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


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.

Middlemarch Readalong: Onto Part Two!

So what are you looking forward to the most in Book 2? I for one want to know more about Mary Garth! And how the Dorothea-Casaubon relationship is unfolding. With maybe a little bit of Mrs. Cadwallader thrown in!

There’s time till April 15 to finish book 2, so if you haven’t begun so far but want to join in, you should have plenty of time to catch up!

I thought I’ll end with some of the new-to-me words that I came across in Book 1. Were there any new-to-you words that caught your fancy?

to make “blazonry or clock-face” of a thing

P.S. There’s a host of links in the sidebar for quick navigation.

Middlemarch Book One: Miss Brooke, George Eliot

My cohort’s thoughts on Book One:

Laila’s Review: Thoughts on Middlemarch (Book One: Miss Brooke)
Valancy’s Review: Classic Review: Middlemarch, George Eliot (or venturing into provincial life…)

And here’s my own. . .

Till almost the half-way mark I couldn’t figure out how much of Dorothea’s foolishness stemmed from her creator’s influence and how much of it was a result of the society she lived in, a society where:

Women were expected to have weak opinions; [and] the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on.

Of the three young women Eliot introduces in Book One—Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy, and Mary Garth—it is Dorothea who blazes with an intensity that I imagine would be uncomfortable to live with. (To be fair, Mary Garth might be equally intense with no outlet for that intensity given that she’s wholly dependent on others for food, clothing and a roof over her head).

Dorothea’s thirst for knowledge much beyond what is allowed to her sex makes her a sympathetic character:

She, hardly more than a budding woman, but yet with an active conscience and a great mental need, not to be satisfied by a girlish instruction comparable to the nibblings and judgments of a discursive mouse.

And yet she’s quite tiresome too:

She was enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.

It’s easy to see why Casaubon holds such attraction for Dorothea despite being a middle-aged, doddering old prosy. He’s knowledgeable about matters close to Dorothea’s heart and more importantly indulges Dorothea in her interests. Whether he indulges those interests out of a genuine concern for Dorothea’s well-being or merely as an opportunity to exhibit and impress with his Great Knowledge is anybody’s guess. It doesn’t occur to Dorothea to make this distinction either. She wants to be married to someone who can subsume her within him—someone of a much greater intellectual stature, someone who can “help [her] see which opinions had the best foundation:”

She was not in the least teaching Mr Casaubon to ask if he were good enough for her, but merely asking herself anxiously how she could be good enough for Mr Casaubon.

It doesn’t strike her that she is too much of a doer to sit passively and let life happen to her. In this, Mary Garth has an edge over Dorothea—she has a level of self-awareness that Dorothea displays nowhere in Book One.

By this point, more than being annoyed at her relentless righteousness, I feel sorry for Dorothea. But I also take comfort from something Eliot says earlier in Book One:

Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and coloured by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge. They are not always too grossly deceived; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zig-zags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be.

So perhaps, Dorothea’s marriage to Casuabon is just the first of the many “loops and zig-zags” that will take her “where [she] ought to be.” (I like how Eliot switches from third person plural to first person plural by the end of the paragraph.)

What of Casaubon? He comes off as such a complete and utter stick-in-the-mud that I started chortling when I read of his expectations to feel “the force of masculine passion!” Eliot does seem to be having some fun at his expense:

[He’s been working on the Complete Compendium of Something or the Other for as long as anyone can remember]

His very name carried an impressiveness hardly to be measured without a precise chronology of scholarship.

Eliot surprised me even more by talking about Casaubon’s expectations for happiness. HAPPINESS?! Casaubon? Really?! “Masculine passion” had me chortling, but Casaubon’s expectations for happiness made me shiver. Why are we being made to look at Casaubon in an all new light at this juncture? The way Eliot paints Casaubon through so much of Book One—as a character in Dorothea’s story—makes it easy to forget that he also has a life (and probably desires) of his own.

