'Middlemarch': Juvenile Pleasure, Grown-Up Insight

Francine Prose

Francine Prose's latest book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, was published this month. Prose is also the author of Bigfoot Dreams, Household Saints, The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA grants, two New York State Council on Arts grants, a PEN Translation Prize and two Jewish Book Council Prizes. Prose, the mother of two grown sons, lives in New York City with her husband, painter and illustrator Howard Michels.

Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. All Things Considered talks with writers about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.

Don't take my word about Middlemarch. Take Virginia Woolf's. When I urge my friends to read Middlemarch, as I do all the time, I often explain that the reason I re-read it several summers ago was because I'd found, in Virginia Woolf's essay on George Eliot, her description of Middlemarch as "the magnificent book which, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."

A pretty strong recommendation, I thought! And as usual, Virginia Woolf nailed it.

But early on the way to discovering what she meant, I was so overtaken by the seductions of Eliot's masterpiece that I briefly forgot about "grown-up people" and succumbed to the more juvenile pleasures of starting a long novel and knowing that, for hundreds of pages, I was going to be transported to a place where I was glad to be, and surrounded by all new neighbors whose fates I wanted to know.

In this case, it's provincial England, where two lovely but impecunious sisters, Dorothea and Celia Brooke, are trying to decide what to do with their futures. Needless to say, choices are few for women of their class and era, so the parameters of their decisions mostly involve marriage and the inner life. Jane Austen believed that things would work out, but Eliot wasn't so sure. That essential uncertainty may be part of what Woolf meant by "grown-up," and part of why Mary Anne Evans may have chosen to write under the pseudonym of George Eliot.

Celia opts for stability, the creature comforts, the neighborhood's best "catch," the affable baronet, Sir James Chettam. But the inconveniently complicated Dorothea marries an elderly sourpuss named Edward Casaubon, who is supposedly writing a massive Key to All Mythologies. (You've met this guy, just as you've met — in "real life" — nearly all the characters in this novel that was first published, in serial form, between 1871-74.) Here is how George Eliot describes their ill-starred courtship:

"Dorothea had by this time looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon's mind, seeing reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought; had opened much of her own experience to him, and had understood from him the scope of his great work, also of attractively labyrinthine extent. For he had been as instructive as Milton's 'affable archangel;' and with something of the archangelic manner he told her how he had undertaken to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with that thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed...

"Dorothea was altogether captivated by the wide embrace of this conception. Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies'-school literature; here was a living Bossuet, whose work would reconcile complete knowledge with devoted piety; here was a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint."

A deeply religious person and would-be saint, Dorothea sees helping her husband as a sort of holy vocation. But as the novel progresses, she begins to wonder if true love, authenticity, and erotic fulfillment aren't reasonable alternatives to misery, sacrifice, and pointless self-mortification.

Even as our inner children are reading to find out what happens, Eliot's taking the grown-ups on a dizzying tour past the landmarks of adulthood: the uneasy truce between ambition and limitation; how we satisfy our desires for love, excitement, and money; the compromises we make with ourselves; how hard it is to admit a costly mistake.

Unlike a history book or tract, Eliot shows us what it was like, from the inside, to live in an era in which female intelligence was considered a serious handicap, and she tells us precisely what it's like to weigh the longing for simple happiness against the desire to be a good person and lead a meaningful life.

Read Middlemarch, or re-read it. It's like getting a stronger eyeglass prescription and a new pair of lenses through which to see more deeply into the hearts and lives of "grown-up people."

NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this series.

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