George Eliot’s Middlemarch has been my favorite novel ever since one summer nearly thirty years ago, when I read it on the recommendation of a Victorian literature–obsessed college friend. I’ve read it twice since then, which might not seem like a lot for a favorite book, but it is nine hundred pages long, and its richness holds me for many years at a time.
I love Middlemarch, published in 1872, for many reasons. I love Eliot’s gently intrusive narrator, her aphoristic habit of mind, her asides on medical research and philanthropy and manners. She can be extremely funny at times, a fact often overlooked by impatient readers. But Eliot’s wonderful narrator appears in her other great books as well—Daniel Deronda and Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner—so why is Middlemarch my best beloved?
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this particular novel, more even than Eliot’s others, is all about people trying to be good—out of religious belief or a desire to improve the lot of the common man or the love of a woman or in expiation of past badness. The attempt is portrayed as difficult, almost killing at times, and many of the characters fail at it spectacularly. The novel is set against the backdrop of political do-gooding: the great British reforms of the late 1820s and early 1830s, which greatly expanded the number of Englishmen (not women, of course) who could vote. It was a time when the concept of the good itself was beginning to have a more democratic and less aristocratic connotation.
At the center of the many story lines in Middlemarch (marriages, deaths, legacies, falls from grace) is Dorothea Brooke, a nineteen-year-old orphan with a decent inheritance who has dreams of doing some great work in the world. At first she wants to improve the cottages of the tenant farmers who work on her uncle’s estate. Her plans are not met with much enthusiasm; those around her are the sort who think things are fine just the way they are. Courted by a local landowner who is considered a very good catch, she instead decides to marry a much older scholar whom she imagines to be some sort of genius. She will be his helpmeet; she’ll learn Greek and Latin so that she can help him guide his magnum opus into the world. Unfortunately her new husband, Casaubon, turns out to be a dry and humorless pedant who over time crushes Dorothea’s every impulse toward joy and intimacy. She, knowing she is bound to him legally, and feeling bound to him morally, fights against her resentment and loneliness, and although she no longer believes in his talent or his project, gives over her days to providing the lowly secretarial aid he demands.
I am very moved by the sections on Dorothea’s painful marriage, and by her fierce determination to take the high road, to express only kindness and patience toward her husband, who is not an evil man but merely extremely narrow and self-absorbed after decades of solitary living. But many readers today, especially women, are exasperated by Dorothea’s high-mindedness. When a college acquaintance saw me reading the novel that first time, she told me that she’d “always wanted to wring Dorothea’s neck.” She had a British accent, which seemed to give her comment more weight. I was obscurely hurt, as if someone I’d just developed a crush on had been exposed as vaguely ridiculous.
It can be embarrassing to love Dorothea in this day and age. It’s like loving Saint Theresa, the gruesomely self-mortifying sixteenth-century saint to whom Dorothea is compared in the novel’s introduction and conclusion, or Patient Griselda. We don’t find stories of female masochism terribly attractive anymore. But if Dorothea were truly a masochist, she would not have engaged my imagination so strongly over the years. Eliot makes it clear that Dorothea is no saint but rather a morally immature young woman. Her self-denials have roots in in youthful arrogance and impetuousness. Remarking on how much Dorothea loves riding (a love which clearly reveals her physically passionate side), Eliot slyly adds that her heroine “always looked forward to renouncing it.” When Dorothea’s younger sister Celia wants to look over the jewelry their dead mother has left them, Dorothea first behaves as if it would be vulgar to wear any of the pieces, then ostentatiously gives the best one to Celia. Celia urges her to at least accept a necklace with a simple cross, but Dorothea replies that she would never wear a religious symbol as “a trinket.” (Celia rebelliously if silently objects that “I trust the wearing of a necklace will not interfere with my prayers.”)
Of course, Dorothea doesn’t recognize her bossiness and grandiosity. Her ideals of Christian humility and simplicity and service are genuine. But she is very young.
I see so much of my earliest, childhood self in Dorothea. When I was six years old, I regularly drew up lists of all the good and bad things I had done that day. I used to game the list quite a bit, splitting one good act into several sub-acts, to make sure the final results proved my virtue. At ten, I made excursions to pick up trash on the streets near the apartment building my family lived in, “to help the environment.” I was pious, and hoped that God noticed. I cried over the suffering of strangers but bossed my friends and my younger brother mercilessly. I wrote florid letters, letters that almost seem to me now like love letters, to my best friend. I had a temper. Like Dorothea, I possessed high ideals and no great understanding that high ideals and genuine decency are two different things.
But Dorothea learns. And if her behavior in marriage is initially dutiful and injured, eventually it becomes something larger—something generous and large-minded. In a moment of crisis, she comes very near to releasing her built-up outrage toward her husband, but her anger slowly turns to pity for his inadequacies, and the next time she sees him she notices his haggard, defeated face—his health is poor, he has realized his lifetime of work has come to nothing—and is surprised when he speaks to her with gentleness. “When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears,” writes Eliot, “she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature.”
This is a true goodness, not a haughty and showy one, and at twenty, while feeling it involved a kind of self-sacrifice I would never accept for myself (and why should I, in an age of easy divorce?), it nevertheless formed for me my earliest template of great and noble behavior. The models I was given in my earlier school years—Washington, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr.—meant something to me, but never made as deep an impress as Dorothea did. The mature Dorothea does not deny her passions, but also accepts that they cannot, given the circumstances she herself has chosen, be met. Nothing in my reading experience until then had shown me such a character, a woman with this degree of both fire and self-control.
So Dorothea stayed with me, through my twenties and thirties and into my forties. She reminded me, gently, of the value of holding my tongue when my boiling blood was instructing me not only to speak but to throw some dishes in the bargain. She was an example of equanimity that comes hard-won, one that made good behavior seem not sappy and sentimental but fed by strength and understanding.
At the end of Middlemarch, after Casaubon dies and Dorothea frees herself from some odious provisions in his will, she marries again, this time Will Ladislaw, a vaguely artistic fellow, well educated but not much gainfully employed, who is seen by her family as low-bred. She gives up her inheritance to do so. Here again many readers have been disappointed in Dorothea; they don’t feel her new marriage is any smarter than the first. Will doesn’t seem intelligent enough or ambitious enough for her. (Henry James dismissed him as “insubstantial.”) These readers often wish that Dorothea would renounce marriage and motherhood altogether, perhaps becoming a freelance intellectual and novelist like George Eliot herself. This complaining has been going on for nearly 150 years. Florence Nightingale was annoyed that Dorothea didn’t devote her post-Casaubon life to social work.
I can’t see the point of this grousing. (Not to mention that even George Eliot did have a husband in all but name, her companion of twenty-four years, George Henry Lewes, and helped to care for his children.) Will loves and respects Dorothea—her spirit, her mind, her body—and it is suggested that she helps him when he eventually goes into politics as a reformer. In the novel’s conclusion, Eliot writes that Dorothea lies in “an unvisited tomb,” but that is not because she accomplished none of the things she wished to as a young woman. It is because, as time passes, even the successful lie in unvisited tombs. For me, Dorothea’s fate is a happy one. She finds outlets for her need to love and be loved, her capacious intellect, and her drive to improve the common lot. Her idealism becomes tempered with realism, her self-discipline is channelled into fruitful and life-affirming aims. Her goodness makes room for her passion. She lives a fully flowered life, even if some would argue that in the twenty-first century she might have chosen to run for the House of Commons herself. What’s important is that she becomes a psychologically complete human being.
Are we readers really so reluctant to give such a figure her due? These days especially we are uncomfortable with idealism in fiction, which we prefer to describe things as they are, not as they might better be. Fiction usually is better at sticking to realities, but then, Eliot was a special case, a genius. I still believe that Dorothea Brooke convincingly represents something of the best that we, women and men, can nurture in ourselves, and this is perhaps why Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” What other heroine of a great works of literature can compare to her? Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse? Too timid, shut out from love and marriage. Elizabeth Bennet? Smart but a cool customer, lacking life’s deeper and darker tones. Isabel Archer? Like Elizabeth Bennet a bit muted in the emotion department, and her story doesn’t end well. Natasha Bezukhov? Perhaps, if allowance is made for the fact that she is not as intelligent or noble-minded as Dorothea. As one can see, there aren’t a lot of happy outcomes for intense, principled women in fiction. I’m so grateful for this one.
