Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Religious and Philosophical Landscape: A Middlemarch Interlude

First things first: I promise that this isn't on its way to becoming The Middlemarch Blog.  I'm aiming to post three times a week, with only Fridays being about the book. Regular programming will resume soon, I promise. It's just that right now, with the ramp-up to the semester, I've had precious little time to post about the many things medieval and modern that I've been thinking about. And for the next few weeks, one of the remaining two posts per week is getting folks -- and myself! -- up to speed on the context of the novel so we know what the heck is going on. So this is one of those "Middlemarch interludes."

Once again, corrections and emendations from more expert commenters are welcome.

This past week's reading had a leitmotif of "ardent" versus "rationalist." And here, Eliot may be drawing on a big change that took place in English religion about a century before her time, and that was still a very fraught issue during the time the novel is set in. Previously, the major conflicts in English religion, broadly speaking, were between Protestants and Catholics, with the Anglican church (or Church of England) representing the former. As noted in the previous post on the upper classes in Victorian England, political position, whether in parliament or in the provinces, was often tied to membership in -- or even clerical position within -- the Anglican church. The seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries saw some fringe movements within the broader body of Protestant believers, but these sects -- folks like the Quakers, for example -- never had the large-scale membership that would make them anything but a fringe curiosity.

That all changed in the late eighteenth century with the rise of two important movements: Utilitarianism, and evangelicals/Methodists. These seem to have arisen and become popular in part as spiritual responses to the social and political upheavals associated with the "triple revolution" of the mid-eighteenth century: changes in industry, agriculture, and an explosion in population, especially in the cities. I'm particularly interested in these new religious movements because they each representing one of the approaches to life (rationalist vs. ardent) that we saw a lot of in chapters 7-12 of the novel. Not saying that these characters in Middlemarch are Utilitarians or Evangelicals, but they do represent a growing debate in English society that has its roots in these new religions.

First, the Utilitarians, and their avatar, Jeremy Bentham. Bentham's Utilitarian philosophy rejected the premise that one's actions should be dictated by abstract ideals that characterize most religious practice. For Bentham, "good" is defined by its outcomes: that which produces the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Bentham even referred to a "felicific calculus": individuals, institutions, and actions are only as good or as bad as the results they produce.

On the other end of the scale, we have evangelicals (later "Methodists"), represented by John Wesley (1703-91). In contrast to the Utilitarians, evangelicals were emotional, personal, and individualistic in their philosophy, embracing an emotional and personal faith based on individual experience of a salvation that is based in grace, but manifested in an individual's godly works. Some of this latter included the ascetic tendencies we tend to associated with Wesley and his followers: renouncing things like drinking, dancing, and frivolity. But evangelicals also embraced philanthropy, and a strong social reformist streak that blended with moral censoriousness. Despite this philanthropic side, it would be a mistake to think this was a theology of social revolution: Wesley supported the social hierarchy, and urged his followers to look for their rewards in the next world, not this one. Nevertheless, the individualism of this movement appealed a great deal to the middle classes, who saw moral reform as a key to self-reliance.

Finally, we should note that elements of this evangelical philosophy existed within the Anglican church -- a small faction to be sure, but one that focused on promoting individual faith and societal reform (many such Anglicans, for example, were deeply involved in the anti-slavery movement) from within existing structures.

So, to the characters: they're all Anglicans, but to what degree do they represent either of these philosophies, for all their Anglican affiliation? Casaubon seems very Utilitarian to me, while Dorothea is clearly a reformer in the evangelical mold. Keep an eye out for this in chapters 13-17, and more, as they unfold...

Monday, January 15, 2018

Ardent Desires, Poor Execution (Middlemarch, book 1 chs. 7-12)

"The mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it." [ch. 9]
Welcome back to the second half of book 1, where everyone is as mistaken as they are certain (aren't we all?), but also where doubts begin to creep in. Also, despite the book being titled "Miss Brooke," the final two or three chapters move the action to several new characters who will form the center of the story for the next ten chapters or so. These are mostly from the middle class rather than the gentry, so if you haven't read my previous post on class society in Victorian England, you might check it out. They are, by and large, as self-unaware a bunch as the gentry we met in chapters 1-6, but they are not without their endearing qualities. In fact, I think the narrator is doing something sneaky here: holding up what she says is a portrait, only for us to discover that it's actually a mirror. As she notes in chapter 10, after chapters of poking fun at Casaubon's expense, "If he was liable to think that others were providentially made for him [...] this trait is not quote alien to us, and, like the other mendicant hopes of mortals, claims some of our pity." Awkward. 

