Saturday 5 May 2018

Middlemarch: Books Three and Four

[Part of a series on Middlemarch - Book by Book:]

Was it Barbara Hardy who spoke of Eliot's fondness for setting scenes of disenchantment in the full light of day? Eliot is the poet of disillusionment, and nowhere more so than in chapter 28 of Middlemarch, when the Casaubons return home. It's snowy, it's pitilessly daylit; and Dorothea is assaulted with the full force of her new knowledge. In particular she sees the limitations placed on her on account of her gender: 'the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase' that look like the 'immovable imitations of books'. She wants to be useful, to lead a useful and intellectual life, but she is allowed only 'the gentlewoman's oppressive liberty'. Even now these passages have the power to disturb.

Eliot tries to be evenhanded, or she gives a show of evenhandedness:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea - but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? (Ch. 29)
But what she finds out about Casaubon is devastating: he'll never be possessed, she tells us, by 'the glory we behold' (note the 'we'); his self is 'hungry' and 'shivering'; he is 'scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted'. So much for Casaubon's 'point of view'; one almost feels indignant on his behalf. He's no match for George Eliot - and how great the contrast between the steadily growing Books of Middlemarch, and poor Casaubon's hopeless notebooks. Sometimes a limited view has greater integrity.

One thing worthy of note in Books Three and Four is George Eliot's playing with the narrative conventions beloved of her contemporaries. Old Mr Featherstone's deathbed scene, his venal mourners, and the issues with his will invoke the cliches of, among others, Dickens and Trollope. I'm not sure Eliot does anything with them, other than view them with a superior and slightly mocking eye. But only slightly mocking. The love lives of her characters, for example - she's as much invested in them as is the most innocent reader.

A further point I may have overlooked on my original reading: the care with which Eliot delineates the social classes in the novel. This is most clear at Featherstone's funeral, when Mrs Cadwallader speaks to the Chettams condescendingly of the Vincys. It's a sharp surprise to find that these characters, whom we know so well, not only don't know each other, but wouldn't think or choose to.

Book Four ends with a night scene between Dorothea and Casaubon that prefigures the relationship between Isabel Archer and Gilbert Osmond. The connections between Middlemarch and The Portrait of a Lady are fruitful.

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