Nicolette Jones is a writer and freelance journalist. Educated at St. Hilda's College, Oxford, and Yale University, where she was a Henry Fellow in the Graduate School of English, she is the children's books reviewer for The Sunday Times and author of The Plimsoll Sensation, about the Victorian philanthropist Samuel Plimsoll and his campaign on behalf of sailors. Here Nicolette writes about George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Nicolette Jones on Middlemarch by George Eliot
I first read Middlemarch for A level. One of my English teachers disapproved of the syllabus. She thought no one should read the book before the age of 40, because a younger person could not possibly appreciate its theme of disappointed hopes and ideals - particularly of the two central characters: ardent and magnanimous Dorothea Brooke, who longs to be helpmeet to a great man, but mistakes Casaubon's finicky scholarliness for depth and wisdom and marries into misery; and talented Tertius Lydgate who wants to make a difference to humanity with his medical research, but falls for a controlling beauty with shallower ambitions.
I thought my teacher must be quite wrong, because I loved the book, reading it all through (swot that I was) half a dozen times. But I decided to test out Mrs Ashford's theory after I turned 40, to see what difference it made.
I still loved it, partly because I had known it so well and thought about it so much when I was 17. The experiences of youth - including the reading experiences - have an intensity that we lose as the 'shades of the prison house' encroach. Re-reading took me back to that vivid place.
It even seemed to me, post-40, that I understood something better at 17 than I would have if I had come to the book late: a teenager still lives the hopefulness and the idealism, so the notion that these might be thwarted is shocking. Rather as Carlene Bauer on this blog found an echo of her own and her housemate's overweening youthful confidence in The House of Mirth, and was dismayed to read how it might be your downfall. At 17 you think you can be great. It is painful to watch characters with rare potential end in mediocrity.
Many pleasures of the book had endured, such as the precision of the language even when the syntax was sometimes elaborate. The perfection, for instance, of relating that Casaubon hoped to condense his excessively copious notes for his magnum opus to 'fit a little shelf' - the word 'shelf' a damning substitute for the word 'volume'. Its great good humour and its comedy - in the portrait, for example, of outspoken Mrs Cadwallader, who compares Casaubon to 'a bladder of dried peas'. Its breadth and fertility in the depiction of the affairs and inhabitants of the town of Middlemarch and the interweaving of the various sub-plots, including feckless Fred Vincy's struggle to be worthy of good, plain Mary Garth, and the tale of hypocritical Bulstrode, brought down by his own hidden secret.
But Mrs Ashford was not entirely mistaken. Some things were more resonant than they had been. I felt more sympathy for the plight of Bulstrode than I had in my judgemental teens. I had perhaps grown up enough to believe that errors may need to be forgiven. And it was fascinating to read about good and bad marriages after I was married. The single most powerful thing I had taken away from Middlemarch at school was a hatred of Rosamond Vincy, whose extravagance traps her husband Lydgate into a life of narrow money-making banality and wastes his chance to save lives and change the world. I despised the turning of her lovely neck, a gesture of refusal to respond to her husband's concerns, signalling her absolute determination to have her own way. She still seems to me an Awful Warning, and a reminder that marriage should never be a power game.
I find myself wanting my daughters to appreciate the terribleness of Rosamond. Today we are too often persuaded by a celebrity culture that what matters most is to be pretty and charming. But Rosamond's materialism and self-interest are morally deplorable. She is the great example of what it means to be beautiful and shallow, and why you wouldn't want to be. It is a lesson youngsters need to learn.
As for the theme of disappointed hopes, I do not feel it more intensely than I did at first. But I still recognize its centrality. I once heard Philippa Gregory at Hay miss the point about Middlemarch completely. She said she wished Dorothea had ended up running a large corporation. Which is like saying you wish Laura had run off with Alec in Brief Encounter; the story would lose everything of its pathos and its grandeur.
Perhaps my life is not disappointing enough yet to prove Mrs Ashford's case. I shall read Middlemarch again if it ever becomes so. Or sooner, just for the fun of it.