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Tuesday, March 12, 2013


First sentences: Middlemarch by George Eliot

This site is undergoing some revision; a temporary archive of the first sentence pieces can be found here

Where do we begin on this one? Middlemarch is one of those books that mounts its beginning slowly: two pages of 'Prelude' that set out its central theme - an infinitesimal proportion of the whole massive tome - before drawing the curtain back on the opening chapter. Dorothea Brooke is our central character in a large and closely-studied cast, and when we first see her, she is carefully mounted for our consideration in a firmly-delineated context. If we consider a book as beginning in its first sentence, the first sentence of the book proper is that of the opening chapter; the 'Prelude', as Eliot musically termed it, is more in the nature of preparation, directions for how we should read the book once it really begins.

Which is, in itself, rather a fascinating device. Eliot is an author loved by many readers as compassionate and insightful, while others find themselves disliking her, resistant to the pressure of her prose and uneasy with the personal passion that sometimes animates her supposedly omniscient narration. 'Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar,' wrote Virginia Woolf, and Dorothea, the most heroic of Eliot's heroines, can occupy that disquieting space, that literary uncanny valley between author and character that is merely ridiculous when created by a lesser author but in hands as formidable as Eliot's can polarise readers to passionate identification, revolted contempt, or the kind of forgiving ambivalence that no careful critic feels impudent enough to bestow on such a writer with anything resembling ease.

Dorothea is a mixed blessing, in other words, and the more so because we're told who she is and how we should regard her before we ever see her move a limb or speak a word. For us, confining ourselves to the question of first sentences, the very fact that she gets two whole pages of Prelude preparing us for the first sentence that introduces her is symptomatic: we are not permitted to enter this book with the freedom we ordinarily expect. Later on in the novel Eliot's grand morals relax enough to enjoy some gentle ironies at Dorothea's expense, and in those moments she becomes a loveable creation in the good old Eliot style and we draw a breath of relief - a personal favourite is the comment about the conflict between her imperfect asceticism and her genteel skill at riding: 'Riding was an indulgence she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it,' - but as Middlemarch opens, we feel the full weight of its ambition, the massive scope both of scale and subject. As we begin Middlemarch, we have to decide whether to accept Eliot on her own terms, and if not, what terms we can strike with her mighty shade.

This is the opening of the Prelude:

Who that cares to know much of the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?

The story is of the Carmelite founder, who ran away at the age of seven with her brother Rodrigo, 'hearts already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve.' Eliot's point, which she advances like an essayist, is that in the absence of a 'coherent social faith and order', a woman of Saint Theresa's disposition will simply yearn for 'an unattained goodness' and stumble over hindrances - 'domestic reality' preventing great spiritual accomplishment. There is no question as to how we should regard Dorothea when we meet her: she is an uncanonised saint, unable to do great deeds because of the chafing realities of contemporary life. Or at least, not quite contemporary - the book was begun in 1869 and set in the 1830s - but close enough that the contemporary reader could recognise their own society, and hear the voice of a female author addressing grievances and controversies not yet settled.

What we can see straight away is that Eliot has no intention of holding back on the didacticism. To a modern reader the sentence is classical, with its Chinese-puzzle-ball subclauses within subclauses, its reliance on the patience of the audience with a long and measured stretch of neatly comma'd prose, its personification of 'Time' as a quasi-mythological figure for a readership raised on the Greek and Roman authors ... but at the same time, just as she alludes to historical figures and invokes the leaning figure of Chronos, she is equally prepared to seize upon authorities and insights that were new and compelling for her day. We do not hear of the 'trials of Time': we hear of the 'experiments of Time', trying out 'how the mysterious mixture behaves'. We are not in Time's amphitheatre here: we are in Time's laboratory. In a stroke, Eliot showcases both traditional and progressive learning, an almost-surreal juxtaposition and almost-wry nod to the way that Time itself is changing, that social forces come and go and it may be our good or bad fortune to find ourselves born amidst them - and, too, an unambiguous display of her own intelligence and learning, a confident assertion of her authority. Later in the novel, of course, we will meet Dorothea's closest counterpart in Dr Tertius Lydgate, an aspiring man of science whose great ideals come to no grander achievements than Dorothea's spiritual ones, faith and reason alike falling by the wayside of human mistakes and social pressures: in beginning with science, Eliot places herself just a little on the side from Dorothea even as she rails against her frustrations. There's a little humour and a little distance here, a lightness of touch with the imagery that grants the sentence a sprightliness that belies its length.

