"We are what we believe we are."
C.S. Lewis

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Mop Philosophy Book Club: Middlemarch


Our book club today is co-hosted by our friend GSL of The Lion's Den, who I would like to thank for suggesting the book as well as co-hosting.  GSL has his own comments which include an author biography relevant to our reading (and which will put the novel in context with other books you may have read).  G listened to an audio version of the book while I only managed to read a third of the novel (or I should say re-read, I first read this book at age 15 but I have retained almost nothing).

In light of this I am going to suggest that we re-visit Middlemarch after the winter.  I am finding that I am more interested in the story the more I read (it may be one of those slow-going books) and I also have a couple of strategies I am planning to employ to improve my reading experience, namely sketching out a diagram of characters and relationships, but there are a few other tips which I picked up on a helpful website, the tips and website links are detailed below.
I've started here with my own comments to be followed by GSL.  As usual all thoughts and observations are welcome and encouraged!


In attempting to read Middlemarch once more something started coming back to me: it was the glimpse of a theory that I had a small idea of the first time I read the book (though I didn't have a name for it at the time): Soft Determinism.  This is a theory I'm quite drawn to and it's one of the reasons I enjoy the writings of Spinoza.  Spinoza (who I would call a Soft Determinist, others wouldn't, that's a whole other kettle) would say that we have freedom in our own determination, but in acknowledging that our choices were bound to happen (based on a myriad of other surrounding events/factors in the web of life) our anxiety is lifted: there is no need for fear, or the dreaded "what-if".  Our lives spin out from causes, or decisions we have made, reactions we have had, and we can never leave our past behind us because it is in fact already caught up in our future.

I found an excellent site titled "Middlemarch for Book Clubs" which acknowledges the difficulties of processing this book for both individuals and groups.  The author in fact suggests studying Middlemarch as a book club over a series of months to break it up.
In particular I enjoyed the author's take on Determinism in Middlemarch, and it made me think of my pal Spinoza's Soft Determinism.   She begins her short essay on the subject with this quote from the book:
Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been makes us what we are. (Chapter 70)
Please read the essay, it explains in short detail the reliance on past events and analysis in the novel.

Another helpful essay on the site discusses The Big Picture.  As I continue to read the novel I'm going to keep some of these things in mind, in particular the Lydgate/Dorothea parallel, the web imagery and the use of the words ardent and petty.

Something else I picked up when I was preparing this post was the fact that George Eliot actually merged two stories to write this novel.  She had been writing a story about "Miss Brooke" and another about a provincial doctor (and was well in with both story lines).  She decided to merge them, creating a complex work in which parallels could be drawn (perhaps to further illustrate her points) but in doing so I wonder if she created a novel that was at times a bit jumpy and difficult to follow?

In consideration of the fact that I have only re-read a third of the novel I wouldn't mind visiting this book club discussion again in the early spring.  Giving myself the entire winter to do the reading seems more realistic.  Let me know if any of you would like to do the same. xoxDani


Now we'll hear from GSL:


George Eliot, the nom de plume of Mary Anne Evans, was born in 1819 the same year as Queen Victoria, John Ruskin, Walt Whitman and Herman Melville and two years after Jane Austen died at age 41.  The Austen-Eliot comparison is inevitable but they did inhabit different worlds with pen and in the lives they lived. The Industrial Revolution, advent of train travel, and Darwin’s On The Origin of Species and their effects on social mobility and intellectual life dramatically changed the societal landscape of even provincial England by the time Eliot serialized Middlemarch in 1871-1872.
In comparing Middlemarch to that other great 19th Century novel, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, you immediately become aware that while both are set in provincial England with young, strong-willed, intelligent, and comfortably situated female protagonists, the differences are quickly made apparent. Middlemarch is not a novel of manners but rather a more sober story of greater philosophical and psychological depth than Pride and Prejudice.  Middlemarch was said by Virginia Woolf “to be one of the few English novels written for grown up people” as it doesn’t leave off with the “happily ever after” comfort of Pride and Prejudice.
Middlemarch is a more serious work of greater depth and you are immediately aware you are in the company of a supremely gifted writer with a first rate intellect, but the rhythms and melody don’t quite attain the heights that Austen does with Pride and Prejudice.  With her protagonist Dorothea Brooke, Eliot has introduced a fascinating young woman who I’d have eagerly joined in a sequel. GSL












41 comments:

  1. I loved this book. I found that there was much symmetry between Dorothea and Lydgate - they both marry for ideals - one based on service, the other on romantic love - and go on to watch their ideals crumble.

