The Bataan Death Middlemarch

According to every poll except the ones that Donald Trump makes up, Hillary Clinton is expected to win the presidency this November. For me, the whole campaign has been nerve-wracking, exasperating, infuriating, and at the best moments, exultant. I think I'm going to help elect our first female president. How strange that Middlemarch, a book written nearly 150 years ago would feel so relevant now? If George Eliot were still alive, I'm sure she'd be wearing an "I'm With Her" Tshirt. 

 Worn by months of handling, spine broken by months of being dropped onto my napping bod, the evocative cover art still makes me smile.    

Worn by months of handling, spine broken by months of being dropped onto my napping bod, the evocative cover art still makes me smile. 

 

I picked up this doorstopper in June, after reading a few lightweight-but-fun novels (including Eligible, by Curtis Sittenfeld, which I highly recommend). I like to judge books by their covers and Middlemarch had a lovely one. It's considered this one of the greatest novels ever written, and I'd never read it. My neuroses about being undereducated is a great motivator (as well as a terrifically powerful psychic bludgeon at 4 am).

So I brought the book home, and slowly started chipping my way in. It's long, overly wordy, and written in a dense antiquated style that often rendered the content indecipherable to my feeble 21st Century tweet-addled brain. It didn't take much provocation to distract me and I could fill a blog post with all I read while avoiding Middlemarch; coming soon, I promise.

It was an act of great commitment but i finished it, and I'm thrilled to brag about it here. I will never run a marathon, I probably won't ever give up dairy or gluten, but I did read Middlemarch. I disagree with those who proclaim this book supreme. If you're in the mood for some long old-ass novels, I'd enthusiastically press Anna Karenina or Moby Dick into your hands, not this.

Tucked inside it pages-long paragraphs, however, are some gems of writing that touch on aspects of the human experience as relevant today as they were in 1870. I'll give a few examples here, with a framework to update the context to a modern discussion:

Why we need botox:

"Looking at the mother, you might hope that the daughter would become like her, which is a prospective advantage equal to a dowry--the mother too often standing behind the daughter like a malignant prophecy--"Such as I am, she will shortly be."

The personal crisis of excessive credit card debt:

"He was assailed by the vulgar, hateful trials of a man who has bought and used a great many things which might have been done without and which he is unable to pay for, though the demand for payment has become pressing."

About the grim day the honeymoon is over:

"...his suspicions that he was not any longer adored without criticism... there was a strong reason to be added, which he had not himself taken explicitly into account, namely that he was not unmixedly adorable. He suspected this, however, as he suspected other things, without confessing it, and like the rest of us, felt how soothing it would have been to have a companion who would never find it out."

These are just a few words of way too many words. A big part of this far-ranging story is told with an anachronistically feminist point of view. One of the main female characters, Dorothea Brooke, shares Hillary's earnest desire to make her mark in the world by doing good. Unlike Hilary, however, even the notion of making her mark is treated as an eccentric novelty in the woman, and generally ignored or patronized. Then she marries someone she thinks is important who she thinks will teach her valuable things. Turns out (shocker) he's a giant ass whose ego-driven insecurity damns her long after he's dead and gone (which thankfully for her happens early in their marriage). He amends his will to control her choices from beyond the grave. Dickhead patriarchy for all eternity.

I know things aren't that bad now, but you'd be surprised by how much is not so different. Eliot wrote with such an incisive sensitivity her characters seemed totally multi-dimensional and human and it floored me to see myself and my contemporaries in these stories of English people in the 1820s: women who consume themselves with their appearance, men and women who fall into crippling debt just to keep up the appearance of affluence, women who deliberately take themselves out of the conversation whenever it veers toward public policy or anything beyond the domestic, men who merely by dint of their own financial success feel confident to bloviate publicly about the same topics despite having few insights, women who defer to their spouses despite their clear skill and intelligence. 

We humans are pretty predictable, I guess, but I'm still a big fan of change. I'm very much looking forward to seeing how the tenor of our times might change with a woman in charge.