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12 September 2020

Middlemarch, George Eliot and the female novelist (me)

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I don’t know what it was that drew me towards Middlemarch NOW, in the middle of writing a difficult book. Maybe because I wanted to read a difficult book to keep my brain limber, does that ever happen to you? Do you sometimes want to consume something challenging so it feels like your brain is doing jumping jacks, flexing in the far corners of your mind? If you think of your brain in a body, then what is that body doing, what is that body eating (Netflix? romances? murder mysteries?) does that body still recall how to read something one way and interpret it for you so it means something else? (This happens when you are reading poetry, for example.)

As a novelist, reading is the way I come up with new ideas. Something will set something else off: oh, this scene reminds me of that person I met five years ago. I wonder what would have happened if… Or, interesting, this book mentions five different perspectives, but this is what is still missing, I wonder what a book like that would look like. People ask me a lot, young people I mean, back when I did book tours across the country (those were fun) “how can I be a writer?” and I say, “Read more.” And they look slightly disappointed, I don’t know what they are expecting, maybe a rattled off set of tips: “1. Wake up at 6 am every morning. 2. Sit in front of [COMPUTER BRAND] and open an empty Word document. Use the Garamond font (my favourite) and type out the first sentence.” Actually, knowing our Indian education system, they are probably expecting that. My first and only art class in primary school was us copying one picture on to our blank sheets, the person who copied it best, got the best marks. Of course, this is the tenet of a lot of art schools: learn to draw realistically before you can break the rules, but I say pooh to all that. Draw the way you used to draw as a child, write the way you used to write as a child. Not thinking of who would see the picture or the poem, just doing it for the delight of it.

But what has all this got to do with Middlemarch? Plenty. For one thing, as you’re immersed in the book, and I bought a paperback copy, hefty and hard on the wrists and my stomach on which it rested, you realise that if George Eliot aka Mary Anne Evans aka Marian, darling had not written for the sheer joy of it, had not created the kind of novel that she wanted to read, we wouldn’t have this book at all. Middlemarch is, as I put in the thumbnail description of my bookish Instagram: “Pride and Prejudice but with marriages, not weddings and not just rich people, it is Anna Karenina but English pastoral, it is A Suitable Boy but with more ethical lessons tossed in.”

I did find myself thinking of Jane Austen a lot, it was inevitable, here was English provincial life, but as I said, Marian took the village of Middlemarch and explored it from all angles. We are never allowed to linger on a marriage proposal too long, or follow a happy couple during a honeymoon.

There are three marriages that occur during the course of the book (I’m not counting the two that happen in the finale) and of those, one was between a pompous old man and a very young woman who wants to do good in the world and feels the only way to do this is by marrying someone great and helping them, between two extremely attractive people who have been flirting steadily for a while, and a side-character marriage of the previously mentioned starry-eyed young woman’s sister to her rejected suitor.

Of these marriages, our main characters are all unhappy. Dorothea (who marries the old man) realises that her husband isn’t as smart as he says he is, nor as wise, her husband, in turn (and this is Marian’s gift, that she gives us all these points of view, not condemning or mocking, just holding a mirror up) realises that marriage really isn’t for him. So the two of them labour on, and it gets more and more claustrophobic to read about them, I remember one bit that stood out to me, I’ll paraphrase here: “whenever he said ‘my love’ he used his coldest tones.”

And while you start out by rolling your eyes at Dorothea, you are the reader after all, you are older and wiser and you know how marriages are, by the time you are in the middle of her unhappy marriage with her, you long to save her as well. George Eliot keeps describing her as “good,” everyone who comes in contact with her, seems to feel the same way, and yet you’re not annoyed by her as you are by other saintly characters in literature. (One day I will do a whole thing on What Katy Did and how poor Katy was forced to tamp down her rebellious hoyden nature because of that prig of a Cousin Helen who taught her to be the soul of the house and never complain about her backache or whatever. Bah.) Why does Dorothea not annoy me? I think because Marian/George gets so deeply into her psyche, you’re not just looking at a paper cut-out of a person, like saintly people in books so often are, you looking at a real young woman with ambition and drive. She really wants to change the world for the better, and she keeps tilting at it, attempting to fix things and keeps being thwarted by her well-meaning male relatives. In the beginning, sure, she’s all poses, she’s like, “Oh I like riding too much, I must give it up” but the genius of Marian is that you are invited to roll your eyes at her, as much as her younger sister does, just sitting there, wanting a necklace from their dead mother’s jewellery box and being snubbed a little in her pleasure.

Mary Anne Evans was born to loving parents, she had loving siblings also, but she was considered too unattractive to get married, and since she was pretty smart, her father decided to educate her. Which makes me think that it was probably better to be born ugly and smart than pretty and smart, even though I know vanity is strong in all of us, but imagine being pretty and smart, and you’re dying to be educated, and read and learn and your fam’s like, “Nah, we’ll just wait for a good man to take you off our hands.” INFURIATING. Luckily, for Marian, which is what her family and loved ones called her and which is what I will as well, she was a homely child, and she made the most of her intelligence by continuing to read and teaching herself the classics when she was forced to leave school and look after her father.

