All reviews copyright 1984-2015 Evelyn C. Leeper.
LIFE AND LETTERS by George Eliot:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/08/2005]
George Eliot's LIFE AND LETTERS (no ISBN) is an interesting attempt at autobiography edited by Eliot's husand J. W. Cross. (You did know that George Eliot was a pen-name for Mary Ann Evans, right?) It consists of close to a thousand pages of letters and extracts from letters, along with connecting and explanatory comments by Cross. I've seen similar collections of letters for other people, but I think Cross put in more additional material than is usual. Of course, if you are not a fan of Eliot's novels, this is not going to appeal to you, and even if you are, this is out of print. But it's still around a bit, and a research library might have a copy.
George Eliot's Life and Letters is long out of print, but used copies may be available at http://www.bookfinder.com. Note that the number of volumes in this work may vary.
MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 07/03/2009]
MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot (ISBN-13 978-0-14-043388-3, ISBN-10 0-14-043388-0) was published in 1872, yet well over a century later, there are some surprisingly relevant passages. For example, writing of Lydgate, the new physician in Middlemarch, Elliot says, "since professional practice chiefly consisted in giving a great many drugs, the public inferred that it might be better off with more drugs still if they could only be got cheaply..." [page 146] But Lydgate has some new ideas: "One of these reforms was to ... simply prescribe, without dispensing drugs or taking percentage from druggists." [page 147]
(I am glad that the Penguin edition has a few notes explaining the historical references--a passing reference to an act regarding pharmacists is certainly easier to research when you are told it is the Apothecaries Act of 1815. That Act set minimum standards for someone to become a physician; the Medical Act of 1858 clarified the charges allowed. Apparently before the latter act, physicians could only charge for surgeries or medicines, but not for their services in non-surgical cases.)
And there is still a lot of truth in Eliot's observations about marriage and people's expectations upon entering into it: "The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same. And it would be astonishing to find how soon the change is felt if we had no kindred changes to compare with it. To share lodgings with a brilliant dinner companion, or to see your favourite politician in the Ministry, may bring about changes quite as rapid: in these cases too we begin by knowing little and believing much, and we sometimes end by inverting the quantities." [page 195] Of course, nowadays people who find themselves in a marriage that is not coming up to expectations can usually get out fairly easily, but in George Eliot's time things were more difficult.
And in "the more things change" category, we have a minor character bemoaning, "But some say this country's seen its best days, and the sign is, as it's being overrun with these fellows tramping right and left, and wanting to cut it up into railways, and all for the big traffic to swallow up the little, so there shan't be a team left on the land, nor a whip to crack." [page 556]
And the current economic crisis seems for many very much the same situation Lydgate finds himself in. In preparation for his impending marriage, he spends several hundred pounds on furnishings for his house, feels he must keep two horses, and says nothing when his wife insists on buying only the best quality food and throwing frequent parties. At the same time, the income from his practice has declined. He has seen lack of money in his patients, but never applied the concept to himself. Although "Lydgate believed himself to be careless about his dress, and he despised a man who calculated the effects of his costume," yet "it seemed to him only a matter of course that he had abundance of fresh garments--such things were naturally ordered in sheaves." [page 588] He does not want to ask for money from his father-in-law, but his wife does anyway--only to be told by her father that he might soon need a loan himself. If this doesn't sound contemporary, you haven't been paying attention.
This is not to deny that some of the passages are written in a very convoluted 19th century style that is hard to understand. But the book as a whole is surprisingly modern and rewarding.
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/20/2015]
I re-read MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot (ISBN 978-0-14-043388-3) and was struck by how contemporary Fred Vincy is. He is the irresponsible university student who is constantly borrowing money because he has no sense of how much money he has to spend. He just feels that there is an unending supply of money because, after all, he wants it:
Fred had at first given a bill with his own signature. Three months later he had renewed this bill with the signature of Caleb Garth. On both occasions Fred had felt confident that he should meet the bill himself, having ample funds at disposal in his own hopefulness. You will hardly demand that his confidence should have a basis in external facts; such confidence, we know, is something less coarse and materialistic: it is a comfortable disposition leading us to expect that the wisdom of providence or the folly of our friends, the mysteries of luck or the still greater mystery of our high individual value in the universe, will bring about agreeable issues, such as are consistent with our good taste in costume, and our general preference for the best style of thing. Fred felt sure that he should have a present from his uncle, that he should have a run of luck, that by dint of "swapping" he should gradually metamorphose a horse worth forty pounds into a horse that would fetch a hundred at any moment--"judgment" being always equivalent to an unspecified sum in hard cash. ... The Vincys lived in an easy profuse way, not with any new ostentation, but according to the family habits and traditions, so that the children had no standard of economy, and the elder ones retained some of their infantine notion that their father might pay for anything if he would.
