Middlemarch has me laughing so soon.

Today is May 1st, so it’s the official date of the Read-Along of Middlemarch that Arti is hosting for the next two months. She wrote a new post about the project for today, which you can read by clicking on the book cover image in my sidebar. It includes some ungracious things that Henry James said about how George Eliot’s mind made him fall in love with her even though she was not pretty – but he did not put it so euphemistically.

I did start reading the book about ten days ago but I haven’t read every day, so I am only three days’ worth of pages jump-started. I was surprised at how quickly the author makes  her characters’ personalities known to the reader, through the most natural and revealing dialogue, as when Dorothea and her sister discuss Mr. Casaubon’s looks, only a few pages in. The two girls had already endeared themselves to me, charming opposites to one another but both sympathetic, and their conversation about their differing perspectives made me laugh out loud in spite of myself as I sat in the corner of my garden.

Because I’m not traveling so much in the coming months, it seems I should have time available to enjoy this big and wonderful book, though it’s been a very long time since I have used my leisure for deep reading of such a long novel. It will be good.

12 thoughts on “Middlemarch has me laughing so soon.

  1. Henry James wasn’t that ungracious, he thought George Eliot was brilliant, and discovered the truth that, alas, despite ugliness, there was actually a feminine mind! 😉

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    1. I beg to differ about his graciousness or lack thereof: It wasn’t necessary for him to use such strong language as to compare her face with a certain animal, in order to contrast her inner self with her outer. But even his ungraciousness (not publicly, I realize, but in a letter that has become public) reveals a perspective on women generally, pertinent to the story of the author and of Middlemarch — which I don’t believe is much different from today! “Lookism” may not be politically correct, but it is still out there. Or maybe I should say, to my shame, in here.

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      1. Gretchen, you’ve brought out an interesting notion, “lookism”, the emphasis on outward appearance, the look, the superficial over the interior, the inner character of a person. I think James’s ‘confessions’ just might have served to counter such shallowness of judging a person. What he had discovered upon speaking and exchanging views with Eliot counteracted his observation of just looking at the appearance.

        You see, the whole context of James’s remark was to express his admiration for Eliot: “Now in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a few minutes, steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end up as I ended, in falling in love with her…A marvellous mind throbs in every page of Middlemarch…” His respect for Eliot’s creation of Dorothea Brooke’s interior world–soulful and intellectual–led him to create female characters in his novels. Eliot’s influence on James had been widely noted.

        I think too, and I’m speculating (need to research and study the word-use of the time) that the word James used, “ugly”, might be quite a common description of people during that time, and may not carry as sharp and discriminatory a defamation (I agree not less insulting) as in today’s #MeToo and #TimesUp society we’re in. Why do I say that? Because this is exactly the same word Celia used to describe Casaubon before she knew her sister was to marry him: “ugly and learned”. (p. 41 in my edition)

        Apparently, George Eliot’s “uncomely appearance” is well known among her biographers and allow me to share one more source with you: Rebecca Mead’s (author of the popular 2014 novel My Life in Middlemarch) essay in The New Yorker magazine: “George Eliot’s Ugly Beauty” would shed more light on this issue.

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  2. Thank you for that worthwhile article by Mead! I am not offended by the mere word “ugly,” or even by the reality that we humans tend to judge by outward appearances. Celia’s personality and youth are reflected in her comment about the appearance of an “old man,” and she only calls him ugly. When the discussion goes further, she mentions a specific feature that is off-putting. And James is perhaps only showing his poet’s mind, when he describes Dorothea’s “vast ugliness,” to make his point about the breadth and depth of her soul.

    It is a person’s soul, I think, that begins to show when they become animated about something, or maybe as soon as they begin to talk to you. George Eliot was recognized as being beautiful in more than one way, as Mead points out — her mind, her loving heart…. what could be more beautiful than love?

    We wish we could all have eyes to see the beauty in every human behind the physical plainness or the even behind more troubling ugliness that shows in the countenance of person who has a soul tarnished by abuse or evildoing. If James had had that ability already he would not have been amazed, and he would have mentioned her outward appearance only to point out her expression “of such tenderness and sympathy that it left her interlocutor with an abiding sense of beauty,” as Mead quotes him.

    But I think you are right, his “confessions” signal growth in him as a human. I don’t judge him for being ungracious — I find it hard to be critical of anyone who lived in a different era and culture, and I tried to find the most gracious word to describe his own words. But I should perhaps have used “surprising.” 🙂

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    1. Well said. It’s for such sharing of views that’s the purpose of reading together. I’m feeling gratified already, as you’re laughing so soon. 🙂

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  3. Well here’s an interesting and deep thread, while I’ve been spending time wondering exactly why Dorothea wished to marry Casaubon in the first place. Yes, I know he is of apparently noble character, but I wish we didn’t just jump right into her agreeing to marry him out of the clear, blue…dinner party at Mr. Brooke’s. We sense right from the start they are doomed.

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    1. Hmmm… I empathize with our heroine, but haven’t taken the time to figure out what exactly it is that I intuit about her quickness to be enamored of Casaubon, if we can even put it that way… Your comment is provoking me to get to work!

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      1. I believe part of the answer lies here, in the midst of Chapter 3: “It had now entered Dorothea’s mind that Mr. Casaubon might wish to make her his wife, and the idea that he would do so touched her with a sort of reverential gratitude.” Eliot goes on to say that Dorothea would be “shut out” of contentment because of the intensity of her “religious disposition”. I just wish this Casaubon intrigue would have been a bit more in-depth. She agrees to marry him so quickly!

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  4. I am finding myself laugh aloud as I read too, and today in the car while waiting for Charlotte…even I noticed I had a huge smile on my face as I read. I finally managed a post today about this reading venture. Thank you!

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