After that, she took the German she had taught herself to read and translated a controversial text for that time: The Life of Jesus, which brought her to the attention of the London crowd, and pretty soon, she was the assistant editor of a magazine, and quickly moved up to the editor’s role, UNHEARD of for women at that time, especially since it was a political journal not just household tips or whatever. In fact, if Marian could be said to have a Fatal Flaw, I think she didn’t like women very much. I’m basing this on her essay, largely quoted on the internet in articles about Middlemarch. It was called Silly Novels by Lady Novelists and I’m putting some excerpts here:

[On their heroines] Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. 

We had imagined that destitute women turned novelists, as they turned governesses, because they had no other “ladylike” means of getting their bread.  […] Under these impressions we shrank from criticising a lady’s novel: her English might be faulty, but we said to ourselves her motives are irreproachable; her imagination may be uninventive, but her patience is untiring.  Empty writing was excused by an empty stomach, and twaddle was consecrated by tears. 

To judge from their writings, there are certain ladies who think that an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions.

Okay, but then we’re sort of side-eyeing Marian, like, come on Marian, why let the sisterhood down and so on, and then she says:

The foolish vanity of wishing to appear in print, instead of being counterbalanced by any consciousness of the intellectual or moral derogation implied in futile authorship, seems to be encouraged by the extremely false impression that to write at all is a proof of superiority in a woman. On this ground we believe that the average intellect of women is unfairly represented by the mass of feminine literature, and that while the few women who write well are very far above the ordinary intellectual level of their sex, the many women who write ill are very far below it. 

No sooner does a woman show that she has genius or effective talent, than she receives the tribute of being moderately praised and severely criticised. By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman’s talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point. Harriet Martineau, Currer Bell, and Mrs. Gaskell have been treated as cavalierly as if they had been men.

So, you see, she really was on our side after all. And the arguments she makes her about “silly novels” can be applied to us right now in the twenty first century, and also to all sexes. Silly novels are a phenomenon that never actually dies. Today, looking at Indian romance novels (written primarily by men, how the world has changed) we can see that the hero is always well-meaning, dashing but emotionally foolish, the woman is always a peculiar mixture of weak and fragile and yet preternaturally wise, and the romance is always ill-advised but one we’re supposed to root for anyway. Meanwhile, I can’t remember the last Big Debut Fiction Darling that was written by a man. I think it was Amitabh Bagchi? But that wasn’t debut, no? And women soar ahead.

The other bad marriage in Middlemarch is that of Rosamund, the mayoral candidate’s daughter with the new doctor in town, Lydgate. Rosamund is extremely attractive, we’re told about her flaxen hair and her blue eyes, and we’re also told that she longs to better herself, get good company round her own table, her father’s friends are too low brow for her. She’s aware of her beauty and fixates on Lydgate, the new guy, to rescue her from a lifetime of being a provincial wife. And Lydgate, by the same measure, although he doesn’t actually want to get married, falls prey to her blue eyes and helpless face. And then, of course, they realise that they didn’t really know each other at all before the wedding. Rosamund is obstinate and sly, Lydgate is in debt and harsh and easily manipulated. I hated Rosamund as I read her and yet, I loved the fact that I hated her, if that makes sense. She breathed, she moved, she thought, this little china doll! I was in her head! To make a character like that alive like that, what skill.

Of course, as I write my own book side-by-side, I begin to think of the lessons I’ve learned from Marian. How to examine a character from a distance, for example. How to work in thoughts and beliefs, but not in a preachy way, but as a way to both keep the story going and provide some context. After all, we do not exist in black holes, so neither should our books. How to, also, make sure that all your characters have ambition and heart and complex psychologies of their own, even the supporting ones, so that they all feel like real people, not just painted extras on a background. I don’t want to write like Marian, because well, I worked very hard to develop my own voice, my own style, so I write like MYSELF and no one else, but I want to take away some lessons from her, the same way I do with other great writers.

George was always very popular, by the way, no artistic struggle there to hold up as inspiration. Her first book was an instant bestseller, and she found love with a man named George something, whose first name she adopted as her pseudonym because she loved it so much. (‘Eliot’ because it was a nice round mouthful of a name.) He was married, so they lived together for about twenty years before he died, and for a while, everyone was scandalised, but Queen Victoria was a great fan of Marian’s work so after a royal visit with the Princess, everyone was like, “Well, ok, if royalty is fine with it then why not?”

After her George’s death, she married a man twenty years younger than herself (go Marian!) and went off to Venice on a honeymoon, where this young fellow jumped out of a window and into a canal (he survived), some speculate because he didn’t want to have sex with her, but you know, who knows why he did? Marian was no beauty, sure, but she was a great woman, and any man would be lucky to have her, and men should stop being such delicate darlings about these kind of things, and remember that very young women have been having sex with very old men for centuries and no one jumps out of windows dramatically.

Anyway, one last story about Marian: at the height of her fame, she had to have her living room in London extended, because of the crowds of people who came to visit her every Sunday evening, when she hosted an apparently open-to-all party.

I wish you all great success in your writing careers (or okay, other careers also), and hope at some time in the future we must all have our living rooms extended to accommodate all our loving fans.

PS: More Middlemarch? This is a great essay by Rebecca Mead, who turned it into a book.



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