Early on (page 3) in Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) we get this for the heroine Dorothea Brooke:
A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick labourer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles – who had strange whims of fasting like a papist, and of stirring up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and domestic life was that opinions were not acted upon. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
Well now – here is a crisp statement of the dilemna of Christianity ever since its founder took to the money dealers in the Temple; and Jane Austen, too, had humour – but as mordant or dry as this humour?
Dorothea sounds a lot like Greer Garson in the movie Pride and Prejudice. Her naïve idealism leads her into marriage with a frightful pedant, Mr Edward Casaubon, who eventually does the right thing and drops dead in time for Dorothea to reignite a flame with a young man named Will – who really does need a steadying hand.
The other main lead is Tertius Lydgate a doctor at that stage of his career where he can still afford idealism.
Plain women he regarded as he did other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science.
(Gibbon may not have disowned that.) Lydgate marries the mayor’s daughter, Rosey Vincy. Her dad was in trade, and her flightiness leads to her being unable to cut her cloth as her husband faces the economic facts of life. The resulting strain on Lydgate and the marriage is painfully etched in a way that seems a lot closer to home than we get with Jane Austen. It has a nasty modern quotidian tang.
Another couple sees a strong woman take hold of a young man who prefigures our adult children now who refuse to grow up or move out.
Among the supporting characters is a banker named Bulstrode who has a past that comes back, as they tend to do in French novels, and who brings out the terminal judgmentalism of the small town. The novel is subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, and it does look right across the range of that kind of life in a way that recalls Balzac rather than Austen. There is no doubting the art of Jane Austen, but do those stylized comedies of manners offer the kickers you get with George Eliot?
I mentioned the following in a previous note – the frightful cleric, Mr Casaubon, marries the belle of the village, to the disgust of at least one admirer (Will, the ultimate husband).
But the idea of this dried up pedant, this elaborator of small explanations about as important as the surplus stock of false antiquities kept in a vendor’s back chamber, having first got this adorable young creature to marry him, and then passing his honeymoon away from her, groping after his mouldy futilities….this sudden picture stirred him with a sort of comic disgust: he was divided between the impulse to laugh aloud and the equally unseasonable impulse to burst into scornful invective.
Here are some other examples of why this book, although very long, can be sustained in a way that you do not get with Proust.
Indeed, she [Mrs Waule] herself was accustomed to think that entire freedom from the necessity of behaving agreeably was included in the almighty’s intentions about families.
For my part [the author’s] I have some fellow feeling with Dr. Sprague: one’s self-satisfaction is an untaxed kind of property which it is very unpleasant to find depreciated.
‘Yes’, said Mr Casaubon, with that peculiar pitch of voice which makes half the world seem a negative.
Flirtation, after all, was not necessarily a singeing process.
As to Captain Lydgate [the brother of the doctor] himself, his low brow, his aquiline nose bent on one side, and his rather heavy utterance, might have been disadvantageous in any young gentleman who had not a military bearing and moustache to give him what is doated by some flower-like blond heads as ‘style’.
Yes, that is alarmingly modern and might prompt a note from the Sisters. But our author makes amends.
Will Ladislaw [the real beau of Dorothea] was in one of those tangled crises which are commoner in experience than one might imagine, from the shallow absoluteness of men’s judgments.
This beautifully composed novel ends this way:
But the effect of her [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 half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
That breadth of mind and warmth of vision used to be called humanist.