; you need to have a stronger lens to be able to see the microscopic hairs that produce the vortex that reverses the seeming reality.  This is Eliot saying, I’m not a frumpy middle-aged female genius settling scores on my Midland childhood and arranging for a fantasy version of myself to end up with the best possible husband –I’m a scientist, I tells ya!

            But my main point, and I have one:  Throwing Victorian Shade. This is a novel about the education of the Moral Sense; its goal is to teach us how to weigh other people’s characters in the best light.  “In the best light” does not prevent Eliot from judging, of course, we are expected to judge.  That first chapter, in which the girls divide the mother’s jewellery, is a tour de force of how Celia’s delight in the material and Dorothea’s ambivalence about it actually makes Dorothea more a figure of fun than Celia.  Over and over the text runs up against the question, How do you judge people and then forgive them, without the forgiveness coming across as condescension?  Sometimes power dynamics prevents condescension:  Celia is a little afraid of her older sister, so one way Eliot can judge and forgive is by mediating a judgment of Dorothea through Celia.  Of course Dorothea is also constantly self-judging, and that display of self-criticism is supposed to endear us to her; likewise, the narrator thinks that she herself can avoid condescension towards her characters by shoring up her judgment with universal statements that supposedly include her. (My favorite is the cat Murr.)  But don’t be fooled!  Also, so far whenever her narrator gives a character (almost always Casaubon) the benefit of the doubt, it is more to excuse someone (almost always Dorothea; later it will be Lydgate) for being taken in by appearances than because that person will rise to the occasion.  

            This time around for me, the more interesting use of complicating the act of judging a character has been the way that she makes old Featherstone sympathetic.  I can’t imagine Dickens or Thackeray or even James treating an ailing manipulative rich old man with the kindness that Eliot lavishes on Featherstone.  Besides the usual trick of having a most unpleasant person (his sister) in the room to serve as a contrast, Featherstone is shown to genuinely like Fred even as he jerks him around somewhat before eventually giving him money, and to like him for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.  None of this prevents him from behaving in a beastly manner towards Mary Garth, another fine piece of characterization whose description is almost entirely of her morals and ethical psychology; I don’t suppose it reflects on me terribly well that I don’t judge harshly Featherstone’s bad behavior to Mary as much as I should –there I go again!  judging myself for not judging a character sufficiently!  How does Eliot get me to do that?

            The second half of Book One starts the second narrative of the novel, not the story of Dorothea but the story of Lydgate, introduced by means of the Vincy family, i.e., through Rosamond Vincy.  When I titled this post “Throwing Victorian Shade” I thought I would be talking mostly about how, while Eliot pretty much puts her cards on the table in the Dorothea-Celia-Casaubon-Chettam plot (her injunctions to not judge Casaubon too quickly and too harshly strike me as rather insincere:  all those crypts and pyramids and dry rivers), she is much cagier about heroes and villains in the Lydgate-Vincys-Featherstone-Mary plot, except that we’re inclined to dislike Bulstrode even before the more elaborate interactions of Book Two, and we recognize immediately that Mary is a moral touchstone and paragon.  If you’ve read the novel before, it is easier to see the little hints of who will be the good guys and who will be the bad guys and how and why, but this subplot is building more slowly and with more nuance.

            I started this post Wednesday morning and am finishing it Friday night –getting halfway through the novel by Sunday the 9th is going to be heavy lifting.  But it’s fun to watch an expert throw shade, even if she sometimes puts you in your place along the way.

October 2, 2021 Posted by | boredom | 7 Comments

Middlemarch quotes

Leave your favorites in the comments. I’ll start with Book one, Chapter 1:

[T]he great safeguard of society and domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Book one, Chapter 1

Catch Merve Emre quoting Mm at Franzen.

“Humphrey finds everybody charming… what can one do with a husband who attends so little to the decencies? I hide it as well as I can by advising everybody myself.”


”These charitable people never know vinegar from wine till they have swallowed it and got the colic.”

Book one, Ch. 4. Mrs. Cadwallader speaking.