Sprightly though it is, however, we are still to take it seriously. If we do not smile with some gentleness and take some interest in the case of Saint Theresa, we stand accused of being outside the honest ranks of those who 'care to' know much of history or human nature. We are exhorted to share Eliot's favouritism and partake of her education: if we accept her assumption of our complicity it reads as benign, a kind of rhetorical figure bestowing on us intelligence and good will; if we don't, on the other hand, the sentence doesn't seem to think very well of us. In other words, there is an implicit assertion in this sentence that there is a right way to think: right subjects for contemplation and right feelings to have towards them. Eliot is generous with her pretence that we, the readers, must already think in this right and well-informed way - even a brief moment thinking kindly on the infant Saint will do - but there's no room to differ with her.

This is a big sentence talking about a big idea, and it encompasses a great many moods: the didacticism of Eliot's tone tempered by her mild amusement at shaking the metaphysical together with the chemical, and in the midst of it, the 'gentleness', the compassion, towards the vulnerable child. It's a very Eliot sentence.

We have two pages along these lines, and then we move to the first chapter - but even then, we aren't allowed to start without some further clarification. Middlemarch begins its chapters with quotations - and if Eliot couldn't find one that suited her, often enough she'd simply make one up and have a dialogue between a 'First Gentleman' and a 'Second Gentleman' to make sure that we don't miss the point (for instance, in defending Dorothea's foolish first marriage, these shadowy philosophers tell each other, '"Our deeds are fetters that we forge ourselves." / "Ay truly, but I think it is the world / That brings the iron."') - but this one is attributed, not an Eliot invention:

"Since I can do no good because a woman
Reach constantly at something that is near it."
- The Maid's Tragedy, Beaumont and Fletcher

We've already been told in no uncertain terms that the lack of social outlets may make of a saint a 'foundress of nothing'; here, it's made even clearer exactly what the problem is: in this world, a Saint Theresa will be held back 'because a woman.' Even if we aren't familiar with the play itself, there's the word 'Tragedy' right in its title. We're well and truly primed to meet our maid.

So the first chapter begins, thus:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

After all the rhetorical weight of the prologue, a sentence as simple as the 'poor dress' it invokes. Grammatically simple, that is; there's nothing simple about its content.

Character names are always important in fiction, and it's interesting that we first meet the woman who will be referred to as 'Dorothea' hereafter as 'Miss Brooke.' 'Dorothea' is a fairly obvious reference to her religious disposition: the name means 'gift of God', and a reader with even the most modest knowledge of Classical tongues or etymology will recognise the feminised 'theos', the same Greek root that gives us 'theology' and 'monotheism'. It's a name that elevates female frustration to Christhood, really: Dorothea is a gift that the world does not appreciate. 'Brooke', though, has the same simplicity as her dress, a natural and unpretentious - though not plebeian - surname. It's significant, perhaps, that the final image of Dorothea compares her to a river: 'Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth.' The final estimation of Dorothea is more optimistic and less angry than the prelude, regarding her virtue as 'incalculably diffusive' and benefitting 'the growing good of the world' in small ways, but whether provokes hope or despair, the book opens and closes with the image of a forceful nature thwarted and dissipated. Dorothea may be 'like that river', but her surname does not allow for anything more surging than a quiet brook. She is bigger than her name, but will have no greater channel, and we know this straight away.

We could get all this from 'Dorothea Brooke', though; instead, we get 'Miss.' This tells us two things. First, she is either the only or the eldest daughter of the family: the convention of the time was that the oldest daughter would be 'Miss Brooke' and younger sisters would be, for instance, 'Miss Celia Brooke', distinguished by their Christian names while the oldest unmarried woman would showcase the surname. (You can see the same thing in Pride and Prejudice, where Jane is Miss Bennet and Elizabeth is Miss Elizabeth Bennet.) Second, Miss Brooke is a lady, and seen by the eyes of the world: it's not quite George Eliot's voice that speaks of Miss Brooke's beauty, but the society that knows her only well enough to use her formal name, and consequently notices her beauty before anything else.

Eliot is at pains, meanwhile, to point out that Dorothea, unlike a conventional young woman of her time, is not inclined to accentuate her beauty with finery. It's 'poor dress', we notice, not 'plain dress', but 'poor', deliberately mortifying the vanity: the sentence is fraught with ambivalence. Dorothea gets the best of both worlds, above the trivialities of beauty both because she disdains to cultivate it and because she already has it: her beauty to us, it's implied, rests at least in part because she prefers the spiritual path. But at the same time, her inner beauty is frequently expressed in the book through her outer beauty; when she first meets her future husband Will Ladislaw, for instance, he is inclined to dislike her because she is engaged to marry his disliked cousin, but is unable to avoid noticing her outer loveliness - and in a way that hints at inner depths: 'But what a voice! It was like the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp.' Hostile as he is, Will's reaction can at this point be little more than physical attraction, but even so, her charm is cast in terms of 'soul' - is written, in fact, as provoking a physical attraction that correctly recognises the outer beauty as an expression of inner grace, even though Will doesn't believe it to be so at the time. Dorothea's external beauty often is written as if it sprung from inner qualities, in fact, even though it shouldn't be so in a novel that punishes men precisely for the sin of conflating the two, where plain, shrewd Mary Garth is Fred Vincy's salvation and beautiful, shallow Rosamund Vincy is Lydgate's destruction.

What are we to make of this unnerving dance between the physical and the spiritual? It makes sense on simple plot terms: when marriage determines women's fate, more things happen to a pretty woman than a plain one, and Dorothea herself has three serious suitors of very different temperaments, an unlikely quantity for an unattractive girl. It's a novelistic convenience as well: to hint at the internal through the external is an almost unavoidable task for a writer in the third person, and a beauty that thrives on asceticism not only gives Eliot more scope to express her essential approval, but also saves Dorothea from the danger of comedy that always hovers over the ungainly female in fiction, makes her charming to picture however earnest or ill-advised she behaves. But can we, the contemporary readers who know 'George Eliot' to be a pseudonym, separate our image of 'finely formed' Dorothea from the woman Henry James famously described as 'magnificently ugly'? Frederick William Burton's image lingers in all our minds, and this:

is not a face we can impose upon Dorothea.

Nor should we, of course; people do not generally go around struggling to separate Charles Dickens's face from David Copperfield's or, indeed, Henry James's from Roderick Hudson's: James's patronising assessment of Eliot as 'deliciously hideous' was made from a position of masculine freedom, a license to write novels without people comparing them to his face, that Mary Ann Evans did not enjoy. But then again, there are some famous portraits of the Bronte sisters, and people do not generally spend much time wondering whether Jane Eyre's plainness or Cathy Earnshaw's beauty have any deep relationship to their creators. Why should this be? Possibly it may just the the relative drama of different faces; Branwell's portrait -

- shows three young women who could be called either plain or pretty depending on taste and attitude, or perhaps are best suited by the mid-point of Jane Austen's deadpan scale in Emma: 'very pretty indeed, or only rather pretty, or not pretty at all'; none possessed Eliot's unforgiving features. There's something about that portrait of Eliot, that soulful gaze and nicely-arranged hair, that makes us want to find beauty in it, to try to look back at it with the same sad tenderness that she watches us, and frustrates us when we can find only the charm of expression and intelligence. Those thoughtful eyes make us ashamed of ourselves both for being unable to find beauty and for looking for it in the first place; what we cannot do is study the image dispassionately. It's too evocative.

So maybe it is just that George Eliot had a memorable face that comes between us and her heroines. Or perhaps it may be the difference in a portraitist's skill: Branwell was gifted and his portrait is piquant, but he could not create the breathing likeness that Burton did: those assessing, appealing eyes gaze out at us more vividly than out of most author portraits, female or male. But at the same time, we have to admit that Eliot does dwell on the beauty of her protagonists, and uses it to express things about them. (It occurs to me that the only other author I've seen people compare to her characters in this way is Ayn Rand, another emphatic, didactic author who made much play of appearance as a kind of human pathetic fallacy, bestowing an ideological aesthetic on her characters that she herself lacked. Rand was unquestionably the inferior author and the lesser judge of human nature, but it is, at least, a thought-provoking comparison.) What are we seeing in this whole essay, after all, if not the fact that Eliot chose to open her most famous and ambitious novel - one of the most famous and ambitious novels in the history of literature - with the statement that her heroine is beautiful? For a plain woman to give her protagonist the beauty she herself lacks is by now a common joke, and George Eliot herself was witty enough in poking fun at the fantasy in her notorious essay 'Silly Novels By Lady Novelists', lambasting the dreamy heroine thus: 'Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues.' Dorothea is, of course, a far more human creation than this: her intellect is frustrated by lack of education (she can not read the Bible in the original tongues; she can't even read enough German to save her first husband from his ignorance of modern scholarship), her dancing and singing and ornamental arts are nothing to the purpose (her sister's piano playing being curtly dismissed as 'a kind of small tinkling which symbolized the aesthetic part of the young ladies' education'), and she makes mistakes because her wit and her morals can lead her astray. But on the other hand, are the conflation of eyes and wit, nose and morals, except in their bathetic phrasing, entirely absent from Dorothea's beauty that is all the more flattered because she is not 'perfectly well dressed'? Except, moreover, that she actually is perfectly well dressed to suit her own style of beauty, and her 'poor dress' is partly a sign of genteel taste, Dorothea and Celia both being well-born enough to have 'regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster's daughter'? Dorothea is perfectly well-dressed, right there in the first sentence; just more subtly than a silly heroine bedecked with endless frills. Dorothea's eyes do express her wit, or rather her soul; she is perfectly religious - or at least, explicitly saintly, and the story begins by blaming her imperfect religious accomplishments on her circumstances before we ever meet her. And the very first thing we do meet is the blunt statement that her beauty, her ladylike tastes and her religious aspirations all accessorise very nicely, thank you.

