Cooper takes the classics very seriously.

Cooper takes the classics very seriously.

Well, we're halfway there! I don't know about you, but Books 3 & 4 went better for me than the first two sections. It's been a while since I've read anything this serious, and it took some time to get into the Classic Literature Frame of Mind. We have to read works like Middlemarch differently than other books, don't we? It requires the employment of muscle groups that may have atrophied over time from lack of use. It's not the kind of book one can read with the basketball game on in the background, in between bites of pizza and sips of beer. One of my high school friends sent a message last week that read, “I finished Book 1 and I did not die.” Isn't that about all we can hope for when attempting books like this? 

Well, maybe a little bit of enjoyment along the way would be nice as well. I have to admit, I'm enjoying the realism. Dorothea and Casaubon, for example, and the disintegration of their marriage. It's not that I'm enjoying their suffering in a schadenfreude kind of way; it's just refreshing to read a 19th century novel about marriage that isn't a ridiculous, trite fairy tale. Eliot was committed to portraying life as it really is, and sometimes people who are ill-suited for each other get married, often for superficial reasons (ahem, Lydgate). Eliot was also savvy enough to know that the story doesn't end after the wedding—the wedding is just the beginning, of course, and real life is everything that comes after.

Eliot's own romantic life was highly unconventional, particularly for her time. As Rebecca Mead reveals in My Life in Middlemarch, Eliot had a few failed entanglements before eventually shacking up with a married man. She formed a friendship with Herbert Spencer, spending time going to the theater and concerts, but as rumors of an impending engagement began to surface, Spencer awkwardly gave her the “I just think of you as a friend” talk. After that debacle, Eliot hooked up with George Henry Lewes, who was married but separated from his wife, who had several children with another man. Eliot and Lewes moved in together, and Eliot referred to Lewes as her husband, although this scandalous arrangement led to her siblings disowning her.

Thus it is likely that Eliot understood romantic disappointment very well, and knew better than to write books that painted a too-rosy picture of courtship and marriage. Book 3 shows us another couple in less-than-ideal circumstances: Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. Fred, though good-natured, is kind of a bumbler, and through shoddy business dealings has lost a great deal of money guaranteed by Mary's father Caleb. In his happy-go-lucky way, Fred assumed his money troubles would be solved by a large inheritance from Featherstone, but the old coot instead wrote up a later will bequeathing nearly everything to his illegitimate son whom no one even knew existed. In this way, Fred is royally screwed, and has to go to the Garths and confess his sins. The consequences are weighty: the Garths' son will not be able to be apprenticed, thus restricting his options for his entire life, and Caleb warns Mary that Fred is unreliable and therefore not a good match.

And we have to agree with Mr. Garth on that point, don't we? Fred and Mary are a strange pair. Mary is steady, intelligent, dutiful, while Fred is clearly not the sharpest tool in the shed. I have to wonder what exactly Mary finds attractive in Fred, as it seems to me the only thing he has going for him is his taste in women. Lydgate could learn a thing or two from Fred about choosing a woman; maybe then he wouldn't have flirted his way into a corner with the beautiful but empty-headed Rosamond. That marriage is sure to be an unmitigated disaster. Lydgate and Rosamond are already cavalierly frittering his money away in setting up their home, and if there's one truth about marriage that lasts through the ages, it's that fighting about money is the leading cause of divorce.

I'm starting to see why Rebecca Mead has found Middlemarch to be instructive in the course of her life. I was certainly a skeptic at first, and I wasn't sure how to read Eliot's didactic tone. Now that I've fully committed to this Challenge, I'm beginning to appreciate how Eliot demonstrates truth through her characters and their choices. Sometimes we think we know someone and we don't. Sometimes we make bad decisions that end up hurting other people. Sometimes we choose a mate for the wrong reasons and have to give up our ideals. Eliot was a keen observer and illustrator of real life, and I'm surprised and pleased at how relevant it all still feels, almost 150 years later.

Favorite quotes from this section:

“Looking at the mother, you might hope that the daughter would become like her, which is a prospective advantage equal to a dowry—the mother too often standing behind the daughter like a malignant prophecy--'Such as I am, she will shortly be.'” (Ch. 24)

“The troublesome ones in a family are usually either the wits or the idiots.” (Ch. 32)

“But it is very difficult to be learned; it seems as if people were worn out on the way to great thoughts, and can never enjoy them because they are too tired.” (Ch. 37)

“[B]y desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” (Ch. 39)

Comments are open below. How is the book going for you? What have you enjoyed? What have you struggled with? How do you feel about Eliot's realism? Have your feelings about the book changed as you've read further? Do you think you'll be able to finish the book by the end of the month? Isn't Jane Austen's work inferior to Eliot's in every way?