    I also saw the book as a feminist cry. Dorothea's spirituality is profound, but I sensed it was also a way to set herself off from the expectation of her sex. We really sense her burning desire to be a partner to Casaubon, and the fact that she mistakes the ramblings of an older man grateful that ANYONE wants to hear his theories as somehow being proof that he has higher ideals shows her extreme naiveté and the fact that women's lives were so limited during this time.

    The richness of these characters and their weaknesses, this creation of a world in which its characters orbit one another because what choice do they have, is both brilliant and claustrophobic. I had a sense while reading this book that the lives of the well to do, the society people, were likely more constrained than their common rabble.

    It is clear that Eliot takes over where Austen ends, but in a deeper and richer way. This is Austen on steroids, Austen meets spirituality. Some of the lines in the book brought me to my knees:

    "Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand."
    "..but is there any yoked creature without its private opinions?"
    "But perhaps no persons then living—certainly none in the neighborhood of Tipton—would have had a sympathetic understanding for the dreams of a girl whose notions about marriage took their color entirely from an exalted enthusiasm about the ends of life, an enthusiasm which was lit chiefly by its own fire, and included neither the niceties of the trousseau, the pattern of plate, nor even the honors and sweet joys of the blooming matron."

    Dorothea is perhaps the most human of all great female characters in literature and Eliot imbues her with such a sense of realism and frailty that is astonishing. One of my favourite lines in the book is the following:

    It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky."

    What a brilliant summing up, in one sentence, of a person's character, of what drives them.

    And of course, she saves the best for last:

    for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

    What struck me at various times in the novel was how similar Dorothea was to Larry in The Razor's Edge; this gentle creature moving through a world of vipers. There is such an inherent goodness there that you want to steal her away and say 'stop making all these damn mistakes!" But she makes them, and so does everyone else.

    In the end, it is the unsaid things between characters, Fred's assumptions, Dorothea's assumptions, Lydgate's assumptions, amongst many, that make the book retain its freshness and grounds it unequivocally in the human condition.

    I can't speak to soft determinism or Spinoza, having no familiarity with either, but certainly character's make choices that haunt them throughout the book, and often those choices are made based on assumptions from their own experience, with little or no basis in the facts.

    The brilliance of the world Eliot creates is timeless; the characters are true and if at times cutting, are affectionately cutting. That it all continues to unfold at the end, as it does in real life, is both beautiful and genius.

    I off to The Mill and the Floss!

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    1. Very well done Wendy and the prelude with Saint Teresa pretexting Dorothea...let's also remember that she wasn't even 20 and an orphan and her Uncle while well intentioned and beneficiary of a Cambridge education was rather dim-witted thus frustrating Dorothea's intellectual yearnings.

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    2. I loved the allusion to saint Teresa! Agree completely!

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    3. Wendy that was brilliant!
      Your love of the book is infectious and I'll be revisiting your comments as I move on. In fact today I'm a bit under the weather but I was just thinking hehe I can lie in bed and read Middlemarch today. Interesting comparison to Larry and see how our book clubs tie in to each other? Are you so happy to have read this book? Not an easy read but more fulfilling in the end than something by Austen?

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    4. Wendy, you are inspiring!

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    5. Wendy the Feminist reference is a big undercurrent very likely to contemporary readers but certainly retrospectively. I'll bet GE wouldn't have been among the shrieking mob watching the stunning scientific achievement of a spaceship landing on a comet and get all hot and bothered over what a scientist was 'wearing'....a shirt with scantily attired female cartoon characters given to him as a b-day gift by a gal pal..

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    6. Lisa from 'Privilege' does an occasional book/movie book club post with intro and commentary by her father "Professor C' who has an international reputation in 18-19th Century English Literature.

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    7. How interesting! I did love the book, Dani. And much as I loved Portrait of the Lady, I felt more affinity with Dorothea, I felt she was someone who I could feel real sympathy for, whereas Isabelle sometimes left me a little cold. You never feel Dorothea is "playing" Will. I am so sorry to hear you are under the weather. The amount of wine I drank last night has left me knackered, but that is a self-inflicted wound, so no complaints! I am wondering what you will choose next? Do we work backwards from the great novels? Why is it the great novels are so bloody long???? Am I the only one here who's never read Moby Dick or War and Peace? Not sure I even want to read them! GSL - I am about to start Wolf Hall - have owned it for 2 years and never cracked the spine - am I the only one who does that? Hummingbird brain leads me on to the next best thing and I forget what I have to read!

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    8. Wendy, book nerd here, I did read Moby Dick and War and Peace. I'm with you on Wolf Hall, DNF (did not finish) but did love Mantel's Bringing Up the Bodies. Also feeling more into Dorothea than Isabel.

