November 19, 2009

Look Who's Talking in Middlemarch: Quiz Show Version

Sorting through a file of old teaching materials for Middlemarch this morning, I came across a worksheet I put together a few years ago when I assigned the novel for a course on 'close reading.' One of my goals was to help the students see the language of the novel up close, to appreciate how it hums with life, for all the philosophical, historical, and other wisdom it carries. One particular aspect of Middlemarch that gets more fun (and more impressive) the closer you look is the dialogue. Andrew Davies, who adapted the novel for the BBC production, talks in the DVD special features about just how good GE's dialogue is: "her posh characters aren't just posh, they're posh in different, distinct ways," he notes. Back in 1871, John Blackwood wrote to GE, on reading the second vlume, "I had quite forgotten Mr Brooke, but I knew his voice the moment he came into the room." In 1919, Virginia Woolf wrote, "one can muse and speculate about the greater number of George Eliot's characters and find, even in the least important, a roominess and margin where those qualities lurk which she has no call to bring from their obscurity." Hoping to stir up some appreciation for the craft involved in making characters speak, as it were, for themselves, I put together a mix-and-match exercise, asking the students first to see if they could identify the speaker in each case, and then to see if they could identify how they "knew [the] voice"--was it the tone, the diction, the sentence structure, the subject, the emotion, or lack of it? (It's worth considering which speakers sound like or unlike each other, too, and how that hints at possible relationships between them.) Think you know your Middlemarchers? Give it a try! Be sure to say something about what gives it away.


A. “I am glad you have told me this, Mr Lydgate. I feel sure I can help a little. I have some money, and don’t know what to do with it—that is often an uncomfortable thought to me. How happy you must be, to know things that you feel sure will do great good! I wish I could awake with that knowledge every morning. There seems to be so much trouble taken that one can hardly see the good of!”

B.“You can, if you please, read the letter. But I may as well say beforehand, that I must decline the proposal it contains to pay a visit here. I trust I may be excused for desiring an interval of complete freedom from such distractions as have been hitherto inevitable, and especially from guests whose desultory vivacity makes their presence a fatigue.”

C. “You talk as if you had never known any youth. It is monstrous—as if you had had a vision of Hades in your childhood, like the boy in the legend. You have been brought up in some of those horrible notions that choose the sweetest women to devour—like Minotaurs. And now you will go and be shut up in that stone prison at Lowick: you will be buried alive. It makes me savage to think of it! I would rather never have seen you than think of you with such a prospect.”

D. “Young ladies don’t understand political economy, you know. I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. There is a book, now. I took in all the new ideas at one time—human perfectibility, now. But some say, history moves in circles; and that may be very well argued; I have argued it myself. The fact is, human reason may carry you a little too far—over the hedge, in fact. It carried me a good way at one time; but I saw it would not do. I pulled up; I pulled up in time. But not too hard. I have always been in favour of a little theory: we must have Thought; else we shall be landed back in the dark ages. But talking of books, there is Southey’s ‘Peninsular War.’ I am reading that of a morning. You know Southey?”

E. “We are all disappointed, my dear. Young people should think of their families in marrying. I set a bad example—married a poor clergyman, and made myself a pitiable object among the De Bracy’s—obliged to get my coals by strategem, and pray to heaven for my salad oil. However, Casaubon has money enough; I must do him that justice. As to his blood, I suppose the family quarterings are three cuttle-fish sable and a commentator rampant.”

F. “Excuse me, mamma—I wish you would not say, ‘the pick of them.’”

G. “Lord, you made a pretty thing out of me, and I got but little. I’ve often thought since, I might have done better by telling the old woman that I’d found her daughter and her grandchild: it would have suited my feelings better; I’ve got a soft place in my heart. But you’ve buried the old lady by this time, I suppose—it’s all one to her now. And you’ve got your fortune out of that profitable business which had such a blessing on it. You’ve taken to being a nob, buying land, being a country bashaw. Still in the Dissenting line, eh? Still godly? Or taken to the Church as more genteel?”