Someone else’s book group appears to be leaving quotes on Twitter, too.

“My father says an idle man ought not to exist, much less, be married.”
“Then I am to blow my brains out?”
“No; on the whole I should think you would do better to pass your examination.”

Book II, Ch. 14. Fred Vincy and Mary Garth speaking.

“We are not obliged to identify our own acts according to a strict classification, any more than the materials of our grocery and clothes.“ Book 7, chapter 65

September 26, 2021 Posted by | boredom | 5 Comments

Am I afraid of the (anti-)epic journey ahead of us?

Here it is, a week after we committed to (re-)reading the first half of Middlemarch in three weeks.  And all I have read is the Prelude. What’s that about?

(What’s the Prelude about?  Well, you’ve just read it:  It makes it clear that the hero of our piece is a heroine, and in that sense the novel comes across as a feminist project; and –at least for someone such as myself, obsessed in a small way with genre theory– it stakes its claim for the importance of the Novel as the chronicle of the failure of the Epic.  Eliot read more German aesthetics than I have, and is very comfortable with the idea that not just the age of Greek mythology but also the Age of Faith, that of St. Teresa of Avila, could produce epic heroic action, even for a woman (those of you whom I pushed through Lukacs might remember how his Hegelian narrative made room for Dante as the epic in an Age of Faith); and we sad middle-class Victorians no longer live in that age.  There are other things layered into that first anecdote, of course:  it’s partly a comic anecdote (St. Teresa tells it as a comic anecdote about her own childish naiveté, even though it also foretells a life of heroic action for her); and (again, St. Teresa is in some sense aware of this too) little Teresa’s interest in setting out to be a martyr heroicizes the kind of expectations of female self-sacrifice which are still around in Eliot’s day.  Most people who have finished the novel would argue that the prologue somewhat misrepresents the novel in a way that the title does not:  this is a novel primarily about a world and secondarily the impossibility of being a female epic hero, it is not a novel primarily about a failed female epic hero and secondarily the world she lives in.  So that’s what the Prelude is about.)

Why is taking me so long to actually start (re-)reading the book?  Yes, yes, I’m in New York on vacation, but my days are not chock-full of events.  Yes, yes, I’m a chronic procrastinator, I haven’t done my laundry since I got here two weeks ago and my to-do list for the coming semester is a horror.  But I feel something more than generic reluctance to start reading a big book.

I don’t want it to, but I feel as if Middlemarch has the capacity to judge me.  Not all Great Books have that capacity, either because it’s not part of that particular book’s DNA or because they don’t know who I am and where I live.  Tristram Shandy not only doesn’t want to judge me, it’s kind of an enabler of my digressiveness and my hobby-horses; Moby-Dick would be very happy to judge me but the novel is not about me.  But Middlemarch, if I recall it correctly, is full of people who have some trait of mine that Eliot holds up to kind but severe scrutiny:  Pat, she says, insofar as you are like Lydgate, Casaubon, Bulstrode, Dorothea herself when she makes some terrible mistakes, Pat, I’m not mad, but I’m so disappointed in you.

I’m sure that’s due in part to reading this book as a middle-aged person.  I don’t at all remember feeling that way about the book when I was an undergraduate (conversely, I certainly don’t remember thinking that I had the privilege of judging it; there were only a handful of books in my youth that I developed that kind of attitude towards:  Naked Lunch, maybe; maybe The Sun Also Rises).  One of my teacher’s class lectures –did you take any courses from Dorothy Mermin, Andreas?– about the book placed it in the tradition of the “Victorian sage” along with Carlyle, Ruskin, in his own way Pater:  nudging or exhorting the reader to be his best self, to acknowledge that although God is dead, Duty is more alive than ever.  I was exhilarated to rise to that challenge (while analyzing the rhetorical strategies that maintained that voice) when I was nineteen; I’m not sure I will feel the same way about it when I’m sixty-three. 

