Tag Archives: Victorian Literature

George Eliot’s Middlemarch – Seeking Greatness

19089When I first tried to read Middlemarch perhaps six or seven years ago, I got bored several hundred pages into the book. I tried again several months ago and I couldn’t figure out why on earth I had been so bored originally. It is a magnificent book, and I mean magnificent in its specific meaning of great, impressive, grand, intricate, exalted.

There are so many characters and so much going on in this book, but one theme stood out to me and that is the pursuit of greatness and one of the brilliant things about Eliot is that she should set her magnificent novel of the pursuit of greatness in a humble village called Middlemarch. But, as she writes of Dr. Lydgate, who has come to Middlemarch to study fever:

Does it seem incongruous to you that a Middlemarch surgeon should dream of himself as a discoverer? Most of us, indeed, know little of the great originators until they have been lifted up among the constellations and already rule our fates. But that Herschel, for example, who ‘broke the barriers of the heavens” – did he not once play a provincial church organ…Each of those Shining Ones had to walk on the earth among neighbors who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments…

Great deeds are not always played out on great stages and can get tangled up in petty concerns. But Middlemarch is also about the failure to achieve extraordinary things and by the end of the book it was difficult for me to tell if Eliot was celebrating the subtle power of ordinary life or lamenting how ordinary life prevents people from being extraordinary.

There are many characters in Middlemarch, but the two main ones are Dorothea Brooks and Tertius Lydgate. Dr. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch to study fever, but through his disastrous marriage to a woman who neither appreciates his work nor is willing to bend a little to help him, Lydgate leaves Middlemarch a failure in his eyes and instead becomes a financially successful doctor for wealthy patrons.

But Dorothea Brooks is a different case. She longs to achieve greatness – Eliot compares her to a St. Theresa in soul – but unlike Lydgate she has no specific outlet for her dreams. She is the rare sort of genuine saint who never thinks of herself and devotes her entire energies to trying to help others. But she rarely has a clear idea of how. The best she can do is to marry a great man and help him achieve his goals. This is what she thinks she is doing when she marries Mr. Casaubon, an elderly scholar who turns out to have a dry and shriveled soul that has stunted his capacity to perceive life. And when Casaubon dies and she falls in love with his cousin, Will Ladislaw, she marries him and disappoints her family and friends.

Many who knew her thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another [Will] and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done…

Even the author does not tell us what Dorothea should have done. Dorothea herself always had felt that “there was always something better which she might have done if she had only been better or known better.” It is difficult for me to imagine what that could have been, though. But she does achieve great things in a small way. The book ends as follows:

But the effect of her [Dorothea] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive, for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic 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.

Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey as Will and Dorothea in BBC's 1994 Middlemarch

Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey as Will and Dorothea in BBC’s 1994 Middlemarch

It is a beautiful and true thought and it almost seems like Eliot is suggesting that true greatness can be found in living modestly for those around us. But that’s not really the full story. Lydgate certainly could have had a greater impact on the world if he had been wiser and been able to follow-through on his work. And regarding Dorothea, Eliot bemoans that “the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape [ardent deeds of saints like Theresa, who Dorothea should have been like] is forever gone.” Lydgate self-destructs; the trouble with Dorothea seems to be that she lives in a society where there is no room for a woman to really do much work. Dorothea doesn’t know what she wants to do because there is no context for her to do anything except marry a man and help him be great. Instead, she lives in what Eliot calls “the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty.” She has free time and nothing to fill it with. Lydgate could at least become a doctor.

I have often heard it said that it was a great tragedy that Lydgate and Dorothea did not marry, but that strikes me as unsatisfactory. She would still be “absorbed into the life of another,” just as with Will and Mr. Casaubon. It is true that Dorothea and Lydgate understand each other, but that is because of their shared perspective. Dorothea says to Lydgate in a beautiful scene near the end of the book, when Lydgate is in disgrace in Middlemarch and Dorothea seeks to help him, “There is no sorrow I have thought more about than that – to love what is great and try to reach it, and yet to fail.” Lydgate understood this perfectly and what is so lovely about the scene is that it is the first time, for either of them, when they have met another person who knows what they feel. For one brief moment, a part of them that was always lonely is shared with another and they are not lonely. But Lydgate still sees Dorothea in terms of how she could inspire another man to greatness.

