October 29, 2009

The Wit and Wisdom of George Eliot (I)

In 1871 an enthusiastic young reader named Alexander Main received George Eliot's permission to publish a collection of inspirational excerpts from her works; the volume was put out in 1872 by her usual publisher, John Blackwood (who nicknamed Main "the Gusher"), under the title Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of George Eliot. As I make my way through Middlemarch yet again, I sympathize with his project: I am, as always, struck repeatedly by the sheer pleasure the novel affords, precisely because it is so wise, witty, and tender. It's endlessly tempting to grab anyone who happens to be nearby and say, "just listen to this bit!" Alas, too often there's nobody nearby, or at least nobody with time and attention to spare. But on the internet, there's always somebody around--or at least so I can fondly imagine. So, as a self-indulgent supplement to my teaching posts, I'm going to do a little series of favorite "wise, witty, and tender" excerpts as I go along. I hope that they will give you, too, some pleasure, whether by reminding you of your own experience of reading Middlemarch or by introducing you to some more of the reasons why so many people love this novel. The challenge will be choosing just one or two excerpts for each category!


I'm overwhelmed by choices here, from the epigrammatic to the philosophical and reflective. For now, here are passages representing each of those extremes:
Mr Bulstrode had also a deferential bending attitude in listening, and an apparent fixed attentiveness in his eyes which made those persons who thought themselves worth hearing infer that he was seeking the utmost improvement from their discourse. Others, who expected to make no great figure, disliked this kind of moral lantern turned on them. If you are not proud of your cellar, there is no thrill of satisfaction in seeing your guest hold up his wine-glass to the light and look judicial. Such joys are reserved for conscious merit. (Ch. XIII)

We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman's "makdom and her fairnesse," never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of " makdom and fairnesse " which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires? In the story of this passion, too, the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting. And not seldom the catastrophe is bound up with the other passion, sung by the Troubadours. For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly: you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman's glance. (Ch. XV)

One of the great delights of reading Middlemarch aloud is that for some reason doing so really brings out the humour of the novel, which ranges from laugh-out-loud funny to wryly acerbic, from rueful to pointedly cruel. First honours in this category has to go to Mrs Cadwallader, who has the privilege of delivering most of the novel's best one-liners. Here she is, with her straight man, Sir James Chettam, on the Reverend Mr Casaubon (whose 'family quarterings,' she earlier proposes, must be 'three cuttle-fish sable and a commentator rampant'):
'He has got no good red blood in his body,' said Sir James.

'No. somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,' said Mrs Cadwallader.

'Why does he not bring out his book, instead of marrying?' said Sir James, with a disgust which he held warranted by the sound feeling of an English layman.

'Oh, he dreams footnotes, and they run away with all his brains. They say, when he was a little boy, he made an abstract of "Hop o' My Thumb," and he has been making abstracts ever since.' (Ch. VIII)
Mr Brooke runs her a close second, though his comedy is largely inadvertant and thus puts us in a more Austen-like attitude of knowing superiority (which, of course, is entirely compatible with warm affection). Who could resist the picture of his talking theology with the erudite Mr Casaubon, telling him 'that the Reformation either meant something or it did not, that he himself was a Protestant to the core, but that Catholicism was a fact; and as to refusing an acre of your ground for a Romanist chapel, all men needed the bridle of religion, which, properly speaking, was the dread of a Hereafter'? The narrator is relentless about Mr Brooke's vagaries, but never harsh. After all, aren't we all foolish and inconsistent in our own ways? Here is her commentary, for instance, on Mr Brooke's cheerful anticipation that Casaubon is likely to be made a bishop:
And here I must vindicate a claim to philosophical reflectiveness, by remarking that Mr. Brooke on this occasion little thought of the Radical speech which, at a later period, he was led to make on the incomes of the bishops. What elegant historian would neglect a striking opportunity for pointing out that his heroes did not foresee the history of the world, or even their own actions? -- For example, that Henry of Navarre, when a Protestant baby, little thought of being a Catholic monarch; or that Alfred the Great, when he measured his laborious nights with burning candles, had no idea of future gentlemen measuring their idle days with watches. Here is a mine of truth, which, however vigorously it may be worked, is likely to outlast our coal.

But of Mr. Brooke I make a further remark perhaps less warranted by precedent -- namely, that if he had foreknown his speech, it might not have made any great difference. To think with pleasure of his niece's husband having a large ecclesiastical income was one thing -- to make a Liberal speech was another thing; and it is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.

Finally, I have to make a little room for Celia, who has cracked me up several times already, on her own or with the narrator's help. Here's Celia discovering that even Mr Casaubon has his human side (she's contemplating the miniatures of Mr Casaubon's mother and Aunt Julia):
'The sister is pretty,' said Celia, implying that she thought less favourably of Mr Casaubon's mother. It was a new opening to Celia's imagination, that he came of a family who had all been young in their time--the ladies wearing necklaces. (Ch. IX)
Doesn't that capture perfectly the solipsistic attitude of the young towards their elders? I remember my grandmother once saying, quite tartly, that what young people don't realize when they look at 'some old man' on the bus is that he has already done everything they are doing, or are dreaming of doing--'sex and everything!' (Whether Mr Casaubon has sex is a topic for another post.)


Though Middlemarch is full of tenderness towards its people, one feature of George Eliot's writing for which she was justly beloved in her own time was her evocation of the English landscape. Her descriptions of the countryside are suffused with the affection her characters, too, feel for the places that are bound up with our most precious memories, "dear," as she says here, "to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood":
The ride to Stone Court, which Fred and Rosamond took the next morning, lay through a pretty bit of midland landscape, almost all meadows and pastures, with hedgerows still allowed to grow in bushy beauty and to spread out coral fruit for the birds. Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood: the pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and trees leaned whisperingly; the great oak shadowing a bare place in mid-pasture; the high bank where the ash-trees grew; the sudden slope of the old marl-pit making a red background for the burdock; the huddled roofs and ricks of the homestead without a traceable way of approach; the gray gate and fences against the depths of the bordering wood; and the stray hovel, its old, old thatch full of mossy hills and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow such as we travel far to see in later life, and see larger, but not more beautiful. These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls -- the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father's knees while he drove leisurely. (Ch. XII)


Bookphilia said...

AGAIN, I am kicking myself for not yet having read this. I must make time for this asap.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Wait a minute. You took my GE seminar, right? So surely you have read it? You aren't about to disillusion me by telling me that not all students do the assigned reading, are you?

JRussell said...

In the Anatomy of Criticism, Frye comments that Eliot's early novels are influenced by romance, and the later ones by the anatomy, a form he says is "characterized by a great variety of subject-matter and a strong interest in ideas." I've always found that a helpful comment, and it certainly acknowledges the variety of tone and voice you illustrate in Middlemarch.

JaneGS said...

I first read Middlemarch as an undergraduate and I mutilated the book with earmarks. The next time I read it, I kept a journal and transcribed my favorite passages...which turned out to be a big undertaking. My original paperwork wore out a few years ago so I bought myself a new edition last year.

Obviously, I agree that the book is dense with some of the most exquisite writing ever. I remember when I was a twenty-something I gave a copy to one of my brothers who loves Victorian lit also, and in the card that accompanied it, I wrote that it had the "wit of Austen, characters to match anything from Dickens, and the passion of the Brontes, which makes it my favorite novel."