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    9. Wendy & Marie,
      Just had a lengthy comment disappear into ether but W & P my all time fav which I read only 10-15 pages a night as I didn't want it to end. Moby Dick also in my top 5 and it's another best experienced slowly. I prefer Dorothea over Isabel Archer although love HJ.
      Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies is an astonishing triumph and desperately want to see the stage adaptation now in (or coming soon) NYC.... 4th attempt to comment!!!!

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  2. Dani,
    I like your idea to re-visit after the winter as Middlemarch is so densely packed that a 2nd or 3rd close reading likely will reveal even more of the virtues that Barnes, Amis, et al rave about.
    Also, we could bring also bring the 7 episode BBC production from 1994 with Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea and Rufus Sewell as Will and discuss how true to Eliot's Middlemarch they stayed.
    I saw the BBC production at least 10 years ago and barely remember it but would like an excuse to revisit now well acquainted with the original.

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    1. I wondered if that existed! Off to search for it - would love to watch it now!

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    2. GSL that's a great idea and I bet I can get MrBP to watch that BBC production with me, I'll finish the book first though.

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  3. Whew! I thought I'd be the only one unable to finish! Wendy breezed right through, but she is a "pro". I have not read it before and resisted watching any of the filmed versions; "Silas Marner' was one of the tortures of high school for me. However, GE herself fascinates me so I really want to read and enjoy this. At my age, she remarried a man 20 yrs her junior.

    One thing that strikes me so far ( I am up to the sobbing, recently married Dorothea scene in Rome) is the absence of scene ( except for houses). I do love the humorous little observations, but sometimes the dialog is just too much ( the prelude to the vote for vicar of the hospital). As always I particularly enjoy any medical references!

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    1. Lane, could our George have been a precursor to Donna Tart - I.e. She might have benefitted from a good editor?

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    2. Lane that whole vote for vicar nearly did me in, it went on and on in excruciating round-about detail and I kept falling asleep. Once in Rome I felt the story really got going, the pace picks up from where you are now. Oh the medical references get better, you're going to love it! Lane let's revisit this in March what do you say?

      Wendy, yes an editor might have been welcome but then I always wonder what would have been lost as well?

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    3. Lane, GE married that much younger man (and longtime friend) John Cross the year that she died in 1880. Cross then became her biographer. She had a longtime romantic relationship with a married man of very formidable intellect George Henry Lewes who she moved in with and she referred to herself as 'Mrs Lewes'. Because of this her brother who she was very close to broke with her completely and they never spoke again.
      The difficult choices and resulting consequences that GE made colour those courtship scenes with Dorothea and Lydgate with her difficulties.

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    4. The infamous Vicar Vote has vanquished a few of us! I tried reading it aloud-- I trick i use if I have trouble-- but it did not help!

      Wendy, yes maybe, an editor, but perhaps the slow pace of things would be lost?

      March works for me.

      GSL, isn't her life interesting? She did not conform to the constraints of the times.

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    5. Lane, much as I love audiobooks, Middlemarch is not conducive to an audiobook on a first exposure even with a gifted narrator. With so many interwoven relationships along with GE's densely packed narrative, you really need some sight references and moments to pause and reflect to help sort out what's going on. I only vaguely remember the Vicar Vote as I was trying to sort out the narrative in my head while listening.

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  4. I did not have time to re-read this big, complex work but am commenting based on what I remember. GE successfully presented a comprehensive picture of the social structure of that period with its many changes and limitations. While Dorothea was the central character, the book was really about provincial middle-class England presented through the intertwined lives and relationships of multiple characters. Themes of marriage (head or heart), class (landed gentry vs commerce), duty vs choice, knowledge vs reason, predominate. Some of you have noted the long-winded dialogues but GE did develop the characters, their conflicts and relationships, through these conversations. Certainly not an easy read, but rewarding when you make it through the end.

    GE’s choice of a male pseudonym reflected the difficulties of making her mark in a male dominated world. She certainly did not conform to the limitations set by society. She had a very long but happy and fruitful relationship with her soulmate Lewes who was still married at that time. There were certainly some parallels with Dorothea. Both were intelligent ladies but were deemed a “social disgrace” after society was disappointed with their choice of partners. There is a strong religious tone to this novel with inferences to St. Teresa yet GE wcs known to be a humanist who early in her career rejected Christianity. With religious ideals certainly defining much of society at that time, it will be remiss of her to ignore religion as a powerful factor in people's behavior and decisons.