In the end, Eliot seems to be trying to have things both ways: on the one hand there are people who long to do extraordinary things and on the other hand there is plain, ordinary life. At the end of the book, Eliot admonishes the ‘insignificant people” that their small deeds create the milieu in which people like Lydgate and Dorothea live. The question is whether the insignificant people, combined, have a greater affect than the individuals who long for more. The happiest people in Middlemarch seem to be people like Mr. Garth, the land agent, who has no particular pretensions to achieving anything, but does a great deal of good throughout the book.

But in many ways, it is a book about people trying and failing and Eliot honors the nobility in their efforts. Even the businessman, Mr. Bulstrode, has tried to achieve a great work for God and through his own failings is brought down. But at the end of the book, Eliot’s plea to the ‘insignificant people’ is not for Bulstrode or Lydgate, but for Dorothea. Unlike Bulstrode or Lydgate, she did not have the means to achieve anything at all. The tragedy is not that she failed, but that her general desire to achieve greatness was never able to become anything other than a vague desire.


Posted by on May 8, 2015 in Fiction


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Villette (1853) – Charlotte Brontë

villette-charlotte-bronte-paperback-cover-artVillette is an odd book, though it is a fascinating one. It reads like a dream, like living inside someone’s head and looking out. What I call living in your head is when you are so self-aware and thoughtful that you are referencing the outside world from your own sensations, as if your internal life were more real than the external one. The protagonist of Villette, Lucy Snow, though she maintains that she is not particularly imaginative, lives in a constantly imaginative world of her own senses that feels to the reader (at least this one) as if it were as real as the physical alone.

Since Villette is generally considered to be the chronicle of a woman both lonely and set apart from her surroundings, this is very well shown by Brontë. The novel is told in first person by Lucy Snowe, whose background she does not explain. There is some family tragedy and she seems to be left without family or fortune. She leaves England and travels to the fictional city of Villette, in the fictional country of Labassecour, where she becomes a teacher at a girl’s boarding school.

The school is run by the imperviously immovable, calm and cold Madame Beck, who has a distinct flair for espionage on her pupils and staff. She knows everything there is to know about everyone and will even snoop in their private possessions, always neatly putting everything away, of course. Another teacher is M. Paul Emanuel, who is Madame Beck’s cousin and teaches literature and is a temperamental, imperious, but also utterly sweet man. Lucy also reconnects with her godmother, Mrs. Bretton, and her godmother’s very handsome son, Dr. Bretton. There is also Paulina Home and her father, friends of the Brettons who Lucy knew in England.

The book could almost be called a psychological novel and is less about what Lucy does and more about her isolation in Villette (religiously, since Labassecour is Catholic, culturally and physically – people view her as insignificant and she has a habit of withdrawing for people) and her attempts to reconcile herself to what she considers to be her destiny. As a woman without money or beauty, she believes she must forge her own independence and suppress all strong feeling and love, first for Dr. Bretton and then for M. Emanuel. She feels that the most she can hope for is a degree of independence, as achieved by Madame Beck, who owns and runs the school.

The most fascinating aspect of the book to me is how Lucy perceives herself. She is not a reliable narrator. There are things she doesn’t say, such as the unnamed tragedy in her background. Even the ending is ambiguous: does Paul Emanuel die or doesn’t he? She makes incorrect statements about herself. She says she does not suffer from an extreme imagination, which is palpably not true. She considers herself timid and retiring yet travels to Europe alone, with very little money and no prospects. She quells defiant students. She gets pushed into a play and finds that she likes it very well and does well at it.

But not only does she not see herself correctly (or is she deliberately misrepresenting herself, or is she being ironic or is it a blend of all three?), but no one else understand her, either.

