If I were not going on vacation next week, I would likely spend it writing about Middlemarch (1871-2), puzzling over it, whining about it. Perhaps I would be wise enough to minimize the whining, but a week of posts would be a struggle, and a good challenge. Middlemarch is a complex book, the most complex Victorian novel I have read.
I keep comparing it, for better and worse, with a couple of its peers, Madame Bovary (1856) and Anna Karenina (1877). The novels of Flaubert and Eliot are like theatrical foils – Flaubert’s exquisitely worked surface makes Eliot’s sentences look plain; Eliot’s moral sensibility makes Flaubert look as hollow as I fear he is. Anna Karenina serves as a nice fusion – rich in sensory detail, yet ethically serious.
Middlemarch and Madame Bovary are complex in such different ways. Speaking roughly, Flaubert works from the outside in – the rich and surprising descriptions of objects and places create a set of images around the characters which become part of the structure of the novel. Eliot moves from the inside out, not just thoroughly describing the thoughts and feelings of her characters but employing recurring images and metaphors that are associated with the characters but are not part of the physical world of the novel.
For example, Eliot’s varied water metaphor:
In this way, the early months of marriage often are times of critical tumult – whether that of a shrimp-pool or of deeper waters – which afterwards subsides into cheerful peace. (Ch. 20)
Eliot is describing the early days of Dorothea Brooke’s marriage to Casaubon. The character is in an apartment in Rome; the startling shrimp-pool is not something Dorothea has seen or thought of. It belongs entirely to the narrator, who repeatedly returns to water when she is spending time with Dorothea, and who uses water to link scenes that are scattered throughout the novel. Or so it appears to me – as if I have tracked through them!
In Madame Bovary, the shrimp-pool would be forbidden – the metaphors have to come from the outside, from something the characters experience. Thus, the recurring horse theme in Madame Bovary, which, like Eliot’s water theme, creates surprising correspondences among otherwise disconnected scenes. But Flaubert’s horses are external, “real,” while the water is all in the imagination of Eliot the narrator.
Both devices for converting imagery into structure are artful, and both can be as complex as the writer can make them. Somehow, though, I am more comfortable with the sensory images, with Flaubert. More experience with that kind of fiction, I guess. I do not understand the supposedly intrusive Eliot narrator so well, how she functions.
That narrator, the wise and serious aphoristic Eliot, also violates every Flaubertian principle, and thank goodness. The last thing I want to read is the wisdom of Gustave Flaubert. How appalling! George Eliot, unlike almost every other writer in the history of written thought, actually seems to be wise, to possess not just insights and intelligence but wisdom. I have to reach back to Goethe or Montaigne or someone like that. The incessantly ironic intrusions of Thackeray are no help. Strike ironic – Eliot can be ironic. The outrageous lies and false humility of Thackeray’s intrusions are not the right model.
What else might I write about? I would complain about the dialogue, that there is too much of it. This should be a week on its own, my indictment of dialogue, which is hardly a problem limited to George Eliot. But (every complaint would be followed by “but”) Eliot constructs a series of scenes that are almost choral, minor characters discussing the events of the novel, that looks new to me. I saw hints of it in earlier Eliot novels. How are they used? That would be something to think about.
Wisdom, narrator, imagery, dialogue, choral scenes, structure. What else? The unusual branching plots, maybe. These are the topics I might have written about, or perhaps will write about when I re-read Middlemarch, whenever that might be.
My title is wrenched from Chapter 48.