Loving “Middlemarch,” Charmed by Mildred Walker’s “The Southwest Corner,” & Intrigued by R. F. Kuang’s “Babel”

I was wearing pajama shorts, a CAT MOM t-shirt,  and tennies as I sat in front of the fan, ready to leap up and turn on the air conditioner if the temp hit 90.  When you’ve endured extreme weather – like biking for two hours when it’s 90 degrees, and then being chased on a trail by a horrible boys’ cross-country team who used my bike to pace them – yes, this really happened – you’re ready to spend the day in a comfortable, cool house.

The light looks like autumn:  slanting, softer.  Some believe fall starts after Labor Day, others that it begins September 22, the official date of the change of season.  But even temps in the 80s make me feel it is fall. 

Anyway, I have embarked on my fall reading program.  I am almost done with Middlemarch, and loving it.  Daniel Deronda is my favorite book by Eliot –  an elaborate novel partly about the consequences of a pretty, vain young woman’s marriage to a sadist – poor Gwendolyn marries him because he is rich and her family has lost all their money. It is also about attractive Daniel Deronda’s habit of saving women – first Gwendolyn, who confides in him when she is in trouble, and then Miriam, a Jewish singer whom he saves from suicide. It is also about Daniel’s exploration of Judaism after he discovers that he is Jewish. His view of the world and the people he had stereotyped slowly changes.   

Middlemarch has never held much interest for me, but this time I am loving it, reading it as a Victorian soap opera. The inhabitants of Middlemarch, a provincial town, are shaped, changed, strengthened, or destroyed by misconceptions, gossip, lack of imagination, and money (or lack thereof).  Money is very important – the focus of much of the book.

Eliot’s prose is graceful and witty, and she does a superb job of developing the characters.  Indeed, there are so many characters that I intend to introduce you only to a few.  On my first reading, I did not find them particularly engaging.  I was interested only in Dorothea Brooke, a bright, willful young woman who makes the mistake at 20 of marrying a middle-aged scholar, the first intellectual she has met.  Everyone around her knows this is a mistake, but no one can stop her. Mr. Casaubon is an unattractive, absent-minded, neglectful husband and  indifferent scholar. Worse, as Dorothea’s sister Celia points out, is the existence of  two moles on his face, with hair growing out of them.  Celia’s observation exasperates Dorothea. Dorothea works so hard as her husband’s amanuensis that she even begins to study Latin and Greek.

The opposite of Dorothea is lazy, likable Fred Vincy, who failed his exams at Oxford and refuses to fulfill his father’s ambition for him of becoming a clergyman. He goes into debt, unworried because he expects to inherit the estate of his uncle, Mr. Pennyfeather.  Fred often visits his uncle, but mainly because he is in love with Mary Garth, Mr. Featherstone’s nurse and housekeeper.  Mary has taken this job because she hates teaching. Ironically, Mary is responsible for Fred’s not inheriting the estate:  Mr. Pennyfeather made two wills, and when he was dying asked Mary to burn one of them.  She refused, because she thought it would be immoral to tamper with his wills.  And thus the money does not go to Fred, which of course is good for Fred’s temperament, because now he will have to work.  And Mary will not marry a man who does not work.

Mary is my favorite of the three principal women characters in Middlemarch.  If only Eliot had spent more time with Mary!  I would have loved to know more of her history, of her growing up in a poor family where her strong-minded mother taught them while she baked and did housework.

The other woman character, Rosamund Vincy, Fred’s sister, is very pretty, and very shallow.  She sets out to fascinated Lydgate, the  handsome new doctor who cures Fred of typhus and studies science by night. And so when the two marry, he is astonished to learn her true, grasping, social-climbing character.  She miscarries after an accident on a horse, after he had asked her not to go riding, but she insists that she would have miscarried anyway.   And you can imagine what happens to Lydgate’s dreams of scientific discoveries, as he goes into debt to support Rosamund.

Will Ladislaw, who becomes the editor of a newspaper owned by Dorothea’s uncle, is the second cousin of Mr. Casaubon.  Will admires pretty, brilliant Dorothea, but Mr. Casaubon refuses to admit him to the house, because he is jealous.

My favorite male character by far is Mr. Farebrother, a charming vicar whose only fault is playing whist in order to supplement his income:  he must support his mother, sister, and aunt. He is in love with Mary, and naturally her mother thinks he would be the best match for Mary – as do I – but love is blind.

Yes, I’ve only talked about the characters, not the structure or Eliot’s philosophy, but that’s where I’m living right now – with George Eliot’s characters, as I near the end of Middlemarch.

