Category Archives: books

Small, hungry and shivering.

Continuing with my mini-miniseries on the men of Middlemarch, I give you an exemplary passage in which the author explains Casaubon to us. The metaphors she uses to convey the intricacies of his stunted self are many but not too many for me. Even with their being descriptive of a truly pitiable man, my own soul can’t help but “thrill into passionate delight” over George Eliot’s imagination and skill.

He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic; it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying. His experience was of that pitiable kind which shrinks from pity, and fears most of all that it should be known: it was that proud narrow sensitiveness which has not mass enough to spare for transformation into sympathy, and quivers thread-like in small currents of self-preoccupation or at best of an egoistic scrupulosity.

…even his religious faith wavered with his wavering trust in his own authorship, and the consolations of the Christian hope in immortality seemed to lean on the immortality of the still unwritten Key to Mythologies. For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

From the movie I’ve not seen.

If Dorothea could only have seen into Casusbon’s mind and heart the way his creator does, then she would have realized that he is not a man prepared to be a husband — maybe. But more on Dorothea later.

My tendency to be flippant or dismissive of Casaubon flows from his being fictional. (In the earlier version of this post I wrote fictitious, but then I realized that fictitious connotes false to me, which is reason enough not to use that word for a book character who is drawn so clearly in the shape of reality.) We can examine him closely and analyze each of his parts and guess at his destiny without being gossips. He is an archetype of one form of Lost Soul, and thinking about him and his engagement with other characters can enrich our understanding of humanity, and perhaps even instruct us in love.

Celia hasn’t the ability to debate the “notions” and idealism that are leading her sister toward marriage to Casaubon, but her instincts tell her that something is not right about this “death’s head warmed over.” That her beloved sister is planning to join her life with his disturbs her greatly.

“O Mrs. Cadwallader, I don’t think it can be nice to marry a man with a great soul.”

“Well, my dear, take warning. You know the look of one now: when the next comes and wants to marry you, don’t you accept him.”

Men of Middlemarch

Before buying an audio recording of Middlemarch I listened to many samples from different readers, most of them women. I chose the one I did because I didn’t mind the voice and diction of the reader, and it was less than half the price of some of the newer ones. It happens to be read by the English actor Gabriel Woolf, and I had not listened for a half-hour before I was very glad to have accidentally chosen this recording. The voices and Middlemarch audiobook cover artaccents and even chuckles he gives to the various characters are wonderful — and with so many interesting men as main characters, it now seems quite the best thing to have a male voice to bring them alive.

The reviews point out that this is a “vintage” recording, and that the production quality may not be up to snuff. There are actually some background noises occasionally that don’t fit the time period, but they didn’t bother me. Woolf trips over a word now and then, too, but his overall dramatic gifts more than compensate for his lack of constancy.

And speaking of flaws, our Middlemarch characters certainly have them. Eliot delves deep into their personalities and motivations, and knows what primitive weaknesses are the reasons for their peculiar behaviors as though she were God Himself. And like God, she urges us to be kind and to forgive.

I already shared one excerpt that gives a glimpse into Will Ladislaw’s character. (On a side note, why do you think that he is always called “Will” or ” Will Ladislaw,” while most of the men, including Lydgate, are referred to by only their last name? Is it age, or social standing? Fred Vincy is also in this category of naming, and he is like Will in that he isn’t established in a profession or even a direction yet.)

Some of the people in the town are more disagreeable than others, but then they might be ridiculous in their pride, and make me laugh; it’s easier to be patient with them, especially when I don’t have them in my own real life. (Mrs. Cadwallader is best left in someone else’s neighborhood!) Lydgate the young doctor takes himself too seriously to be lovable in that way, though, and I tend to not like him. In talking about this man Eliot writes:

…character too is a process and an unfolding. The man was still in the making, as much as the Middlemarch doctor and immortal discoverer, and there were both virtues and faults capable of shrinking or expanding. The faults will not, I hope, be a reason for the withdrawl of your interest in him. Among our valued friends is there not some one or other who is a little too self-confident and disdainful; whose distinguished mind is a little spotted with commonness; who is a little pinched here and protuberant there with native prejudices; or whose better energies are liable to lapse down the wrong channel under the influence of transient solicitations? …. Our vanities differ as our noses do: all conceit is not the same conceit, but varies in correspondence with the minutiae of mental make in which one of us differs from another. Lydgate’s conceit was the arrogant sort, never simpering, never impertinent, but massive in its claims and benevolently contemptuous. He would do a great deal for noodles, being sorry for them, and feeling quite sure that they could have no power over him.