Pamela Erens’s second novel, The Virgins, has just been published by Tin House Books. Her first novel, The Understory, was a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.
In the boarding-school world, “an offense punishable by expulsion” is everyone’s utmost fear. According to Bennett-Jones: “The worst thing that could possibly happen to any of us, we knew, was to be brought home, shipped back to childhood.”
But adults know that’s not “the worst thing.” Erens does a masterly job of preparing for us and concealing from us the details leading to Seung Jung’s death, and what actually happens between Aviva Rossner and Bruce Bennett-Jones — I mean, beyond Bennett-Jones’s juvenile and prurient longing for her.
What happens between Seung and Aviva, this pair of star-crossed lovers, is truly horrible; the ending shouldn’t be given away by a reviewer. Suffice it to say that Seung honestly is “one golden child of the universe.” You could argue that “Aviva was never destined to be happy,” as one of her friends claims, but Aviva never gets a chance.
How should I help you imagine Bennett-Jones without telling you too much? Think of the role Iago might have played in “Romeo and Juliet.” At the end, all Bennett-Jones can offer is: “I can say now that nothing in my life since has ever been as difficult.”
“Do you ever think about killing yourself?” Seung asks him. “Ever?” our narrator replies. “All the time.”
I sympathize with the reader who hopes Bennett-Jones will kill himself. Speaking strictly as a novelist, I must say that he’s a villain and a narrator Erens should be proud of — a marvel of male-adolescent betrayal and self-pity who complains about “the number of ways there are to be left out, to be abandoned.” Erens does a compelling job of making us hate him, but Bennett-Jones is the ideal narrator for this sexual tragedy. The lovers are the ones we care about, and Erens is no less compelling at making us love them. Bennett-Jones is the cruelest storyteller imaginable, as he should be. This is a love story best told by the one who’s been left out.
There are always other, lesser casualties in the boarding-school world. The crackup of a boy named Detweiler is brilliantly timed; it happens just as “college envelopes arrive in the mailboxes, fat and thin.” But Erens keeps us focused on the lovers; they’re the ones who get hurt the most.
The Auburn Academy of “The Virgins” is really Phillips Exeter. I went there, class of ’61 — so did Pamela Erens, who was in the class of ’81. We never knew each other — we’ve not met — but we know Exeter. “In this radical garden,” Erens writes, “we could reinvent ourselves; we could seed the adults we would become.”
At Auburn, Bennett-Jones tells us, the school motto is Gnaritas et Patientia — Knowledge and Patience. In my time at Exeter, when it was still an all-boys school, the Latin inscribed over the front entrance to the main academy building was Huc Venite Pueri ut Viri Sitis — Come Hither Boys to Become Men.
The boys-to-men part isn’t smooth; in “The Virgins,” this is the part that kills Seung Jung and convinces Bruce Bennett-Jones that he is full of the ugliest “impulses.”
Aviva survives, but she isn’t spared; the girls-to-women transition isn’t any smoother. We’re barely a third of the way into the novel when Bennett-Jones announces: “All this time Aviva has surely believed that Seung died because of her. What has that done to her?” Later he answers his own question: “There is something within her, she is certain, that creates damage.” After Aviva leaves Auburn, we don’t hear a word about her; she has effectively disappeared. But we know what’s happened to Aviva — her “ideal soul” has died.
John Knowles, who also went to Exeter, was thinking of our old school when he wrote “A Separate Peace.” Erens’s book can stand beside that monumental and moving novel; both authors walk that guilt-trodden ground, and we are as undone by what transpires in “The Virgins” as we were the first time we read “A Separate Peace.” Pamela Erens and her monstrous Bennett-Jones have told a devastating story. “The Virgins” is a brutal book, but it’s flawlessly executed and irrefutably true.Continue reading the main story
By Pamela Erens
281 pp. Tin House Books. Paper, $15.95.