Classics

Jane Austen’s Bath

“I really believe I shall always be talking of Bath–I do like it so very much . . . Oh, who can ever be tired of Bath?” —Northanger Abbey

Visiting Bath, England, was a treat for this Brit-lit lover because the city has, to a great degree, the same form and appearance that it had in Jane Austen’s lifetime. Its eighteenth-century Georgian architecture and honey-colored Cotswold limestone have been lovingly maintained and an Austenite can walk from Jane’s lodgings at the eastern end of town to the Assembly Rooms or Pump Room following the same streets and taking in the same sights (cars and tourists aside) that she did.

The streets hum with activity as walkers take in the shops, peruse the Roman Baths, stop for tea and Bath Buns, and admire the Abbey. The mind’s eye can easily overlay 2017 with a vision of the past—the outlying farmers bringing their produce to market, the elegantly dressed young ladies out for their morning air, the grandest women riding across town in sedan chairs, or Beau Nash himself (the King of Bath) marshaling the cream of society for a daily round of polite gambling and dancing.

The Royal Crescent, with No. 1 at far right.

Bath’s most elite citizens at the end of the eighteenth century made their homes on the Royal Crescent: that iconic, gently curved row of stately houses with a wide-angle view of the countryside. Having a Royal Crescent address, or even a house on its sister The Circus, was just as sought-after as the medicinal effects of Bath’s renowned waters. For many of England’s nobility, it was enough just to rent one of these houses a few months out of the year. Others came and, flush with cash, decided to stay. Such was the case at Number One, Royal Crescent, where Henry Sandford of Ireland lived from 1776 to 1796. Number One is a house museum today, restored and decorated as it would have been during Sandford’s years in the house.

Number One Royal Crescent is one of the better-presented house museums that I have visited, including many of my favorites here in the U.S. The house appeared to be professionally cared for and in tip-top shape. I was interested to note the many similarities between Number One and the houses from the same period that survive in Charleston—the architecture, furniture, and attention to fine, classical details. It is obvious that Charleston’s wealthiest residents were connoisseurs of English taste and lived in just as high a style as their counterparts in England. The docents in the museum here were, however, the best part of the house. An elderly (I’m assuming volunteer) lady was stationed in each room, supplied with fun facts and ready to answer questions. Each one was cheerful and gracious, just as you would imagine an English lady to be, and all together they left a wonderful impression on me.

Of course, my imagination was also piqued here because it was only a few short decades later that Jane would have rubbed shoulders with occupants of houses like Number One. The interiors looked like a BBC costume drama and there was a pianoforte in one room fit for Georgiana Darcy. However, I learned several startling things about that time period while visiting the house that forcefully reminded me that the past is a foreign country. Think, for example, of the chamber pots kept in each room of the house (I used to think they were just for, well, bedchambers). There would have been one in the dining room, of all places, behind a screen. Fortunately the men would have waited for the women to withdraw from the room after dinner before using it, but they still had no reservations about using the pot while continuing a conversation with their friends. The women who needed to use a chamber pot had to return to their bedrooms, where they would have needed the assistance of their maids to sit down on one. Then—there was the meat rotisserie in the basement kitchen, operated by a captured stray dog. Opinions wavered as to whether this was cruelty or kindness, since the dog would have been fed well in payment for his labor. I was also confronted in the kitchen with the lack of refrigeration, or really even an icebox, and the terrible question of what did they do with their food? I guess you would have had to eat up—because the leftovers won’t be any good tomorrow!

Eavesdropping

Abacus, 2014.

I found a fun book along these lines while I was in Bath—Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England: How Our Ancestors Lived Two Centuries Ago, by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The Adkins follow English men and women, rich and poor, from birth to death, as Jane would have found them. While some sections were dry and fact-laden, others were intriguing and even at times appalling or downright hilarious.

I laugh to read of the “smock weddings,” where a bride could appear naked or in her shift to make plain that she brought nothing to her marriage or to release her groom from paying her debts, and of wife-selling, the easiest way for the poor to “divorce.” As a mother, I shudder as I read about dangerous birthing practices and infant and mother mortality rates, and I have to scratch my head at the common practice, even in Jane’s family, of fostering out infants “until deemed old enough to return home.” What? And then I have to be thankful for modern sensibilities that allow for women and poor people to be educated; in the nineteenth century I would have been way out of my place as a woman. My stomach turns at the lack of personal hygiene and heads filled with lice and at the idea of not wearing underwear.

