Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Watching Middlemarch

A couple weeks ago we watched the first half of the 1994 BBC adaptation of Middlemarch, one episode per night (it's packaged in 6 episodes). Episode 3 ended with the death of Casaubon, which in print occurs at the end of chapter 48 (of 86).

My impressions, briefly, while I still have them:

Dorothea is played by Juliet Aubrey. As in the book, she didn't strike me as a great and irresistible beauty in the opening scenes, but somehow, she becomes lovelier as the story progresses.

Robert Hardy as Mr Brooke is hilarious. (Hardy plays Cornelius Fudge in the Harry Potter movies.)

I love Featherstone. He's played as a bit of a parody, your typical crusty old crank, amusing to watch, but it's quite evident, more so than in the text, that he has a soft spot for the youngsters and delights in their company.

Casaubon is impressive. I haven't yet decided if I approve though. Played by Patrick Malahide, he's a very strong presence, not the pathetic wisp of a man I'd envisioned. He appears to be more conflicted than I think he deserves to be.

Rufus Sewell needs a haircut. But that's just my opinion.

The story starts with Lydgate, which in some ways is a sensible decision. We are introduced to Middlemarch through his eyes. We see work on the railroad as he drives into town.

We never hear about Laure: Lydgate's being both wary of love and stupid about women is a little harder to buy.

Some scenes and conversations are condensed and combined (for example, Lydgate meets Rosamond at Featherstone's place); most of it seems to make sense.

There's no scene of Ladislaw going to church to see Dorothea/Casaubon. Of all the skipped bits this is perhaps the most offensive to me.

We see Fred interact with the Garths only very briefly; there is no nuance to his relationship with Caleb (tho this may yet change...?). That is to say, the Fred subplot is far more sub than in the novel.

So far, 3 scenes have made me roll my eyes, and you'll see how similar they are:
Casaubon at the Vatican library, haunted by Dorothea's echoing words, to demonstrate his inner turmoil about his work, his lack of confidence among his "peers," etc.
Fred having a fevered nightmare — flashback closeups of the rogue horse.
Rosamond, tossing and turning in bed, hearing the echoes of Mrs Bulstrode, her mother, and Lydgate to convey the distress she's feeling about Lydgate's intentions toward her, her apparent failure to achieve her aim.

These strike me as a cheap film trick, and I'm really surprised someone tried to use them seriously in 1994.

It drives home, however, the difficulty: how do you convey visually what Eliot tells us is in her characters' heads? Nevermind Eliot's witty commentaries — there's so much more to this book than what the charcter's say and do.

The watching of it
My viewing partner has not read Middlemarch. He interrupts periodically to ask me for clarification. I in turn am quizzing him on his impressions. Quite remarkably, they match my own impressions regarding specific events and characters at certain stages. So, for all the shortcuts the adaptation takes in simplifying and condensing, and for all my quibbles about scene order and dialogue, etc, it manages to produce a similar effect on my viewing companion as did the novel on this reader.

A perspective I hadn't considered (and I'm not sure what to make of it): He sees Middlemarch as a boomtown; the story has the feel of a western: newcomers to town, everybody at heart wanting to raise it up, make something of it, jockeying for position. The many outdoor scenes — the wide-openness of it, the colour, the dust kicking up — do something to enhance this.

The movie feels quite slowpaced. I must admit that, were it not for having just finished reading it, it may not have held my interest, nor would it have enticed me to turn to the novel.

But I am looking forward to seeing the rest of it, hopefully over the next couple nights. I know I'll return to this book someday, and I expect I'll get something out of watching the movie again too (preferably in more concentrated viewing sessions, and without work deadlines looming over me).

Has anyone else seen it?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The end

Okay, nobody seems to want to touch it, so I'm going to be brave and jump in.

A little history here -- I saw the BBC Middlemarch on Masterpiece Theatre before I ever read the book, so I got to hear Russell Baker's commentary before and after each episode. After the last episode, he said something along the lines of this: generations of readers have felt vaguely disappointed by the ending of Middlemarch, and wished that Eliot had somehow been able to get Dodo and Lydgate together.

I don't remember what else he said because I was shocked. Of course Dodo and Ladislaw belonged together! Ladislaw was HAWT. And Romantic. What else could a girl possibly want? (I was 22, let it be remembered).

Reading the book shortly thereafter did not change my mind.

Fast forward 11 years to this past Christmas. I was on the phone with an old friend who had finally gotten around to reading the book (inspired by my gushing long ago). She hated the ending. Her points were these:
  • Clearly, Eliot intends the reader to think Ladislaw is a much better catch than any sensible modern reader would think he is. He's self-absorbed and mediocre. All Dodo's wants and ambitions are subordinated to his career. She should not have married him.
  • Dodo should have married Lydgate.
  • The ending, therefore, is either lame or tragic, or more likely both. If you fall in love with the wrong person, you are pretty much doomed to limp along, never achieving what you might have, and that's just depressing.
Oh dear. It had been so long since I'd read the book, that I had no rebuttal. What she said made sense to me, and made me worry that this book I had loved so long was, in fact, nothing but a big disappointment. That's one of the reasons I leapt at the chance of reading it again, with other people! I needed to know which was right -- her pessimistic reading, or the rosy interpretation of my youth.