The light in which M. de Bassompierre evidently regarded “Miss Snowe” used to occasion me much inward edification. What contradictory attributes of character we sometimes find ascribed to us, according to the eye with which we are viewed! Madame Beck esteemed me learned and blue; Miss Fanshawe, caustic, ironic, and cynical; Mr. Home [de Bassompierre], a model teacher, the essence of the sedate and discreet: somewhat conventional perhaps, too strict, limited and scrupulous, but still the pink and pattern of governess-correctness; whilst another person, Professor Paul Emanuel, to wit, never lost an opportunity of intimating his opinion that mine was rather a fiery and rash nature – adventurous, indocile, and audacious. I smiled at them all. If any one knew me it was little Paulina Mary.

Ironically, it is not at all clear that Paulina knows her any better than anyone else. And in truth, Lucy’s character contains aspects of all these traits. Even Paul Emanuel, the only person to see the fire underneath, does not see all.

Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte

One other fascinating thing about Lucy is how much Madame Beck and she have in common, though Lucy has more heart than Madame Beck. Madame Beck’s extreme phlegm is something Lucy admires and Madame’s habit of espionage is something that Lucy engages in, too. This is partly because she often seems to be a looker on of life, rather than a participant, which lends her an air of voyeurism. She watches people, she sees them when they are not aware of her, she listens when people don’t know she’s near. Like Lucy, Madame Beck wants to marry Paul Emanuel, though she never says so, and is aligned with Emanuel’s priest to keep them apart. She’s like a mirror image of Lucy, grown cold and calculating, a frightening possible fate for Lucy. Dr. Bretton calls Lucy a shadow and Madame Beck certainly acts like one, stealthily shadowing people, spying on them, a cipher to everyone except Lucy.

The prose in Villette is quite unique, but thoroughly enjoyable. At times, she engages in incredible flights of imagination, describing her emotions in pictorial terms that are almost florid, which is ironic considering how much she despises the pomp, ceremony and excess complexity of Catholicism, Italian arias and the Dutch masters. She values simplicity and realism in art, is a relatively plain Protestant, yet her expressions are by no means temperate or plain. For her, emotions almost become animate objects or living things. Here is her description of how she felt, waiting for a letter from Dr. Bretton, whom she loves.

“I suppose animals kept in a cage, and so scantily fed as to be always upon the verge of famine, await their food as I awaited a letter. Oh! – to speak truth, and drop that tone of a false calm which long to sustain, outwears nature’s endurance – I underwent in those seven weeks bitter fears and pains, strange inward trials, miserable defections of hope, intolerable encroachments of despair. This last came so near to me sometimes that her breath went right through me. I used to feel it, like a baleful air or sigh, penetrate deep, and make motion pause at my heart, or proceed only under unspeakable oppression. The letter – the well-beloved letter – would not come; and it was all of sweetness in life I had to look for.

But she is also ironically funny. Her description of the governess of Madame Beck’s children is fresh and unexpected: she describes a “coarse” and drunk woman as a “sleeping beauty” and “heroine of the bottle.” There is a bit of French in Villette, which is frustrating if you don’t know French (which I don’t, alas). There are exchanges of several sentences in French, though Lucy’s reactions and thoughts can sometimes give a vague idea of what is said.

Ultimately, Villette is a less satisfying book than Jane Eyre, but perhaps more interesting to think about. It’s a book of several moods. Sometimes she makes the reader privy to intimate feelings and at others it seems she holds them at a distance. I alternated between pity, mild exasperation, admiration, and humor. She never explains her ultimate fate, but the reader is left with the impression that she did not find happiness in life. She seems to have found independence, but never mastered the art of suppressing those powerful emotions and longings. But perhaps it is a good thing, otherwise she would have become Madame Beck.


Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Fiction


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The Way We Live Now – Anthony Trollope…mostly about Mrs. Hurtle and Paul Montague

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope is, I believe, an underappreciated author and I love his books nearly as much as I do Dickens. He was a contemporary of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, very popular in his day, and his style is somewhere in between those two. He has more satire than Dickens and more warmth than Thackeray, though like Thackeray he tends not to deal with the lower classes. The Way We Live Now, serialized between 1875 and 1876, definitely leans more towards Thackeray’s satire; there’s scarcely an estimable person to be found.

When people write or talk about The Way We Live Now, what they usually discuss is Augustus Melmotte and Trollope’s slightly ambivalent attitude towards Jews in his books. Melmotte is larger-than-life, corrupt, ambitious, possibly Jewish and crashes into society through sheer wealth and brazenness and even manages to get himself elected into parliament, only to overreach himself and his wealth and reputation comes crashing down.

He is a fascinating character – almost sympathetic at times – and it was interesting how his character seemed to take over the book as the story went along, almost as if Trollope had not originally intended to make him quite so central to the story.

The book is definitely a satire on the English aristocracy – often impoverished in this book, often silly, living idle lives and seeking to marry money. It’s about wealth and fraud and status and even the search for love…at least some are searching for love. Most people are searching for wealth and very few actually find love.

However, because so many people talk about Melmotte I thought I would rather discuss a different character in the book, one who fascinated me – both because of her character and for Trollope’s treatment of her.

Mrs. Winifred Hurtle is an American woman, a gun-toting American woman who has lived  in the West and reportedly shot a man in Oregon and fought a duel with her husband.

Paul Montague is a British gentlemen, with no particular financial means, ambition or even above-average intelligence (the state of most of the English gentlemen in the book, except that Paul is more self-aware and has morals). He is evidently good-looking, has pleasant manners and enjoys the company of women. When he goes to America for a time, he meets Mrs. Hurtle and falls in love. She is divorced and he begs her to marry him, despite her own reservations and fear of being hurt.

All of this, of course, takes place before the book begins. We first meet Mrs. Hurtle in England. Paul has returned to Britain, heard the rumors about her (regarding shooting the man and such) and decided that he cannot marry her after all. He also falls in love with another woman, Hetta Carbury. He writes a letter telling Mrs. Hurtle that the engagement’s off and she comes to England to see if she cannot win back her man.


“On The Original Illustrations of Trollope’s Fiction” – Mrs. Hurtle, Paul Montague and Roger Carbury at Lowestaffe – illustration by Lionel Fawkes

I suppose what fascinated me is how Trollope treats her. On the one hand, she is palpably more intelligent than Paul Montague, she has courage, she loves him greatly. On the other hand, Trollope seems to consider it natural that she would not make him a good wife, at least not in England, among the kind of society he associates with. Simply the fact that she has lived out west, in uncivilized territory, where she had been obliged to protect herself using a gun, seems to have disqualified her for happiness with an English gentleman.

It is true that Mrs. Hurtle isn’t always entirely up-front with Paul, but he is not entirely honorable with her. Once in England, she attempts to win him back, even manipulating him into taking her down to an sea resort called Lowestaffe, where Paul is seen with her by his friend, Roger Carbury (who is also in love with Hetta).

All throughout this, Paul considers himself hard-used. He wants to be done with her and marry Hetta, but he has trouble telling Mrs. Hurtle. He is partially afraid (since she’s so handy with a gun), but also lacks the moral fiber to just tell her and truly be done. He keeps blowing hot and cold.

Lack of moral fiber is a big issue. Either characters have no conception of true morality or they lack the fiber to act on morality. When Melmotte is appointed head of the board of directors for the recently formed Great South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway, which was formed more to make money on shares for the board members (and especially Melmotte) than to build an actual railroad, Paul knows it’s wrong, but doesn’t initially have the will to get out of it. The rest of the board is content to rake in the money.

The only person who does have the willpower to do right is Roger Carbury, who is in love with Hetta and therefore greatly disgusted with the conduct of Paul regarding Mrs. Hurtle. He has the will, but seems to lack the natural goodness of heart. He is good, but almost more from training (he is of the old school – he is the one who makes a comment about “the way we live now”) than from a spontaneous expression of goodwill.

