Monday, 7 November 2016

Middlemarch

Personally, I blame Donald Trump. With the evening news filled with American election stories we ended, in disgust, the one last vestige of our regular television watching: the 6 O'Clock news, which used to run while we sat companionably on the couch, and sipped wine, and ate dinner. We began to watch videos instead. The Lord of the Rings, extended version, all of it, bit by bit. Then George Eliot: Daniel Deronda, and Middlemarch.

And I was smitten once more by the work which the Guardian names as the greatest British novel of all time. This adaptation of Middlemarch is a six part mini series, shot in 1994, and it does, superbly, all those things the BBC is so good at: casting, costumes, scripting, editing, lighting, acting and directing. We saw the last couple of hours last night, after driving home from Winton, and I was a bit disappointed that it was over, so I found my copy, the Penguin paperback which I bought, new, for my class on the Victorian novel back in 1972.

I've read this copy perhaps 3 or 4 times, but not for at least a decade. My name is written on the flyleaf in some unknown female hand, and again in Clemency's familiar one; there's a story there if only I could remember what it is. There are underlinings I made back in the day for the purposes of some long forgotten essay. Paperback books have a use-by date which would be, looking at this one, about 40 years, I'd say.  The glue on the spine has dried out and is powdering which means that  the front cover and the first few pages are falling off. The paper is yellowing around the edges and down the centre, but, despite the care I'm having to take, I'm reading it, even though I have the complete novels of George Eliot on my Kindle (cost $0.0) where the pages are brighter and the typeface cleaner. It really is a wreck, with no value, and no use other than to fill up about 2 inches of shelf space. But the words it contains are soul building and entertaining and challenging.

When commentators refer to George Eliot almost all of them mention her looks and her libido of which she had, apparently, not much and quite a bit respectively. Par for the course for many writers, I would have thought, but a defining issue only for the greatest woman writer of the era. Her father, recognising that her chances of making a good marriage were not great, gave her as best an education as he could manage, and she lived a life  of intellectual accomplishment in company with some of the brightest and best minds of the Victorian era. She managed to scandalize pretty much everybody and produced a shelf full of wonderful writing. Middlemarch, her greatest work, was published exactly 100 years before I bought it. It has a complex plot and characters who are intricately nuanced and so believable that Dorothea and Rosamond and Rev'd Casaubon and Will Ladislaw and  Mr. Brook and Nicholas Bulstrode and Mary Garth are all as real to me, more real in some instances, than many historical people. Her prose, as it must, seems convoluted and dated to the modern eye, but give it a few pages for familiarity and it reveals itself in all its deft and clever balance.

Mary Ann Evans, as George Eliot was born, or Marian Lewes as she sometimes called herself in the 20 years of one of her unconventional relationships, was an outsider; someone who didn't fit. Her novels are filled with such people, particularly women, struggling to find a place for themselves undefined by the powerful men who surround them. She is knowledgeable about politics, religion, literature, the classics. She is interested in the power of birth, rank and class, and of money and how technology and the rise of new professions was changing English society.   Her erudition is everywhere on display, as is her eye for telling details of speech and manner. Her wit is deliciously understated  

"...but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them."

This is as good as the English novel gets. Better, in fact, says the clever folk at the guardian. Thank you Donald Trump.  

1 comment:

Merv said...

The couch? For shame. I thought we were the only ones who did that.