That's just some general stuff that I'll be thinking about as I read subsequent chapters. But what about these chapters in particular? I've picked out a few themes, just to start the conversational ball rolling, but feel free to take this where you want:


Ardent desire vs. dispassionate rationalism[1]: Dorothea was our first example of ardent desire in the previous chapters, and she hasn't changed... much. The narrator notes (with that irony, again) that "she had not reached that point of renunciation at which she would have been satisfied with having a wise husband; she wished, poor child, to be wise herself." [ch. 7] In these chapters, Dorothea's desires -- for learning; to make an impact, for transcendence of some sort -- are frustrated one after the other as her sense grows that her marriage may not be the salvation she thinks, and may even take away some of her previous sense of purpose (the cottagers here don't need her help!). In response, she doubles down on delusion. Her marriage will be fine. It will be Wonderful. The estate is not grim, thankyouverymuch, Celia.[2] But Dodo isn't the only example of disconnect between passion and execution: We've got Ladislaw, a young gentleman (and son of a disreputable aunt) with artistic aspirations, but vague goals, and truly questionable methods of achieving them.[3] There's also Rosamond, whose desire is to be Anywhere But Here; she's not really thinking beyond that. On the other end of the spectrum, we have Casaubon, who lacks passion even for the scholarly work that consumes most of his life, much less for marriage. As the narrator observes, "He determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprise to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was." [ch. 7] Or, as Mrs. Cadwaller put it (in what was my first laugh-out-loud moment of the book): "Somebody put a drop of [Casaubon's blood] under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses." [ch. 8] He finds himself surprised that marriage doesn't transform him into a conventionally happy man. On the other hand, as my lead quote suggests, ardent desire doesn't seem to lead to happiness any more than dispassionate rationalism, does it? 

Middle-class aspirations: This is the bit where my most recent post about class in Victorian England comes into play. Where the first chapters were told from the perspective of members of the Middlemarch gentry, in chapter 10-12 we are drawn into the lives of the upper stratum of the middle class. The Vincy patriarch is mayor, but also a man of business, and while the amiable Mr. Brooke will invite him to a dinner party, he doesn't go so far as to encourage Vincy's daughters Rosamond to associate with his daughters. Meanwhile, the Vincy children, Rosamond and her good-natured but aimless borther Fred, are often appalled when their parents allow their middle-classness peek through. Rosamond appears to have fallen forthe gentleman-doctor Lydgate from afar, based on the fact that he is handsome, well-born, and, most importantly, not Middlemarch.

Perceptions and misperceptions of others: This is probably a theme that's going to recur throughout the book. We have entire chapters here -- 8, 10, and large portions of 12 -- that are devoted to people talking about other people and judging how they do or don't measure up to who they are supposed to be. On the rare occasions that they are admired, as in the case of Rosamond Vincy or Lydgate, it is because they fit so well into an idealized image that has, in some cases, been scrupulously curated. Even unassuming Mary Garth notes casually that she goes about her day fitting herself into the image of how a plain girl should be, "pretending to be amiable and contented." [ch. 12]


Finally, a few random quotes that stuck out for me:
  • Sir James accepts the fact that Dorothea ought to have "perfect liberty of misjudgment." [ch. 8]
  • On Rosamond’s attempts to pass out of the middle class: "She was admitted to be the flower of Mrs. Lemon’s school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female — even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage." [ch. 11]
  • Mrs. Vincy, on Rosamond’s complaints about her brother Fred: "A woman must learn to put up with little things. You will be married some day." [ch. 11]
  • On Rosamond’s curated personality: "She was by nature an actress… she even acted her own character, and so well that she did not know it to be precisely her own." [ch. 12]
That's what I got. What did you think? Oh. And book 2 is only ten chapters rather than twelve, so for next week, we'll read only five chapters (13-17) where, inevitably, people will make a whole new series of poor choices.


[1] I suspect that this contrast between ardent and dispassionate will have something to do with the religious reforms predating the time of the novel, so I'm going to make those the subject of my next interlude.
 
