Meg Harper was educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. She combines writing for children with being a drama practitioner and counsellor. She runs a youth theatre in Banbury and has a busy time creating writing and/or drama workshops for many contexts. Meg is currently nearing the end of a writing residency in Westgate Primary School, Warwick, and will soon publish the book the children have written with her. Her own next book Stop! Thief! comes out in 2010 and she's just back from the British International Schools of Beijing and Guangzhou. She is an occasional blogger for the Scattered Authors' Society's Awfully Big Blog Adventure. In this post, Meg discusses George Eliot's Middlemarch.
Meg Harper on Middlemarch by George Eliot
When I discovered that Nicolette Jones had already written about Middlemarch for this series, I thought I should choose something else for the sake of variety. But I can't. That would feel disloyal. Middlemarch saved my life and keeps me going even now, despite the fact that I haven't read it for years.
I read it first as 'wider reading' when I was preparing for Oxford entrance exams. It was one of my English teacher's five all-time favourites. Another was Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann and I really ought to read that some day. At the time I was depressed – not perhaps any more than many a teenager, but I was certainly contemplating suicide, not in an active way with a plan but in an 'I really can't see what this life stuff is all about' kind of way. It all seemed pointless. Faced with relentless news bulletins over tea about the Biafran war, having accompanied my Dad on a trip to a home for profoundly disabled children who were left to loll on beanbags all day, immersed in First World War Poetry for A-level, I couldn't see any answer to the question of suffering and although I still got up and went to school each day, it was a grey and gloomy life. I wanted to change the world – I was impressed by a boy at school who continuously banged on about Amnesty International – but I didn't feel bright or capable enough. I wasn't a leader amongst people, I had no charisma or special talents – what could I do? And what was the point anyway?
And then along came Dorothea, the young woman whom Eliot describes as a modern St Theresa with her aspirations to better herself and the lives of other people. And her story saved me. She fails to save the world, of course. She fails in most of what she aspires to. She is naive, foolish and blinkered, romantic and impractical. And yet her pervasive goodness, her determination to keep trying to help is quietly transformational. I have the last words of the book emblazoned on my wall; I see them as something to aspire to:
But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependant 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.
I knew at 18 that I wasn't a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King and I couldn't see the point of being here if I wasn't. But Dorothea's story gave me purpose. Of course it makes some people angry: it is as if Eliot accepts that Dorothea's energies are sacrificed to the furtherance of her new husband's career, and you could certainly read it that way. But I did not and I do not. George Eliot was a formidable iconoclast - that reading does not fit what is known of her. It seems more a reflection on the frustrations and disappointments of life that refuses in the end to be negative. It's almost as if Eliot is saying, 'Yes, life can really screw you up – but that doesn't have to consume and destroy you – you can still be very effective.' It was a message I needed to hear then and still do now.
I sound as if I am recommending Middlemarch as a self-help book and of course, for me, it has been that very thing – which I find interesting. Alongside being a writer I am a counsellor - and many a self-help book have I therefore read. The vast majority sound great as you're reading them, but you quickly forget them or their systems. Great stories and characters are not like that. We remember them as much as we remember the injunctions of the people we have loved. In a crisis I am as likely to remember Dorothea berating Farfrae and Lydgate's other 'friends' with these words...
What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?
... or Caleb Garth, speaking of flighty but good-natured Fred Vincey...
I say, that young man's soul is in my hand; and I'll do the best I can for him, so help me God!
... as I am to remember anything I have learned from my parents or indeed from my Christan faith.
So maybe I'll be employing the wonderful 'Books on Prescription' service that is going to operate from our local library to suggest that clients read Middlemarch! Unlikely, of course – there'll be a set list of classics such as Mind over Mood. Not that there's anything wrong with that - but stories are far more memorable. And if you don't need therapy, Middlemarch is still a great read, with its wonderful cast of endearing and infuriating characters, the agonies of its plot, the poignancy of our heroes' experiences and, of course, for its social history. (It's an awful lot cheaper than a therapist by the way!)
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]