Lord Nidderdale, who it has been arranged will marry Melmotte’s daughter, Marie, is an example of a man who occasionally has good impulses, but completely lacks the discipline or moral fiber to truly be a good man. He is simply an amiable man who at least has the ability to admire Marie as a person and not just see her as the means to great wealth. Felix Carbury, Hetta’s brother, has no such amiable qualities. He is practically psychopathic in his self-absorption and cannot see Marie as a real person.

But back to Mrs. Hurtle. She garnered the most sympathy from me as a reader because she fails (the book is full of failures, Melmotte being the most conspicuous) and fails gracefully. When she finally accepts that she cannot win Paul, she retires without wreaking any of the revenge that she half-wanted to wreak and parts on kind words.


Miranda Otto as Mrs. Hurtle

She really makes me think of Jean Harrington in Preston Sturges’ 1941 movie, The Lady Eve. In that movie, Jean Harrington is an adventuress who meets a handsome man from a wealthy family. She wins him, loses him, sets out to win him again (just as Mrs. Hurtles does), employs manipulation and her full arsenal of mental and physical endowments and has him going in circles. The big difference is that she wins in that one. She is much smarter than he is and the movie celebrates that.

The difference, of course, is in nation and time. The Lady Eve is an American movie made roughly 60 years later. In a 1940s screwball comedy/western, I could so see Mrs. Hurtle running off with the picture and her man. But in 1875 and in an English novel, she could not be accepted in society and even Mrs. Hurtle knows it. What she wants is for Paul to marry her and live in America.

My sister pointed out that if Paul had truly loved her (and he claims to have fallen in love) then it shouldn’t have mattered what people said about her (the guns and such). He would have married her and lived in America. My sister’s theory is that it was just lust. As soon as he was back in England, the spell was gone and he wanted his nice, young (Mrs. Hurtle is a few years older then he), innocent English bride.

His conduct can actually be compared to another man’s conduct in literature: Edward Ferrer’s in Sense and Sensibility. Edward is engaged to Lucy Steele but falls in love with Elinor Dashwood. However, instead of casting Lucy aside, he stays true to her….even though he knows he and Lucy are ill-suited to each other. Because he is the one who asked Lucy to marry him, and a woman’s position was more precarious – time spent engaged is time not spent looking for other husbands – it is neither fair nor right to toss women aside when you’ve changed your mind.

Paul, however, acts quite differently. Even Trollope acknowledges the unfairness of it when Mrs. Hurtle has lost Paul: “They had played a game against each other, and he, with all the inferiority of his intellect to weigh him down, had won, – because he was a man. She [Mrs. Hurtle] had much time for thinking, and she thought much about these things. He could change his love as often as he pleased and be as good a lover at the end as ever; – whereas she was ruined by his defection. He could look about for a fresh flower and boldly seek his honey; whereas she could only sit and mourn for the sweets of which she had been rifled.”

Paul wins his Hetta in the end and even the friendship of Roger. Mrs. Hurtle returns to America.

Despite this massive frustration, the book really is good. Greed, corruption, toadying up to wealth – it’s all there and very human. There are a few who break the mold. Marie Melmotte wants to be loved (her father does not love her and men only want her money) and it is fascinating to watch her grow in the book and realize that she can have a say in her own affairs. Most characters don’t change, however. They act according to their own upbringing.

Notes: There is a TV mini-series of this book, adapted in 2001. It stars David Suchet in a marvelous and magnetic performance as Augustus Melmotte. Miranda Otto (Eowyn in LOTR) plays Mrs. Hurtle. The movie is a very good adaption, though I did notice that they made Mrs. Hurtle a bit more of a villain than she is in the book. I suppose they did it to keep the audience from hating Paul and to allow us to root for him to get together with Hetta. In fact, Paul is altogether a better, stronger person in the movie. The book is all about human weakness.


Posted by on June 24, 2014 in Fiction


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