[2] Also, more repressed sensualism in her offhand remark about weeping with emotion -- still only hints here, but I think there's going to be something here eventually, don't you?

[3] There is a bar here in Grit City Beach where a Famous Dissolute Writer used to hang out. At any given time, you can find at least three men in their mid-twenties to early thirties who will tell you that they, too, are writers, but who seem to think that the path to writerly success is to drink to excess where the Great Man did. This, to me, is Ladislaw. I shake my middle-aged head and wait for him to either grow up or die of liver failure.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Banging on about Class Again: A Middlemarch Interlude

Confession time: I’ve been having a hard time getting into Middlemarch. And the reason is pretty simple: I have no idea what the heck is going on.

When I read Don Quixote (last year’s “big read”) for the first time, one of the reasons that I was able to appreciate it was that I got the references. I knew enough about Spain and the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century to get the little allusions and jokes scattered throughout that marvelous near-1000-page novel. As I read the first chapters of Middlemarch for last week, I had the strong sense that Eliot, like other Victorian novelists, was relying on her own readers’ sense of the recent past to be able to get the jokes. I don’t; therefore I didn’t get it. As any historian will tell you, Context matters.

So, I approached a colleague who teaches modern Britain and begged her to lend me a textbook. And I started reading. And lo and behold! I actually am starting to get what’s going on!

So, as a public service to Comrade Physioprof (who asked for it) and my other commenters (who didn’t, but who might appreciate it), I’m going to post a short series of “Middlemarch interludes” midweek, in which I cover some of the context — the quick-and-dirty textbook version of a nonspecialist. Beginning today, and over the next month, I’ll cover the following:
  • Victorian Class society in the period of the novel
  • The intellectual and spiritual revolutions predating the time of the novel
  • Political reform in the period of the novel
  • Society & Culture in George Eliot’s time (about 40 years after the time of the novel)

I would also love for someone out there to take a fifth post, about a month from now, on George Eliot herself — about 500 to 800 words to give the nonspecialists some context. Any Victorian lit specialists out there? Get in touch!

Okay, so that’s a long prelude to a first post. Here’s the real post:

_____________________________________

Middlemarch is set in the provinces in the English midlands during the short period between 1829 and 1832. As we’ll see in a couple of weeks, these few years were a time of momentous political and social reform in Britain. But the novel deals broadly with class society in early Victorian Britain, in a time of frequent boom and bust cycles,[1] so it’s appropriate to start there. Society in Victorian England can roughly be divided into three major groups, each with their own subgroups:

  • The landed classes were made up of two distinct groups: the titled hereditary aristocracy (about 300 families), and the much more numerous landed gentry (about ten times as many families). Since the Brooks family and their associates are members of the latter, they’re the ones I’m going to focus on here. The gentry had a paternalistic attitude to the poor, especially those on their lands, but this was not part of any egalitarian impulse; they were fine with the social hierarchy just the way it was. Work for pay, including trade/merchant work, was considered demeaning, with the exception of “the professions”: clergy, military, law, and medicine. The gentry in their parishes (a political subdivision as much as an ecclesiastical one) were also closely linked with the Anglican church, and country squire and parson were the two complementary faces of authority in Victorian provincial society. As for women of the gentry, marriage was their main life goal, but this did not necessarily make them dependent, as they came to marriages with annual incomes settled on them by their fathers (contrast this with the more dependent situation of middle-class women, below).
  • The middle class aspired to the wealth and status of the gentry, and kept a servant or two, a country house, and income-producing land when they could. Unlike the gentry, paid work remained central to their lives — for men, that is: the aspirational culture of this class, however, meant that women were not part of the workforce. Since women of the middle classes also lacked the income settlements of their counterparts in the gentry, they were much more dependent on their husbands, and it could be argued [?] that middle class was more patriarchal than the gentry — the familiar tropes of “separate spheres” and “the angel in the house”, after all, centered on the women of the middle classes. This was also the sector of British society most likely to be drawn to nonconformist religions like the Methodists or even some of the more fringe sects like Quakers or Unitarians… but we’ll get to that next week, okay?
  • The working classes: I deliberately use the plural here because these were several distinct strata, ranging from artisans to semi-skilled laborers in the factories to unskilled manual labor in the mines or on agricultural estates. They did, however, have some common features. First, they were shut out from political participation (then again, so were the middle classes, until the 1830s, but we’ll get to that two weeks from now). Second, everyone worked: men, women, children. No angels in the house here. Third, they had little to no formal schooling. [2] The working classes were also targets of evangelical reformers, especially temperance reformers. Finally, this period saw the beginnings of growth in trade unions, which were as much a source of social fellowship as they were an economic negotiating body.

