Monday, November 23, 2009

Review: A Victorian soap opera


For some reason, while reading Middlemarch I felt like I was reading a pastoral version of Shakespeare’s Othello – although of course something much less villainous and without a creature like Iago who stumbles on things to ruin his master and his wife’s love. I say this only because both works are like watching what happens just past ‘and they lived happily ever after’. Before Othello commences, there’s a wedding. Not too far into George Eliot’s sprawling masterpiece, there’s the first of many weddings. And then we’re invited to watch such marriages fall from perfection, fall from idealism, into something much more realistic, unfortunate, and amusing.

Dorothea Brooke perhaps is a proto-feminist. She doesn’t necessarily want to be locked down by the typical fetters that womanhood suggests. Instead of playing house for her husband – making sure that the hired help is doing what they need to do, dressing up the salons so that everyone will comment when they come for tea – she wants to dive headfirst into her husband’s work and become the muse whose inspiration will set his work apart from everyone else’s and put him in the limelight. Instead of marrying James Chettam, her equal in age, she decides to marry the ‘academic’ Edward Casaubon who is much older, perhaps almost double her age. On their honeymoon, they bump into a cousin of Casaubon’s – Will Ladislaw – a struggling artist who is intrigued by this woman.

Meanwhile Dr Tertius Lydgate has newly arrived in Middlemarch and is interested in revamping and -vitalising the medicinal practice in town. It involves a lot of volunteer work, proto-socialised healthcare (?). He decides to marry the mayor’s daughter, Rosamond Vincy, who also happens to be a relative of Mr Bulstrode, a man with a shady past but also a man with money to spend. Here, between Lydgate and Rosamond, is another failing marriage as the wife wants to be bathed all the time in aristocracy, whereas Lydgate is much more interested in his work and not his personal life.

Rosamond’s brother Fred also falls in love with a childhood sweetheart. But Mary Garth won’t marry him unless he abandons the church and settles in a different, more suitable career. Fred also has a bit of a gambling problem that causes him to go into debt and makes him an unsuitable ‘gentleman’ for the Garths.

These stories create something of a soap opera, as we watch people unravel, as we hear subtle arguments, as we watch disappointments and plots against one another unfold. The only thing that’s missing is the supernatural. George Eliot’s style in this book is certainly to have a narrator speak as a god or a Greek chorus, from afar and with tons of sententious and axiomatic remarks, like: ‘For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval.’ Or: ‘We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions.’

Or: ‘The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases. Even without memory, the life is bound into one by a zone of dependence in growth and decay: but intense memory forces a man to own his blameworthy past. With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavours and the tinglings of a merited shame.’

It’s almost as if this book is a compendium in competition with Bartlett’s Quotations. That’s not to say that it’s not amusing or touching at times; the language and these huge brushstroke generalisations usually bog down the drama of the novel. But in that regard it makes one feel as if Eliot’s narrator had precisely plotted and executed everything he/she decided to do beforehand, unlike Iago against his Othello.

1 comment:

J.T. Oldfield said…

I've not read this, but I recently described reading The Great Gatsby as being like a soap opera.