Okay, 2 pages read this week, 480 pages to read for next week– 

September 21, 2021 Posted by | boredom | 3 Comments

Summer Reading Club: The Master and Margarita

Who wants to read Mikhail Bulgakov’s legendary satire The Master and Margarita? Once again, the Summer Reading Club (we always already have matching satin jackets) is taking on a tome or two. Read the Burgin-O’Connor translation along on this schedule:

Sunday, June 14th, chs. I-IV, pp. 1-45
Sunday the 21th, V-XVI, pp.45-153
Sunday the 28th, big push, XVII-XXVI, pp.154-280
then the last fifty pages, either for Sunday the 5th of July or maybe we get ‘er done before the 4th of July, a natural piece of punctuation for the summer

Open thread below.

June 17, 2020 Posted by | books | | 10 Comments

When I Grow Up I Want to Be an Old Woman

(I certainly hope you recognize the allusion:  I can’t actually find Michelle Shocked’s original version of it on YouTube, just a whole bunch of mediocre covers of it.)

This novel’s like Don Quixote:  when you’re young you read it one way and you focus on Humberto Peñaloza and Iris Mateluna and Boy, but when you’re old and decrepit and you haven’t left your sad, sad rented house in Ohio since Friday afternoon except to go out on the porch to pay the pizza delivery guy (twice in six days!), well, you read it a different way and you focus on Mudito and Peta Ponce and Inés.  Which isn’t to say that the novel hasn’t been heading in this direction all along.  And anyone who says otherwise –and sooner or later, you yourself will say otherwise– is a liar.

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August 9, 2018 Posted by | boredom | | 1 Comment

Noble Monsters

I’ve only got twenty minutes before this coffeehouse closes, so let me be super quick: Yup, this sure is a masterpiece.  I had remembered the extensive set piece in La Rinconada after Boy’s birth, in which the estate turned into a place without a sense of the normal and abnormal, so that Boy’s deformities would not engender any sense of inferiority:  I had forgotten

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August 2, 2018 Posted by | boredom | | 2 Comments

The Flamethrowers, a reader response

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. I met HJ a little more than eleven years ago, and I mentioned the first weekend we spent together that there was a decent chance when we went out in public that I’d run into people I know. It had already happened once at dinner—a woman I’d met in City Hall was seated at the table next to us—and of course a few hours after I mentioned it, it happened again. A guy named Sam, out with his kids and his parents, no one you know. I live in the second largest city in America, so it was not the safest bet, but I stick to a few neighborhoods, so it wasn’t the biggest gamble either. A few weeks later we were at Ikea—bold move for a fledgling romance—and we’d purchased her a cabinet much larger than her Corolla could handle. I looked around the waiting area and there was my friend Darby (Big Josh knows her) and her husband. They let us put the cabinet in their station wagon, and we offered them a bottle of Irish whiskey when they dropped it off. “I couldn’t,” said Darby. “Not so fast,” said her husband.

A little less than eleven years ago, we went to Italy for my sister’s thirtieth birthday, lodging at a former convent that had been turned into a home for wayward heirloom botanicals, gathered from across the land. Rare pear trees and the like. HJ and I split off after a spell and went to Venice just the two of us. I noticed in Venice that I had developed a nervous habit. I was perpetually looking around for people I knew. There were so many people there, and it seemed likely to me, unconsciously, that I was about to run into someone I knew. But of course, I was far out of my handful of neighborhoods. So I just gave myself a neck ache.

A few nights in, we found a small restaurant near the university neighborhood. We were about to leave when I learned they didn’t take credit cards. HJ stayed back while I found an ATM. We left twenty minutes later than we meant to, but at that exact moment, and not twenty minutes earlier, I heard a very familiar voice coming through the tiny dark street. The voice approached and I called out, “Abe?” It was indeed our, your and my, mutual friend Abe. What a surprise, in the way that something your neck has been expecting can objectively be a surprise. We walked over to a university bar and had Spritzes and he introduced us to the girl from the Guggenheim he was walking here and there, and showed me an art project he’d been working on. He walked all over Venice carrying a GPS device in a recording mode, then he printed out the recorded paths and thus created his own personal map of Venice. We hung out the next day, too, riding around in the sardine cans, looking at the buildings from the canals.

