Milestones and Mattering

Finished Middlemarch. Cried. After all, I’ve spent at least the last five years growing up enough to be able to read it.

I don’t know how to write about it yet–though I do think that in the parade of meaningful authors it’s interesting, and telling, to have gone from Forster to Eliot.

But one thing that struck me rather unexpectedly was the backdrop of the Reform Bill. It brought me up short from the privileging of political and constitutional history that Oxford has been leading me unconsciously to do. How can you read Middlemarch and still think that the movement of the Reform Bill through the Lords carries anywhere near as much moment as the struggles and disappointments and loves that seems to touch us more directly?

People often pin cases for why history, and the humanities, matter on Reform Bills: on what history and knowledge of it do to help us to become citizens, on how we as thinking people engage with the body politic. But that primes them to envision a smooth sine curve, or worse yet, the graph of a plain old exponential function: history as a series of Reform Acts, as the story of a citizenry instead of a people. But I am more moved by a history that looks more like what happens as you turn a radio dial: loud bursts of static and brief moments of Debussy or electric guitar or the news, voices fading in and out of each other and sometimes amounting to nothing at all. Middlemarch is a historical novel, and I am moved by a history where the narrative of Reform Bills is elusive and forgettable, but small human voices trying their best echo out of the static. I can see why Middlemarch might appear to some readers as saccharine and self-righteous, but as for me it’s a way of telling the past that gives me hope that we are not doomed to our future—that it gets better and that we can better ourselves. Which also, as it happens, is the thought that keeps me and my soul alive.

Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea’s second marriage as a mistake; and indeed this remained the tradition concerning it in Middlemarch, where she was spoken of to a younger generation as a fine girl who married a sickly clergyman, old enough to be her father, and in little more than a year after his death gave up her estate to marry his cousin—young enough to have been his son, with no property, and not well-born. THose who had not seen anything of Dorothea usually observed that she could not have been ‘a nice woman,’ else she would not have married either the one or the other.

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of her brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is for ever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric 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.

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