FOR FANS OF GLADYS TABER.  I am a fan of Mildred Walker, the author of The Curlew’s Cry and Winter Wheat, both set in Montana. The author lived for long periods in Montana and Vermont, and all but two of her books are set in Montana.

I recently read her short novel, The Southwest Corner, set in Vermont, which reminds me of Gladys Taber’s books.  Both writers describe nature, the seasons, and living in the country. The Southwest Corner is the quiet story of Marcia Elder, a retired teacher who, at 83, realizes that she can no longer live alone in her farmhouse.

Walker’s writing is plain but engaging.  She writes,

It had been the longest winter Marcia Elder remembered in all her 83 years. So many days of waking up to frosted windows and unbroken snow across the field, and the front path even with the meadow.  Orville Greenstead came by every day or so, but he had tired of keeping the walk shoveled.

Marcia has never considered moving.  Then on a spring-like day, she  leaves the house to take a long walk and sits down and falls asleep.  When she wakes up it is snowing, and she is so cold that she can barely walk back to the house.  She is too exhausted to light the fire – it is difficult for her to carry the wood – and she falls asleep under a blanket, in a freezing house. 

And so she advertises for a housemate. The arrangement she makes with Bea, a bossy middle-aged woman, is awkward, and Marcia finds herself dominated by her . I loved this book mostly for Marcia’s observations of nature, and though I was anxious, I knew from the preface that all would turn out well in the end.

THE TROUBLE WITH INSTAGRAM. The photos of books are too pretty! Instagram inspired me to begin R. F. Kuang’s Babel, a fantasy set in an alternative Oxford.  A group of students, one Chinese, one Indian, and the other two girls, whose identities preclude them from being admitted to most Oxford colleges, attend Oxford’s  mysterious Institute of Languages.

I love the charming Author’s Note (really an essay) on Her Representations of Historical England, and of the University of Oxford in Particular.

She writes,

The trouble with writing an Oxford novel is that anyone who has spent time at Oxford will criticize your text to determine if your representation of Oxford aligns with their own memories of the place.  Worse if you are an American writing about Oxford, for what do Americans know about anything?  I offer my defence here.

Kuang is a brilliant, imaginative writer – far above the standard of most fantasy novelists – but I read this at bedtime, so I may have to skim some parts.   There’s a hint of Brideshead Revisited here, crossed with Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House and Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines. It’s great fun, but 544 pages.

8 thoughts on “Loving “Middlemarch,” Charmed by Mildred Walker’s “The Southwest Corner,” & Intrigued by R. F. Kuang’s “Babel””

  1. Ripley Hugo, Mildred’s daughter, wrote a biography of her, Writing For Her Life. Ripley was married to the poet Richard Hugo, who taught for years at the University of Montana.

  2. This is a very enjoyable and insightful account of Middlemarch — full and concise. I too like Mary best of the heroines, and my favorite character is the novel is Mr Farebrother. I had not noticed that the parallel starter of
    both Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda is the heroine makes a very bad choice for a husband, Grandcourt far worse than Casaubon (who is not deliberately malicious) — both women blinded by their own temperaments, Gwendolen on the surface as self-centered and arrogant as Grandcourt (she reminds me of Austen’s Emma),
    and needs (Dorothea’s for serious work).

    Can you tell I’ve just been reading Daniel Deronda and am up to Book 3?

    I liked your accounts of the other books too. They help me accept my life — as quiet as the characters who inhabit them.

    Shall I tell you how much I admire you and the life you lead so stalwartly. It takes great strength to carve your way through time creatively within the way you do. I’m sorry you had a bad time when you went bicycling.

    1. Daniel Deronda is such a wonderful book! Yes, Gwendolyn and Dorothea both marry foolishly, though, as you point out, Gwendolyn’s marriage is a disaster. Both are, in different ways, broken by their husbands. I think Gwendolyn is a bit like Emma!

      Thank you for your kind words!

  3. I very much enjoyed your review as I’m a big fan of the two Eliot books you discuss. Middlemarch is such a masterpiece and can be read in so many different ways. I return to it every seven or eight years (I’m overdue for a re-read) and each time I find that I’m focusing on a different character or story arc, from Dorothea, to Legate to Mary & Fred.
    Your discussion of Daniel Deronda made me realized how much I’ve forgotten! Another one for the re-read list.
    The fantasy novel sounds interesting but not at 544 pages! (that’s what Eliot is for).

    1. It’s a breath of fresh air to read Eliot! I do agree that long Victorian novels are preferable to long novels of other times and genres. Babel is a complete change from Middlemarch, as you can imaginge, but it’s very good in a different way.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: