November 15, 2009

The Wit and Wisdom of George Eliot (III)


What does it say about the political tendency of a novel when Mr Brooke is its "Reform" candidate? Whatever it means at that interpretive level, for us as readers it means we get to enjoy his speeches:
When Mr. Brooke presented himself on the balcony, the cheers were quite loud enough to counterbalance the yells, groans, brayings, and other expressions of adverse theory, which were so moderate that Mr. Standish (decidedly an old bird) observed in the ear next to him, " This looks dangerous, by God! Hawley has got some deeper plan than this." Still, the cheers were exhilarating, and no candidate could look more amiable than Mr. Brooke, with the memorandum in his breast-pocket, his-left hand on the rail of the balcony, and his right trifling with his eye-glass. The striking points in his appearance were his buff waistcoat, short-clipped blond hair, and neutral physiognomy. He began with some confidence.

"Gentlemen -- Electors of Middlemarch!"

This was so much the right thing that a little pause after it seemed natural.

"I'm uncommonly glad to be here -- I was never so proud and happy in my life -- never so happy, you know."

This was a bold figure of speech, but not exactly the right thing; for, unhappily, the pat opening had slipped away -- even couplets from Pope may be but " fallings from us, vanishings," when fear clutches us, and a glass of sherry is hurrying like smoke among our ideas. Ladislaw, who stood at the window behind the speaker, thought, " it's all up now. The only chance is that, since the best thing won't always do, floundering may answer for once." Mr. Brooke, meanwhile, having lost other clews, fell back on himself and his qualifications -- always an appropriate graceful subject for a candidate.

"I am a close neighbor of yours, my good friends -- you've known me on the bench a good while -- I've always gone a good deal into public questions -- machinery, now, and machine-breaking -- you're many of you concerned with machinery, and I've been going into that lately. It won't do, you know, breaking machines: everything must go on -- trade, manufactures, commerce, interchange of staples -- that kind of thing -- since Adam Smith, that must go on. We must look all over the globe: -- 'Observation with extensive view,' must look everywhere, ' from China to Peru,' as somebody says -- Johnson, I think, ' The Rambler,' you know. That is what I have done up to a certain point -- not as far as Peru; but I've not always stayed at home -- I saw it wouldn't do. I've been in the Levant, where some of your Middlemarch goods go -- and then, again, in the Baltic. The Baltic, now."

Plying among his recollections in this way, Mr. Brooke might have got along, easily to himself, and would have come back from the remotest seas without trouble; but a diabolical procedure had been set up by the enemy. At one and the same moment there had risen above the shoulders of the crowd, nearly opposite Mr. Brooke, and within ten yards of him, the effigy of himself: buff-colored waistcoat, eye-glass, and neutral physiognomy, painted on rag; and there had arisen, apparently in the air, like the note of the cuckoo, a parrot-like, Punch-voiced echo of his words. Everybody looked up at the open windows in the houses at the opposite angles of the converging streets; but they were either blank, or filled by laughing listeners. The most innocent echo has an impish mockery in it when it follows a gravely persistent speaker, and this echo was not at all innocent ; if it did not follow with the precision of a natural echo, it had a wicked choice of the words it overtook. By the time it said, "The Baltic, now," the laugh which had been running through the audience became a general shout, and but for the sobering effects of party and that great public cause which the entanglement of things had identified with " Brooke of Tipton," the laugh might have caught his committee. Mr. Bulstrode asked, reprehensively, what the new police was doing; but a voice could not well be collared, and an attack on the effigy of the candidate would have been too equivocal, since Hawley probably meant it to be pelted. (Ch. 51)

Poor Mr Brooke. In some ways he has exactly the qualities a politician needs, including an elasticity of principle and a thick layer of self-satisfaction to repel barbed remarks, but even he is no match for this mischievous effigy and its refrain of pelted eggs. It's interesting to consider why GE didn't make Will her candidate at this point, instead of deferring his political career until after the action of the novel. He would have made a far more dynamic figure of a radical than Felix Holt.

The confrontaton of Caleb, the man of "business," with the limits of a gentleman's education is also good for a wry chuckle, of the "kids these days!" kind:
"Let us see," said Caleb, taking up a pen, examining it carefully and handing it, well dipped, to Fred with a sheet of ruled paper. "Copy me a line or two of that valuation, with the figures at the end."

At that time the opinion existed that it was beneath a gentleman to write legibly, or with a hand in the least suitable to a clerk. Fred wrote the lines demanded in a hand as gentlemanly as that of any viscount or bishop of the day: the vowels were all alike and the consonants only distinguishable as turning up or down, the strokes had a blotted solidity and the letters disdained to keep the line -- in short, it was a manuscript of that venerable kind easy to interpret when you know beforehand what the writer means.

