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.”

Books and Baked Goods 2

I know, I know, late again. And I don’t even have a good excuse. I just forgot.  I also didn’t mention how far I’d be going–to the end of chapter ten. Mea culpa. As usual, just consider it a weekend-long book club.

To make amends, here is an easy recipe that I cobbled together out of necessity a week or so back. It’s kind of a weird pie/crumble/pudding hybrid of apple tart tatin in a graham cracker crust, and I, at least, thought it was delicious.

Make a graham cracker crust, and let it chill for an hour or so. I have no idea why, but my graham cracker crusts always hold together best when I chill them. For this recipe, I would dial back the sugar you put in the crust, and throw in some cinnamon and nutmeg. Peel, core, and quarter (I am from the Edmund Campion school of baking) 6-8 apples, more or less depending on the size of the pie pan you’re filling. Combine a stick of butter and cup of sugar in a saucepan or skillet over low heat. Arrange the apple quarters in the sugar-butter mixture, convex side up, and turn the heat on high. Let everything boil away for 15-20 minutes or so, flipping midway through, or as long as you want. If you just want the apples cooked tender and sweet, simmer them for less time. If you want them really caramelized, though (and this is my strong preference), wait until the apples turn brown on each side and the butter and sugar starts thickening into dark delicious caramel. Remove from heat, and while they cool, whip yourself up a big vat of whipped cream (ok, maybe vat is a little much); while you’re whipping, why don’t you throw a little bourbon in? I mean really, why not? Also, my fanaticism for whipping the cream yourself and preference for not adding too much sugar are both completely justified for this recipe.

Put the apples in the graham cracker crust, and if the mixture has caramelized, pour over. Top with tons and tons of fresh whipped cream. Be careful to wait till the apples are completely cooled, though, or they’ll melt the cream. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I discovered. Do whatever else you need to do to make things pretty, and serve!


Ok, Middlemarch, chapters 5 to 10.

Here are some links I thought might be useful. Ok, random thoughts, here goes:

1. What is with the constant religious allusions, particularly the juxtaposition of religious traditions opposed to each other? Like when Dorothy treats Casaubon as a “Protestant pope.” I think it might have something to do with Dorothea and the sort of jumbled and conflicted state of her religiosity. She has this intense religious impulse, but no actual outside creed by which she can give it structure and direction. She can only be more religious than the people around her–sort of endlessly aspirational rather than personally rooted and growing. Which is maybe why she makes herself this little idol of out the awful awful (but seriously did you notice how every time he opened his mouth you wanted to crawl in a hole or punch him?) Casaubon. It’s kind of neat to me that Casaubon and Dorothea’s story follows in many ways the pattern of a doomed or adulterous affair, with religion replacing love and marriage replacing adultery. Powerful, transcendent human impulse loses/lacks proper object, cannot grow and give life, turns inward on itself, throws itself under train. Or, in Dorothea’s case, under creepy clergyman.  I think that’s why we constantly get references to English religious strife, and I think this mutual mirroring of personal and political is going to be a pattern.

2. Like, for instance, with these intense growing pains and bewilderment of Dorothea, and the English political energy and post-industrialized roiling Eliot keeps drawing our attention to. We’ve already seen tensions stemming from new societal arrangements: Mrs. Cadwallader’s disgust for the vulgar rich, and Brooke’s reluctance to let his nieces meet “the daughter of a manufacturer” (helloooo industry!). I think Dorothea and England are both painfully trying to form some kind of identity in the absence/irrelevance/failure of old norms, and Dorothea’s fate seems somehow caught up in Engand’s.

3. Will Ladislaw. He sketches. He pouts. Anyone else think he is just begging to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1999?

4. Speaking of sketching, if Dorothea has an actual creed it’s lower-case puritanism–which is in itself kind of endlessly aspirational. She can’t understand or relate to the pictures in Casaubon’s house–certain kinds of beauty, particularly that relating to the body, she has no access to. This is interesting , because we saw on the first page how defining bodily beauty is for women, not only in Victorian England, but in the text itself. It also sheds further light on CasauBrooke (yup, that’s now a thing.) Mrs C. reviles Dorothea for “entering a nunnery,”–but in fact she’s entering into the opposite: marriage, which is both exactly what she’s supposed to be doing as a good little woman and the only way for her to escape that role. The nunnery, hated by good puritan protestants, channels and sublimates female sexuality in a way that Dorothea’s loveless, sexless marriage cannot. Mrs. C and Dorothea are both puritans, both trapped in this cycle of restriction, futile rebellion, and punishment. The irony is so gorgeous I need to get a beer.