There are aspects of Jane’s world that are attractive, such as the quiet, the slower pace of movement, and even the thought of sharing books around the evening fire. I also admit I like her time-period’s taste for classical beauty in its art and architecture. Yet after a day spent wandering Jane’s Bath, I was thoroughly grateful to eat fresh, tasty food, take a hot shower, and throw myself on a clean bed in an icy, air-conditioned room.

The River Avon from the Pulteney Bridge

The Pump Room

One of the Assembly Rooms

Great Pulteney Street

Bath Abbey

Book Review: The Vicar of Wakefield

vicarAmong the earliest of enduring English novels is The Vicar of Wakefield, published in 1766 by Oliver Goldsmith. The English novel tradition had been up and running for nearly half a century by this time, producing, among other works, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. I claim no extensive knowledge of literary history—I’m afraid that what I learned of it in college didn’t stay put for very long—but I am intrigued by it in certain historical contexts. What was going on in the world when The Vicar was published? Who would have been reading it?

In 1766, George III sat on the British throne and colonial Americans stewed over the Stamp Act—the Act which turned almost anything paper (newspapers, legal documents, playing cards—books were a notable exception) into an inconvenient expense for the colonists. Benjamin Franklin, the most well-known American at that time, was in London protesting the Stamp Act before Parliament. In March, shortly after his appeal, Parliament repealed the Act (only to replace it with another act shortly). I like to think that Benjamin Franklin was wending his way homeward after a day of international political machinations and saw a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield in a shop window and took it home with him, perhaps having heard about it from a learned colleague who suggested it to him for a good laugh. Franklin seems like the type to have found enjoyment in the farcical, moralizing novel.

I have no doubt that a great many Americans on both sides of the Atlantic gobbled up popular English novels, for in 1766 they had none of their own. It stretches the imagination to think that America, today the largest English-speaking country in the world, did not publish its first novel until 1789. [Read about the first American novel here.] Although there would have been a delay (even of years) in The Vicar’s arrival in America, the more cosmopolitan areas such as New York City, Philadelphia, or Charleston certainly read what the British read. So in the years when American liberty was born, with deprivation and destruction on all sides, Americans had for comfort and entertainment only British-English novels on their bookshelves, The Vicar of Wakefield perhaps among them. (Now, wouldn’t that make for a fascinating topic—colonial reading habits during the Revolution?)

The Vicar of Wakefield is the oldest novel that I have read. For me, the non-literary-historian, the novel truly shows its age. The premise of the novel is this: Dr. Primrose, the vicar of the country parish of Wakefield, leads a comfortable life until all of his money is lost in an investment gone bad. The vicar, with his wife and children, removes to a much smaller parish where extreme misfortunes—including fire, theft, imprisonment, kidnapping, and even death—befall them with astonishing (and highly improbable) regularity. The vicar’s two eldest daughters, Olivia and Sophia, now penniless, appear to be removed from all marriage prospects. The only eligible men of the area include the womanizing Squire Thornhill and the also penniless Mr. Burchell. But as these things tend to go, Olivia, of course, falls for the Squire and Sophia for Mr. Burchell. Every melodramatic twist of fate possible comes to pass before the novel is resolved. Through it all, Dr. Primrose solemnly moralizes on the highs and lows. As the non-literary scholar that I am, I did not realize until at least one-third of the way through the novel that it has to be a comedic satire. I am sure any English major could have told me this.

Although I could hardly stop rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of the story, the novel held interest for me in other ways. The Vicar of Wakefield says, for instance, a great deal about the world in which it was written. In The Vicar’s world, women have no power over their own lives. Their financial resources, modes of daily living, and marriage dealings are held entirely in the hands of their fathers, brothers, and husbands (or husbands-to-be). When Olivia falls for the slick (and slimy) Mr. Thornhill, she, according to the dictates of the period, cannot tell Mr. Thornhill of her affections or make any suggestion of a deeper relationship. She is forced to (I say “forced,” but in real life I’m sure few would go to such lengths) manipulate an elaborate plot to make Mr. Thornhill declare himself to her. That women such as Olivia have no power over their own lives is a symptom of the general male view that women are weak, both physically and mentally, and easily victimized. Indeed, there are no heroines in The Vicar; the females are all victims of something or other. Dr. Primrose views his own wife as suitable primarily for domestic uses—“she could read any English book without much spelling, but for pickling, preserving, and cookery, none could excel her”—and although he loves her affectionately, he portrays her from time to time as having a definite silliness.