I have concluded NEITHER.

This time through, I like the ending. Not in a "how romantic, they're together!" kind of way, I mean, and not without a certain somber understanding. It's not a buoyantly happy ending for Dodo; not happy at all for Lydgate. Fred and Mary fare a bit better. But let's have a look at what Eliot is trying to say.

One of the big themes in Middlemarch, to my mind, is how to make peace with your ordinariness. Everyone wants to be special: Fred wants to be exempt from work; Bulstrode wants to be part of God's elite, without having to follow the rules himself; Lydgate wants to make a big splash in the medical community; Rosamond wants to rise in society; Casaubon wants to do exceptional scholarly work. (The exception to this, it seems, are some of the peripheral characters -- Celia, Sir James, Mrs. Cadwallader -- who are extremely interested in keeping everything exactly as it is. Similarly, much of conservative Middlemarch society).

Inevitably, characters who strive for, long for, and chase after specialness run up against setbacks and disappointments. There are good ways and bad ways to deal with setbacks. Our bad models include Bulstrode (who bribes, cheats, and possibly hastens death), Casaubon (who hoards and hides), and Lydgate, who basically gives up (we can debate this, if you like). There are two significant good models: Farebrother (who I've discussed before), and Caleb Garth. Caleb's strategy is especially instructive: he works hard. Success comes only slowly, specialness perhaps never, but that doesn't really matter. Work is its own reward. He never stops moving, and he never stops believing in work for its own sake.

Work is one thing that saves us from despair in the face of obstacles: love is another. Fred and Mary have both, and I think they end up the happiest. Lydgate ends up with pale shadows of both, and I think his fate is unambiguously tragic.

Then we have the problem of Dodo. She is presented from the beginning as special -- and she is. She is kind and courageous, able to step forward and save Lydgate when no one else (even my dear Farebrother, *sob*) will do it. Under the right circumstances, she could have been St. Theresa. But these aren't the right circumstances, and the question Eliot asks in the ending is Is that a tragedy? Is it enough to marry someone you love? Is it enough to work diligently at the myriad invisible, unappreciated tasks of everyday life?

I think it is. I think Eliot thinks so too. We work, we love, we do our best, and we can't let the specter of how much better we could have done (maybe! under the right circumstances!) recast our stories as tragedies. Dodo's story is still worth telling. So is yours.

Let me just end with the very end, barely remembered from my first read-through, that now gives me chills:
...[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 have lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Book the next?

Does anybody want to read another book together?

Some people are still reading Middlemarch, and some still have something to say about it (well, I do). I'm not ready to declare closure on Middlemarch, but I figure it can't hurt to look forward to another group reading project. Think about it.

I casually mentioned the possibility a while ago elsewhere. I received suggestions both for specific authors (Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoy) and specific works (Anna Karenina, Ulysses, War and Peace).

I'm vetoing Anna Karenina, because I've read it and I'm not up for a reread at this time. Maybe after we get another book down, though, I'll hand the blog over to the Karenina readers (I'd happily follow along without actively participating).

Anyway, I'm presenting a shortlist. Vote for the one that appeals to you most. At the end of the month, I'll tally the votes, update the list of contributors, and set up a schedule (tentatively for June/July/August).

Diana has also suggested the possibility of creating a forum (either in her webspace or elsewhere) to complement (or supplant) our blog goings-on. (Potential use: a scheduled "live" discussion.) Any thoughts on blogs versus forums, or format in general, would be appreciated.

The shortlist (click for a bit about):

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky
Ulysses, James Joyce
The Red and the Black, Stendhal
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Is that too long for a shortlist? I anticipate that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky will be clear favourites. I still balk a little at the thought of Ulysses, but I doubt I will ever be more ready than I am now, and I believe this sort of forum would well suit the reading of it. I haven't read any of these and don't own any of them except Ulysses (and I'm half-hoping there's a new, more accessible translation of it available).

Leave a comment to register your preference, along with any strong opinions or suggestions about these or future reading selections (I'm keeping a list) and discussion format or schedule.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Sir James

"Sir James never ceased to regard Dorothea's second marriage as a mistake." Gina and I discussed this briefly by email a couple weeks ago, but I think it's worth opening up for discussion here.

Chapter 54:
Indeed, Sir James shrank with so much dislike from the association even in thought of Dorothea with Ladislaw as her possible lover, that he would himself have wished to avoid an outward show of displeasure which would have recognized the disagreeable possibility. If any one had asked him why he shrank in that way, I am not sure that he would at first have said anything fuller or more precise than "that Ladislaw!" — though on reflection he might have urged that Mr. Casaubon's codicil, barring Dorothea's marriage with Will, except under a penalty, was enough to east unfitness over any relation at all between them. His aversion was all the stronger because he felt himself unable to interfere.

