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A real test…finishing Middlemarch by George Eliot.

It has taken me two weeks and one day, but I have finally finished Middlemarch. Hooray! I won’t deny that it was hard-going at times and required more than a little perseverance.

It’s described as a classic and I have had it said to me (when I’ve said that I’m reading it) “Oh, now that’s a good book” – and I won’t deny that at points I’ve felt tempted to answer “is it?”. I suppose, as always, that depends on your definition of a good book. With hindsight and careful consideration I think I would go so far as to say that Middlemarch is a good book, but I would not say that it is without fault. Perhaps the style it is written in might have been more easily interpreted in its day, however, I won’t deny that I found Eliot’s style of writing rather ‘exclusive’ and superior – it’s prose for intellectuals. Some might consider this a good thing, but I can’t understand how any mode of writing which prohibits its being understood by all who could be cheered and affected by it can be good. It reminds me in many ways of academic texts which I pored over while at uni, and they too seemed to be written to deliberately exclude the understanding of all.

But, I have been very critical, and Middlemarch does have a great deal to recommend it. The story, or should that be stories, are real moral tales which show a great understanding of human nature and the motives that drive and restrain us. It also provides a very complete and real picture of life in 19th century England – although only, it must be said, for a certain rank of people. Despite touching upon the same sort of society as Austen, Eliot’s novel is – in my opinion – barely comparable. To see what two different female authors can create of a similar setting and period (Middlemarch is set just a little over fifteen years later than Pride and Prejudice’s publication) has interested me whilst reading Middlemarch. It can’t be denied that  Middlemarch does directly address and comment upon the politics of the age in which its story is set, something which Austen has been greatly criticised for ignoring; however, I have to question what exactly this reference to the politics of the time does to enhance Middlemarch. The lives of the characters seem to pass untouched and unaffected by them because of their rank and means. Eliot does provide us with snapshots of the harder lives of Mr Brooke’s tenants and the farm labourers of Lowick, but they are not the characters which her novel is mainly concerned with. Dorothea is imbued with an innate and Christian desire to improve the lives of those around her, however, in Middlemarch‘s ‘Finale’ we are not informed of the conditions of Mr Brooke’s tenants, merely of the futures of the novel’s more wealthy characters. But I have rambled away from my point, which is that though Eliot’s novel is widely held up as being less trivial and introverted than Austen’s (and, therefore, a more serious novel), I can’t say that its referring to politics and the wider world does anything to make the story being told more important or valuable.

The real value of Middlemarch lies, just as in Austen, in its characters and the way they choose to live their lives. Their moral compasses and how they meet the challenges that life throws at them. Middlemarch is a story that teaches you; I’ve heard it said that it’s a ‘book to live your life by’ – and I concede that through seeing the faults and vices of Middlemarch’s inhabitants you are forced to see your own weaknesses rendered ugly in another. A sobering lesson for anyone; and Middlemarch does have so very many characters who have so very many faults that I think it would be a rare reader who did not see something of their own flaws in one of them.

Will I be reading Middlemarch again? No, I don’t think so. Am I glad that I have read it? Yes, undoubtedly. Would I recommend it? Not to everyone, it’s an acquired taste. Middlemarch is a book for those who have an appreciation of moralistic writing, an understanding of high-brow prose, and who find people’s flaws intriguing. You can learn a lot from this book,  but you pay for this knowledge with time and much effort.

As for me? Well, I don’t intend to take on quite such a long book this time. I move on to Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

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Several cups of tea later, still persevering with Middlemarch by George Eliot.

As promised, I have endeavoured to sit down and give Middlemarch a fair trial this weekend. I must be honest and say that it hasn’t been the easiest of endeavours. I have reached Chapter 15, but am still finding it very slow going. While the characters have become slightly more interesting, the pace of the story and the fact that there are so many different storylines simultaneously at play makes, in my opinion, for a less satisfying read. Perhaps I have been spoilt by the fast pace of modern novels and the quick witticisms of authors like Austen and Woolf, but I still feel as if I am waiting for this novel to really begin, and I’m already well into ‘Book Two’.

I’m happy to say that the storyline has moved away from the overly pious Miss Brooke and her new husband, whose ill-founded and misguided opinions did nothing but irritate me; however, I think this may well have been Eliot’s intention. I can only suppose, and hope, that with a fuller knowledge and understanding of the characters and the connections between them, I will come to find the minutiae of provincial life in 19th century England a little more engaging that I do at present. We shall see. I am by no means done with Middlemarch yet and fully intend to enjoy it more. I have heard it recommended and held-up as a true classic so often that I am determined to see in it what others have done before me, however long that may take (and however many dissatisfied blogs I have to write).

I have a sneaking suspicion that this book is going to require significantly more cups of tea than those I have read already, after all as C. S. Lewis said, ‘You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me’, I think I shall have to make that my motto, whilst reading Middlemarch at least.

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A review of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

Well, I’ve pored my way through the last hundred pages, the plot thickening as they went. I can’t help but think what a sad story it turned out to be. As the truth unfolds you can to see that each of the characters is caged in one way or another, whether it be by love, hatred, devotion, servitude, duty…everyone in the story seems to suffer from their own variety of entrapment.

I read with mixed feelings, not quite knowing whether or not I wanted the truth to come out, never coming to any definite conclusion about some of the story’s characters. It seems to me that the boundary between good and bad, right and wrong, truth and lie is blurred in this story. I don’t think I’ll ever quite decide who the real ‘baddie’ is. Each one of the characters seems to me to carry light and shade, there is no one to hold up as an example of morality; even the characters who don’t commit crimes themselves and who don’t utter hateful words stand by and knowingly let others do so. Nobody finishes with a clean conscience and nobody emerges unscathed or unscarred.

The story, as I mentioned yesterday, is well written and the plot drives the narrative well. The pace of the novel alters to fit the circumstances and never do we feel that events are passing us by or that the narrative is dwelling too long at any given moment. The characters are well drawn, and as the novel progresses we come to understand them better – their motivations, their nature, their hopes and fears. We never are told the narrator’s name, and I can’t quite make up my mind as to whether she earns the title of heroine. With the novel’s title being afforded to another character and, perhaps because she appears (to me, anyway) so weak, I don’t feel that she quite merits being called a heroine. Elizabeth Bennet, Bridget Jones, Woolf’s Orlando, even – these narrators strike me as heroines…I’m afraid I can’t say the same of the second Mrs de Winter.

That’s not to say, however, that I did not enjoy the book. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s gripping, intriguing, well written and exciting. Do I recommend it to you? Most definitely. Does it merit being held up as one of literature’s classics? Yes, I think it does.

Swiftly on to book number three…a more modern classic this time, The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom.

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Filed under 20th century, Books, Daphne Du Maurier, Fiction, Novel

Here goes

Faced with some time on my hands, and more books than sense, I’ve decided to read my way through some of literature’s classics and hopefully become a little wiser along the way.

Armed with my library card, and an Amazon account, I intend to find out for myself whether these are books that truly do change your life…or whether they’re merely something to dust on a not-so-regular basis.

I won’t be making myself a list of books and promising to read them all like  Jane Austen’s Emma as, like her, I’d undoubtedly become daunted by the prospect. Instead, I’ll begin by giving myself a month and seeing how I do. I will, however, promise to give an artless and honest opinion of every book I read.

Here goes…book number one…Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

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