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55 Classics Review #15 – Middlemarch By George Eliot


I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.

It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.

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Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.

– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships

– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.

– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”

– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

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Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.

The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.

Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.

The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art

The Railway Children By Edith Nesbit

Neil Gaiman On The Value Of The Library

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Author Quotes: Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary


“Publishing other people’s work is a hell of a lot more enjoyable than publishing your own. Publishing your own work is fraught with complicated, even tortured, feelings. Invariably you believe that you’ve failed. That you could have done better. That if you were given another month or another year, you would have achieved what you set out to do.
Actually, it’s not always that bad.
But usually it is.
Publishing someone else’s work, though, is uncomplicated. You can be an unabashed champion of that work. You can finish reading it, or finish editing it, and know that it’s done, that people will love it, and that you can’t wait to print it. That feeling is strong, and it’s simple, and it’s pure.”

– Dave Eggers, Introduction to the new collected volume The Best Of McSweeney’s

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I’m sure anyone that writes fiction and takes this action seriously experiences at least fleeting questions of whether everyone else with think they are crazy for what came from their mind. It is somehow easy to feel, simultaneously, a very deep human connection with a story and a fear that no one else will connect with the same elements. It’s much easier to read a new manuscript, know that it’s wonderful, and instantly validate it because we are not responsible for it and because we have already made a human connection with the author. Two people that grasp the value of a work is all that is needed to be sure of its merit.

I recently self-published an odd little children’s book that I have come to love. Self-publishing has been a really fun and positive experience and using Kickstarter to fund it provided a lot of community support that made all the difference, but having very little outside editing and really only printing on my own approval made me all the more apprehensive about the reception of the story.

People have finally started receiving and reading the book with a lot of positive responses, but the most impactful came last night, when my aunt contacted me and expressed a deep understanding of the simple story. Having at least one person grasp the human elements makes all the difference.

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Excerpts from my aunt’s response to Wandlung.

“Got your book today. Read it five times to six different people. . .It took me until the third read to really warm up to it partly because I like happy endings. Yet, in life, especially when our lives interact with others, we can’t always expect a happy ending. Sometimes friendships are only for a season and we go our separate ways. It’s not always a pain we acknowledge or even stop to properly grieve.”

Mary Berry and What She Expects From Her Father


“It is hard to imagine now that until coming back to live permanently in Henry County in 1964 we had lived in Europe, California and New York City, with stays in Kentucky between those moves. We moved to Lanes Landing, where my parents live now, when I was 7 and my brother, Den, was 3. . .

Daddy was encouraged to seek his fame and fortune elsewhere; in fact, he was told that coming home would ruin his career. I don’t have to imagine, however, the great happiness that was his when he knew that he could come home because I experienced that. When I was away at school, for instance, I don’t think anyone was thinking that I was blowing a shot at a brilliant career by returning home. Coming home was not encouraged by any influential person in my life except my family. And this is where my unending debt begins in my heart and in my memory. . .

I was asked once what it was like to be a Berry child. I answered that it was fine except for the constant humiliation. I believe that I went along with my father’s plans for us very agreeably until I was 12 or 13, the age when I think many children realize that their parents need guidance.

Daddy had come home to live and farm. He bought a rocky hillside farm overlooking the Kentucky River. He and my mother have added some acreage over the years and the place has been their home and their fascination ever since. . .

I went right along with all of this until I was old enough to have a reputation to protect. That coincided with the addition of a composting privy to the rest of an ever-more-embarrassing way of life.

Unfortunately for me, my father didn’t understand at all that he should. . .never mention the composting privy to a journalist. I was in a difficult predicament. I never really thought that my father was wrong about anything. In fact, the reasons for the things we did at home were talked about all of the time, and I understood and even honored those reasons. But, to have details about your composting privy reported in the Louisville Courier-Journal was just too much to be borne. . .

The very public privy opened the floodgates and suddenly I knew how abused I was: no television, no junk food, no trips to amusement parks, and I had to WORK outside in the dirt. And, my father was always protesting something: wars, dams, strip-mining, airports, etc.

Well, to make a long story short, I expect that by the time I left for college there must have been a general sigh of relief. Some of the freshman English classes at the college I attended were reading The Memory of Old Jack, a novel written by my father. I had not read it before I left home. In fact, I had read almost nothing of Daddy’s by then. He read things to us that he was working on and I guess I thought that was plenty. I suppose I experienced positive peer pressure at school because girls in my dorm were reading The Memory of Old Jack. So I read The Memory of Old Jack, myself. That book gave me back my home and it gave me the chance to make amends with my father and then to find out that no amends were necessary. . .