Also–Will Sketches, Renaissance art freaks Dorothea out. Interesting.

5. Mrs. Cadwallader–I really love her–the way she has no problem telling Brooke and Chettam what’s what on politics and their love lives, and pays zero attention to the macho Brooke falls back on to disguise how much sharper and more capable she is. I think she has a little of the “I’m the only girl cool enough to be in the boys’ club” thing going on, which may be part of the reason she likes Celia and not Dorothea? Another thing I love: in Mrs. Cadwallader’s critiques of Dorothea you see both Dorothea’s absurdities and Mrs. C’s narrowness revealed–and yet the author’s fondness and I think admiration for both characters remains undimmed, as does mine. Eliot’s genius is sympathy.

5. Nevertheless, Eliot is very, very angry. You see it in her measured, quiet, absolutely withering depiction of Dorothea’s limitations and their social enforcement–in half the words that come out of Brooke’s mouth. She never slips into spite or completely rejects any of her characters, though, and I think this is what makes her anger so powerful, so righteous.

Ok folks, that’s all from me. I’ll leave you with this quote, then feel free to take it away.

“After all, people may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing.  We should be very patient with each other, I think.”

PS- Ok if we go up to chapter 20 next week?

Books and Baked Goods 1

In which we discuss Middlemarch, Ch. 1-4.

But first, the important stuff. As in, food. Since summer is rapidly slipping away, it seemed best to capitalize on seasonal desserts while we still can. So, here is an easy key lime pie recipe.

Two things that will make it much, much better: buy key limes and juice them yourself (I find it’s easiest to cut them in half and press down on each half with a fork), and make your own whipped cream. Just beat heavy cream with sugar added to taste until it forms stiff peaks. Easy peasy, even if you do it by hand (this is what I owe any and all definition in my arms to). Also, if you make your own whipped cream, you can add all kinds of fun stuff to it, like, I don’t know, tequila?

To make the graham cracker crust, just crush a packet and a half or so of graham crackers into little crumbs (this is so. much. fun), zest a lime into half a cup of sugar and rub together with fingers, melt half a stick of butter (or however much it takes to hold your crust together) and mix it all up. Press into a pie pan. Ok, now you know what to do. The great thing about key lime pie is that the lime juice really controls the taste. If you like a tart pie, as I do, go crazy with the lime juice–I definitely used more than half a cup. Of course, if you are afraid of raw eggs, like normal people, and therefore unwilling to taste the concoction through various stages of limeyness, you should probably just stick with the recipe. Also, after the pie is cooked and chilled and topped with mounds of fresh whipped cream, zest another lime all over the top. It makes it look so purty.


Ok, on to Middlemarch. Here are my basically unconnected thoughts.

1. This book is going to be all about Dorothea, at least on some level. All the book’s energy and our emotional responses so far center on her and this intimate, loving portrait Eliot is drawing of her soul’s travails–yet Eliot also goes out of her way to draw our attention to a specific moment in a specific cultural context. In the first four chapters, she name-drops Pascal, Jeremy Taylor, William Wilberforce, and John Locke (am I missing anyone?) and alludes more than once to an uncomfortable triangulation of Puritanism, Catholicism, and comfortable middle-class Anglicanism. What gives? Notable that Dorothea herself is compared first to St. Teresa of Avila, and then to a Puritan–these are two wildly different religious traditions.

2. Dorothea. She already drives one of my friends crazy. Full disclosure, I loved her from the first page of my first reading all the way to the end, and probably will again. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t drive me crazy too.

Eliot seems very aware of her flaws–her tone alternates between fond mockery and respectful compassion, I think. In  Dorothea’s first appearance of the novel, Eliot connects her asceticism with her notions of gentry and ladyhood—Dorothea’s religious impulses are tied to class boundaries, and for all her eccentricity, her religion is part of a larger conception of self that depends on the lines her fervor transgresses. It seems to me that D’s inability to extricate herself from these boundaries is a gentle jab at her, but even more so, a pointed and serious indictment of how far the limits imposed on her bind her ardent mind.

Also, we first learn about her piquant character, her devotion and austerity through her distaste for adornment. We are introduced to the quality of her mind through the contours of her clothes–there seems no way to escape the primacy of female decorativeness–not even in the narration of it’s rejection. Something to keep an eye on.

On a side note, can I just say how much I love Celia? That willingness to forgive and be forgiven combined  with the discomfiting acuity that sees through Dorothea’s playacting–this seems very characteristic of sisters, to me, especially sisters so different.