All right. That’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think? Next Monday we’ll meet here to discuss the second half of book 1, and sometime in the middle of next week I’ll post an interlude covering all those nonconformist religious sects that I’m sure are going to play a role in future chapters. And remember: Anyone who’d like to take a crack at summing up the author’s life and career in 500-800 words, drop me a line!

_____________________________________ 

[1] The novel itself is set in the midst of a pretty big boom cycle, fueled by over-speculation. A few years after the end of the novel’s story, the huge boom was followed by an equally huge bust that took England over half a decade to climb out of. The author knows this, but her characters do not. All they know is that things are chugging along quite well, economically speaking.



[2] Not that they were thoroughly illiterate. In fact, members of parliament found working-class literacy possibly dangerous, and passed laws to tax newsprint, making newspapers unaffordable to most working-class folk — though pamphlets with diverting or lurid tales or moralizing messages came cheap.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

An Indecent Proposal (Middlemarch book 1, chs. 1-6)

"We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, 'Oh, nothing!' "

Historiann asked me last week to talk about why this book. Well, the first answer is: I crowdsourced it, and it got the greatest number of enthusiastic recommendations. But the second answer is: it also got the greatest number of people who were decidedly not entranced by it. I figured: a polarizing book, written by a female author who used her married lover’s first name as her pseudonym at a time when female authors were mostly known for characters who felt things rather than thought things? How could I not read it?

The book is long, and is divided into 8 books, each of which has about a dozen chapters. Monday posts will cover half a book (5-6 chapters) each. I hope that people will use these posts to share  insights both serious and silly. I’ll get to mine as we go. Commenters Laura and What Now offered a recommendation for a Middlemarch reading guide (https://middlemarchforbookclubs.wordpress.com), put together by Rohan Maitzen, who is a professor of Victorian literature at Dalhousie University. I took a look, and it’s good. I plan to lift from it as needed. But let me throw out a few observations, maybe to get us started:

  • The characters: Thus far, we have met Mr. Brooke, his nieces Dorothea (a.k.a. “Dodo”) and Celia, Sir James Chettam, Casaubon, and Mrs. Cadwaller. Friends on Facebook who have begun the reading have noted that the characters are not particularly likeable, and I have to agree — at least in that no one (except maybe Celia) has any self-knowledge. But what does a cast of problematic individuals set up for us as readers? Celia, Dodo, and Casaubon stand out; any insights on the other characters?
  • The Setting: I think that this is going to be a big deal. After all, the book is called “Middlemarch,” which suggests that the place is as much of an influence as any of its inhabitants. But I’m not sure I have much to say here yet. Anyone else? Or do we put a pin in this for now?
  • The historical context: Hoo boy, this book makes me realize that I don’t know squat about early modern England, and I desperately hope that some commenters in there will help us fill in the gaps. So far… um… reform? To paraphrase a friend on Facebook, CASAUBON DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THE COTTAGES!!! And speaking of Casaubon…
  • That appalling proposal: Discuss.
  • The narrator: In her reading guide, Maitzen urges us not to confuse the narrator with the author. She also reminds us to look for the sardonic. What do we think, for example, of her reference to people who are born “a cygnet among ducklings”? What do we think about the prologue, and the framing it tries to set up? For me, it brought up…
  • The Woman Question (or: Are you a Dodo or a Celia? Take our quiz!): The author seems to be presenting us with two versions of Victorian womanhood, one conventional, the other unconventional. Or is she? Celia is likeable, but is Dorothea at all sympathetic? When she jumps at the chance to marry Casaubon, is she making a rational choice, in her own way? And for those who have peeked into the author’s own history, how does her own unconventional life frame how we think about her female characters thus far? There are also some hints at repressed female sensuality/sexuality in these earlier chapters; what about that?

That’s what I’ve got for the moment, but I’ll be peeking in and out of the comments as we go along this week.

Next Monday: we finish book 1 (chs. 7-12) and meet back to discuss!

Friday, January 5, 2018

On Being Nibbled to Death by Mice

Is it something about going in to the office?

