Monday, January 26, 2015

Written for grown-up people

My book group met yesterday and, well, there are few things more satisfying that a bunch of smart women sitting around talking about a great book that we all liked. This group doesn't meet in December and likes to choose a lengthy "classic" for the gap between November and January. Last year it was The Age of Innocence and this year Middlemarch (almost three times as long!). I do appreciate the occasional glancing back to a book you "should" read (or perhaps wish to revisit since the last time you read it was in college).

George Eliot's tome was first published in 1872 when she was at the peak of her fame and creativity. It is the story not so much of one possibly star-crossed couple trying to get together over 800-odd pages (certainly the most obvious take on this work), but -- as is stated in its subtitle: "A Study of Provincial Life." Everyone in the small town of Middlemarch and its surrounding countryside comes under the scrutiny of Eliot's careful character development and incisive social commentary. We're all a little flawed in Eliot's view, but that's OK. We are interesting too.

In the beginning of the novel, we meet Dorothea Brooke, a slightly wealthy young woman of marriageable age who yearns to make a difference, to be something more than a provincial wife and mother. She rejects the courtship of the local squire (her sister later marries him, quite happily), and instead -- to the horror of all who know her -- weds the much older Reverend Casaubon hoping that she will become his muse, secretary, factotum as he writes his masterwork, "The Key to All Mythologies." She really, really misreads him (of course) -- and beginning on her lonely honeymoon in Rome -- seems consigned to a loveless union. Fortunately Rev. Casaubon dies within a year or so of their marriage, but because he is a jealous and cruel old man he adds a codicil in his will which will deprive Dorothea of her inheritance should she marry the one person we know to be her soulmate, Casaubon's second cousin, the handsome, impecunious Will Ladislaw.

Dorothea, or Dodo as her sister is wont to call her, disappears for long stretches of the novel as Eliot examines another bad marriage; that of the young Doctor Lydgate (who has some radical ideas about care for the sick) and local beauty (and serious narcissist) Rosamund Vincey. Their disintegrating marriage is actually quite painful to witness. Also putting in appearances: Rosamund's feckless brother Fred whose heart is in the right place but he can't always act on that, his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth (the novel's moral center), a liberal vicar who supports his elderly mother and maiden aunts with the occasional game of whist, the wealthy banker Bulstrode ... a man with a secret, and dozens of other denizens of Middlemarch whose brief character studies are deliciously descriptive without delving into the caricatures that Eliot's contemporary Charles Dickens might have created.

Yes, the language is 19th-century dense and ornate, but once you get your head around the long sentences (and ignore all those archaic references that Eliot's original readers would have all known), this is pure pleasure. The characters are wonderful, "mixed-up" people whose hearts are firmly on their sleeves so you can't help but feel love and/or sympathy (even for such baddies as Casaubon and Rosamund) for them. Eliot also has a terrific sense of the absurd, the novel is filled with laugh-out-loud moments. My personal favorite might possibly be the description of Dodo's baby nephew, adored by his overly doting mother, as the "infantine Buddha."

I opted for the audiobook initially because I knew as a listener that I could skate right over that lengthy Victorian prose; this helped immensely even though I ended up listening for about 26 days ($1.05 in overdues!). There are six unabridged versions listed on Audible, but I honed right in on the version read by Juliet Stevenson. Many years ago I listened to her read Sally Gardner's I, Coriander, which I absolutely loved. Her rich resonant voice, her honest emotions, and overall warmth made me want to hear her again. At last!

Stevenson is really terrific here. Never flagging over the dense text or its length, she was as honest and committed to her performance at the end as she was in the beginning. No surprise, she has that English actor's skill of multiple class accents that she pulls off without a hitch, particularly in Eliot's occasional set pieces of gossipy conversations at a dinner party or in a board room that make important plot points and give a flavor of that small town. She reads chapter epigraphs in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Old English, which all sound fine to me. (Perhaps a native speaker would have some quibbles.) She's got Eliot's sense of humor, providing an ironic tone when appropriate. I'm sure some of my enjoyment of the "infantine Buddha" was from Stevenson's delivery.

But where she really gets me in the solar plexus is her spot-on depiction of humanity. Dorothea's intense sadness is palpable, as is Will's dashing of Rosamund's (ridiculous) hopes as he realizes that Dorothea has witnessed them together, or Lydgate's despair over the collapse of his promising career, or poor Mr. Farebrother's (the gambling vicar) unrequited love for Mary and kindly encouragement of Fred in his wooing of her, or even Casaubon's crabbed inability to accept Dorothea's unfettered offers of true partnership. Stevenson has leapt into the category of "I'll-listen-to-anything-you-read," and there's so much already there: The Paying Guests, The Signature of All Things, Sweet Tooth.

I was leaning towards making my 2015 listening all (mostly) nonfiction, but maybe it should be all Juliet Stevenson. No, actually, that might be a bit much, I should dole her out so that the anticipation is as much fun as the listening.

I followed Middlemarch with Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch (just a few minutes left to hear as of this writing), which has totally added to my appreciation. Mead's work provides all sorts of background on Eliot and on the book's reception over time. She talks a bit about Virginia Woolf's now-famous statement on the book (in an essay written on the centenary of Eliot's birth): "... the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

Mead thinks that Woolf was being quite sly with the reference to grown-ups (instead of using the term adults), but I took this to as a reflection on how a book changes depending on where the reader is in his/her life. It's not that only grown-ups can appreciate the novel's richness and subtleties, but that who you are at the time of your reading inevitably colors what you think. When I read this book as a college student (not yet a "grown-up"), it was all Dorothea/Will Ladislaw. But now I see (or hope I see) a fuller picture of what Eliot says in the very last sentence, as she describes Dorothea in the  future:

"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: For the growing good of the work 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."

This grown-up knows that the most unhistoric life matters.

Interestingly, the audiobook just ends here. No closing credits. Of course that meant that I thought I'd missed something, so I listened to the last track again. Now I see that it is brilliant.

[A statue of Nuneaton's most famous daughter stands in the town square. This photo was taken by kevin roe as part of the project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. I cropped the smoker out of the picture.]

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot.
Narrated by Juliet Stevenson
Naxos Audiobooks, 2011.  35:40

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