Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Middlemarch, part 2 - Dorothea and modernity

I knew George Eliot was a good writer after reading The Mill on the Floss. Then I read Silas Marner and knew that she was capable of projecting a whole lot on a relatively small canvass. And then I read Daniel Deronda and recognized her ability to create characters I wanted to keep reading about. How could Middlemarch possibly surprise me?

The book opens with Dorothea Brooks, a character who is immediately both annoying and entirely believable. Her aloofness when dealing with her sister Celia in one of the earliest scenes is striking in its ability to be relevant today. The sisters are dividing their deceased mother's jewelry, yet Dorothea rejects the jewels on account of them being something of a worldly good. Her religiosity is a curious form of Puritanism, yet I can hardly argue with its convincing naturalness. When Celia presses Dorothea to take a certain necklace, Dorothea instead switches the situation on its head and tells Celia that she should take the necklace. The scene sets up much of Dorothea's personality in a surprisingly subtle fashion, but is also entirely in tune with how people behave, and speak, and act.
Celia felt a little hurt. There was a strong assumption of superiority in this Puritanic toleration, hardly less trying to the blond flesh of an unenthusiastic sister than a Puritanic persecution.
Later, when Dorothea does indeed find jewelry she likes, she struggles to reconcile her religious inclinations with her simple desires. It's a tug of war between her drive to do what she believes is the right thing, to behave properly, and to be happy. It at times felt a bit like hypocrisy. This early in the book, Dorothea's hypocrisy and religious superiority mostly outweigh her other character traits. But the balance between the two sides of her personality are there. Her passion and beliefs are evident. Her inner strength is apparent.

We need, of course, to remember what era Middlemarch is from. Here is, perhaps, the most surprising side of the book. This is a novel that includes several very different women in it, as written by a highly intelligent woman. Sexism is, of course, rampant (Mr. Brook, Dorothea's uncle, is particularly sexist, frequently dismissing his niece and remarking on women's lack of intelligence and general inability to understand basic ideas), but it felt as though Eliot was actually mocking the sexist characters, rather than encouraging them. Even this hilarious quote: "And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better." Maybe this is my own wishful thinking, but I couldn't help feeling like Eliot was on our side, here in the future. It was quite comforting.

Indeed, most of Middlemarch feels well ahead of its time. And I don't just mean in terms of Eliot including strong female characters, or a certain pacing to the writing that makes it feel astonishingly fresh. Rather, nothing about the book feels specifically outdated. There are the obvious technicalities, but on the whole Middlemarch didn't seem like it was very distant from my own reality. People are still people. Life is still life.

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