(The #Marchalong continues! Many thanks to Juhi from Nooks and Crannies for hosting the Middlemarch readalong and giving me an excuse to reread this marvelous book!)
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. – Middlemarch, Chapter 20
I forgot how good this book is. Yes, it does require a bit deeper level of concentration to read than a modern novel ( a teeny, tiny bit) but my effort is rewarded tenfold in clever observations and witty dialogue. Book Two widens the scope of Eliot’s view, including not just Dorothea and Causabon but also more of Lydgate, Rosamond Vincy, Fred Vincy, Mary Garth, and Will Ladislaw. A lot happens in these 100 or so pages. Mary and Fred banter, we learn more about Lydgate’s past in Paris, a new chaplain to the Infirmary is elected, and we visit Dorothea and Causabon on their honeymoon in Rome.
Ah, Fred. He is appealing despite being kind of aimless and lazy. He clearly adores Mary Garth – plain, poor, smart, sensible Mary Garth! I admire her, too. She clearly has a good head on her shoulders to want Fred to be more settled in his occupation before she gives him the slightest bit of encouragement romantically. Even though taking care of old crotchety Mr. Featherstone is hard work, she isn’t jumping into a romance with someone who had debt. It’s been so long since I’ve read this that I forget exactly what happens with Fred and Mary, but I can’t wait to see how Eliot arranges their futures.
Now Dr. Lydgate is an interesting chap, isn’t he? His passion and zeal for medicine kind of reminds me of Dorothea’s fervent desire to do good for the poor of Middlemarch. But his torrid romantic past was most interesting to me – falling in love with a dark-eyed actress and confessed murderess! Perhaps wary of his own bad judgment, he decides to abandon romance and focus solely on medicine. But now, in the thick of Middlemarch social life, he is frightfully unaware of how Rosamond takes his flirtation at a dinner party. Eliot foreshadows the possibly coming train wreck when she writes,
Poor Lydgate! or shall I say, Poor Rosamund! Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing. It had not occurred to Lydgate that he had been a subject of eager meditation to Rosamund, who had neither any reason for throwing her marriage into distinct perspective, nor any pathological studies to divert her mind from that ruminating habit, that inward repetition of looks, words, and phrases, which makes a large part of the lives of most girls.
I certainly know that ruminating habit myself, don’t you? What a timeless observation of young womanhood.
Speaking of young womanhood – Poor Dorothea! I felt alternately frustrated by and sorry for her on her sad honeymoon in Rome with Mr. Cold Fish himself, Causabon. There she is, lonely, in a strange country, sobbing in her villa, and she blames herself for her mental state! She perceives it as her own “spiritual poverty,” as Eliot writes. I was struck by the words Eliot uses to describe Dorothea’s dawning consciousness about the reality of her marriage. “…she has been becoming more and more aware, with a certain terror (emphasis mine,) that her mind was continually sliding into inward fits of anger or repulsion, or else into forlorn weariness.” Later in the same paragraph she writes that Causabon’s “way of commenting on the strangely impressive objects around them had begun to affect her with a sort of mental shiver.” Great way to begin a marriage, right?
Enter curly-haired Will Ladislaw, who happens to be in Rome doing his artsy painting thing, and when he sees Dorothea at a gallery, he is instantly smitten, to the delight of his saucy German painter friend, Naumann. I love the scene where Naumann teases Will about the obvious effect seeing Dorothea has had on him.
‘I see, I see. You are jealous. No man must presume to think that he can paint your ideal. This is serious, my friend! Your great-aunt!…’
‘You and I shall quarrel, Naumann, if you call that lady my aunt again.’
What is interesting to me in the conversations that Will and Dorothea have towards the end of Book Two is that Dorothea remains loyal to her husband, and does not in the least bit seem to flirt with Will, even when he pays her compliments. She does not seem to suspect that he is romantically interested in her at all. She really seems to want to make her marriage work, even though, to the reader, it is increasingly evident that she and Causabon are ill-suited for one another.
So I’m excited to begin Book Three, ominously titled Waiting for Death. (Cue dire music!) Who is dying? I am interested to see what occupation Will Ladislaw tries to find for himself in Middlemarch, and to see if Fred Vincy can begin to make something of himself. I’m also curious to see how Rosamund ensnares the clueless Dr. Lydgate. I love that we have all these story lines to follow – that Eliot writes so many fascinating characters!