Thursday, May 5, 2016

“I see you’re reading ‘Middlemarch.’” - William Dean Howells divides people into groups

I am early in the marriage plot of The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).  Corey, from Boston society and 18th century money, will perhaps marry Irene Lapham, daughter of the new-money Vermont paint baron.  Penelope is the other daughter:

But after Corey greeted Irene he glanced at the novel under his eye, and said, in the dearth that sometimes befalls people at such times: “I see you’re reading ‘Middlemarch.’  Do you like George Eliot?”

“Who?” asked the girl.

Penelope interposed.  “I don’t believe Irene’s read it yet.  I’ve just got it out of the library…  I wish she [Eliot] would let you find out a little about the people for yourself,” she added.  But here her father struck in:

“I can’t get the time for books.”  (Ch. 7)

Middlemarch (1871) is a recurring motif the Howells novel.  It is used as a stand-in for culture in general.  The nouveau entrepreneur has no time for culture, while everyone in Boston society reads Middlemarch as soon as it is published, and in between is Penelope, capable of matching the old money intellectually, but in the cultural rearguard, reading Middlemarch late, reading a library copy; then there’s poor Irene.

The events of Silas Lapham suggest that it is set sometime after 1873, when the Long Depression begins – rough times for a commercial paint manufacturer.  This idea that reading the library book, reading the novel a couple of years late (“’I didn’t know it was so old.  It’s just got into the Seaside Library,’” Ch. 9) is a genuine point of division between the social levels of the two families, and also between the two daughters, the one who reads and the one who does not.  Chapter 9, the source of the proceeding injured protest, includes an excruciating scene where Irene asks Corey for advice on stocking the library of their new million dollar (in 2016 $) mansion.  Poor Irene.

It is not at all clear that all of those cultured readers of Middlemarch, a book of great ethical depth and artistic complexity, have gotten much out of it.  As Corey’s mother, a Middlemarch reader, comments:

“I suppose it’s the plain sister who’s reading ‘Middlemarch.’”  (Ch. 8)

The major temperamental division turns out, though, to be different than who has  read what but rather who is an ironist and who is not, and to what degree.    The entrepreneur is the model of sincerity – he has faith in his paint – although one daughter, the reader, is an ironist, “satirical” as Corey calls her.  The old money characters have been corrupted by irony to the point of dysfunction.  The useless father of that family is even Wildean at times:

His father shook his head with an ironical sigh.  “Ah, we shall never have a real aristocracy while this plebeian reluctance to live upon a parent or a wife continues the animating spirit of our youth.  It strikes at the root of the whole feudal system.”  (Ch. 5)

That really should be read as if Mr. Corey is Aunt Augusta in Earnest.  On the other side is the strange, blunt episode in Chapter 17 where Reverend Howells – I mean Reverend Sewell – preaches the Gospel of Common Sense to the paint maker and his wife; the scene is either a flop or a brutal form of counterpoint.  After all, Howells is an ironist, too.  These hilarious lines – paragraphs – close a chapter:

“Well, we must stand it, anyway,” said Mrs. Lapham, with the grim antique Yankee submission.

“Oh yes, we’ve got to stand it,” said Penelope, with the quaint modern American fatalism.  (Ch. 9)

If only he’d let me find out a little about the people for myself.


  1. This is fascinating! I wonder if it's the earliest intertextual use of Middlemarch.

  2. Can you imagine a novelist today using such a recent novel like this? Howells also assumes his readers have read it:

    "'Do you like that Rosamond Vincy?' she asked, without looking up." (Ch. 9)

    No need to explain who Vincy is.

  3. Another good one! Doesn't get much better than "the ironical sigh," and your Bromfield Corey quote sums up everything I was trying to say about the novel and Howells. I give WDH a lot of credit for identifying "this plebian reluctance" and embedding it in both the marriage plot of this "do nothing" character's son, along with the "lose everything to gain something" business plot. I think I went even further--moving on to my second Lapham post. Thanks as always.

  4. 2nd Lapham post is even more amusing in retrospect. And I even mention how Penelope is reading Middlemarch, while the post itself is (unironically) about reading Middlemarch myself, and making myself classy in doing so! Sorry about the long link there--rushing along and slow in getting my skills back.

    Even funnier was reading Lapham right in the midst of the Great Recession and earnestly embracing its moral message.

  5. Yeah, man, ya gotta hone your HTML skeelz. "a href="

    I don't earnestly embrace much here. Ironic distance, that's the good stuff.