Saturday, July 4, 2009

Reading on the 66

Despite being hot (for Seattle), crowded (holidaymakers), skint (typewriter's fault), Saturday was the day that my car could no longer run on no oil and no engine coolant - which is both fair and mechanically sound but quite inconvenient. I should have changed the oil weeks if not months ago, but it's hard to go out and do something unless you have done that something before and can picture yourself doing it again (at least, that's how I work.) When I started the car, it began to shiver and squeak and I decided to leave it in the driveway, and I have thus ridden the bus to work for the past two days.

This riding the bus business can be entertaining: I feel as though I am being chauffeured around (with another 25 people). But these pleasures wear off quickly, especially as sweating is the result of the heat and the close ratio of people to bus. I do, however, read on the bus which enables me to transcend the body odors and move forward on my reading list. Lately I've been reading Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World, a history of Western Philosophy thinly disguised as a novel. I avoided philosophy in college and have recently (just this week) recognized this to be a mistake.

Last week on the bus to tango, I slowly and painfully finished George Eliot's Middlemarch. I say slowly and painfully because the font was small and the characters plentiful, not because of the text which, although heavy to a twenty-first century reader, is so centered on relationship, social impulses and consequences, that we are able to transcend the 125 years separating us from Eliot and find kinship with the characters.

The "moral" of Middlemarch could be "All things seem like a good idea at the time, but one should get a second opinion." Or perhaps, "Like should marry Like." Both Virginia Woolf and Harold Bloom have praised Middlemarch despite the novel's faults. I experienced the novel as the love child of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell (hmmm) though its heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is the sister of James' Isabel Archer (Portrait of a Lady), one of my favorite characters. Both Dorothea and Isabel are young women who blunder into captivity led by their ideals, passion and blind vision. Isabel Archer desires travel, experience, self-knowledge. Dorothea Brooke, aflame with religious and social conviction, wants an education.

Middlemarch is like a social map, and the characters introduced are conveniently or fortuitously (or unfortunately, in the case of Mr. Bulstrode and the vagrant Raffles) connected. The book is named for the provincial town of Middlemarch which forms the set for our drama. Dorothea and her Celia are of marriageable age, and though Sir James Chettam wants to marry the elder Miss Brooke, she sees him as a friend and fellow social sympathizer. Chettam is cast aside (into Celia's arms) with the appearance of the august (and skeletal) Edward Casaubon, a gentleman theologian and scholar who is working on his book, the Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea sees Casaubon as a gnostic guide/potential soul mate and marries him, eager to be taught and to aid Casaubon in his lifework. She discovers too late that she will never be admitted into his confidence and their marriage is based on neither warmth nor mutuality.

At the same time, Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor eager for medical reform, comes to Middlemarch to begin his practice, to the community's cautious distrust and consternation. He strays from his single-minded plan of research and development to marry the beautiful Rosamund Vincy. Despite Rosamund's initial willingness to be a doctor's wife, it becomes evident that Lydgate's vision for his practice and Rosamund's expectation for a comfortable and ornamented life as Lydgate's wife are at odds, and both suffer for it. Marriage has never looked so enticing as Eliot can present it.

Throw in Rosamund's aimless brother Fred; the object of his affection, Mary; the rich old man Fred looks to for an inheritance; the pompous evangelical-with-a-past, Mr. Bulstrode; political involvement; community disagreements; and handsome, passionate Will Ladislaw, who meets Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome on their honeymoon and changes the course of Dorothea's marriage. The rich social landscape is too plentiful to boil down to a few paragraphs, and like Dickens's Bleak House, the plot of the novel (while long-winded) is worth slogging through, so I will give no more away.

I'm taking the bus to St. Mark's Cathedral for Compline this evening, so I think I'll buy and begin reading a copy of Barbara Pym's Excellent Women. So here's to reading on the bus.

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