Thursday, 15 October 2009

771 - Middlemarch

After thirty eight years dodging the Nineteenth Century (although admittedly the first ten years or so of that I was more into Ant and Bee and Doctor Who), I've finally started Middlemarch.

What swung it was an acute essay by a psychoanalyst on George Eliot's observations of the interior life. But from the first page of the Preface to Middlemarch, I'm hooked.

She's so sharp about the state of women in relation to social convention, to men. Remember, this as a George: 'Some have felt that these [women's] blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's coiffure and the favourite love-stories in prose and verse.' How many layers of irony! How relevant today!

But scarily, relevant not just about women. Something about her use of the word 'indefiniteness'. Because in reality George Eliot believes that indefiniteness is a virtue. It is definiteness that crushes Dorothea Brooke over the course of the novel: were she free to pursue her ideals and desires untrammelled, she might be another Saint Therese - instead society crushes her under a million labelled inconsequentialities and pretends that it is she who is the problem.

Dorothea's indefiniteness sounds to me like the state of the label-rejecting Hunter Gatherer. Perhaps she has been forced into this position, because no useful societal role has been offered to her save that of decoration. But it is a potent state to be in. Nowadays, however, if I'm right, we are all placed in this state - the choices open to us, on the one hand, and our impotence on a political level, on the other, press us to it. But if we are all indefinite, we are also, like Dorothea, crushable. So Middlemarch is a prophetic cry, of universal relevance.

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