Noodle was 19th-century slang for “dummy.” I’m afraid my own attitude toward Lydgate might fall into the category of “benevolently contemptuous,” and I hate that, so here’s hoping I can develop more real sympathy for him soon. He didn’t know how fast he would get into deep water when he stepped into the pond of Middlemarch life!

photo credit: Pippin

Middlemarch – Ladislaw’s force of unreason.

One Saturday evening Will Ladislaw is thinking about the foolishness of his current situation, in which he has taken work in the town near to where our heroine Mrs. Casaubon lives, because of his feelings for that woman “for ever enthroned in his soul.” But he has been forbidden by Dorothea’s jealous husband to visit their home. So, “he could hardly ever see her.”

His thoughts are going irritably round and round on this subject when, “suddenly reflecting that the morrow would be Sunday, he determined to go to Lowick Church to see her.” It’s not his parish, and his presence would annoy Casaubon certainly, but he reasons,

“It is not true that I go to annoy him, and why should I not go to see Dorothea? Is he to have everything to himself and be always comfortable? Let him smart a little, as other people are obliged to do. I have always liked the quaintness of the church and congregation; besides, I know the Tuckers. I shall go into their pew.”

Having silenced Objection by force of unreason, Will walked to Lowick as if he had been on the way to Paradise, crossing Halsell Common and skirting the woods, where the sunlight fell broadly under the budding boughs, bringing out the beauties of moss and lichen, and fresh green growths piercing the brown. Everything seemed to know that it was Sunday, and to approve of his going to Lowick Church. Will easily felt happy when nothing crossed his humour, and by this time the thought of vexing Mr. Casaubon had become rather amusing to  him, making his face break into its merry smile, pleasant to see as the breaking of sunshine on the water — though the occasion was not exemplary…. Will went along… chanting a little, as he made scenes of what would happen in church and coming out….The words were not exactly a hymn, but they certainly fitted his Sunday experience….

…. Sometimes, when he took off his hat, shaking his head backward, and showing his delicate throat as he sang, he looked like an incarnation of the spring whose spirit filled the air — a bright creature, abundant in uncertain promises.

This is one of a thousand passages in Middlemarch that so delightfully convey the personality and the feelings of one of the characters. I wish that I could transcribe a score of them just because I admire so much Eliot’s art. In this case Will is to himself in happy concord with even the weather and the season, and with the landscape that the author paints with a few perfect phrases. I think that Eliot is a little bit in love with Will Ladislaw, for how else could she make me fall in love with him?

The last phrase, though, comparing Will and springtime, is suddenly ominous, because, as we all know, the weather is unpredictable at this time of year. And the spirit of spring — I am as susceptible to its easy promises as anyone.

I did read this novel aloud with my husband 15 years ago, an acquaintance that was too shallow and distant for me to retain more than vague impressions. This time, on my own, I’m more engaged and enraptured, but still, I don’t want to take a year to read as thoroughly and meditatively as this book seems to warrant. So I’m glad Arti proposed two months, and I look forward to the remaining weeks and stories.

photo credit: Pippin

Slipping from the tedious plane.

I was telling Mr. Greenjeans about how An American Childhood by Annie Dillard encouraged me in my writing. He comes from the author’s hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which is the backdrop for her growing-up adventures told from her vividly revealing point of view. I took the book off the shelf to put aside for him, and turned the pages a while, seeing passages I’d marked long ago.

Hers is a unique point of view, of course, as each of us is an unrepeatable individual looking out on our world. Whether it is her perspective that is unusual as well, or only her ability to convey it in words, I don’t know. I do know that few children today have the liberty of youth that Dillard describes as regularly offering periods of time so deep and distraction-free that you can “lose yourself.” In a chapter on her love of books and reading, she tells how she felt:

The actual world is a kind of tedious plane where dwells, and goes to school, the body, the boring body which houses the eyes to read the books and houses the heart the books enflame. The very boring body seems to require an inordinately big, very boring world to keep it up, a world where you have to spend far too much time, have to do time like a prisoner, always looking for a chance to slip away, to escape back home to books, or to escape back home to any concentration–fanciful, mental, or physical–where you can lose your self at last. Although I was hungry all the time, I could not bear to hold still and eat; it was too dull a thing to do, and had no appeal either to courage or to imagination. The blinding sway of their inner lives makes children immoral. They find things good insofar as they are thrilling, insofar as they render them ever more feverish and breathless, ever more limp and senseless on the bed.

-Annie Dillard, in An American Childhood