Goldsmith, using the voice of Dr. Primrose, also delves into the matter of liberty and sovereignty for the length of an entire chapter. “I am … for, and would die for, monarchy, sacred monarchy; for if there be any thing sacred amongst men, it must be the anointed sovereign of his people, and every diminution of his power in war, or in peace, is an infringement upon the real liberties of the subject. … I have known many of those pretended champions of liberty in my time, yet do I not remember one that was not in his heart and in his family a tyrant.” In Dr. Primrose’s view, having a king lessens the likelihood that rich men raise themselves as tyrants over others and gather servile people around them. This chapter of The Vicar taken by itself surely gave Americans a lot to chew on.

I will probably not revisit The Vicar of Wakefield. It lacks the polish of the later novels that I enjoy, although the form of those later works lies here in seed form. My biggest take-away was in thinking of the novel in an early-American context, in a way that highlights the “everyday” behind the famous events of history. Literature is just one of those cross-over areas.

★ ★ ★/5

Book Review: O Pioneers!

Nebraska prairie. 

“The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

I have to admit to being woefully behind in my reading of classic American literature. I read several of the traditional high school stand-bys in eleventh grade—volumes by Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Steinbeck—but I never loved any of them. I can appreciate the “art” value in them, but my heart has always been with British literature. I can’t even define what it is that I haven’t liked about American literature, except to say that a lot of it seems to be really depressing. But I am trying to fill this gap in my reading experience and I made myself read O Pioneers! by Willa Cather.

pioneers

Willa Cather, O Pioneers! Originally published 1913.

Cather was a path-breaking female journalist of the early twentieth century, serving most notably as an editor for McClure’s Magazine. Her foray into fiction led her to be one of the formative authors of modern American literature. She found her niche in portraying regional America, particularly the prairies of Nebraska where she spent a great part of her childhood.

O Pioneers!, published in 1913, is the saga of the Bergson family, with the eldest sister Alexandra at its center. Children of Swedish immigrants, Alexandra and her three brothers inherit their father’s farm on the Nebraska prairie (circa 1880s). Their father knew nothing but struggle and failure on the harsh, unyielding land, but Alexandra determines that that will not be the case with her generation. She makes several daring, cutting-edge moves and, in less than twenty years’ time, her family is one of the most prosperous in the area.

In the novel, two things are going on, one being that the land itself is a powerful presence and yields only to the one that loves it. The O Pioneers! title is an ode to the men and women who work and love the land and earn their reward: “For the first time, perhaps, since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face [Alexandra’s] was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her. Then the Genius of the Divide, the great, free spirit which breathes across it, must have bent lower than it ever bent to a human will before. The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.”

But the success or failure to thrive on the land is not the only focus of the novel; the other is the fatalistic drama in the hearts of the people on the land. Cather sets up a Greek-like tragedy that, without giving out too many spoilers, just cannot end well. And while she’s at it, she paints a dark picture of what it was to be a pioneer and a woman at the turn of the twentieth century. Alexandra, having made the crucial decisions that led to her family’s prosperity, struggles to escape her brothers’ condescension toward her as a single female. She is a plain, sensible girl—“Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. . . . She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries.” She always knew what had to be done and did it, very rarely letting her “self” have a say. Yet now in her middle age, she becomes a victim of how her middle brothers (and by implication, society) view women. Her desire to marry Carl Lindstrom, a penniless childhood friend, in order to find companionship in her loneliness is met with the response that she has no sense. Alexandra’s neighbor and friend, Marie Shabata, is trapped as well. She is hopelessly in love with Alexandra’s youngest brother Emil, the brother Alexandra raised to enjoy the freedom to choose between a life on the land and a life pursuing a career away from the prairie. But Marie and Emil have no freedom while Marie is married to a violent, insensitive man.

Although my impression that American literature can be depressing continues to hold true, in the end, my reading of O Pioneers! surprised me. It was certainly easier to read than I had thought it would be (sometimes I feel like the American classics can be cryptic). The prose is really pared back and is yet so immediate and realistic. Cather’s prose says exactly what it should say, almost as if there were no better way of saying it. In the introduction to my edition of the book, Cather’s work is called “cinematic,” and maybe that is the best way to describe how she shows us everything, all while saying very little. She makes evoking a certain time, place, and curious mixture of pioneer cultures look quite easy. There is a lot for a would-be writer to emulate in the way she crafted the book. Despite the tragedy, Cather’s writing is warm and welcoming and has inspired me to read her other novels, especially My Antonia.

