Books in Babylon 4

Ok everyone, here’s the surprise! Our friend from William Writes has graciously offered to do this week’s Middlemarch write-up, ostensibly because I am busy with work, but really because I am lazy and he does a much more thorough and interesting write-up than I ever could. Without further ado….

Good afternoon, everybody. I’m William Brafford. Since Clare’s busy this week with a new job, I’ve offered to do this week’s book club notes, on chapters 17-22.

But first, my dad’s apple pie recipe:

    1. Place oven rack in center position. Preheat oven to 350 °F.
    2. Remove Mrs. Smith’s Classic Apple Pie frozen pie from box. Open center hole of pie and cut 4-6 slits in top crust.
  • Leave pie in original pan and place in center of cookie sheet lined with heavy foil.
  • Bake Classic Apple Pie at 350° F for 55 to 65 minutes until crust is golden brown.
    1. Removed baked pie carefully from oven on cookie sheet with oven mitts. Never handle by edge of pie pan.
  • Serve warm in 30 minutes or cooled after 2 hours. Pies are best when just baked. Store loosely covered at room temperature for up to 3 days.

We are not really bakers in the Brafford family…


All right, on to Middlemarch. Keep in my mind that this is my first time through the book, so I’m sure I’m missing all kinds of awesome foreshadowing and introduction of themes that will be virtuosically elaborated on later in the book.

Lydgate and Farebrother


In the last few chapters, we’ve gotten Lydgate’s backstory. He’s the outsider in Middlemarch: an ambitious, reform-minded doctor who trained abroad and is looking to get his career started in Middlemarch. Camden Farebrother is the Vicar of St. Botolph’s church, and what we’ve seen of him so far is that he tends to win at gambling.

Here we see Farebrother’s home life. He’s got an amusingly strong-minded mother who’s a one-woman industrial revolution of the production of cranky declarations (e.g., “When you get me a good man made out of arguments, I will get you a good dinner with reading you the cookery-book”), and an aunt and a sister. So Farebrother is embedded in Middlemarch society in a way that Lydgate can’t be.

But after Farebrother and Lydgate retire to Farebrother’s study to bargain over an “anencephalous monster” in a glass jar (has anyone figured out what this is?), you see quickly he doesn’t much like being a rural vicar. Farebrother is an amateur natural scientist, a collector of insects and other bugs. His version of “spiritual tobacco” is research reports on entomology.

This makes me wonder about the intellectual in the provinces: would he be a Wikipedia editor today? (Also, would he be a “he” today?) One of Farebrother’s pieces of advice to Lydage is “you must learn to be bored.” This is before the university system sucked all the life of the mind into itself, so perhaps it’s possible for these characters to achieve something worthwhile. On the other hand, neither Farebrother nor Casaubon seem successful in their endeavors. I suppose Farebrother’s life is being set up as a possibility for Lydgate, should he fail in his projects and lose his ambition.

Two points of interest: Farebrother tries to set Lydgate up with Mary Garth, and Farebrother’s parish is named for St. Botolph, whose name gave us “Boston.”

Local politics


Lydgate and Farebrother become friends, but unfortunately small-town petty politics threatens the friendship. Local power-player Bulstrode is building a new hospital, and though Farebrother would normally get the chaplain’s job and the money that goes with it, Bulstrode wants the chaplain to be Tyke, whose doctrine he agrees with more. I’m not clear on the medical and religious issues here, but fortunately Eliot makes it clear that the real issue is Bulstrode’s power in the town. Lydgate understands intuitively “that Bulstrode was prime minister, and that the Tyke affair was a question of office or no office”: in other words, Lydgate has to vote Bulstrode’s way if he wants influence in the hospital.

That Lydgate chooses Tyke tells us a lot about his flavor of pride – “What he really cared for was a medium for his work, a vehicle for his ideas.” Lydgate’s motivated by intellectual passion and desire for glory, not “humanitarian” concerns. On the other hand, he’s reluctant. He feels compromised by “the hampering threadlike presence of small social conditions.” It looks like there’s no immediate harm in Lydgate’s friendship with Farebrother, though. Farebrother is an amiable guy and makes it clear to all that he’s only interested in the job because it would bring in some money.

Still, one can’t help thinking there’s a failure of friendship on both sides between Farebrother and Lydgate. I feel that Farebrother should have been madder, and Lydgate more apologetic. It’s not that you can’t go against friendship; it’s that you shouldn’t do it so lightly and pridefully.

Ladislaw and the Casaubons in Rome


Now we get back to Dorothea. I have to admit, I was a little taken aback when she and Casaubon strolled and shuffled (respectively) offstage. The first nine chapters had me thinking this was a domestic drama in the Austen mode, but the rush of new characters and relationships showed me it’s, as Clare said before, “a novel about a town and its growing pains.”

We see Dorothea again through the eyes of Will Ladislaw and his hilarious Hegelian friend Naumann, a painter. Naumann has spotted Dorothea brooding (beautifully) beside a sculpture, and waxes eloquent: Dorothea appears as “antique form animated by Christian sentiment–a sort of Christian Antigone–sensuous force controlled by spiritual passion.” This hearkens back to the beginning of the first chapter, and it’s something the other characters don’t really express. To what degree is Naumann accurate?

Ladislaw, meanwhile, develops a massive crush on Dorothea, but it seems that he moves from one reduction to another: “She was not coldly clever and indirectly satirical, but adorably simple and full of feeling.” He does his best to charm Dorothea, and in the process probably charms most readers, but she doesn’t return his affections. And I have to admit: I like this guy, but he still seems pretty frivolous to me. Also, in case the ladies are wondering I can verify that this line is still generally true: “The remote worship of a woman throned out of their reach plays a great part in men’s lives, but in most cases the worshiper longs for some queenly recognition, some approving sign by which his soul’s sovereign may cheer him without descending from her high place.”

Instead of falling in love with Ladislaw, Dorothea’s been watching her dreams collapse into the tedious reality of being married to Casaubon. They’ve had their first fight, when Casuabon loses his temper after Dorothea asks when he’s going to move on from research and start writing his text. It turns out that this is just the site of Casaubon’s doubts and anxieties, and he calmly delivers an emotionally lacerating little speech. So far, this seems human. But what comes later is more disturbing. Dorothea, full of remorse about the fight, apologizes to her husband. And instead of apologizing in return, or even being honest about his own emotional difficulties, he accepts her apology in the most passive construction imaginable, by saying, in my translation, “Shakespeare said it’s demonic to reject an apology. You don’t think I’m like that, do you?” Does this even count as accepting an apology? Anyway, it’s cold and cruel.

There’s a degree to which Casaubon reminds me of the main character of The Browning Version, which is one of my favorite movies. It’s a portrait of another cold-hearted intellectual, Andrew Crocker-Harris. Here’s a clip from the movie:

Does anyone think this is how Casaubon talks? Of course, Crocker-Harris becomes relatable only because he has to face his own failures, and it seems that Casaubon is going to be too proud to face his own, even if it means being heartless to Dorothea.

As for Dorothea herself, she seems to be cocooning for a metamorphosis as she realizes that her previous path is a dead end.

I’m lucky that my used copy of Middlemarch was previously read by a pretty smart reader. This reader starred the following passage from chapter 20, which stands as a nice meditation on the novelist’s task: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”


One thought on “Books in Babylon 4

  1. Pingback: Books and Baked Goods 7 | Babes in Babylon

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