Seriously: the semester is going to start soon, and there are many small things to take care of. So you go to the office with a finite list of twelve- to twenty-minute tasks. But every time you start one, something happens: A student comes in, randomly; a data something or other doesn't work and needs to be reconfigured. The account information that took you two hours to track down and configure a month ago doesn't work, and three phone calls can't put it right.

Nothing really goes terribly wrong. But you have this feeling that you are leaving the office more behind than when you arrived. It's like there's some workload-related branch of physics, and when you step into the office it all folds and bends and goes through a wormhole and you look up and it's suddenly dark and you have no idea how or when that happened and you've still only checked one item off your to-do list, and a minor one at that. And once it's past six pm on a Friday in winter, you realize you've missed your yoga class and everyone else has been gone for two hours and you think "Well, In for a penny, in for a pound; might as well stay for another hour and a half and see about just one more twelve-minutes-from-finished-but-not-really item on that to-do list."

But at least you took time out to write a blog post about it.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Write All the Things

In addition to reading and blogging, I'm also trying to get back into the habit of daily writing. I'd better, because I have no fewer than four deadline-specific papers or articles to deliver before June 30... and this doesn't even count the book manuscript.

That's a bit too short for a post, isn't it? As Iñigo Montoya said,



Yeah. That's my to-do list in a nutshell.

Once again, I said "yes" to too many things. Each of these are individually worthwhile: a paper for a "why yes, we'll fly you to Europe" conference that will result in a publication of a loose end that I wanted to publish anyway. A conference paper for a panel organized by a friend on a topic that I actually know something about, and that will give me a weekend to see said friend at a conference. Two revisions/updates of things I've already published. All worthwhile. And for the record, I did say "no" to one other writing-on-commission thing that came my way last year.

How will I get through this? Same way I'm gonna get through Middlemarch: one page at a time. But this is going to require a combination of consistency and ambition and persistence that I haven't had to deploy since I wrote my master's thesis in six agonizing weeks while finishing my MA coursework.[1]

The reward? Once I'm done with these things -- and provided I can avoid saying yes to anything else -- I'll get to finish the damn book when I'm done.

And speaking of Another Damn Book... more on that in a future post. I've been away for long, and have much to tell.


[1] I read and explored and researched for the summer between year 1 & year 2. Then, sometime in late January, my adviser said, "Why aren't you writing yet?" And so, faced with the need to crank out a chapter a week, I wrote frantically six days a week. On the seventh day, I drank. 
 

Monday, January 1, 2018

From January 1 to Middlemarch


As promised, I’m kicking off this year with something that will get me back into two good habits: nightly reading, and semi-regular blogging: Over the course of the first few months of this year, I’ll be reading — and inviting others to read along with me — George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

The inspiration: Every year, I set myself a reading goal. Last year, I hit upon the bright idea of reading 25 books: Two books a month,[1] plus one Big Read that I’d slowly make my way through over the course of the year. Last year, the Big Read was Don Quixote. How do you get through a 1000-page novel? The same way that you write a 1000-page novel: one chapter at a time. So every night, I read one of the book’s eight- to twelve-page chapters, and by the middle of the year, I was done. Don Quixote, by the way, is totally worth the effort, and I highly recommend it.

Anyway, I got so much out of this that I decided to try it again, but rather than picking a book at random, I asked friends what they’d recommend for a project like this. There was plenty of Dickens, several recommendations for Kristin Lavransdatter, and one joker even suggested Proust. But in the end, Middlemarch was the clear winner. It was also the most polarizing: while numerous people lauded it to the skies, a small but respectable handful told me that they just couldn’t stand it. And while those negative votes at first pushed me away, in the end they were the reason that I decided that this was a book I needed to read for myself.

So, here’s the plan: starting this week, anyone who wants to reads a chapter a night, six chapters a week. We meet on Mondays to talk about what we’ve read. No spoilers if you’ve read it already!

Finally: if you’re someone who knows something about English lit and wants to talk in the comments here about the context of the novel or its author, have at it in the comments to this post! And watch this space for other random medium-form musings in the year to come.


 [1] Obviously, this doesn't include books I'm just skimming or dipping into for work. If you're curious, the other book I'm reading right now is N.K. Jemisin's The Stone Sky; after that, I'll be rotating in some nonfiction with Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Post-Facts, and Fake News.