Then there’s Celia, Dorothea’s sister, whose common-sense allows her “to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation.” She calls Dorothea Dodo which I think is a ridiculous nickname for someone as earnest as Dorothea. But maybe that’s the point? I like Celia’s even-temperedness and wish that Eliot hadn’t portrayed it as dimwittedness:

[Here’s Celia’s argument to convince Dorothea (who disdains of such fripperies) that it’s a good idea to spend time looking at their mother’s jewelry, and dividing it between the two of them.]

“I think, dear, we are wanting in respect to mamma’s memory, to put them by and take no notice of them. And,” she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification, “necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poinçon, who was stricter in some things than even you are, used to wear ornaments. And Christians generally—surely there are women in heaven now who wore jewels.” Celia was conscious of some mental strength when she really applied herself to argument.

My note beside this says, “Strength of what? An ant?”

I’m a little puzzled at why Eliot has set up Dorothea’s cleverness in opposition to Celia’s common-sense. Wouldn’t the two go hand-in-hand? Their differing temperaments notwithstanding, the sisters seem to have an affection for each other.

I’m not sure what to make of Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s and Celia’s uncle. So far, he seems to be mostly bluster and no substance. Towards the end, a flurry of characters makes their appearance. Rosamond Vincy seems to be a thoroughly selfish and unlikable character and I wonder if Eliot will endow her with any redeeming qualities like she did with Dorothea. I do want to read more about Mary Garth. As I mentioned above, she seems to be more self-aware than Dorothea, an awareness that might lead her to faring better than Miss Brooke perhaps?

Throughout the story Eliot gives us glimpses of the society in which our characters move.

On marriage, especially the woman’s role in it,  and how woefully unprepared Dorothea is for her own (because even though we can’t be sure of what Casaubon expects from his marriage, I suspect it would cleave more to the first part of this paragraph than the latter):

Let but Pumpkin have a figure which would sustain the disadvantages of the short-waisted swallow-tail, and everybody felt it not only natural but necessary to the perfection of womanhood, that a sweet girl should be at once convinced of his virtue, his exceptional ability, and above all, his perfect sincerity. But perhaps no persons then living—certainly none in the neighbourhood of Tipton—would have had a sympathetic understanding for the dreams of a girl whose notions about marriage took their colour entirely from an exalted enthusiasm about the ends of life, an enthusiasm which was lit chiefly by its own fire, and included neither the niceties of the trousseau, the pattern of plate, nor even the honors and sweet joys of the blooming matron.

A hint of the winds of change to come and the Old Guards’ reaction to it:

You’d sooner offend me than Bulstrode. And what’s he?—he’s got no land hereabout that ever I heard of. A speckilating fellow! He may come down any day, when the devil leaves off backing him. And that’s what his religion means: he wants God A’mighty to come in. That’s nonsense! There’s one thing I made out pretty clear when I used to go to church—and it’s this: God A’mighty sticks to the land. He promises land, and He gives land, and He makes chaps rich with corn and cattle. But you take the other side. You like Bulstrode and speckilation better than Featherstone and land.

And that such changes have always been a part of the societal fabric:

Old provincial society had its share of this subtle movement: had not only its striking downfalls, its brilliant young professional dandies who ended by living up an entry with a drab and six children for their establishment, but also those less marked vicissitudes which are constantly shifting the boundaries of social intercourse, and begetting new consciousness of interdependence. Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirants, gained wealth, and fastidious gentlemen stood for boroughs; some were caught in political currents, some in ecclesiastical, and perhaps found themselves surprisingly grouped in consequence; while a few personages or families that stood with rock firmness amid all this fluctuation, were slowly presenting new aspects in spite of solidity, and altering with the double change of self and beholder. Municipal town and rural parish gradually made fresh threads of connection—gradually, as the old stocking gave way to the savings-bank, and the worship of the solar guinea became extinct, while squires and baronets, and even lords who had once lived blamelessly afar from the civic mind, gathered the faultiness of closer acquaintanceship. Settlers too, came from distant counties, some with an alarming novelty of skill, others with an offensive advantage in cunning. In fact, much the same sort of movement and mixture went on in old England as we find in older Herodotus.