A heartbreaking part of Old Jack’s story is his estrangement from his daughter Clara, who, like me, had wanted something else, something better. I called my father when I finished the book and asked, “Am I Clara?” I remember being reassured by the phone call. I still have the letter he wrote me a few days after we talked. He said that he was moved by my question and told me that of course I was not Clara. The letter is long and beautiful and I treasure it because of its kindness, its good sense, its understanding of a flawed young girl. . .

Trouble has come to me in my life as it does to all and I have made mistakes. The gift that my father gave me so many years ago was the knowledge that I live in his love, and if forgiveness is needed it has already been given. What greater gift could a parent give a child? Daddy has kept alive in my head — even in the worst of times and in the face of awful news — that if we actively choose it over and over everyday, we can indeed live in the world of affection and membership that he honors in his life and his stories.”

 

– Mary Berry-Smith, from Wendell And Me, published in the May/June 2013 issue of Edible Louisville Magazine (emphasis mine).

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I find so many details about this story life-giving, but the real solidifying agent for my respect of Wendell Berry is that his child knows and can articulate why she respects him so greatly as to devote her adult life and the family she started to following in his footsteps. Many great leaders of men have inspired the masses while leaving wreckage at home, but those devoted eternally to their families carry a certain weight that should not be overlooked.

As a parent myself, the greatest impact of this story is the fact that above all else in their relationship, Berry’s daughter has been moved by a realization that she has always existed in her father’s love, affection, and forgiveness. She came to realize that, whether she knew it or not, he cherished her, delighted in her personality, and was always ready to pardoned her missteps.

Things like obedience are valuable. Social skills and a drive to learn are developmentally key. But after about 18 years, obedience becomes completely obsolete in the parenting relationship. Social skills and learning generally fall out of our influence range. So when my daughter it 25 or 30, what is my deepest desire for our relationship? The answer is intimacy.

More than I want my daughters to make great decisions and live to the fullest, I want them to know that any failures or tragedies that befall them can be safely confided in me, without any negative repercussions. The deepest, underpinning goal is that the relationship may always be authentic, open, and capable of enduring all things.

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From the text of The Memory Of Old Jack.

“In all their minds his voice lies beneath a silence. And in the hush of it they are aware of something that passed from them and now returns: his stubborn biding with them to the end, his keeping of faith with them who would live after him, and what perhaps none of them has yet thought to call his gentleness, his long gentleness toward them and toward this place where they are at work, they know that his memory holds them in common knowledge and common loss, the like of him will not soon live again in this world, and they will not forget him.”

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!


We see it almost every day. Whether its a government cover-up, corporate fraud, or a religious group’s controversial public statements, we are bombarded more than every by a constant stream of articles and headlines about the latest controversies. Thanks to social media, we are becoming the ones who are most responsible for determining what issues gain steam and become headlines. I’m just as guilty as anyone else of feeling required to chime in and make sure other people hear my opinions on the current big issue. We find it necessary to identify ourselves as being for or against these brands.

Brands, you may ask? Why yes, every political candidate, Hollywood star, and non-profit organization is, at its core, simply a brand. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the social media world of likes, retweets, and reposting sensationalized articles. We recognize and either endorse or condemn nearly every public entity as a brand to be consumed or blacklisted in our modern online context.

But what most of us really want is to make the world a better place, right? I mean, isn’t that what we think we want somewhere deep down? Isn’t that in some dysfunctional way connected to the root motivation of many of our pins and tweets and likes and posts? How can we begin to actually make this world a better place to live? By liking statuses and reposting inspirational memes?

Here’s the fact:  We are hiding behind our ideas of good and bad when we should be acting upon them. We’re trying to decide what to endorse when we should be asking ourselves how to take action and relate.

Relate? Yes, as in a relationship, where two beings enter into actually knowing one another personally and, often, in person. True, this does require more work than scrolling through a newsfeed and often it will entail sharing our own hopes, dreams, mistakes, and brokenness, but I will promise you something. If you do this often, it will prove to be worth your time.

What if we stopped investing so much of our time into reading articles about group’s stances and started reaching out to tell our friends what encourages us about them? What if we stopped trying to decide where to point the finger and started lifting one to help a new neighbor move in? Supporting a non-profit that helps the hungry in the third world is really important and hugely valuable, but helping the homeless in your own city has a greater impact on you and builds an actual, ongoing relationship between you and the people your helping.

So get out there! Be a great dad. Be a great mom. Be a great dad or mom to someone even if you have no children of your own. Make meals for people you don’t know well. It’s okay that it might be awkward the first time. Share a beer on your porch with the guy next door after work. Write a letter, on paper, and mail it to someone you highly value. Start investing into the real people all around you.

You might just find that pointing out the bad has never been as rewarding as doing the good.

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Related:

– On the dangers of being Optimistic

– Poetry and Children and War

– How does the Common Core Standard hold up?