Wednesday, 6 May 2015

A Book of Marriages

      George Eliot’s Middlemarch richly provides one of the chief pleasures of Victorian novels, the relation of a complete social world by an all-wise, all-knowing narrator. The delight of being told and shown, by a supremely intelligent, well-informed friend, everything we want to know about a community of people, is as keen here as it is in anything by Dickens. And the quality that Eliot’s narrative voice is richest in is compassion: “Poor Mr Casaubon,” it commiserates; “poor Dorothea,” “poor Lydgate,” “poor Rosamond,” “poor Will.” The sympathy goes as deep as the insight into the psychology of each burdened soul, who is shown to be the author, most of the time, of his own woe.

        Marriage emerges as the book’s central concern, in particular in its role as scourge of egotism and purger of youthful illusion. The purgatory can be lifelong, as with Lydgate, or mercifully brief, as with Dorothea and Casaubon, but the closest and least breakable of social bonds teaches its bitter lesson in every case. The narrator as utterly objective, dispassionate observer of the power-politics of matrimony becomes of course a fiction within the larger fiction of the story. The reader, lacking the luxury of perfect detachment, is forever wanting to take sides, to sympathize with one sufferer at the expense of another; but the narrator rises above the battle and deals with equal magnanimity to all, and this pose of (impossibly) perfect impartiality is the Victorian novel’s greatest contribution to moral art, and finds no finer expression than in Middlemarch. The reader, like nowhere else in his experience, where he is continually blinded by self-interest, views the human drama from the standpoint of true justice—a dizzying height. But of course this is the point of a masterpiece. It is, as Janet Frame says in An Angel at My Table, “one of the rewards of alliance with any great work of art”—an elevation of perspective, “a sensation of being in an upper storey of the mind and heart…as if ordinary people were suddenly called upon to see the point of view of angels.”

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