★ ★ ★ ★ /5


“She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring.”

“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

“People have to snatch at happiness when they can, in this world. It is always easier to lose than to find.”

“Down under the frozen crusts, at the roots of the trees, the secret of life was still safe, warm as the blood in one’s heart; and the spring would come again!”

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables

anne “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

I’m so glad I live in a world where there’s an Anne of Green Gables. Stepping into Anne’s world is always like wrapping up in a cozy, warm blanket. It’s like comfort food for the book lover.

The story of that spunky little redhead is, I imagine, familiar to nearly everyone. Who out there does not know about the slate breaking or the fateful afternoon tea, the dyed-green hair or the near-drowning? Anne Shirley’s youthful scrapes were a part of my childhood, Anne herself a beloved companion.

The other evening I finished listening to Anne of Green Gables on audiobook (one of my latest and most favorite things to do), performed by Rachel McAdams. I’ve read the book numerous times in my life, but I have to have something to pass the time on the treadmill or while house-keeping and Anne is just so hard to resist. So as she cried over Matthew’s death and healed up that bitter old wound with Gilbert Blythe, I sniffed and blinked away tears over the pasta I was making for dinner. I would have been happy had the book gone on for, say, another few hours—or 400 pages (whichever you prefer).

Anne2

Pinterest

So what is it about this classic that gives it such timeless appeal? Although it’s categorized (unfairly, I think) as “children’s fiction,” this book just seems to get better with age—my age. I remember having the book in my hands as early as first or second grade, when the descriptions were too long and certain elements just went right over my head. I’ve revisited it several times, of course, and I always absorb more of what’s there. It always has more and more to say to the adult me.

Anne’s experiences and escapades, while certainly not what I would call typical of girls her age during her time-period or ours, were all made up of little things. By little things, I mean that ordinary life was dramatic for Anne. The more I read, the more I come to appreciate fine authors who can demonstrate the drama of normal life. Drama is always present, completely apart from a terrible, apocalyptic event. Anne didn’t have to be a girl with superpowers or a charmed life. That may have been what she wanted, but she was just Anne with an “e” from little old Avonlea. How dramatic to leave the pudding uncovered and find a dead mouse in it before dinner—to long for stylish clothes and finally get them—to get in a fight at school and have to be separated from your best friend—to accidentally wake up a scary old woman in her bed? In all of this, Anne is one of us.

In a similar way, Anne of Green Gables demonstrates Montgomery’s genius for characterizing real people. There are no saints or super-villains here. Instead we have a gossipy, know-it-all Mrs. Lynde, who is really rather kind on the inside, a stuck-up girl at school (we all know a Josie Pye), a boy who shows his “liking” by teasing, and a stiff old maid who really can’t help but laugh at her girl and cry private tears of pride and maternal affection. Matthew is the closest we may come to seeing a saint, although his chronic timidity gives us a sense of his real humanity. And then we have Anne, a little girl with a sweet spirit who desperately wants to do right, but who is forever being dragged into trouble by her run-away imagination and fiery temper.

Anne of Green Gables also boasts “all the feels,” yet unlike so many books out there, never leaves the reader feeling manipulated. One of my favorite things about Anne is her infectious emotions and love for beauty. She sees beauty everywhere and takes it to herself—in renaming the “Lake of Shining Waters” and the “White Way of Delight” and, of course, in the way she sighs over the sunset, the sounds of the sea, and the cherry blossoms at her window. She has a boundless love for all of her favorites, and in true adolescent fashion, an equally vehement dislike for her enemies. How deeply we feel with Anne that she did very wrong in rejecting Gilbert’s friendship that day at the pond, and how great the warmth at learning that Gilbert kept on caring anyway. We can’t help but love Matthew and silently cheer as he champions Anne’s cause by “putting his oar in” when he feels that she has been wronged. And I think you’d have to have the coldest heart out there not to crumble a little when Matthew dies and Anne and Marilla are left to cling to each other. While Anne may be quite the dramatic young girl, all of these feelings we walk through in Anne of Green Gables are the emotions of real life, neither melodramatic nor manufactured.

I somehow feel when I’m in Anne’s world that everything will come out right. Love, friendship, and self-sacrifice are all granted a place and a value. I think I’m going to have to go back to Green Gables soon.