The last time I spoke to our friend Abe, he was living in Dubai, and I’m not sure how he knew to contact me but I put him in touch with a friend’s sister who was in Africa working on energy. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of his intentions, but the kind of person who likes to see people he knows also likes to introduce people, and who am I to say that my friend who does energy in Africa shouldn’t meet my friend who wants to do energy business in Africa?  All sorts of schemes make the world go round.

July 27, 2018 Posted by | boredom | | Comments Off on The Flamethrowers, a reader response

Yumyum! Gothic Late Modernism

I am having so much fun re-reading The Obscene Bird of Night that I can’t believe it’s been 28 years since I read it the first time.  To be sure, the formal fireworks can sometimes seem like a ruse to distract us from second-guessing what’s at stake in the story, but at other times these same formal and verbal tricks seem to give us exactly the insights we need to understand what is at stake in this story of Mudito/ Humberto Peñaloza, the extended family and servants of the Azcoitía family, and the decrepit and haunted House where most of them live.

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July 25, 2018 Posted by | boredom | | 6 Comments

Pushing back the schedule/ I so know Donoso

  1.  At the request of Mr. Kamensky, we’re pushing back our reading schedule a bit more than a half-week.  (I have a commitment on Sunday August 19th so I can’t push it back a full week.)  The new reading/comment target dates are:

Thursday July 26:  Chs. 1-7 ( –> p.93)

Thursday August 2:  Chs. 8-16 ( –> 217)

Thursday August 9:  Chs. 17-23 ( –> 329)

Thursday August 16:  finish

My apologies to Mr. Malbin, who will certainly be running ahead of us for the first deadline.

2.  Do you need to know anything about José Donoso (1924-1996) or about mid-twentieth-century Chile (or Latin America) in order to appreciate The Obscene Bird of Night?  Probably not, but here’s some stuff anyway:

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July 18, 2018 Posted by | boredom | | 1 Comment

José Donoso, The Obscene Bird of Night (1970): Reading Schedule

We’re spending four weeks on this book but it is written in three parts.  Such bad planning on Donoso’s part!  Especially because in my experience you want to start a book slowly.  So my recommended reading schedule is:
Sunday July 22:  Chs. 1-7 ( –> p.93)
Sunday July 29:  Chs. 8-16 ( –> 217)
Sunday August 5:  Chs. 17-23 ( –> 329)
Sunday August 12:  finish
As I said, this runs roughshod over the book’s natural units (1-9, 10-18, 19-30), but c’est la vie.
As I also said, part of the pleasure of these summer reading sessions for me is that I can get in touch with books I’ve read or should have read that are “unteachable” on the undergraduate level –I can’t ever see my way to assigning a 430pp delirious-surreal baroque satire of the Chilean ruling classes in 1970 to any of my Spanish classes, and it’s too big to fit into any of my Surrealism-in-translation courses too. (It’s also not exactly what I would call Surrealist:  Baroque, carnivalesque, grotesque, but it doesn’t have the Surrealist metaphysics or faux-Freudianisms or the philosophizing that’s so characteristic of the Surrealist novel with Breton or Aragon or even, say, Angela Carter or China Mièville when they’re in that mood.)  But I know stuff about Donoso, especially Donoso in the ’50s-’70s, so I may mouth off a bit more professionally than I did about Kushner.  And part of my BloodGradGuilt is that this was one of two books I read as a grad student in translation, so I at least will be working off my debt to La Sociedad by reading it concomitantly in Spanish and English.  The Spanish original is now only available in Kindle –I thought I owned my own copy but couldn’t find it on my ever-messy shelves on Sunday– but that might be an advantage:  I’m about to make a decision on which edition of Rabelais I’ll be assigning to the students on the size of the font in the Penguin edition.

July 17, 2018 Posted by | boredom | | 1 Comment