Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays by Zadie Smith


  Three

  MIDDLEMARCH AND EVERYBODY

  HENRY & GEORGE

  In 1873, the young Henry James reviewed George Eliot’s Middlemarch. An odd review, neither rave nor pan. Eliot represented the past—James hoped to be the future. “It sets a limit,” he wrote, “to the development of the old-fashioned English novel.” James’s objection to Middlemarch is familiar: there’s too much of it. He found “its diffuseness makes it too copious a dose of pure fiction.” He would have preferred a more “organized, moulded, balanced composition.” Such a lot of characters! And so often lacking the grander human qualities. With one exception: Dorothea. She alone has an “indefinable moral elevation” and “exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness.” It is of the “career of [this] obscure St. Theresa” that he should have liked to read more. Finding Dorothea the most admirable character, he imagines she “was to have been the central figure.” He wonders what went wrong. Certainly the doctor Lydgate is interesting enough, but his story “yields in dignity” to Dorothea’s, and as for hapless Fred Vincy—why are we presented with such a “fullness of detail” on “this common-place young gentleman, with his somewhat meagre tribulations and his rather neutral egotism”?

  A famous query opens chapter 29 of Middlemarch: “But why always Dorothea?” It’s neat that James’s complaint—essentially “But why always Fred?”—should be the inverse reflection of it. You might say of Henry and George what the novel says of Lydgate and Rosamund: between him and her indeed there was that total missing of each other’s mental track. . . . James can’t understand why Middlemarch should stray so far from Dorothea, lingering on Lydgate, Fred and the rest. Cautiously he asks: was it an unconscious instinct or a deliberate plan?

  Questions concerning the gestation of novels aren’t often answerable, but Middlemarch is an exception. Eliot kept a journal, and in 1869 she records work on “a novel called Middlemarch” competing with research for “a long poem on Timolean.” This Middlemarch is the tale of a young, progressive doctor called Lydgate whose arrival in a provincial town coincides with the 1832 Reform Bill debates. Work on it goes slowly, painfully—there’s more hope for the poem. By the end of the year they’re both abandoned. What happens next is interesting. In November, Eliot begins a second story, Miss Brooke, and finds she can write a hundred pages of it in a month. To a novelist, fluidity is the ultimate good omen; suddenly difficult problems are simply solved, intractable structural knots loosen themselves, and you come upon the key without even recognizing that this is what you hold. By late 1871, the Lydgate and Dorothea stories are joined (by the creaky yet workable plot device of Mr. Brooke’s dinner party), and like the two hands of a piece for the piano, a contrapuntal structure is set in motion, in which many melodic lines make equal claim on our attention. The result is that famous Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound. Here is the English novel at its limit, employing an unprecedented diversity of “central characters,” so different from the centrifugal narratives of Austen. The novel is a riot of subjectivity. To Mary Garth, Fred Vincy is the central character in Middlemarch. To Ladislaw, it is Dorothea. To Lydgate, it is Rosamund Vincy. To Rosamund, it is herself. And authorial attention is certainly diffuse; it seems to focus not simply on those who are most good, or most attractive or even most interesting, but on those who are “there.” Unconscious instinct or deliberate plan? That Lydgate and Dorothea’s stories existed separately, that Dorothea’s story came second, points firmly at deliberation. Yet to say so is to give a question of fiction a factual answer, and the proper rebuff to James comes from a different place, not the place of fact, but the seat of feeling. James mistakes the sensibility of the novel:The reader is sometimes tempted to complain of a tendency which we are at a loss exactly to express—a tendency to make light of the serious elements of the story and to sacrifice them to the more trivial ones.

  To James, Dorothea is a serious element, Fred a trivial one. It’s strange to see wise Henry reading like a dogmatic young man, with a young man’s certainty of what elements, in our lives, will prove the most significant. But then, Middlemarch is a book about the effects of experience that changes with experience. It gets better as you age, being, as Woolf knew, “One of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Jane Eyre is understood by the fourteen-year-old as effectively as by the forty-year-old, possibly better. Surely few fourteen-year-olds can make real sense of the marriage of Lydgate and Rosamund. When you’re young, the domestic seems such a trivial thing. And as for Fred, the rereader grows steadily less certain that the problems of a Fred Vincy are necessarily more trivial than the angst of a Dorothea Brooke. With time, we’re less tempted to find serious only those matters clothed in the garments of Seriousness. And this is fitting because it mirrors Eliot’s own journey: as a young woman she shared Dorothea’s puritan, self-conscious seriousness, those lofty principles untempered by actual living. The young Marian Evans was all for God, and then, with equal violence, all against Him; she adopted a severe mode of dress and a Quaker-style cape and dreamed of martyrdom (Middlemarch opens with a memorable sideswipe at the Art of Serious Dressing); like Dorothea she tried to offer herself as “lamp-holder” to a great man—it’s lucky for literature that the great men she chose found her too ugly. Serially rejected, Marian grew convinced that the life of the affections would never be hers. Finally, she gave up on experience and settled for the comforts of the intellect: reading, translating, reviewing. She was no stranger to the proud opinion she later placed in Lydgate’s mind: books are stuff and life is stupid. It’s the necessary, defensive position of those whom (like Eliot) experience seems to refuse, and also those (like Lydgate) who refuse experience. But then, in her forties, things changed for Eliot. It was a mixture of ideas and experience that did it, of love and philosophy. By the time she writes Middlemarch, at age fifty, she can look upon her young self with satirical good humor (Dorothea is, in large part, a satirical self-portrait) and clinical self-knowledge. She is able to identify her own mistake:The first impulse of a young and ingenuous mind is to withhold the slightest sanction from all that contains even a mixture of supposed error. When the soul is just liberated from the wretched giant’s bed of dogmas on which it has been racked and stretched ever since it began to think there is a feeling of exultation and strong hope.

