Middlemarch Book 2: “Old and Young”

Valancy’s review of Book 2: Middlemarch: Book II, Old and Young (Or, not everything is coming up roses…)
Laila’s review of Book 2: Thoughts on Middlemarch Book Two: Old and Young

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I continue to fall more deeply in love with Middlemarch and George Eliot. She’s perspicacious in ways that is both funny, and sublime. The way she articulates these sentiments and structures them into sentences feels new to me, different from anything I’ve read before. I like that she doesn’t write in staccato bursts but instead meanders, goes-around, and sometimes draws out a single sentence into a full paragraph:

For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown—known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbours’ false suppositions.

She’s obviously erudite and her story reflects her knowledge of the advances in arts, science, and politics of her time.

Part of what makes me giddy with delight is the scope of Eliot’s story. There’s a large number of people in Middlemarch, and all of then belong to this story. They are such a balance of unique individuality and universal humanity that I can’t help feeling as if this is an account of real people rather than characters who’ve been drawn up to tell a story.

The first book chiefly concerned Dorothea Brooke. In the second, we are introduced to more of the citizenry, the chief amongst whom seems to be Tertius Lydgate. Lydgate is a newly arrived doctor in Middlemarch and is one of the “young” of the title. He reminded me of Dorothea in pretty much every way. He’s high on idealism but without a clue on how to translate that idealism into ordinary, everyday practice. Like Dorothea, he’s not particularly self-aware. It’s yet to be seen if his first brush with conflict will result in any realizations about the disconnection between his notions and the reality of “social conditions, and their frustrating complexity.” He’s intellectually passionate and rigorous about his chosen field of study and profession:

bringing a much more testing vision of details and relations into this pathological study than he had ever thought it necessary to apply to the complexities of love and marriage, these being subjects on which he felt himself amply informed by literature, and that traditional wisdom which is handed down in the genial conversations of men.

Like Dorothea, he looks to be on the brink of an unpropitious match—both Lydgate, and Rosamond, who’s sure to rope him in soon enough despite his plan to not marry for another five years, are ambitious. But, on the face of it at least, their ambitions seem to be incompatible. Rosamond feels like someone who can turn out to be pretty catty but we’ll have to wait and see.

We don’t get to know a lot about Mary Garth. She’s treated like dirt by Mr. Featherstone to whom she’s a companion, and is much admired by Fred Vincy. However, she sees Fred for the wastrel he is and refuses to be impressed by him, even though one gets the sense that she’s not completely immune to him.

At the end of book 1 Fred Vincy appealed to his father to intercede on his behalf with Mr. Bulstrode, his uncle. The intercession leads to the revelation of Mr. Bulstrode as being a man whose chief motive would appear to be to “further the glory of God,” and of Mr. Vincy as a shilly-shally kind of man. Bulstrode is further revealed to be someone who wields considerable power over his neighbors by virtue of his “charities.”

There’s also Reverend Camden Farebrother, the Vicar of St Botolph, (who’s also the cause of the conflict that Lydate faces), and for whom I can’t help but feel a soft spot. He’s just SO. NICE.:

The Vicar of St Botolph . . . by dint of admitting to himself that he was too much as other men were, had become remarkably unlike them in this—that he could excuse others for thinking slightly of him, and could judge impartially of their conduct even when it told against him.

Dorothea, and Casaubon make an appearance in the last third of the book. They’re in Rome on their honeymoon, and Dorothea’s disillusionment has begun. Casaubon treats “what to her were the most stirring thoughts” in a “matter-of-course” manner, and in a “tone of dismissal.” Given Dorothea’s earnestness, that’s almost like kicking an enthusiastic little puppy. And yet, it’s very difficult to cast Casaubon as an outright villain. Partly, it’s because Casaubon did not force this marriage on Dorothea, and partly it’s because we see just enough of his vulnerabilities to see him as a really stupid, and vain old man—one who married Dorothea to possibly get a new lease of life but who’s only now realizing that he’s too ossified for even that—than a contemptible one. (Though I’m a little puzzled by his aversion to physical touch—whenever there’s a mention of Dorothea touching him in some way, he seems to become uneasy). As for Dorothea, you can’t help feeling for her—made as she is, to feel, as if there’s something fundamentally wrong in being the creature of feeling and passion that she is.

Into this morass wades Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s cousin whom we met in Book 1. He’s the antithesis of Casaubon and doesn’t see “the world’s ages as a set of box-like partitions without vital connections.” He’s enchanted by Dorothea, and in sharp contrast to Casaubon, “discussed what she said, as if her sentiment were an item to be considered in the final judgment even of the Madonna di Foligno or the Laocoon.” As the epigraph in the last chapter foreshadows, he proceeds to fall in love with her. On her part, Dorothea, whose “heart. . . had always been giving out ardour and had never been fed with much from the living beings around her,” feels a “new sense of gratitude” for Ladislaw.

I love the thoughts that Eliot conveys on art, and history in the last third of the book. Here’s a thought on art:

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing.

And another one on enjoying art:

“I supposed I am dull about many things,” said Dorothea simply. “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”

“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else.”

And here’s one which reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s hivers in A Hat Full of Sky (I don’t have the book on hand, else I’d have juxtaposed this with the hiver quote):

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.

The third book is titled “Waiting for Death.” Has to be Casaubon, right? OR! Oh No! Is it going to be some metaphorical horror inflicted on Dorothea? Or Mary Garth? Or Rev. Farebrother? Or Will Ladislaw? Argh. What are you up to George Eliot?

P.S. You can find all the links related to the Middlemarch Readalong on the upper right hand corner of this page.

9 thoughts on “Middlemarch Book 2: “Old and Young”

  1. I love love love how you review things — so delightfully nuanced and thoughtfully stated. It always makes me think. And isn’t Rev Farebrother so good??? And his mother?

    ”When you get me a good man made out of arguments, I will get you a good dinner with reading you the cookery-book. That’s my opinion, and I think anybody’s stomach will bear me out.”
    “About the dinner certainly, mother,” said Mr. Farebrother.

    And exactly as you said, Lydgate and Dorothea are so similar! The higher calling, the introspection, coupled with the lack of self awareness….It’s very interesting!

    AND with whom does the DEATH lie in Book III??? I can’t hardly wait!!
    🙂

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  2. Great review! (I finally posted my thoughts!) I LOVE that exchange between Dorothea and Will where they talk about enjoying art. I totally underlined Will’s line “The best piety is to enjoy.” I also fine Dorothea and Lydgate to be very much alike, for better or worse. I can’t wait to see what happens in Book Three!

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  3. Pingback: Middlemarch Readalong: Onwards! (Book 3) | Nooks & Crannies - ’cus they’re perfect for a book lover

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