My pick last year was Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, which didn't go as well as I'd hoped. This year it's Middlemarch by Mary Anne Evans (as "George Eliot"). It was was originally a serial, a novel in eight released Books. I finished Book One this weekend and am a healthy way into Book Two, wherein we're still meeting the cast. It's so enormous that I'm keeping a list to keep them straight. Recent health problems have demanded I spend more time than usual sitting still, which has afforded me extra time to attack my classic.
Upon the first chapters, I feared this would be another Austen adventure. The scenes are primarily domestic or at someone else's house, and the dialogue is overwhelmingly gossip about someone's life or direction. Early chapters especially have the clash of men and women as prospects for each other, though there are always sparks of more going on. Further, Evans was every bit the whit that Austen was, with cutting lines and turn-arounds in conversation, though many more applied to the wry and detached narrator. I struggle to pick a favorite line or passage, but this is the most recent nest of thoughts to tickle my brain:
"Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers,
but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions,
bring their provisions to a common table and mess together,
feeding out of the common store according to their appetite."
It's perhaps double the cast of Pride & Prejudice, but tenfold the content of personality, including women who are interested not just in marriage, but education, politics, religion, literature, foreign language and a deal more. A few characters are driven into romance, and to my eye, at least as keenly as Austen, but only a minority are defined by it. There is also at least one made a fool by the preoccupation, which lends necessary variety to the execution. The best effect is that I'm actually rooting for a few of these people to find happy endings, though that's dangerous in a satire.
It's also splendid to read a little reference-comedy about John Milton. It felt like someone was letting a little air of class into my room.
The most striking element thus far is the range of themes Evans/Eliot tackles. Scenes and chapters seem to almost deliberately disagree in their approaches, or someone’s opinions will fly against the narrator. Dorothea is introduced to us with almost too much “telling,” about her life, opinions, looks and behaviors, heaped upon in narration and then dialogue. A Book later, an artist deems her too complex to capture in art. It’s partially my bias to seeing the novel as an artform, but this artist is condemning the ability of the arts to capture life, which the narrator seems to think he/she is doing constantly.
How is everyone else doing with their books?