This Week in My Classes (November 3, 2009)

In Nineteenth-Century Fiction this week, we get to look at two of my favorite chapters in Middlemarch. Our general theme is the importance of looking at things from different perspectives–a simply idea but one that gets refracted in a number of different ways in the novel. On Monday I brought up the problem of achieving solidity in narrative. As Carlyle pointed out, “narrative is linear, but action is solid”: in life, many things happen at once, and what happens means different things to everyone involved because each ‘event’ is in fact part of many different stories, all overlapping but which you can only coherently narrate one at a time. What’s a novelist to do? One of Eliot’s techniques is to revisit moments in time, presenting them and then circling around to come at them again and make us consider them as part of a different story than we were following the first time. A good example occurs, for the first time, at the very end of Chapter 27–appropriately enough, as this is the chapter that opens with the famous pier glass parable, making explicit that the ‘scratches’ (events) take on their meaning depending on where we place our ‘candle’ to cast its light. The story we are with in this chapter is the developing relationship between Lydgate and Rosamond (the latter, of course, believes it is a developing romance). Lydgate’s practice is picking up, and one day, “when he had happened to overtake Rosamond on the Lowick road,” he is

stopped by a servant on horseback with a message calling him in to a house of some importance where Peacock [his predecessor in the practice] had never attended; and it was the second instance of this kind. The servant was Sir James Chettam’s, and the house was Lowick Manor [Mr Casaubon’s home, and aptly named].

In the Oxford edition, this is on page 256. The next chapter begins immediately, but earlier in time and with another story, that of Dorothea and Casaubon’s return to Lowick from their honeymoon. We follow them until we learn why Casaubon needed medical attention,on page 267, when “Mr Lydgate was sent for and he came wonderfully soon, for the messenger, who was Sir James Chettam’s man and knew Mr Lydgate, met him leading his horse along the Lowick road and giving his arm to Miss Vincy.” It’s a nice exercise to work out what the fetching of Lydgate by Sir James’s servant means for a range of different characters involved, especially Rosamond and Lydgate (both of whom take it as evidence that Lydgate will prosper professionally), Dorothea (who is coming to realize that Casaubon’s demands on her, or his need for her, will not be of the kind she imagined before their wedding), and of course Casaubon himself, whose confrontation with his own mortality sets him up for Chapter 42, which may be the greatest in the book–next to Chapters 19-21, maybe, which we also looked at (here, we tried comparing the order of events as plotted in the novel to the order of events in the story, or chronologically)–or maybe Chapters 80-81…

Tomorrow I want to look first at another pattern of revisiting, this time not circling around in time but coming back to a familiar setting with new information. For this, I’ll focus on Dorothea’s blue-green boudoir, which changes dramatically (but, of course, not really at all) from when she first sees it and thinks it needs no alteration to her return from Rome, when “the very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before.” Later still, “the bare room had gathered within it those memories of an inward life which fill the air as with a cloud of good or bad angels” and the portrait of Casaubon’s Aunt Julia has become yet more interesting because of its association with Will Ladislaw. If we have time, we’ll start looking at examples of people who look different as your experience changes, which will bring us to Dorothea’s mighty struggle with her lesser self at the end of Chapter 42. This is the culmination, or nearly so, of the struggle that begins in Rome and reaches a new stage in Chapter 28, when she “was no longer struggling against the perception of facts, but adjusting herself to their clearest perception.” This movement, of course, is the essential one towards realism, but the next great step must be towards sympathy. Can she take it? What will be the consequences? As the narrator says in Chapter 42, when Dorothea’s picture of Casaubon becomes nearly (but not yet quite) as clear as ours, “In such a crisis as this, some women begin to hate.”

In Victorian Sensations, we’re still working our way through East Lynne. The sheer improbability of the plot is such a delight in this half of the book that despite the mounting pathos of the plot, it’s hard not to find it comic. On Monday I had the students work in groups on some key passages looking at Lady Isabel’s condition after the train wreck that literalizes her symbolic death to the world (the price of her moral fall)–but then doesn’t, since she doesn’t actually die but returns like the ghost of her former self, unrecognizable because, well, here’s how she looks now:

Look at the governess, reader, and see whether you know her. You will say “No.” But you do, for it is Lady Isabel Vane. But how strangely she is altered! Yes, the railway accident did that for her, and what the accident left undone, grief and remorse accomplished. She limps as she walks, and slightly stoops, taken from her former height. A scar extends from her chin above her mouth, completely changing the character of the lower part of her face; some of her teeth are missing, so that she speaks with a lisp, and the sober bands of her gray hair–it is nearly silver–are confined under a large and close cap. She herself tries to make the change greater, so that all chance of being recognized may be at an end, and for that reason she wears disfiguring spectacles, and a broad band of gray velvet, coming down low upon her forehead. Her dress, too, is equally disfiguring. Never is she seen in one that fits her person, but in those frightful “loose jackets,” which must surely have been invented by somebody envious of a pretty shape. As to her bonnet, it would put to shame those masquerade things tilted on to the back of the head, for it actually shaded her face; and she was never seen out without a thick veil. She was pretty easy upon the score of being recognized now; for Mrs. Ducie and her daughters had been sojourning at Stalkenberg, and they did not know her in the least. Who could know her? What resemblance was there between that gray, broken-down woman, with her disfiguring marks, and the once loved Lady Isabel, with her bright color, her beauty, her dark flowing curls, and her agile figure? Mr. Carlyle himself could not have told her. But she was good-looking still, in spite of it all, gentle and interesting; and people wondered to see that gray hair in one yet young. (Ch. 39)

The brilliant part is that she goes back to her former home to serve as governess to the children she abandoned when she ran away with her lover (sorry for the spoilers, but really, none of you were ever going to read this novel, right?)–and nobody recognizes her as long as she has on those spectacles. I am fascinated by the comment that she is “good-looking still.” We discussed this for a while in class, and the students who very able worked up this passage made the point that it suggests beauty is a matter of character as well as appearance. It also seems to be a gesture towards keeping our sympathy for her alive: she’s not so hideous we look away. Tomorrow we’re going to try to figure out how the election that figures, quite suddenly, in the late part of the novel makes any sense–how is it connected, or how does it enhance, the other themes or conflicts we’ve been considering? My opening gambit is that it directs our attention away from the duelling female protagonists, Isabel and Barbara, and does something with our thinking about the male antagonists, Carlyle and Francis Levison. But what exactly? I think the students will enjoy the ducking scene.

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