Vincy manages to get most of the money to cover the loan, but then loses most of that in an episode of horse-trading referred to above. The result is that Garth has to take the money he had worked for years to save for his son's apprenticeship, and give it to Vincy.
This is all so like so many people's financial decisions in the last few decades. They keep buying stuff they cannot afford because they want it, and they convince themselves that the money will come from somewhere. Then one day it all crashes down and they lose their children's college fund, or their retirement fund, or their house. And if the bank or insurance company has "co-signed" enough bad mortgages, they go down as well.
An even more explicit description of what many people now experience is found later:
Eighteen months ago Lydgate was poor, but had never known the eager want of small sums, and felt rather a burning contempt for any one who descended a step in order to gain them. He was now experiencing something worse than a simple deficit: he was assailed by the vulgar hateful trials of a man who has bought and used a great many things which might have been done without, and which he is unable to pay for, though the demand for payment has become pressing.
Eliot sees perfectly how people can tell everyone else how to manage their problems without ever applying that advice to themselves:
It is true Lydgate was constantly visiting the homes of the poor and adjusting his prescriptions of diet to their small means; but, dear me! has it not by this time ceased to be remarkable--is it not rather that we expect in men, that they should have numerous strands of experience lying side by side and never compare them with each other?
Of course, Eliot is hardly the first to note this:
And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. [Matthew 7:3-5]
Rosamund Lydgate is particularly detached from reality. Not only does she absolutely refuse to understand that they are in serious financial difficulty, but she also deludes herself about how people--specifically, men--see her:
She had felt stung and disappointed by Will's resolution to quit Middlemarch, for in spite of what she knew and guessed about his admiration for Dorothea, she secretly cherished the belief that he had, or would necessarily come to have, much more admiration for herself; Rosamond being one of those women who live much in the idea that each man they meet would have preferred them if the preference had not been hopeless.
She reminds me of Mrs. Bennet and of Lydia in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE--neither of them seems to have the slightest notion of the impropriety of Lydia's running off with Wickham. For example, Mrs. Bennet bemoans the fact that Lydia and Wickham married before returning, rather than coming back for a big wedding. In these days when one frequently sees an obviously pregnant bride in a white wedding gown, it may not be clear to readers what a shocking idea this would have been then. Similarly, Lydia does whatever she pleases, with no concern about whether it is wise or not.
All this is usually not considered the main story of MIDDLEMARCH but in fact, there are several stories other than that of Dorothea and Casaubon that have as much "page time."
To order Middlemarch from amazon.com, click here.
OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS by T. S. Eliot:
[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/18/2013]
I was never all that taken by OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS by T. S. Eliot (with drawings by Edward Gorey) (ISBN 0-15-668568-X), figuring it appealed mostly to "cat people" (and not of the Simone Simon kind). But I picked up a copy mostly for the illustrations, and discovered things I had not noticed before.
For example, "The Naming of Cats" is something I thought of as "that poem that Peter Ustinov recites in LOGAN'S RUN." But reading it, I noticed the last five lines:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name: His ineffable effable Effanineffable Deep and incrutable singular Name.
In particular, the penultimate line reads as "Eff-in' ineffable", or "F---in' ineffable."
And it seems clear that Old Deuteronomy the cat is a symbol for the Old Testament and Eliot's negative view of it (and its followers). "His numerous progeny prospers and thrives/And the village is proud of him in his decline" and makes sure nothing disturbs Old Deuteronomy even as he sleeps, oblivious to everything around him. "The digestive repose of that feline's gastronomy/Must never be broken, whatever befall." Translated, Old Deuteronomy represents the Jews and his progeny the Christians. While the progeny prosper and thrive, Old Deuteronomy himself is useless and decrepit, but everyone ignores this and caters to him in spite of it. This is probably a pretty fair summation of Eliot's attitude toward Christians and Jews.
To order Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats from amazon.com, click here.