Monday, January 6, 2014

That time when George Eliot almost didn't write "Middlemarch"

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ken Moody, Robert Sherman. (1984)
Mapplethorpe Foundation.
Virginia Woolf—in an offhand remark that we are still quoting ad nauseam ninety years later—once wrote that George Eliot's Middlemarch "is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." This line is often hurled around without much consideration as to what it means. How many of us can say what a novel written for grown-ups is or should be like? What were the other few English novels for grown-ups? As with most aphorisms, Woolf's line is snappy, but her intentions obscure.

What I've always thought she meant—and I offer this hypothesis without much evidence adduced here—is that Middlemarch deals realistically with responsibility for both actions and their consequences, and takes seriously the ethical importance of the decisions made by ordinary people. A few Victorian novels do this, but not the vast majority of popular fiction from the nineteenth century. Most of them build worlds in which the final verdict of the novel's moral universe is never really in doubt: in some way, the just shall be rewarded and the wicked punished. This, according to Woolf, is a childish expectation—and indulging that expectation makes a novel childish. In the universe of Middlemarch, questions of what job you take or whom you marry matter because it is possible to make the wrong decision. Middlemarch is not only about trying to make the right decisions; it is about how you come to terms with having made the wrong ones.

So it is appropriate that Eliot herself nearly chose not to write Middlemarch. In early 1869, Eliot had been seriously considering an entirely different project: an epic poem, in multiple books, on the subject of Timoleon of Corinth. Timoleon was the general who drove the Carthaginians from Sicily (as detailed in Plutarch's Life of Timoleon). Her enthusiasm for the plan in her journals is palpable. It would examine "the influence of personal character on the destinies," she wrote. Eliot was waist-deep, Casaubon-like, in books on Corinthian culture, Carthaginian military tactics, and Greek history before she decided to set the project aside and focus on the nascent Middlemarch instead—apparently, only after some prompting from her partner George Henry Lewes.

The Timoleon project was a bad idea. Even if it had been a decent poem, almost none of the epic poetry from the Victorian era has aged especially well. Victorian writers were cultivated to think of Virgil and Milton as idols; unfortunately, this resulted in hundreds of thousands of fusty, grandiloquent lines unspooling onto wood-pulp paper—most of which described now-forgotten shipwrecks, battles, and wars of imperial conquest in terms better suited to duels on the Troad. The Victorian poetry most of us now know is not the poetry the Victorians themselves thought would last. One merely needs to look at the careers of Keats, Wordsworth, or Tennyson. Keats thought Hyperion a better bid for immortality than the Odes; Wordsworth thought The Prelude would outlast the Lyrical Ballads; Tennyson was sure that The Idylls of the King would be the pinnacle of his career, not its shadow. They did not think of the epic poem as a dead genre. Eliot was a creature of her time in thinking of the epic poem as a live medium for literary genius.

But if Eliot had made this choice, the Victorian novel would lack its crown jewel; British realism would have been less fully realized. Eliot herself would be remembered for her other works, perhaps—but her stature more that of a Gaskell or a Hardy than an Austen or a James. Would Timoleon have rivalled Middlemarch in ethical insight? Perhaps; but part of what makes Middlemarch as intelligent as it is is the disparity between the heroic and the ordinary—the distance between the deeds of Saint Theresa and the aspirations of the modern woman. Moreover, it valorizes the ordinary, insisting that the ostensibly little problems of humdrum lives might matter just as much as the rise and fall of nations. (Middlemarch and Bovary look at two sides of the same coin.)

So we are lucky that Eliot made the choice she did. But how could she have known? The Middlemarch problem—that it is possible to make the wrong choice—confronts everyone, but takes a particularly keen form in the lives of those who do creative work. They are questions of medium, genre, form, and calling. How do you choose whether to work in verse or prose, essay or novel, rock band or orchestra, painting or in photography? Patti Smith's memoir offers a lengthy account of the many false starts that Robert Mapplethorpe made before finding his calling as a photographer—everything from painting to jewelry-making. Some say that Leonard Bernstein should have composed more than he conducted. On the subject of Victoriana, I tend to lament that Elizabeth Barrett Browning never developed her obvious talent for literary criticism and theory more fully. How many more obscure examples of such creators and artists are there who, never having risen to Browning-like prominence, rest in unknown graves?

For better or for worse, Eliot brings out the moralizing side of us all, and I am not immune. So please forgive me for tentatively proposing that one of the lessons to draw from Eliot, Keats, Bernstein, and the like is that there are important distinctions to be made between who we are, what we do best, and who we want to be; and—Woolf's crucial observation—in our own lives, we are frequently the least accurate judges of all three. We not only need friends; we need friends of good sense, and we need to choose those friends well. In other words, it helps to have a George Henry Lewes or two along for the journey.

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