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12 February 2016

Classics Club | Middlemarch by George Eliot, Book I - Miss Brooke

I've decided to tackle Middlemarch by George Eliot as part of the Classics Club's year-long Women's Classic Literature Event. I'm reading it one book at a time because I have previously had some difficulty with Victorian social/realistic fiction and I wanted to give this book the fair attention I've been told it deserves.

Book 1 took me about a month to read. I enjoyed reading it while I was sitting down with the book in my hands, but I also found myself easily distracted by other books and whatever else was going on in the house.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Book 1: Miss Brooke (and Prelude)

The novel starts off with a discussion of Saint Theresa (Teresa) of Ávila, a passionate religious scholar/reformer in the 16th century. The narrator goes on to compare this book's titular character, Dorothea Brooke, with Saint Theresa. Dorothea takes her faith seriously and would like to make a real study of it, beyond what she's expected to do as a well brought-up young woman; the difference between her and the saint is that Dorothea doesn't feel she has the freedom to pursue her religious studies freely or passionately.

A more extreme way of putting it is that Dorothea might have been perfectly happy offering herself up as a martyr or otherwise suffering in hopes of attaining holiness, if only she had lived in Catholic Spain about 3 centuries previous. As it is, she does as much as she can to deprive herself of pleasure because of this religious fervor, which makes her a particularly odd character among her peers. She dresses plainly and avoids frivolity of any kind, even going so far as to declare that she'll give up riding her horse simply because she enjoys it too much!

St. Teresa of Ávila
François Gérard

- - -

This is all in contrast to her younger sister, Celia, who is not generally considered as intelligent (or beautiful) as Dorothea, but who does at least seem seem to desire the expected feminine life of marriage and motherhood. There is a scene in which Celia convinces Dorothea to let her wear their mother's jewelry (the girls being orphaned and living with their uncle), where Dorothea acts very high-and-mighty about personal ornamentation but can't resist taking just a few particularly nice pieces. Celia is hurt by Dorothea's judgement of her vanity and is compelled to point out her sister's own hypocrisy.

They later make up after this fight, but this pattern of their relationship continues throughout the book: Dorothea makes an effort to be pious and ends up insulting others in the process, which Celia notices and comments on sarcastically in a kind of self-defense. I don't have a sister so I don't know whether that kind of relationship is typical, but I did enjoy all the little nuances of their interactions/conversations. They clearly care about each other but also find each other rather incomprehensible in some ways.

Two Sisters
Théodore Chassériau
(representing Dorothea and Celia)

- - -

Sisterly stuff aside, I was particularly interested in Dorothea's relationships with her two suitors, Sir James Chettam (a neighboring landowner who has been trying to court her for some time) and Edward Casaubon (a middle aged clergyman scholar). From what I've read -- and I did end up following along with some previous online book club stuff to help me get through it -- most people are of the opinion that Dorothea made an obviously terrible choice in marrying Casaubon. Any modern reader with a tiny bit of romance in her soul could be expected to see Chettam as the obvious choice: he even brought her a puppy at one point... be still, my heart!

But I have to say that I sympathize with Dorothea's choice of Casaubon, even if it is obviously naïve from an outsider's persepective. She sees him not as a lover or even as a provider/protector, like women were (are?) expected to see their husbands, but as a teacher, as a kind of socially acceptable conduit to greater knowledge that would usually be denied to her on account of her sex. She focuses so much on her future studies of Greek and Hebrew (motivated purely by her desire to help her husband with his big "Key to All Mythologies" project, surely) that she fails to consider her other needs -- and as much as she would like to deny herself these things, she does need affection, small enjoyments, and a purpose of her own.

- - -

I have to say that the switch from Dorothea's story to the lives of the other characters was a bit jarring for me. I'd assumed that since this book was titled "Miss Brooke" that it would all be about her. But nope!

We are also introduced to Dr. Lydgate, a newcomer in town; Rosamond Vincy, the local beauty who catches Dr. Lydgate's eye (and who also happens to be the mayor's daughter); Fred Vincy, Rosamond's ne'er-do-well brother; their elderly uncle, Mr. Featherstone, from whom they hope to inherit despite lack of blood relation (their mother's sister was one of his wives); and Mr. Featherstone's caretaker/neice, Mary Garth, who has caught the romantic attentions of Fred Vincy.

Princess Sophie of Sweden
Franz Xaver Winterhalter
(representing Rosamond Vincy)

Parsing out this who's-who of all the semi-related families took a bit of effort, not least because there are a handful of other characters that also make appearances in the chapters of this first book and I kept losing track of which person was doing what. Really, the cast of characters is quite large already and we're only in the first book.

- - -

Mary Garth was perhaps the most charming of the characters introduced in the second half of this book. She's practical and honest (sometimes disparagingly so) and has the kind of dry wit that reminded me of the titular character of Daria, that animated show on MTV in the late 1990's. I couldn't help but imagine her delivering all her lines in that same deadpan, almost depressive tone of voice.

Porträt der Madame Leblanc
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
(representing Mary Garth)

Mary has even somehow managed to convince Fred to bring her gifts of books, despite her uncle insisting that he stop encouraging her reading habit. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing what becomes of her. But -- despite her obvious affection for him -- she's already decided that she couldn't marry Fred if he asked, though she doesn't give a real reason for this decision (and he hasn't asked anyway; the whole affair seems to be an invention of Rosemond's imagination).

- - -

I have to say that the edition I'm reading -- the Barnes & Noble Classics version -- seems riddled with typos, which has been a bit distracting. I can't comment on the quality of the endnotes/comments as I haven't bothered to read them.

I've also been taking notes in the margins of this book, which is something I haven't done since my undergrad days. I forgot how satisfying underlining and commenting on particular passages can be. One thing I didn't expect was how humorous some of the narrator's statements have been. Eliot has a sharp wit.

Have you read Middlemarch yet? What did you think of the goings-on in Book 1?

(No spoilers, if you please; even though this book is nearly 150 years old, I have somehow managed to avoid knowing very much about its plot so far.)

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