    Wendy, I also loved that part where "greatness" is not defined by a heroic act but being true to your faith and ideals. I would love to revisit this book again in the spring. As a supplemental read, I highly recommend My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead. It's a fascinating reflection on how Middlemarch shaped her life and how great literature can help us reflect on our own stories as well.

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    1. Marie love to read your thoughts as usual! Do you think this embracing of ideals as a heroic, quiet act goes back to a general theme of Determinism? I probably shouldn't speculate since I haven't finished reading but I am curious to see how the Lydgate/Dorothea parallel plays out for each character, do they keep their dignity, accept their choices and decisions, look back to cause and effect?

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  5. Welcome Mare,
    While women making their way in a male dominated world presented difficulties, the male GE pseudonym was so she would be taken seriously as GE herself wrote an essay titled 'Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" that satirizes the genre. Interestingly, Dickens knew right away that Middlemarch's author was a woman.

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  6. Marie - I have to read My Life in Middlemarch now. Think I will download on kindle and get cracking on that! I did have the feeling that Eliot was like a hybrid Austen and Dickens in a funny way. Dickens goes so much deeper than Jane ever dreamed or wanted to, I think. Dickens can make me cry and I never cried with Jane. The Brontes - now they can make you cry!

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    1. I agree Wendy that GE is a JA/CD hybrid. JA lived a very secluded life and came before the Industrial Revolution's social upheaval contributing to Dickens' father being jailed in a debtor's prison and GE had an interesting early life in an intellectual hot house environment

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  7. Wendy agree about The Bronte Sisters, my favourites as a teenager because of the romance/crying factor!
    Did you read The New Yorker article by Rebecca Mead I linked to earlier this week? Good intro to her book I think which I also plan to read when I am finished Middlemarch, we might want to discuss that book as well when we revisit in the spring.

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    1. I did read the article and need to buy the book now! My Sydney took a lot of brontes in English lit and they could be quite amongst themselves!

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  8. I do hope 'Faculty Lounge Marie' joins us.

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  9. Looking forward to Part 2 this spring. In my next life I would like to be a literature professor but not sure I can survive academic politics. Do you know the next book for the book club? Can start on it while waiting for the turkey to bake next week.

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    1. Marie,
      Please feel free to nominate a selection for consideration. My wish was granted with Middlemarch which we can revisit in the Spring. Thanks for stopping in and given your comprehensive knowledge, I assumed you were an academic....my apologies

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  10. Unless it needs to be Christmassy for next month, how about an Evelyn Waugh? Brideshead Revisited (thoughtful) or Scoop (short and funny) comes to mind.

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    1. I absolutely love Scoop and it may be the funniest novel ever written. Brideshead is also a great choice as it has the fab BBC adaptation as an option. We'll see how Dani feels after the dust clears on her reno.

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    2. I've just been thinking about this, Marie it is between Scoop (you are a mind reader!) and The Red Badge of Courage (which I have never read, we must read that one and G as a war vet we need you on side). I'd like to do those two next, what do you think would be best for December? The other would be our January choice and then we might want a novel that isn't very grim for the dark days of February... we'll revisit Middlemarch in March!

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    3. Well, Scoop would better Yuletide Season fare as it's wickedly funny while Red Badge is a downer.

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    4. Scoop gets my vote as it is based on lord beaverbrook who is mr. New Brunswick and is everywhere here!

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  11. Brain pickings has some nice commentary on this, George Eliot's birthday. http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/02/11/my-life-in-middlemarch-george-eliot-rebecca-mead/

    I reread a bit of the book on the beach until I realized I need to add reading glasses that are sunglasses to my collection. It's been 20 years since I've picked it up and I look forward to a midwinter visit.

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    1. I'm a few years ahead of you in bifocals Jen and even got some LL Bean's for a song that work well. I wouldn't think of Middlemarch as a beach book so you must have laser focus.

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  12. Dani, I wish I could have participated since I have always wanted to read this. Life just got crazy. It's on my list to begin over the holidays and thanks to your notes and GSL's I can get an idea of what to look forward to.
    I think George Sand was one of the most fascinating women and still love that film, Impromptu about her life with Chopin starring Judy Davis. Anyone see that? One of my favorites. Thank you both for kicking off this book and the discussion! x Kim

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    1. Kim,
      Middlemarch by George Eliot not George Sand and I often confuse the 2 as well as both had male pseudonyms that start with George and scandalous romantic lives. Please do join us next time!

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    2. Ugh I feel stupid! GSL good thing I couldn't participate! Lol. I need to get my women authors using male pseudonyms straight!! Thanks I will come back when you discuss later! Kim :)

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  13. I'm a slacker member as just going out today to buy the book. Can't wait. Then I'll come back and read the comments.

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