I like that what Eliot says about the changing nature of society is as true today as it was when she wrote this.

I like her wit and her descriptions. I like her epigraphs. I like that her characters are of such a varying degree. I like that she seems to be suggesting that these characters are as much a product of their times as their own inclinations. I like how there seem to be so many moving parts in this story. I REALLY like the sprawling nature of this novel! And can’t wait to read Book Two!

Middlemarch Readalong: Holler Time!

We have another nine days to go before the official end of Part One but I thought I’d holler and ask how everyone’s doing!

I’m up to about 60 pages right now and can’t help but feel a little sorry for Dorothea. I do love how Eliot manages to make her both likable and unlikable at the same time.

I also remembered that it was Zadie Smith’s essay on Middlemarch in Changing My Mind that convinced me that I need to read this! I’ll probably revisit that essay later on.

What made you want to read Middlemarch? I’d love to know!

By the way, when Casaubon says:

But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness, which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated.

What does he mean by “those graces of sex?” Is he referring to Dorothea’s beauty? What a prosy!

(Also, Causabon causes Word to put the wiggly red line underneath it, signaling a potential wrong spelling, but Casaubon doesn’t! Go figure!)

A bit of trivia to end with: Eliot started writing late in her life, and published Adam Bede only when she was 40. I kind of love that.

Middlemarch Readalong: Part One

Maybe you’re an Eliot fan and have been wanting to re-read Middlemarch? Or perhaps, you’re just someone who wants to see what the fuss is all about? Come, join us! We begin our Middlemarch readalong today!

For the next two weeks, we’ll be focusing on Part One of Eliot’s magnum opus. You can find the rest of the schedule here.

Two weeks to read, enjoy, and think about Miss Dorothea Brooke! Once you’re done, tell us what you think about what you’ve read so far and leave a comment on this post with a link back to your blog.

Happy Reading!

Oh, and you can use this guide as a way to get yourself thinking about what you’ve read in Part One.

Middlemarch Readalong

I have been wanting to read Middlemarch for some time now. And since it’s a doorstopper I thought it would be much more enjoyable if I did it with others who want to read it too! And so behold a Middlemarch Readalong or #MiddlemarchAlong! (or should we go with #MarchAlong?)

I have never participated in a readalong before or been the originator of one so I’m really not sure what my hostly duties are. I’ll probably learn as I go along!

Here’s the stuff you need to know in case you’re interested in joining me or https://bigreadinglife.wordpress.com or http://bluecastleconsiderations.com or https://louloureads.wordpress.com . . .

Middlemarch is divided into eight sections with essentially 100 pages to each section. We’ll be spending two weeks on each section at the end of which everyone who’s joining in can will post thoughts about that particular section up on their blogs. Two weeks is going to extend this readalong to FOUR MONTHS (!) I know (!!) but I’d rather have this stretched out than feel rushed. Especially since one of my main intentions with this thing is to actually ENJOY reading and thinking about Middlemarch! (And also because I need a way to be able to wedge in other books too!)

Other than that there are no rules really. At the beginning of each period I will put up a place-holder kind of post with the linky thing that allows everyone who’s participating to share their blog links—Oh wait, I think this post is going to have one too so if you’re joining in please do click on it and link up (and leave a comment)!

I haven’t really thought about social-media-ing this thing (I’m still having a hashtag though!) but we’ll see how it goes.

That’s about it. I think. Feel free to jump in with your thoughts or suggestions!

Oh, a guide that you can use to marshal your thoughts thanks to Rohan Maitzen of Novel Readings: https://middlemarchforbookclubs.wordpress.com.

We start on March 15th.


March 15 – March 31 Prelude & Book One: Miss Brooke
April 1 – April 15 Book Two: Old and Young
April 16 – April 30 Book Three: Waiting for Death
May 1 – May 15 Book Four: Three Love Problems
May 16 – May 31 Book Five: The Dead Hand
June 1 – June 15 Book Six: The Widow and the Wife
June 16 – June 30 Book Seven: Two Temptations
July 1 – July 15 Book Eight: Sunset and Sunrise & Finale