The Sunday Salon: Middlemarch, Book IV (Three Love Problems)

I’m now about halfway through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and a fine Victorian novel it is.  This weekend was originally the scheduled date for Team Middlemarch discussion, but various events required dovegreyreader to defer discussion until late August.  Well, I know all about life interfering with reading plans, so that’s no problem, but I figured I’d better set down a few thoughts on Book IV now, before it’s a distant memory.

I was intrigued by the title of this book — Three Love Problems — and hoped for a bit of high romance.  That’s not what I found, but I still enjoyed the interwoven tales of Eliot’s varied characters.  The book opens with Featherstone’s funeral, and the reading of his will.  There were surprises right off the bat as we learned of a distant relative, and poor Fred Vincy did not come into the inheritance he’d hoped for.  This is all the more tragic, since we know Featherstone destroyed another version of his will just before his death, a version which might have been of greater benefit to Fred.  Not only does Fred now have to choose a profession (shock! horror!  working for a living!), but his diminished prospects could also affect his sister Rosamond’s prospects for marriage.  However, she remains steadfastly committed to Tertius Lydgate, and they accelerate their marriage plans.

Meanwhile, Casaubon is becoming increasingly grumpy with Dorothea.  He blames her for the arrival of his cousin, Will Ladislaw, when in truth Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, invited him.  Will’s attraction to Dorothea is obvious to all but her, and Casaubon can hardly contain his jealousy.  Dorothea is blissfully unaware, and advocates for Will to inherit Casaubon’s wealth.  You can imagine how that went over.  Meanwhile, Casaubon asks Lydgate to give him the straight story about his health, which did nothing to improve his mood.  Things are quite strained in the Casaubon household these days.

I’m finding it useful to consult Spark Notes at the end of each book.  This is partly because of the group read’s slow pace. I read about a chapter a week, 10 chapters in all, and by the time I finished some of the early details had slipped my mind.  Also, Eliot explores a number of social issues, which the Spark Notes explain very well:  the dependence of women on men, the rise of industrialization, the rise of the middle class.  Reading up on these topics has provided much more insight to what Eliot was trying to do with this novel.

Book V, The Dead Hand, is about the same length as Book IV.  I will probably hold off on starting it until after the Book IV Team Middlemarch discussion so as not to get too far ahead of the group.  For the curious, here are my impressions of the earlier parts of this book:

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Midweek @ Musings: Middlemarch, Book III (Waiting for Death)

It’s almost time for dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch discussion of Book III, Waiting for Death.  Doesn’t that title sound ominous? Well, we certainly are waiting for the death of a certain elderly gentleman, since his estate may benefit others we have come to know.  But there’s much more going on in these 100 pages, and several lives hang in the balance.  Young Fred Vincy got himself hopelessly in debt, and permanently damaged a relationship by borrowing money he could not repay.  Then he was struck with typhoid fever, and I thought OK, that’s the death we’re waiting for then.  But no, Dr. Tertius Lydgate saved the day by correcting the first diagnosis and making sure Fred received proper treatment. Whew!  Fred lived to see another day.

Then Lydgate continued to prove his medical superiority in attending to Edward Casaubon, who suffered a heart attack shortly after returning from his honeymoon with Dorothea.  Lydgate advised Casaubon to take it very easy, but chose not to share the severity of his condition.  Instead, he told Dorothea that Edward’s heart condition will kill him someday.  Pretty tough news for our young bride, especially when it’s expected she will keep a brave face and pretend everything is fine.  So are we waiting for Casaubon’s death then?

Will Ladislaw made a brief appearance from offstage, sending letters describing plans to visit his uncle (Casaubon).  I suspect future entanglement between Ladislaw and Dorothea, but George Eliot has so far kept that at bay.  Dorothea asked her father to reply to Ladislaw’s letters, expecting him to warn off Ladislaw due to Casaubon’s poor health.  But her father offers him accommodation at his place instead!  Now was that a tactical error on Dorothea’s part, or will she be happy to see Ladislaw?

Meanwhile, Dorothea’s sister has become engaged to Sir James Chettam.  Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy are seen together often enough to spark widespread gossip about their possible engagement.

Oh, and that death we were waiting for?  It was the elderly gentlemen after all, and not at all unexpected, but he does give a dramatic performance on his deathbed, so it was worth the wait. 🙂

I have high hopes for Book IV, Three Love Problems, because of its spicier title and all the groundwork laid in Waiting for Death.  Like Book III, the next book is a bit over 100 pages spread out over 10 chapters.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to approach this.  With Book III, I decided to read a segment each time I finished one of my other books.  But I found I left too much time between Middlemarch reading sessions.  Each time I sat down to read, I had to flip back a few pages to reconnect with the story.  For Book IV, I’m going to set a weekly goal of (pages or chapters), and make sure I stick to it.  We’ll see how it works.

Just for the record, here are my impressions of the earlier parts of this book:

The Sunday Salon: A Victorian Reading Party aka Middlemarch, Book II

Well, I’ve caught up with dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch readalong, and this weekend we are discussing Book II, Old and Young.

