Middlemarch 1.0, or Why I Sometimes Want to Look out the Window

June 12, 2015

Middlemarch is far more entertaining than I ever anticipated. Of course this reevaluation is due entirely to my own lack of imagination and assortment of prejudices. The book is witty and philosophical with a an expansive sense of social interconnection that I am only beginning to appreciate. It is precisely this, which provides me the meat I want from the novel that I have chosen as a successor project to Proust. There is and must be something cosmic emerging in the background, ever so slowly, and this is what makes me buy my ticket and take a seat on the Middlemarch train. At the same time, despite all of the vivid psychological analysis and deft summation of character, I get the feeling 100 pages in that I am missing something, in the same way experience moments of claustrophobia whenever I have tried to read Jane Austen. With Jane unlike with George, I suffered fewer prejudices, but was less enamored when confronted with the reality.

The first paragraph of Chapter 12 represents one of the rare instances of George looking out the window and describing a landscape. It is the rarity and relative compression of the passage that gets at precisely what I am missing in George – that obsessive description of things, the world, what it looks like out the window.

The passage:

“The ride to Stone Court, which Fred and Rosamond took the next morning, lay through a pretty bit of midland landscape, almost all meadows and pastures, with hedgerows still allowed to grow in bushy beauty and to spread out coral fruit for the birds. Little details gave each field a particular physiognomy, dear to the eyes that have looked on them from childhood: the pool in the corner where the grasses were dank and trees leaned whisperingly; the great oak shadowing a bare place in mid-pasture; the high bank where the ash-trees grew; the sudden slope of the old marl-pit making a red background for the burdock; the huddled roofs and ricks of the homestead without a traceable way of approach; the gray gate and fences against the depths of the bordering wood; and the stray hovel, its old, old thatch full of mossy hills and valleys with wondrous modulations of light and shadow such as we travel far to see in later life, and see larger, but not more beautiful. These are the things that make the gamut of joy in landscape to midland-bred souls—the things they toddled among, or perhaps learned by heart standing between their father’s knees while he drove leisurely.”

An honest, well-written passage, evocative of the particulars. But summed up at the end with a remark that boxes up all of these observations and places them in the same place, on the same shelf, in every mind of every Midlander, making them all more or less just background. This is what seems missing to me here: Proust by now I would have given me a few dozen pages meditating on the shadow of the trees cast on his bedroom window, the waving of the grasses in the clear water of the local streams, the birds at sunset circling the cathedral towers.

This is not a criticism. I am barely launched with George, and Middlemarch is a sophisticated book. But its genius seems to be in the sweep of its landscape of social connections, rather than any landscape passed through, or visible out the window.

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