And Dorothea does a lot of playacting; I think this dishonesty will come up more as the novel progresses. In the scene where she rejects Sir James’s gift of a lapdog, she echoes what Eliot says of her own narrow female existence two paragraphs above. She can only accurately assess her own situation and voice her own discontents when she applies them to a creature of a much lower order. Which may be somehow why she sees in Causaubon a creature of a much higher order, when everyone else can already tell he’s a complete wet fish? It is telling that she sees in him a “mirror.”

Dorothea seems to want to play the part of eromenos. She is completely cut off from any intellectual or public life–we see it with the constant dismissal of her intellect, the inanity of her expected pursuits, the fact that she can only put  her plan for the cottages into action through Sir James’ courtship–and so for her, marriage is initiation and access to the world of men. She casts herself into a stereotypically wifely and feminine submission and self-abnegation in order play a much more ambiguously gendered and typically male role. Remember that Eliot describes her as a “beautiful boy,” in the dinner party scene where she snubs Sir James (who is happy to let her dominate intellectually and practically because the terms of any erotic relationship between them cannot threaten his fundamental male privilege.)

Ok, I will stop rambling and leave you with this quote.

“Sir James had no idea that he should ever like to put down the predominance of this handsome girl, in whose cleverness he delighted.  Why not?  A man’s mind–what there is of it–has always the advantage of being masculine,–as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm,–and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.  Sir James might not have originated this estimate; but a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gunk or starch in the form of tradition.”

 Now, get to it!



Sorry I didn’t put this up sooner! Will try to get it up earlier in future. For now, just think of this as a weekend-long book club thread.

How did everyone find the length? Too long, too short, just right? I hope you now feel like literary Goldilockses. Let me know, and I will update this post with how far we’ll go next time, determined by consensus, or by me if no one chimes in.

Things I Want to Learn to Do

1. Sew my own clothes, although I would start with sewing anything at all (Sew Anything, starring Yours Truly, John Cusack, and a sewing kit). My younger sister J is a really talented artist, seamstress, and designer of clothing, all talents from which I have shamelessly profited. We had this great arrangement in high school where I would edit her papers and bake stuff for her, and she would take over my art projects (Sr. Kathleen, if you are reading this, she is the reason I passed your class) and do cool things with my clothes. Which was awesome, except now we are miles and miles away, and I’ve never had to sew on my own buttons. Although I am firmly convinced that mending one’s clothes with visible safety pins will someday become trendy.

But also this and this. What I’m trying to say is…..sewing circle, anyone?? I think yes.

2. Knitting, crocheting, and all those other sub-categories of sewing. Because not only would I be less tempted to splurge on adorably overpriced scarves and hats at J.Crew, I’m pretty sure that if I started knitting on the subway people would think I was from Williamsburg. And therefore much, much, cooler. Plus it will give me something to do when when I am a cantankerous old lady and get tired of shooting children with a BB gun from my rocking chair.

Also, how else will I free the house-elves?

3. Garden! I mean, I can garden, as in, I can keep some herbs and marigolds and maybe a tomato vine or two alive and bearing fruit. When I say garden, I mean more, cover every spare inch of the space in which I live not taken by hammocks, cats, or guests requiring shelter in things green and growing. And then move onto any unclaimed space in my near vicinity. And then maybe some of the claimed space too. Basically, I want to take over the world.

Right now I don’t have my own house, so I’m waiting on the hammocks and cats and guests, but I will have begonias and tomatoes, dammit. And when the weather turns cool, kale.

While we’re on the subject, does anyone else have vivid and terrifying memories of this movie?

4. Some kind of martial art. Boxing is fun, and I doubt I’ll ever be a black belt in karate, but I feel like there must be one out there made for small people going up against bigger people. Kickboxing sounds fun too.

5.  Stop eating all the key lime pie.

6. Stop eating half of every pie crust I make before it goes in the oven.

7. Just stop eating all the pie, period.

8. Argentine tango.

9. Pick a lock.

Oops, I Did It Again

I played with your heart, I lost in that game. Oh baby baby.

But seriously, I did that thing again where I put a post up and had to take it down an hour later. It’ll be back tomorrow though, and you’ll see why!

In the meantime, I offer this as propitiation to the blog gods.

Recipe for happiness (infinitely adaptable and easy) :

Make a batch of your favorite kind of chocolate chip cookie dough. Press into and up around the edges of pie pan. Bake, cool.  Melt chocolate and pour into cookie-crust. Chill for 20 or so minutes so it makes a shell. Fill shell with layer of strawberries, then ice-cream, then more chocolate, then whipped cream. Proceed to nom.

And this.

My cousin and I used to try to recreate this choreography in her bedroom. Somehow it was never quite the same.