For about a decade now, we have been deluged with media products directed to the type of woman who loves Jane Austen. The cynical side of me sometimes wonders if many of these Jane Austen fans have actually read Jane Austen, or if they saw a couple of movies, to which they didn’t pay much attention, but they love the idea of women in pretty dresses falling in love with men in nice suits. In the world-wide world which is the world wide web, I have discovered that I am a rank amateur when it comes to reading. However, in the little world in which I grew up, I was seen as being bookish. I can remember a time when it seemed to me that girls would rather poke out their eyes than read something written longer ago than last year. I was something of an oddball for reading Victorian novels with long descriptive passages and compound sentences, and other adolescent girls most certainly let me know it. Needless to say, I am more than a little suspicious of Austen’s sudden popularity. Before someone writes a comment in all-caps, let me acknowledge that some people have actually read Jane Austen and, if you’re angry enough to type in all-caps, you are probably that person. Indeed, at least in my mind, you are a type.
Now, who am I to dismiss the miss that people more knowledgeable than I have called the greatest novelist in the English language. All I can say is that she doesn’t quite capture my heart. Actually, she leaves me cold. I’ve enjoyed her novels, but I haven’t loved them. Yet there are novelists that I do love, and I do hope they never become the center of a craze as Jane Austen has. I do not desire to have a ton of media product directed at me and my type.
Accompanied by a great deal of apprehension, I have recently discovered that I am a type, too. What a drag.
In an essay published in the New York Times twenty years ago, the Barnard English professor and literary critic Mary Gordon observed that a “certain kind” of woman can effortlessly recollect the circumstances of her life when she first read Middlemarch, much as “Americans are all supposed to know what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot.”
And what kind of woman is this certain kind? According to Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux writing in The American Prospect:
George Eliot doesn’t have the modern celebrity of Jane Austen, which makes her all the more lovable for that “certain kind” of woman who aspires to moral and intellectual seriousness.
Further down in the same article about Rebecca Mead’s book she says:
Few nineteenth-century heroines resonate with this woman like Dorothea Brooke. Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina are too rash; Becky Sharp too conniving; Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennett too provincial; Tess Durbeyfield too pathetic. Dorothea is, in Gordon’s words, “above all serious, and although she considers herself passionate, she is not about to act in a headlong way.” By allying herself with Dorothea—and by extension, Eliot—Mead grasps for a bit of this gravity. She’s writing for anyone who likes getting snaps for having read and loved Middlemarch, and who sees an attack on the book as an attack on her own intellectual seriousness.
(By the way, what is a “snap” in this context?)
I’m tempted here to go off on a tangent. The way most people fixate on Dorothea when discussing Middlemarch to me seems to undermine the point of the book. The cast of characters is huge and the interplay between society and individuals is essential. The book concentrates on a group of young people who, while being interconnected by virtue of living in the same region, span a wide range of class backgrounds and are not all intimates by any means. Fixating on Dorothea misses the greater part of the book. As these young people find their way in the world, they make decisions about their lives and they are hardly passive, but these decisions do not happen in isolation. They are actors in their own lives and yet they are not totally in control. The circumstances of their lives cannot be entirely avoided.
Furthermore, call me weird, but I identified, not with Dorothea, but with Ladislaw. (If any wealthy person who happens to be very much like Dorothea Brooke and would like to marry and render my interminable career changes irrelevant, there’s a contact form on my About page. NB: I am not very particular as to appearances or gender.) It also annoys me somewhat that everyone ignores Mary Garth. She’s one of my favorite characters in the book and I think she and Fred Vincy, as foolish as he is, are my favorite couple. They are also the only pair that seem to wind up comparatively happy, although perhaps Dorothea’s younger sister Celia and her husband are happy as well.
This brings me to another part of Thompson-DeVeaux’s article:
Middlemarch is a deeply sad book; gifted people make fatally foolish choices and can’t escape the consequences, no matter how hard they try…. It has the capacity to inspire intense self-doubt in all manner of people, especially those who are ambitious.
Mead elides this sadness. She acknowledges a “vein” of melancholy in the famous last sentence, which declares Dorothea a saint of the ordinary, one of the countless women who “lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” But in the last few pages of the book, Mead returns to Eliot, who lived a life that was, if not happy, then certainly extraordinary. By focusing so owlishly on Eliot, she manages to lose the reason why Middlemarch is worth reading in the first place.
I’ve read the book five times, and I have to say that it gets sadder as you get older. As I got older and the gap between my ambition and what I would be able to achieve in life became evident, the book became all the more somber. We can never entirely transcend the circumstances of our lives no matter how hard we try, and that is certainly a sobering thought. We are embedded in our societies and it is notable that Eliot chose as the title of her book the name of the place.
If Austen, as she famously declared when she said that she painted on ivory, worked in miniature, then Middlemarch is like one of those large history paintings. I suppose that we can only be thankful that Middlemarch and Zombies would simply be too much work.
There seems to be a trend towards memoirs centered around other works of literature, Reading X-Book in Y-Circumstance. For some reason I can’t quite identify, they don’t appeal to me, although I have this vague sense of being their target market. I haven’t read any of these, so perhaps my sense that I won’t like them is off base, but I probably won’t read My Life in Middlemarch. On the other hand, for a sufficient advance I would be more than willing to turn my current effort, Reading CraigsList in New York, to Reading de Sade in Paris, and I would be willing to include a variety of French pornographic literature. Then, perhaps with luck, I can marry a young admirer who will hopefully not throw himself out a window on our honeymoon.