As Caleb looked on, his visage showed a growing depression, but when Fred handed him the paper he gave something like a snarl, and rapped the paper passionately with the back of his hand. Bad work like this dispelled all Caleb's mildness.

"The deuce!" he exclaimed, snarlingly. " To think that this is a country where a man's education may cost hundreds and hundreds, and it turns you out this!" Then in a more pathetic tone, pushing up his spectacles and looking at the unfortunate scribe, " The Lord have mercy on us, Fred, I can't put up with this!"

"What can I do, Mr. Garth?" said Fred, whose spirits had sunk very low, not only at the estimate of his handwriting, but at the-vision of himself as liable to be ranked with office clerks.

"Do? Why, you must learn to form your letters and keep the line. What's the use of writing at all if nobody can understand it?" asked Caleb, energetically, quite preoccupied with the bad quality of the work. " Is there so little business in the world that you must be sending puzzles over the country? But that's the way people are brought up."


Here are some moments from the narrator's searching analysis of the evangelical Mr. Bulstrode, unmatched in the novel (and thus perhaps in almost any English novel) for its psychological subtlety as well as for its blend of compassion and ruthless exposure:
Even without memory, the life is bound into one by a zone of dependence in growth and decay; but intense memory forces a man to own his blameworthy past. With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man's past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavors and the tinglings of a merited shame. (Ch. 61)

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.

There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men. (Ch. 61)
This last quotation is one of the most important hints we ever get (along with the 'men of maxims' passage in The Mill on the Floss) at both the method and the purpose of George Eliot's moral philosophy--it indicates, for instance, why fiction rather than treatises was the form she chose.


The moral effort with which Middlemarch is most concerned is the movement of sympathy towards those whose faults make them most difficult to forgive or love. Thus there is often a poignant intermingling of judgment with tenderness, as in this description of Will Ladislaw recoiling, understandably, from Bulstrode's profferred atonement:
He was too strongly possessed with passionate rebellion against this inherited blot which had been thrust on his knowledge to reflect at present whether he had not been too hard on Bulstrode -- too arrogantly merciless towards a man of sixty, who was making efforts at retrieval when time had rendered them vain.
That the capacity of such tenderness makes one vulnerable is the great tragedy of Lydgate's marriage, as here:
Lydgate drew his chair near to hers and pressed her delicate head against his cheek with his powerful tender hand. He only caressed her; he did not say anything; for what was there to say? He could not promise to shield her from the dreaded wretchedness, for he could see no sure means of doing so. When he left her to go out again, he told himself that it was ten times harder for her than for him: he had a life away from home, and constant appeals to his activity on behalf of others. He wished to excuse everything in her if he could -- but it was inevitable that in that excusing mood he should think of her as if she were an animal of another and feebler species. Nevertheless she had mastered him.
But he could not spurn her without ceasing to be his own best self--this is, of course, the dilemma Dorothea faces when Casaubon asks her to promise that she will continue his work after his death. And just as such moments of "resolved submission" can be the first steps towards a life at a "lower stage of expectation" (Ch. 54), so too they can be the expression of the moral generosity of trueloving selflessness, as we see with Mrs Bulstrode's response to her husband's disgrace:
But this imperfectly taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her -- now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him. There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity. She knew, when she locked her door, that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach. But she needed time to gather up her strength; she needed to sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life. When she had resolved to go down, she prepared herself by some little acts which might seem mere folly to a hard onlooker; they were her way of expressing to all spectators visible or invisible that she had begun a new life in which she embraced humiliation. She took off all her ornaments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and large bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet-cap, which made her look suddenly like an early Methodist.

Bulstrode, who knew that his wife had been out and had come in saying that she was not well, had spent the time in an agitation equal to hers. He had looked forward to her learning the truth from others, and had acquiesced in that probability, as something easier to him than any confession. But now that he imagined the moment of her knowledge come, he awaited the result in anguish. His daughters had been obliged to consent to leave hi-m, and though he had allowed some food to be brought to him, he had not touched it. He felt himself perishing slowly in unpitied misery. Perhaps he should never see his wife's face with affection in it again. And if he turned to God there seemed to be no answer but the pressure of retribution.

It was eight o'clock in the evening before the door opened and his wife entered. He dared not look up at her. He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went towards him she thought he looked smaller -- he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and the other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly --

"Look up, Nicholas."

He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, " I know; " and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing with him, or of the acts which had brought it down on them. His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent. Open-minded as she was, she nevertheless shrank from the words which would have expressed their mutual consciousness, as she would have shrunk from flakes of fire. She could not say, " How much is only slander and false suspicion?" and he did not say, " I am innocent."

Such a moment is one of the few in the novel that represent the ideal, rather than the real, yoke of marriage.

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