Sunday 13 May 2018

Middlemarch: Book Six: The Widow and the Wife

[Continuing a series on Middlemarch, Book by Book:]

Rereading Middlemarch, indeed any novel, throws one into communication with one's earlier self. I used to love chapter 54, Dorothea and Will's sad parting, their slowly turning to marble in one another's presence, while their hearts were conscious and their eyes were yearning... Now I respond quite differently, want to hurry on. The feelings, as Brookner says in Fraud, wither somewhat in the middle years.

Will seems very much a less sympathetic figure, and the chapter has bathetic elements I hadn't previously noted. Altogether the parting feels stagy and artificial, as if Eliot were deliberately performing an exercise in this kind of writing. At one point Will is said to require 'a narrative to make him understand [Dorothea's] present feeling'. This is close to being metafictional.


Caleb Garth, land agent and Mary's father, is an interesting character - said to be based on George Eliot's own father. Not only is he endearing personally, but also, for Eliot, politically:
It must be remembered that by 'business' Caleb never meant money transactions, but the skilful application of labour. (Ch. 56)

The indebtedness to Scott is made clear in chapter 57's epigraph, a sonnet by Eliot that celebrates her childhood love of Waverley and Scott himself, who sent, from 'far away', 'this wealth of joy and noble grief'. We must leave such books behind, she says - somehow 'In lines that thwart like portly spiders ran' (the grammar of that line is slightly muddy) we still live the book, still in our own lives write the tale day by day.


Will Ladislaw is once more presented less than sympathetically in chapter 61, in his confrontation with Bulstrode. How could I have missed these things on first reading? On first reading, Will was for me the hero of Middlemarch. But now? Now I see he is 'too arrogantly merciless towards a man of sixty, who was making efforts at retrieval when time had rendered them vain'.

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