  The young Eliot could exult only in the perfect truths we glean from certain books in our libraries; the mature Eliot had learned to have sympathy for the stumbling errors of human beings. These days, when reading critically, the fashion is to remain aloof from the human experiences of novelists. Eliot herself was less squeamish. It was her contention that human experience is as powerful a force as theory or revealed fact. Experience transforms perspective, and transformations in perspective, to Eliot, constitute real changes in the world. “Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects,” she wrote, “must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and work the life and death struggles of separate human beings.” Experience, for Eliot, was a powerful way of knowing. She had no doubt that she had learned as much from loving her partner George Lewes, for example, as she had from translating Spinoza. When Dorothea truly becomes great (only really in the last third of the novel, when she comes to the aid of Lydgate and Rosamund), it is because she has at last recognized the value of emotional experience:All the active thought with which she had before been representing to herself the trials of Lydgate’s lot . . . all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance.

  Once she saw through a glass, darkly, now she is the less deceived. . . . Of how many Victorian novels could that sentence serve as shorthand. One of the reasons we idolize the nineteenth-century English novel is the way its methods, aims and expression seem so beautifully integrated. Author, characters and reader are all striving in the same direction. Eliot,
speaking of Dorothea’s mind, describes the process this way: “The reaching forward of the whole consciousness towards the fullest truth, the least partial good.” It is a fine description of what all good novelists try to do, after their own fashion. But Eliot made a religion of this process; it replaced the old-time religion in which she was raised. Her imagination was particularly compelled by those moments when, as we have it in the vernacular, “the scales fall from our eyes.” Bulstrode realizing the true nature of his choices, Rosamund realizing other people exist as she does, Lydgate realizing he has mistaken his wife in every particular, Dorothea realizing the very same of her own husband (“Having embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin”), even old Mr. Brooke realizing the peasants who live on his land don’t actually like him. . . . With a scalpel Eliot dissects degrees of human velleity, finding the conscious action hidden within the impulse hidden within the desire hidden within the will tucked away deep inside the decision that we have obfuscated even from ourselves. (She is very modern in this; she articulates the obsessive circles of self-consciousness and self-deception as sharply as that other master of diffusion, David Foster Wallace. Or maybe we should say that David Foster Wallace is very Victorian.) She pulls it all into the light, as Christ determined to pluck our sins even from our souls. Eliot is the secular laureate of revelation. I love that ecstatic final conversation between Dorothea and her sister:“I cannot think how it all came about.” Celia thought it would be pleasant to hear the story.

  “I daresay not,” said Dorothea, pinching her sister’s chin. “If you knew how it came about, it would not seem wonderful to you.”

  “Can’t you tell me?” said Celia, settling her arms cozily.

  “No dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.”

  Oh, you have to feel it to know it! “Ten years of experience,” Eliot wrote to a friend, “Have wrought great changes in my inward self.” She believed it was a significant change of perspective that enabled the martyred, self-involved Marian Evans to become George Eliot, wisest of writers, who has time for Fred, time for everybody. Here she is, post-Middlemarch, replying to a young male correspondent (who had written asking for advice on a personal matter, as many did, post-Middlemarch), assuring him that even the simplest aspects of his problem and of her advice to him are of interest to her:You should share my reliance on those old, old truths which shallow, drawing-room talk contemptuously dismisses as “commonplaces”, though they have more marrow in them, and are quite as seldom wrought into the mental habits as any of the subtleties that pretend to novelty.

  That might be a Fred Vincy writing in, troubled by his love problem with Mary Garth. For the mature George Eliot, the trivial problems of a Fred, the commonplaces he thinks and speaks, these are human experience, too, and therefore sacred. For the young Henry James, who has not yet patience for the commonplace, it is a mystery why there must be Fred (or so much Fred). But Fred, to Eliot, is a member of “mixed and erring humanity”—her favorite Goethe quote. She always hoped that her work would demonstrate the “remedial influences of pure, natural human relations.” Still, it took a great deal of Art to arrange Middlemarch so that it might resemble Nature in all its diffusion, all its naturalness. Eliot’s Nature is a thing highly stylized, highly intellectual. She was a writer of ideas, maybe more so than any novelist in our canon. In order to be attentive to Fred, Eliot had to take the long way round. It was a philosopher, Spinoza, who first convinced her of the importance of experience. It was theory that brought her to practice. These days, writer of ideas has become a term of abuse: we think “Ideas” are the opposite of something we call “Life.” It wasn’t that way with Eliot. In fact, her ability to animate ideas is so acute she is able to fool the great Henry James into believing Fred Vincy a commonplace young man who has wandered into Middlemarch with no purpose, when really nothing could be further from the truth.