It provokes the insolent question that no conscientious reader likes imposing on so obviously superior an intellect: is Dorothea simply a better version of the same fantasy girl of the silly lady novelists? Bestowed with beauty of person and mind, but placed in circumstances to make mistakes and endure consequences that are still, in the end, mostly favourable? In the silly novel, 'the tedious husband dies in his bed requesting his wife, as a particular favor to him, to marry the man she loves best, and having already dispatched a note to the lover informing him of the comfortable arrangement'; Dorothea's marrying 'the man she loves best' involves the contrary arrangement, a codicil in her first husband's will disinheriting her if she marries Will Ladislaw - but then, she explicitly has her own modest fortune on which the Ladislaws can 'live quite well', and her 'tedious husband' does indeed die. He dies laying down inconveniences, but they do not, in the end, prevent her from a happy second romance.

Is Dorothea's poorly-dressed beauty, then, an expression of the same hunger that silly lady novelists more crudely communicate? Or else, perhaps, is that the wrong question? It is, instead, that Eliot, having written the satirical essay in 1856, set out a decade later to grapple with the same questions that beset all 'lady novelists' of the time, the sheer fact that what you looked like mattered a great deal and that marriage was usually the centre of a woman's life, and decided to do it properly? Eliot's pious pretty women, Dorothea Brooke and Maggie Tulliver and Dinah Morris, all have to navigate beauty and its temptations; only Dinah has the simplicity to disregard it entirely (and it's notable that not she but her future husband, the more complex Adam Bede, is the protagonist of that novel); the social pressures of which Eliot wrote were the same social pressures that afflicted all women 'because a woman'. As Woolf commented in her essay quoted above, 'The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. George Eliot had far too strong an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one.' Woolf is speaking of unfulfilled emotional drama there, Eliot's heroines whose stories end with less grandeur than their beginnings promised, but we can perhaps draw the same conclusion about her relationship to beauty: it simply was to her what money was to Jane Austen, an inescapable fact of life all the more urgent, and thus all the more artistically undeniable, because she did not have enough of it. We think much of what we lack, and the sheer injustice of beauty or ugliness is an impossible question to settle.

For to view Dorothea merely as a fantasy, a higher-order heroine of a silly lady's novel, is to ignore the sheer artistry of her creation - which is, after all, the ultimate issue in fiction. To say that Dorothea resembles a silly lady heroine except that she's well written is to miss the whole point: we might as well say that Eliot resembles a stupid writer except that she isn't stupid. The only distinction in art that is finally meaningful is whether it is good or bad. And even in this first sentence, there is no question that Dorothea is an artistic creation, taking shape under our very eyes. 'Dorothea is posed statically, as if sitting for a verbal portrait, and is actually compared to a figure in a painting,' David Lodge remarks in Chapter 14 of The Art of Fiction, but in this first sentence, note the use of the phrase 'thrown into relief'. It's a convenient figure of speech, but there's nothing casual about it: 'relief' refers to a specific artistic method, the sculptural technique of raising a figure above its flat background. She's a sculpture in the first sentence, a 'Blessed Virgin' of 'Italian painters' in the second: while she lives in a relatively modern era - which will be precisely the problem for her as she tries to live a worthy life in mundane surroundings - she is verbally and visually tied to more heroic eras, the Classical and Renaissance traditions that her sculpted, painted echoes invoke. Every era is mundane to the majority of people living in it, of course, but Eliot is openly linking Dorothea to a grand artistic past, and a past of religious art at that, hinting at the ambition she has committed herself to - and an ambition that will come far closer to fruition than Dorothea's unfocused yearnings ever will.

