Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The best book in the world

Rupert Sewell as Will Ladislaw

I finished re-reading Middlemarch today. It's my fourth or fifth re-read, but this time it matters because I'm teaching it for the first time, and I want my students to understand why it is the best book in the world.

First of all, it assumes a certain intelligence in the reader: the novel is narrated by an omniscient narrator who is clearly humane, compassionate and intelligent. The book is packed with allusions and quotations from Shakespeare (predictable enough) to Pascal and Bunyan. We are invited to contemplate major ideas, such as the nature of spirituality, the human condition, how relations between men and women evolve, cause and effect and the interplay between wealth and happiness. Eliot doesn't allow her readers to skim their way through the book. We are invited to contemplate and judge the characters, their actions and the ideas which fill the book. During this re-read, I tried to find instances where I disagreed with Eliot's fundamental stand, but I couldn't. She demands that we examine our own expectations of ourselves and of others. Which takes me to the next important aspect of the book: characterisation.

There is scarcely a major character who is not complex, interesting and engaging. She tilts the surface a little between those with whom she wants us to empathise and those whom she feels we may criticise, but she provides explorations and explanations for the behaviour of even the least sympathetic of characters that require us to judge flaws with understanding and the possibility of forgiveness. I think Eliot's genius emerges best when confronted with young women: she places before us in Middlemarch Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy and Mary Garth, three very different young woman, all aged between 18 and 24 during the course of the novel and examines their actions and reactions to the consequences of those actions. One of the things I find fascinating about the novel is how over the course of 800 pages, we start by somewhat sympathising with Dorothea's sister Celia, who is both a little in awe of her sister and somewhat dismissive of Dorothea's enthusiasms and emotions, but by the end of the novel, we come round to support Dorothea.

While Dorothea and Mary Garth are kindly delineated by the author, Rosamond Vincy is depicted very differently. With her blond plaits and her cold little hands, her swan-like neck and her delicate mouth, her stubborn streak and her utter self-centredness, Rosamond is perhaps the greatest villain in the novel. One of the features of the novel's greatness is that Rosamond is allowed to triumph over her husband, Lydgate, in dictating their modus vivendi so that all aspiration towards and opportunity for true, lasting achievement is suppressed. Rosamond captures her man much as his clerical friend Farebrother captures some insect, drains it of life and pins it to a board. While others in the novel (Dorothea and her Will, Mary Garth and Rosamond's initially feckless brother Fred) are allowed a happy ending, Lydgate suffers and dies early, his potential unfulfilled, his bitterness unvoiced, his love for Rosamond a hollow chimera. But Rosamond does not go unpunished, and her suffering is given equal weight to Lydgate's. That she recovers from it and continues, pretty much, as before, is the mark of a truly perceptive writer.

There are many other wonderful things about Middlemarch, but for me the real reason that I think it is the best book in the world is that it does not hesitate to confront the reader with truth: "We are all of us born in moral stupidity", writes Eliot when Dorothea is wrestling with the realisation that her first marriage to the desiccated solipsist and failed scholar Casaubon is an empty desert. She amplifies and explores the varieties and cures for this moral stupidity but that clarity of vision and the lucid, slightly convoluted prose she uses allows us to follow our own progression from moral stupidity to a greater sensitivity to our fellow humans and a greater awareness of our own flaws. Best of all, she brings us to these realisations with gentle irony, humour and mild mockery which finally allow us to close the novel not with a grim sense of how appalling we humans are, but with a warm sense of the possibility of becoming not perfect, but simply, better.

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