Saturday, July 05, 2008

George Eliot's "Middlemarch"

Reading Middlemarch immediately after The Portrait of a Lady, I was constantly comparing the two novels, and the two masters, in my mind. The crude comparisons came readily--marriage plot, idealistic female protagonists tried by changed circumstances, the great theme of What Makes A Good Life--but the subtler differences of outlook and style I find harder to express to my own satisfaction.

I did find, at the beginning of the novel, Eliot's characters crudely drawn, compared to James's complexity. Wealthy Featherstone's grasping relatives who gather around his deathbed are caricatures imported from Dickens. The Garth family are almost unbelievable in their practical goodness and wisdom. Even Dorothea and Lydgate, passionately and convincingly imagined, fall in with certain types. This aspect of her art is what James described and faulted in an otherwise admiring review in The Atlantic Monthly (May 1885):

We feel in [George Eliot], always, that she proceeds from the abstract to the concrete, that her figures and situations are evolved, as the phrase is, from her moral consciousness, and are only indirectly the products of observations. They are deeply studied and elaborately justified, but they are not seen in the irresponsible plastic way. The world was, first and foremost, for George Eliot, the moral, the intellectual world; the personal spectacle came after; and lovingly, humanly, she regarded it, we constantly feel that she cares for the things she finds in it only so far as they are types. The philosophic door is always open, on her stage, and we are aware that the somewhat cooling draught of ethical purpose draws across it. This constitutes half the beauty of her work; the constant reference to ideas may be an excellent source of one kind of reality--for, after all, the secret of seeing a thing well is not necessarily that you see nothing else. Her preoccupation with the universe helped to make her characters strike you as also belonging to it; it raised the roof, widened the area, of her aesthetic structure. Nothing is finer, in her genius, than the combination of her love of general truth and love of the special case; without this, indeed, we should not have heard of her as a novelist, for the passion of the special case is surely the basis of the storyteller's art . . .

James's evaluation of her art tries for evenhandedness, but it is clear that he values "the special case" over "the general truth." The Portrait of a Lady, published in 1881, nine years after Eliot's novel, is a study of "the special case." I will risk an oversimplification, which has probably been stated better elsewhere: James the novelist is a psychologist, whereas Eliot is a moralist. And it is Eliot's Victorian moralism that James senses as "the somewhat cooling draught of ethical purpose." There is no inherent reason why that ethical purpose should make her rooms feel draughty, instead of fresh and cool, but James here is more sensitive to, more representative of, the changing climate of the times, an aesthetic and moral weather his own art helped to usher in. Living in that changed climate, I find Eliot old-fashioned, but James a contemporary. That is a matter of the quality of my experience reading them, not a matter of the quality of their writing, or of my enjoyment of both writers. A patina of antiquity, as Yvor Winters said of his verse, can be very attractive. 

The titles of the novels suggest another deep difference. Middlemarch, the name of the town in and around which the action takes place, with the exception of a few chapters in Rome,  is subtitled "A study of provincial life." Its gallery of characters are drawn from a deliberate cross section of rural society: from the leisured landed gentry to the complacent manufacturers and poor tenant farmers on the great estates. In contrast, James's novel depicts (with the exception of two English lords) a handful of American expatriates living in Europe. No matter how long or how successfully these expats have settled in Europe, they know and feel themselves to be American, thus foreign, to their chosen habitations. Middlemarch, on the other hand, is a closed society in which newcomers, like Lydgate and Bulstrode, remain suspect. This difference gives the protagonists' search for self-definition a distinct orientation. Isabel Archer's problem is too much liberty, Dorothea's problem too much confinement. 

A related aspect. In The Portrait of a Lady, there is much talk about beautiful, and expensive, objects, but not much calculation of actual sums of money. Money is readily inherited, used, conspired after, but it is as airy as talk. Not so in Middlemarch, where money's grubby influence on suppliants, businessmen, and debtors are made painfully concrete. Money troubles humble the most aspiring of spirits. And the power of money to do good is what concerns Dorothea's conscience after she inherited Casaubon's property. She is happy to give up the fortune in order to marry Will Ladislaw: " We could live quite well on my own fortune--it is too much--seven hundred a year--I want so little--no new clothes--and I will learn what everything costs." Middlemarch calculates not only spiritual costs, but also very material ones, and, seen in this aspect, it appears to encompass more of life, than A Portrait, with its more rarefied atmosphere. 

***

[Will Ladislaw]: "Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere coloured superfices! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment."

*

We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves: Dorothea had early begun to emerge from that stupidity, but yet it had been easier to her to imagine how she would devote herself to Mr. Casaubon, and become wise and strong in his strength and wisdom, than to conceive with that distinctness which is no longer reflection but feeling--an idea wrought back to the directness of sense like the solidity of objects--that he had an equivalent centre of self, whence the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.

*

In that hour she repeated what the merciful eyes of solitude have looked on for ages in the spiritual struggles of man--she besought hardness and coldness and aching weariness to bring her relief from the mysterious incorporeal might of her anguish: she lay on the bare floor and let the night grow cold around her; while her grand woman's frame was shaken by sobs as if she had been a despairing child. 

*

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

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