Book Review: A Death in the Family

A death in the family

Agee, James. A Death in the Family. 1957.

I think it’s safe to say that Americans are fascinated by crime and its aftermath. We certainly like our crime TV. I am sure that at any given time of day Criminal Minds, CSI, Cold Case Files or Forensic Files is running on a cable network. We crave the mystery, the puzzle—all of those little (or even microscopic) pieces that investigators fit together in recreating the crime.

These TV episodes would not be complete without an autopsy or post-mortem scene, starring a scrubs-and-mask clad doctor poking around in all of the gory details. This autopsy is the final word on how the subject died and sheds light on the circumstances that came immediately before and after their death. The autopsy doesn’t lie. The autopsy is probably as brutal and honest and up-close as live humans can get to the reality of death.

A Death in the Family by James Agee strikes me as a novel-as-autopsy. Winner of the 1958 Pulitzer Prize, A Death in the Family delves into what family members feel, think, and do when a loved one dies unexpectedly. It is detailed, psychologically analytical, and unflinchingly honest.

In the middle of a summer’s night in 1915, Jay Follet is called away from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, to visit his aging father, whom he believes to be dying. The call is a false alarm, and Jay begins his return trip out of the hills back to the city. Along the way the car malfunctions, crashes, and throws Jay to his death.

The novel has an experimental feel, with Jay’s death as the main plot point, the glue that holds the otherwise artistic and poetic text together. The story of Jay’s life and death is told primarily from the perspective of his wife, Mary, and their six-year-old son, Rufus, in a series of vignettes. These episodes cluster into three parts: the last hours Rufus and Mary spent with Jay, the waiting period for Mary as her brother identifies the body, and the funeral.

A Death in the Family is an experience for the senses. Rufus’s memories from his earliest childhood are poetic and dream-like—the play of moonlight on his wall through a lace curtain, his terror at the darkness pressing in on him in his crib, the warmth of his father’s hand as he comes to sit with him, and the low songs from his father’s lips that lull him back to sleep. Agee captures the sound of locusts on summer nights, the cool smoothness of bedsheets and the sharp smell of bacon on a dark morning, and the leathery, papery skin of a one-hundred-year-old woman’s face.

In one exemplary scene, Agee proves his ability to pick apart the complex and conflicting emotions involved in the death of a loved one, giving to each emotion weightiness and validity. In the dark of night, Mary hovers in her kitchen, waiting for her brother to identify Jay’s body in a far-off village. In one moment, the hope of a mistake somewhere bubbles up in her heart and, in the next moment, pops with a nightmarish certainty. Her mind wanders through doubts about herself, her husband, and the reality of how they lived each day as husband and wife. Her Aunt Hannah, who has experienced her own great loss, waits with her. She waits for and wills Mary to give up hope, knowing that prolonging her hope will do her no good. She watches as over several hours realization comes to Mary and Mary chooses to cling to her Catholic faith. Hannah, although herself a Catholic, becomes disgusted and resentful at how quickly and submissively Mary spiritualizes the situation, instead wishing Mary would feel the despair and anger at God that she felt in her own past. The scene is full of real, honest-to-goodness emotions that are at times unpleasant to read.

I was impressed by Agee’s command of the words and his ability to take the reader through every thought and emotion. The novel feels true; whether or not we have lived through this specific tragedy, we have all experienced a sampling of these emotions ourselves.

A Death in the Family is the kind of novel where you get sucked into the spiral of someone’s thoughts. Usually I like that sort of thing—it gives a book a realistic feel—yet at times this book spiraled repetitively, in a way that made me feel trapped. It was not a book I enjoyed; I “appreciated” it, but, for me, it was dark and bitter.

Finishing A Death in the Family felt like an accomplishment—one more Pulitzer checked off the list.

Note: I read A Death in the Family in its original, Pulitzer-winning format. Ironically, the novel was published after the author’s death and publishers had to guess at the ordering of certain sections of the book. It was republished in 2008 with a different format that I am not familiar with.


“I hear my father; I need never fear.

I hear my mother; I shall never be lonely, or want for love.

When I am hungry it is they who provide for me; when I am in dismay, it is they who fill me with comfort.

When I am astonished or bewildered, it is they who make the weak ground firm beneath my soul: it is in them that I put my trust.

When I am sick it is they who send for the doctor; when I am well and happy, it is in their eyes that I know best that I am loved; and it is towards the shining of their smiles that I lift up my heart and in their laughter that I know my best delight.

