Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zadie in Middlemarch

On my way to the Tatton Park Biennial art exhibition yesterday, I enjoyed reading a long essay by Zadie Smith on "Middlemarch" in the Guardian. I've long been of the opinion that Middlemarch is not only the peak of Victorian novel-writing, but a major innovative work in itself, every bit as radical in the possibilities that it gives a novelist as "Ulysses" or other later works. Smith agrees, and, given the length of a masters essay she gives it close reading, historical context, and a certain quirky take on it. I imagine its the first time David Foster Wallace has been mentioned in an essay on George Eliot, for instance. Reading the essay made me want to go back to the book again, not least because Smith concentrates some of her attention on the least showy of the books 3 main romantic relationships, that of Fred and Mary. She admits it would seem the least important of the 3 - but that Eliot gives it equal value. I'm not so sure, but its a long time since I read the novel. What is certain is that Eliot was always demotic in her approach to her characters - even more so in "Daniel Deronda" where the egalitarianism leads to some occasionally bizarre concentrations (less Gwendolyn, more Mordechai, as the novel progresses) - so that it is the ultra-serious Casaubon who becomes ridiculous, not because Eliot has told us, but because he has shown us; whilst the comic Mr. Brooke becomes a little tragic. That Eliot took as much from life as she did from philosophy, a point that Smith labours a little, should be self-evident - and its perhaps important that the most formidable of our Victorian novelists remains with a little of the reputation as an intellectual's favourite; when any reader will know that her light touch makes even her more lavish novelistic schema, a page-turner. George Eliot, Smith reminds us, reminds us about life lived, as well as life studied, and in Dorothea she is making fun of her younger self. Smith, despite her own celebrity status, sometimes, you feel, revels in a little Dorothea-envy herself. There's something seductive about the life of books; though, as Eliot knew, and Smith reminds us, nothing is as seductive of the book of life. It's surprising to read an essay on "Middlemarch" that hardly mentions Casaubon and his "Key to all mythologies", one of Eliot's more cautionary tales, and, by pressing so hard for the book's humanism, Smith almost entirely misses - or, perhaps, as someone less interested in history and politics, than in people and novels, doesn't see as important - that the novel came out after - and was written during the 1870 reform act; yet is set at the time of the more momentous 1832 act. Our greatest chronicler of the 19th century's age of political reform, and how it affected the average man and woman in every town, was, it should be remembered, never permitted the vote because of her gender. "Middlemarch"'s radicalism - and its challenge for future writers impressed by its range and depth - is at least partly because it was, and is, a political novel.

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