Eliot is such an essayist as well as such a novelist, so open in her assertions of principle, morality and insight, that it's unusually difficult to separate Eliot the novelist from Eliot the person; George Eliot and Mary Ann Evans seem to jostle for our attention on these pages. It can be a disquieting experience if we resist being swept away, for this is a novel of undoubted and extraordinary accomplishment, and to find the fundamental question of how much is novelist and how much is novel - and if some of it is both, how much of this is strategic and how much unconscious - is not something we normally have to worry about in novels this bloody good. Drawing an unclear line between writer and narrative voice is supposed to be the province of incompetent dabblers, not titans like George Eliot; it can be uncomfortable wondering something so personal, so basic, about a writer so obviously more intelligent than ourselves. We sit at the feet of a teacher, and wonder exactly what we're being taught.

But this, in the end, is for our own good. As Woolf says, Middlemarch is a novel for 'grown-up people', and a good teacher requires us to grow up in relation to her lessons as well as the world. Eliot's subject is always the question of steering a soul through wayward waters, the difficulty of distinguishing between what we know to be true and what we merely wish, and her characters were so revolutionary precisely because it was she who, as D.H. Lawrence put it, 'started putting all the action inside,' pioneering with headlong mastery the art of treating internal conflicts as plot events and people's partial blindness to themselves as an essential quality of being human. We can accept her without question and have a marvellous, insightful read. If we choose not to, then we must grapple with her. But who taught us how to grapple with a written person's self-knowledge in the first place? Eliot.

There's a popular saying that there's no point arguing with an idiot because they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience; resisting Eliot's rhetoric, though, is far closer to wrestling with Jacob's angel. She doesn't drag us down to her level, she drags us up, and even if we do end up questioning some of her choices - her shifting partisanship towards her characters, her contradictory handling of beauty, her passionate, earnest moralising under the guise of omniscience - we can question without drawing conclusions, grapple and pause and draw breath, stronger and sharper for the experience. It's Eliot's intelligence, not our own, that gets us even asking whether she was a little blind to herself, because it's Eliot's prose that teaches us how to ask and consider that very question; whether we consider the answer to be yes or no, it's her score off us, not ours off her, that we ask it at all. We are only following the lessons she taught us.

Look at this essay, for example. It's supposed to be a simple question: what does the first sentence of a famous novel teach us about writing? Yet to answer the question in any kind of responsible way, I wasn't able to confine myself to talking about a single sentence. Two pages of prelude, one quotation and a seventeen-word sentence with no subclauses, and I've had to go ten rounds with George Eliot and emerge still questioning whether I had any right to question her in the first place. This is the genius of Eliot: whether we question her or not, she will not leave our intelligence alone. She overwhelms us with hers and forces us to engage our own. In the fullest sense, she does what great literature is supposed above all to do: she makes us think.

I'm so glad you did Middlemarch!
Dorothea, the most heroic of Eliot's heroines, can occupy that disquieting space, that literary uncanny valley between author and character that is merely ridiculous when created by a lesser author but in hands as formidable as Eliot's can polarise readers to passionate identification, revolted contempt, or the kind of forgiving ambivalence that no careful critic feels impudent enough to bestow on such a writer with anything resembling ease.


D'you know, I just stopped there for a while, savoring that sentence, rolling it around on my tongue like a good red wine; grabbing everyone who walked by and saying, "Listen to this! THIS is how you write criticism!"; calling up my most current review and erasing the whole thing...

... and then I read the rest of the essay.

You have *enriched* the reading of Eliot.

How many writers can claim that?
Ooh, I like you!

Sorry about your review, though. :-)

And I think I'll dig up Middlemarch and move it to the top of the "read again" pile. Rereading it with this essay in mind might lead to a more perceptive experience.


And I think I'll dig up Middlemarch and move it to the top of the "read again" pile. Rereading it with this essay in mind might lead to a more perceptive experience.

Ooh, before I forget again, may I nominate for first lines, this pair.

I had a farm in Africa.
-- Isak Dinesen

I used to have a cat [....]
-- Annie Dillard

/ houseboatonstyx here /
Best blog
Nice I like
And I read
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