I hear my father and my mother and they are my giants, my king and my queen, beside whom there are no others so wise or worthy or honorable or brave or beautiful in this world.

I need never fear: nor ever shall I lack for loving-kindness.” (76)

 

“How far we all come. How far we all come away from ourselves. So far, so much between, you can never go home again. You can go home, it’s good to go home, but you never really get all the way home again in your life. And what’s it all for? All I tried to be, all I ever wanted and went away for, what’s it all for?

Just one way, you do get back home. You have a boy or a girl of your own and now and then you remember, and you know how they feel, and it’s almost the same as if you were your own self again, as young as you could remember.” (87)

Middlemarch

There are times when the dishes are piled and dirty, the clutter-droppings of children cover every surface of the house, and the list of tomorrow’s to-do-things grows by the minute, that dreams and visions lie buried under the every-day, and life loses its scope. It becomes an hour-by-hour (ok, minute-by-minute with kids), day-by-day battle to stay on top of responsibilities and expectations. Ideas of doing something “meaningful” and “lasting” are gone with (younger) youth; I have to remind myself repeatedly that—hopefully—I’ve got a lot of time left for the passionate pursuit of other things.

Enter here George Eliot and Middlemarch. Mary Ann Evans, English journalist and author extraordinaire, hid behind the name George Eliot and produced such classics as Silas Marner and Adam Bede. I’ve read nearly all of them, but I picked up the hefty Middlemarch (my edition has 853 pages) for a re-read. With the above-mentioned chores and responsibilities, it took me a good month to finish. Yet my perseverance was richly rewarded.

Eliot knew all about dreams and what life does to them. In Middlemarch’s village-full of characters, most are facing some form of change and disappointment. All of the players are drawn with realism and honesty, but the central two that struck my heart were Dorothea Brooke, a young, hard-to-live-with sister and wife, longing for knowledge and the key to doing ultimate good; and Doctor Lydgate, a flawed intellectual visionary, plagued by his naivety about money and women. We make their acquaintance when the world and its possibilities lie before them and watch as change in the form of marriage—life, really—turns their ideals on their heads.

Eliot likens Dorothea’s dreams to Saint Theresa’s: an “ardour alternat[ing] between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.” Dorothea wants to know things, to do some great and lasting work. Yes—I, too, feel the constant pull of wanting “more” out of life, and yet the desire and need to fulfill a woman’s role, all while others watch and weigh the use of my abilities. And so I think of Dorothea with that line of C.S. Lewis’ running in my head: “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

Lydgate’s dreams are for his hoped-for career as a medical researcher. His pursuit of medicine is drawn like a romance, a true intellectual passion. He fears mediocrity.

And then comes change. Dorothea enters marriage as into salvation; not as an escape from evil, per se, but as a means of elevating herself intellectually and spiritually. Lydgate views his marriage as an adornment—the beauties of hearth and home as just another mark of his success—to his hoped-for career as a medical researcher. Dorothea longs to be changed by marriage; Lydgate counts on remaining unchanged by his. Both are soon fully disillusioned.

“In courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.” (195-196)

Here Eliot’s talents of portraying life with such realism and honesty are apparent. Which of us is not filled with expectations? “Another degree will make me more intelligent”—“marriage will bring me security”—“this friendship will take away the loneliness”—“this new job will finally bring contentment.” Expectations are bound to be unfulfilled, especially in marriage, where two fallen natures lean on and rub off on each other in such close proximity. In Dorothea’s words, “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something awful in the nearness it brings” (797).

The world of Middlemarch is tangled and complex. Lives weave in and out of one another, and dreams rise and fall. And what do we get for all our dreams? Sometimes nothing. But Eliot leaves us with hope in the simple day-to-day doing, and the wisdom of not placing all of our expectations in one basket. Despite all of those ideas that linger and wait to be pursued, today’s work matters, too.

“The effect of [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is halfway owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” (838)
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“In the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average … is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardor in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardor of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home ….” (144-145)

“You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else.” (562)

“He felt the scenes of his earlier life coming between him and everything else, as obstinately as when we look through the window from a lighted room, the objects we turn our backs on are still before us, instead of the grass and the trees.” (615)

“Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. … Some set out, like Crusaders of old, with a glorious equipment of hope and enthusiasm, and get broken by the way, wanting patience with each other and the world.” (832)