H. “[James] says it is abominable, and not like a gentleman. And there never was a better judge than James. It is as if Mr Casaubon wanted to make people believe that you would wish to marry Mr Ladislaw—which is ridiculous. Only James says it was to hinder Mr Ladislaw from wanting to marry you for your money—just as if he ever would think of making you an offer. Mrs Cadwallader said you might as well marry an Italian with white mice! But I must just go and look at baby.”

I. “I could not love a man who is ridiculous. Fred has sense and knowledge enough to make him respectable, if he likes, in some good worldly business, but I can never imagine him preaching and exhorting, and pronouncing blessings. His being a clergyman would be only for gentility’s sake, and I think there is nothing more contemptible than such imbecile gentility.”

J. “You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not always be saying, There’s this and there’s that—if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is—I wouldn’t give twopence for him—whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn’t do well what he undertook to do.”

K. “I just do what comes before me to do. I can't help people's ignorance and spite, any more than Vesalius could. It isn't possible to square one's conduct to silly conclusions which nobody can foresee.”

L. “I am perhaps talking rather superfluously; but a man likes to assume superiority over himself, by holding up his bad example and sermonising on it.”

M. “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.”


1. Mr Brooke
2. Dorothea Brooke
3. Celia Brooke
4. Mrs Cadwallader
5. Mr Casaubon
6. Will Ladislaw
7. Tertius Lydgate
8. Rosamond Vincy
9. Raffles
10. Mr Farebrother
11. Mary Garth
12. Caleb Garth
13. the narrator

The first one to get them all right wins--hmmm--I guess a copy of Middlemarch would be redundant.


JRussell said...

So there I was doing the quiz, and thinking, "A couple of these are a bit tricky; I'm a George Eliot scholar and I might not get them all" - and then I scrolled down to the answers!! Which reminds me of a test where I gave a matching question with the answers on a separate sheet for easy reference, and my best student came to the front of the room looking very uncomfortable and said, "Excuse me, you put your marking sheet in my test."
Years ago I used to give students I.A. Richards style practical criticism exercises to take home, but now with the LION poetry database they would be able to find out who wrote them in seconds. Same with this exercise and the virginia e-text, which I used to make sure I had got them all right! But I'm not expecting a prize, especially not a copy of Middlemarch, unless of course it is a first edition.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Ah, but it's mix-and-match, you see: the speakers are not in ORDER (necessarily).

JRussell said...

Same with my test: I always put the answers in alphabetical order. To be honest, I doubt I would have got the last three without having the list of speakers to refer to. But it is a few years since I taught Middlemarch. Now, if you wanted to set a quiz on Vanity Fair...

Classical Bookworm said...

Hi! I've been listening to Middlemarch (read by the excellent Nadia May) so this was quite enjoyable. It's hard to separate the content from the language, but there's no mistaking Ladislaw's passion, Casaubon's dry-as-a-bone formality, Brooke's vacillating, Celia's rapid-fire gossiping, or Rosamond's image-consciousness.

For the glory, then: A2, B5, C6, D1, E4, F8, G9, H3, I11, J12, K7, L10, M13.

Rohan Maitzen said...

We have a winner! Congratulations, Sylvia! I bet that listening (rather than reading silently) is a great way to really feel the differences between the voices. I agree that the content and the style really merges, which is part of what I admire. I also find it striking that Mr Farebrother sounds quite a bit like the narrator (e.g. moving from the individual case to the generalization) and that both Will and Dorothea have a tendency towards exclamation points. Celia, on the other hand, has that distinctive "staccato" style that the narrator often remarks on.

Classical Bookworm said...

Very good point about the audio making it easier to distinguish the voices. Nadia May acts out all the characters so the differences are obvious.

I suppose Farebrother is the character who is the most "above it all"—or to put it another way, the least corrupt and/or conflicted—so I guess it's no wonder if he sounds the most like the narrator.