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Thursday, January 30, 2014

10

Middlemarch Is a Sexy Novel About Sex

This week, all the literati, me included, are reading Rebecca Mead’s literary memoir, My Life in Middlemarch, and pondering the myriad ways that George Eliot’s ultimate 19th Century novel encapsulates thwarted ambitions. Certainly, the novel’s elevator pitch is bleak: “the bright and promising Dorothea and the bright and promising Lydgate miss out on their potential to make the world a better place because: Human Folly.”

But as a longtime Eliot fangirl myself, I would like to offer a more cheerful take on the primary plot. You see, Middlemarch has embedded within its many, many (many) pages, a turgid narrative about a young woman’s tumble out of repression and into a life of boning a hot political firebrand. It’s sex positive feminism, Victorian-style.

You see, even while George Eliot dissed “silly lady novelists,” I think she had some lady-novelist moments of her own. She reliably snuck the romantic symbolism that would someday be the stuff of Harlequin cliche into her very complex and sophisticated prose. Springtime, thunderstorms, horseback riding, warbling birds, opening flowers–it’s all in there.

Don’t believe me? Let’s get to the TEXT. Right from the beginning we learn how Dorothea Brooke likes to straddle beasts, but thinks she’s wrong to do so: “Riding was an indulgence which 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.” 

Dorothea gets the chance to start renouncing her sensuality when she meets Edward Casaubon. He hits her with a dope pickup line about his studies—“I live too much with the dead”—rendering the crusty old scholar, I kid you not, “the most interesting man she had ever seen.” They tie the knot, but their honeymoon is a drag. (As Mead said in a recent Q+A, “whatever happened between them in the bedroom I think we can safely say that it didn’t make either of them very happy.”)

Turns out Dorothea misses riding horses a bit more than she anticipated. She starts wandering the museums of the Continent feeling depressed. Enter Casaubon’s cousin, Will Ladislaw with a “mouth and chin of a ... prominent, threatening aspect.” You know what they say about guys with prominent, threatening chins. (Later, Eliot notes his “defiant curves of lip and chin.” Mmm-hmm.)

It’s clear that Will worships Dorothea. But Dorothea, myopically focused on marital and moral duty, is stone-blind to her own reciprocal feelings. It’s hilarious, the way Dorothea’s sexuality is total mystery to her. She experiences a “wondering desire to put him at ease” and a “strange yearning of heart” while his “smile was irresistible, and shone back from her face too.” When Dorothea talks to Will her voice has a “bird-like modulation” and “playful” tone. Dorothea, honey, it’s called flirting. It’s a thing people do.

It gets better. During one of Dorothea and Will’s many meetings, “each looked at the other as if they had been two flowers which had opened then and there.” There is barely any subtext here (also: what would your creative writing professor say if you put this line in your short story? I can see the red cross-outs now.) Or witness the fact that Will’s “delicate throat as he sang” makes him look like, “an incarnation of the spring whose spirit filled the air.” This, after Eliot previously described Casaubon as having “a smile like pale wintry sunshine.” Spring vs. Winter: subtlety, thy name was not always George Eliot.

Finally, after a several unfortunate local scandals, her awful husband’s death, and a whole bunch of beef between Causabon and Will that extends Beyond the Grave (he writes a codicil prohibiting Dorothea from marrying Will “without penalty,” which another character recognizes as “one of Causabon’s freaks!”), Dorothea has an awakening. She sees Will singing with Rosamund Vincy and gets jealous, realizing that she had the hots for him all along. Thinking her chance for love over before it’s begun, she prostrates herself the floor: “she besought hardness and coldness and aching weariness to bring her relief from the mysterious incorporeal might of her anguish: she lay on the bare floor and let the night grow cold around her; while her grand woman's frame was shaken by sobs as if she had been a despairing child.” Oh my. WHERE do we even start with this amazing passage? Her grand woman’s frame, shaking with sobs! The hardness and coldness of the floor! The incorporeal might of her anguish! Looks like someone has finally figured out what it means to be without, erm, love.

Fortunately, our long-separated characters just happen to be thrust together in the midst of a rainstorm. I really recommend giving the chapter (that would be chapter LXXXIII) in which Dorothea and Will confess their feelings a re-read, because it’s one of the most smoldering, prolonged–and frankly, welcome, after a lot of unpleasant human behavior has been explored–romantic denouements in literature. We’re talking “tremendous cracks” of thunder, trembling lips, upturned hands, sheets of rain, lots of violent movements and a few torture metaphors, and did I mention trembling lips? Plus, it concludes with the sweetest and funniest line in the book, when Dorothea decides to renounce her wealth to be with Will: “I will learn what everything costs,” says she. Dorothea, I think you already learned what one thing costs, and that thing is celibacy.

I admit that nothing, not even sexy thunderstorms, can hide the central fact of Dorothea’s story: as a woman of her time, she is denied a purpose of her own. But Will’s function, as a figure of physical renewal, is to bring Dorothea back to her body, her human-ness. Therefore, I think we can safely conclude that Dorothea getting laid is a victory for all of us. So thank you, George Eliot, for the loud thunder, that opening horseback riding image, and the blossoming flower metaphors, and thank you so, so much for Will Ladislaw’s prominent and threatening chin.

 

Previously: Welcome to Ross Douthat's Book Club

Sarah Marian Seltzer is a writer, mostly of prose, in New York City. Find her at @sarahmseltzer or sarahmarian.tumblr.com.



10 Comments / Post A Comment

LiterarySara

Only this:

LiterarySara

@LiterarySara Well, that and also the rest of the Masterpiece Theater series, which lingers on Rufus Sewell's slightly open mouth throughout and also on his flapping wine-colored coat as he strides into Dorothea's garden full of feels.

sarahmarian

@LiterarySara I love Rufus Sewell SO MUCH in that version, but I never understood why Andrew Davies and co didn't stage the final scene with the rain in the library the way Eliot wrote it! What a tease.

adorable-eggplant

@LiterarySara Whelp, I'm clearing my weekend calender now.

ccard

@LiterarySara YES the movie that gave me my forever-boner for Rufus Sewell (or Googly Eyes as a friend with NO TASTE OBVIOUSLY calls him)

Koko Goldstein

@LiterarySara Umm but what about Cold Comfort? http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lnyd9u9vva1qi5uyeo1_500.jpg

beatrix

I like the way this was done. @l

siniichulok

As a 20-year Middlemarch fan, I love this so, so much! If I didn't have former coworkers and/or religiously conservative folks galore among my Facebook friends, I'd be sharing the hell out of this everywhere!

staywithmeherefolks

Can't tell you how much I wondered what happened in Casaubon's boudoir and how bad I felt about it, whatever it was.

But hey, you missed the part where sex was Lydgate's downfall. Sex! A man's downfall and a woman's liberation! No wonder I love this book.

mikealbert

Thank you for sharing this wonderful article! I have never seen anything like that before so I really appreciate that. Friendship day messages sms

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