As Tedra Osell has noted at Crooked Timber, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been posting sporadically about his experience reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch for the first time. (Osell also helpfully provides links to Coates’s posts on Middlemarch).
I have enjoyed reading Coates’s attempts to wrestle with what it is about Eliot’s prose that makes it so, well, wonderful, I suppose. For instance, in his post “Greedy of Clutch,” Coates explains that he believes it is his lack of grammatical knowledge that renders him only able to appreciate “the beauty of this sort of writing on a rather unspeakable emotional and spiritual level.”
I wrestle with understanding my appreciation of Eliot’s writing in a similar way — what is it that I like so much about reading her? What is it about Middlemarch that leaves me so astonished and appreciative? (And, tangentially, why do I feel so much trepidation in writing about my appreciation for, instead of my analysis of, Eliot’s writing?).
Last night, for instance, I was reading Middlemarch and I encountered the memorable section that shifts briefly to reflect Casaubon’s point of view:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea — but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.” (278)
We can talk about how this passage skilfully weaves together many of Eliot’s concerns: the simultaneously distant and warm first person narrative voice of this realist text, the importance, and limits, of sympathy for others, the vast range of perspectives offered in the book. But beyond that, like Coates, I struggle to articulate what I find so striking about this passage and the novel in general. There is some mixture of tone and diction, playfulness and seriousness, emotion and intellect, that I find arresting.
Coates also engages with the lengthiness and level of detail of the novel which leads him to lament its fate in the twenty-first century. He writes, for instance, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this. Middlemarch was written for a different era, and a different class of people. It was written for a leisure class with a great deal of time on its hands. I really tremble for its fate in the era of twitter.” I am always skeptical of this kind of technological determinism. However, I have also been thinking about the challenges of Middlemarch’s length as I get ready to teach two undergraduate Victorian literature courses in January. For instance, I would have loved to assign Middlemarch but I couldn’t envision how the students would get through the reading in a timely way, especially in a half-year course. I decided to assign The Mill on the Floss instead, for various reasons including length, but it was with some reluctance.
We have talked about these issues of novel length and teaching Victorian literature before on the Floating Academy, but I’d like to open up the question again: How do those of you who teach Victorian novel deal with the fraught issue of their length? Have you ever taught Middlemarch?
Further reading: The Floating Academy devoted a whole month to posts about George Eliot last year.