A few pages later, James is still stewing over it: "To his secret feeling there was something repulsive in a woman's second marriage, and no match would prevent him from feeling it a sort of desecration for Dorothea." Desecration! My, what a strong word.

Eliot delves a bit deeper in Chapter 84:
The mass of his feeling about Dorothea's marriage to Ladislaw was due partly to excusable prejudice, or even justifiable opinion, partly to a jealous repugnance hardly less in Ladislaw's case than in Casaubon's. He was convinced that the marriage was a fatal one for Dorothea. But amid that mass ran a vein of which he was too good and honorable a man to like the avowal even to himself: it was undeniable that the union of the two estates — Tipton and Freshitt — lying charmingly within a ring-fence, was a prospect that flattered him for his son and heir.

Which of these factors do think plays the largest part? Does he still hold a torch for Dorothea? What do you make of the James and Celia's marriage?

Or is it really all about his sense of what's proper? His stance is, we're told in the Finale, the one Middlemarch at large took.

James is obviously a product of his upbringing. Do you see anything admirable in him?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Go me! Who else?

I just finished Middlemarch. I don't have anything coherent to say about it at the moment because it's all still swirling around in my head and frankly, it hasn't quite sunk in yet that I really did this. I know that I wouldn't have gotten through this lunker of a book without this blog and you all. I have many times started a Big, Serious Classic and then faltered because life got in the way, other, easier-to-read books got in the way, and sometimes even other Big, Serious Classics would lead me astray (only to repeat the cycle).

So, I just wanted to say thank you, Isabella especially, for being here and for keeping me going.

How many have finished? How many are close? How many are seriously flagging? To anyone who hasn't finished yet - stay with it! When I turned that 799th page, I felt invincible!

And now I want to read it again...

Monday, May 01, 2006

More About Dogs

I remembered something I read in Daniel Deronda about dogs, and found it again.

"The dogs--half-a-dozen of various kinds were moving lazily in and out, taking attitudes of brief attention--gave a vacillating preference first to one gentleman, then to the other; being dogs in such good circumstances that they could play at hunger, and liked to be served with delicacies which they declined to put in their mouths; all except Fetch, the beautiful liver-colored water-spaniel, which sat with its forepaws firmly planted and its expressive brown face turned upward, watching Grandcourt with unshaken constancy. He held in his lap a tiny Maltese dog with a tiny silver collar and bell, and when he had a hand unused by cigar or coffee-cup, it rested on this small parcel of animal warmth. I fear that Fetch was jealous, and wounded that her master gave her no word or look; at last it seemed that she could bear this neglect no longer, and she gently put her large silky paw on her master's leg. Grandcourt looked at her with unchanged face for half a minute, and then took the trouble to lay down his cigar while he lifted the unimpassioned Fluff close to his chin and gave it caressing pats, all the while gravely watching Fetch, who, poor thing, whimpered interruptedly, as if trying to repress that sign of discontent, and at last rested her head beside the appealing paw, looking up with piteous beseeching. So, at least, a lover of dogs must have interpreted Fetch, and Grandcourt kept so many dogs that he was reputed to love them; at any rate, his impulse to act just in that way started from such an interpretation. But when the amusing anguish burst forth in a howling bark, Grandcourt pushed Fetch down without speaking, and, depositing Fluff carelessly on the table (where his black nose predominated over a salt-cellar), began to look to his cigar, and found, with some annoyance against Fetch as the cause, that the brute of a cigar required relighting. Fetch, having begun to wail, found, like others of her sex, that it was not easy to leave off; indeed, the second howl was a louder one, and the third was like unto it. "Turn out that brute, will you?" said Grandcourt to Lush, without raising his voice or looking at him--as if he counted on attention to the smallest sign.And Lush immediately rose, lifted Fetch, though she was rather heavy, and he was not fond of stooping, and carried her out, disposing of her in some way that took him a couple of minutes before he returned." (Ch. 12)

And later in Daniel Deronda, we see a (possibly Maltese) tiny dog worn as a fashion accessory by Lady Mallinger:

"Lady Mallinger, with fair matronly roundness and mildly prominent blue eyes, moved about in her black velvet, carrying a tiny white dog on her arm as a sort of finish to her costume;" (Ch. 35)

The Maltese dog spurned by Dorothea makes a return appearance in Ch. 55 of Middlemarch, in the scene where Celia is persuading Dorothea to take off her widow's cap. Mrs. Cadwallader is stirring things up with suggestions of Dorothea's remarriage. "Sir James was annoyed, and leaned forward to play with Celia's Maltese dog." So it would seem that Celia got the puppy after all!