Middlemarch is a novel about ordinary people, living ordinary lives in 19th-century England. Book I revolved around Dorothea Brooke, who married Edward Casaubon, an older man she admired for his intellect.  And you just know that isn’t going to go well.  But this potential downer isn’t far from the only storyline in this rich novel.  We also met a myriad of characters that I’m sure will figure into all of this somehow.  Well, it whetted my appetite, that’s for sure.

Book II begins with Dorothea nowhere to be found (actually she’s off on her honeymoon in Rome).  Instead the camera zooms in on Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor recently arrived in Middlemarch bent on reforming medical treatment. Lydgate is the classic outsider who, much like the reader, observes Middlemarch and its inhabitants from the sidelines. He falls for Rosamund Vincy, a young and beautiful woman, but he doesn’t want to marry for several years. It appears he may be unintentionally leading Rosamund on. Then there’s a big flap over election of a hospital chaplain. Nicholas Bulstrode, a powerful banker, wants to replace the current chaplain with a man of his choosing. He pressures Lydgate to vote for his man. I liked Lydgate, but I found all this power-mongering a bit tedious, and was glad when the story moved on.

Well, no surprise here, Dorothea is already disappointed with married life.  Casaubon has proven to be a boring intellectual with no emotional depth, just as anyone paying attention could have told her:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?

Dorothea had hoped to be a partner in creating his life’s scholarly work, The Key to All Mythologies, but Casaubon does not recognize her abilities, nor does he detect her emotional ups and downs. Casaubon’s cousin Will Ladislaw runs into the couple while in Rome; it’s evident he despises Casaubon and is sympathetic to Dorothea. Ladislaw is an artist, and couldn’t be more different from Casaubon. The seeds are sown for a deeper relationship between Dorothea and Will … what will Book III bring?

Eliot brings delightful subtle humor to the text.  Casaubon is indeed a bore, and I’m sympathetic to Dorothea, but it’s hard to take his work seriously.  His endless research and fact-checking, the little details squirreled away for the mammoth book that somehow never quite takes shape.  Even its pompous title, The Key to All Mythologies, made me laugh.  We’ve all known someone like this, haven’t we?

I’m happy to be following the traditional Victorian approach to reading Middlemarch.  It was first published in installments, and likewise the Team Middlemarch readalong will spread the novel out over the rest of the year.  To a modern reader, the language requires a certain level of concentration until you get immersed in the story. Reading in short sittings was ideal. Each book is further subdivided into chapters, perhaps about 10 pages each.  I found it easy to knock out a chapter or two at a time. Prolonged reading sessions didn’t work so well, as I kept losing focus.

As much as I enjoy playing the Victorian in my reading, there’s a decidedly 21st-century activity happening in parallel: the BBC dramatization is streaming into my family room, courtesy of Netflix.  The first episode lined up nicely with Books I & II, and I really enjoyed it.  Released in 1994, it features Robert Hardy and Rufus Sewell, two actors I’ve enjoyed in lots of other programs.  I’ll definitely watch the rest of the series, but I’m adhering strictly to a “read it first” rule.

At this point my Kindle tells me I’m 26% into this book (or 243 pages).  I need to read 11 chapters (100 pages) in time to discuss Book III (Waiting for Death), on May 19/20.  That’s doable!

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Midweek @ Musings: Middlemarch, First Impressions

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

That’s exactly what I’m doing with George Eliot‘s Middlemarch.  And I’m not the only one; I’ve joined dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch in a readalong that spreads this loooong book over most of 2012.  Now that I’ve read Book I (Miss Brooke), I see the wisdom in this approach.  First published in serial form in 1871-72, it’s meant to be read in short sittings.  There are 12 chapters in Book I; 130 pages altogether.  To a modern reader, the language requires a certain level of concentration until you get immersed in the story.  I found it easy to knock out a chapter or two at a time.  Prolonged reading sessions didn’t work so well, as I kept losing focus.

Middlemarch is subtitled, “A Study of Provincial Life,” and describes the lives of ordinary people in 19th-century England.  The book opens with a young woman, Dorothea Brooke, making up her mind to marry Edward Casaubon, who is much older but Dorothea admires him and has ideals about being his intellectual companion.  But Eliot foreshadowed other possibilities, and introduced considerable humor into the text, particularly concerning the role of women.  It’s clear she’s writing a very different sort of novel from her contemporaries, and indeed Sparknotes backs this up:

Eliot hated the ‘silly, women novelists.’ In the Victorian era, women writers were generally confined to writing the stereotypical fantasies of the conventional romance fiction. Not only did Eliot dislike the constraints imposed on women’s writing, she disliked the stories they were expected to produce. Her disdain for the tropes of conventional romance is apparent … Eliot goes through great effort to depict the realities of marriage.

By the end of Miss Brooke, Eliot had introduced about a gazillion characters, and I found myself wondering which ones will turn out to be “important,” and which ones are secondary.  Also, who are the good guys?  The baddies?  I’m curious and ready for more to be revealed in Book II (Old and Young).

I missed the Team Middlemarch discussion of Book I, but the Book II “brougham halt” is March 24-25, and you can bet I’ll be there.  I hope there are scones.  Proper ones.  Yum.