  MARIAN AND FRED AND SPINOZA

  But you can see why Henry hadn’t much time for Fred. He’s not Henry’s type of thing at all—just a simple boy, with a streak of selfishness. He likes to ride and play cards and spend more money than he has. Fred is in love with a bright, plain girl called Mary Garth who is not convinced Fred is worthy of her love. On reflection, Fred agrees. Of the Three Love Problems that dominate Middlemarch—Dorothea and Causabon, Lydgate and Rosamund, Fred and Mary—Fred’s would seem the least edifying. Yet to Eliot all were equal, and of equal interest, and worthy of an equal number of pages. All her people are striving toward the fullest truth, the least partial good. Except when Eliot thought of striving, she had more in mind than Austen’s hope of happy marriages, or Dickens’s dream of resolved mysteries. She was thinking of Spinoza’s kind of striving, conatus. From Spinoza, Eliot took the idea that the good we strive for should be nothing more than “what we certainly know will be useful to us,” not a fixed point, no specific moral system, not, properly speaking, a morality at all. It cannot be found in the pursuit of transcendental reward, as Dorothea believes it to be, or in one’s ability to conform to a set of rules, as Lydgate attempts when he submits to a conventional marriage. Instead, wise men pursue what is best in and best for their own natures. They think of the good as a dynamic, unpredictable combination of forces, different, in practice, for each of us. It’s that principle that illuminates Middlemarch. Like Spinoza’s wise men, Eliot’s people are always seeking to match what is good in themselves in joyful combinations with other good things in the world. In Ethics, the book Eliot spent years trying to translate (she never finished), the wise walk in gardens, see plays, eat pleasantly, do work that is meaningful to them and so on, as their sensibilities allow and demand. They love and are attentive to the laws of nature, because these alone are eternal and therefore an attribute of the Supreme Good. All of this was the riposte Eliot needed to the arid rigors of her family’s Methodism; she responded passionately to the idea of worldly striving, of cleaving to those qualities in others, and in the world, that complemented one’s own strengths. It was what she herself had done. And it cast two things for which she cared deeply—natural science and human relationships—in a new, holy light. Spinoza seemed to understand Marian’s way of being in the world. Her shocking common-law “marriage of true minds” to George Lewes (who also translated Spinoza) was exactly the right kind of conatus: a power-strengthening union characterized by joy. Her rejection of the organized church, so horrifying to her family, was really a turning away from false, abstract moral values. Her interest in the new natural sciences was, in Spinozian terms, a form of worship. When Marian found Spinoza she found the closest philosophical expression of her own experiences:Indeed, the human body is composed of a great many parts of different natures, which require continuous and varied food, so that the whole body may be capable of doing everything which can follow from its nature, and consequently, so that the mind may also be equally capable of conceiving many things.

  In her intellectual and personal life, Eliot demanded continuous and varied food—and she conceived of many things. One of these things was Fred Vincy, a commonplace young man who would seem more suited to a penny-farthing romance. But it’s worth looking again at the facts, which means, in the world of Middlemarch, the emotional facts. Fred is in love with a good girl, a girl who does not love him because he is not worthy; Fred agrees with her. Maybe the point is this: of all the people striving in Middlemarch, only Fred is striving for a thing worth striving for. Dorothea mistakes Causabon terribly, as Lydgate mistakes Rosamund, but Fred thinks Mary is worth having, that she is probably a good in the world, or at least, good for him (“She is the best girl I know!”)—and he’s right. Of all of them Fred has neither chosen a chimerical good nor radically mistaken his own nature. He’s not as dim as he seems. He doesn’t idealize his good as Dorothea does when she imagines Causabon a second Milton, and he doesn’t settle on a good a pri
ori, like Lydgate, who has long believed that a doting, mindless girl is just what a man of science needs. What Fred surmises of the good he stumbles upon almost by accident, and only as a consequence of being fully in life and around life, by being open to its vagaries simply because he is in possession of no theory to impose upon it. In many ways bumbling Fred is Eliot’s ideal Spinozian subject. Here is Gilles Deleuze on Spinoza’s wise man; he could just as well be speaking of Fred:That is why Spinoza calls out to us in the way he does: you do not know beforehand what good or bad you are capable of; you do not know beforehand what a body or mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination.

  Fred has no idea what he is capable of. His moral luck is all encounter, arrangement, combination. Mary Garth is that encounter; she is Fred’s reason to be good. It is through her, and for her, that he is able to change:Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the being they love best. “The theatre of all my actions is fallen,” said an antique personage when his chief friend was dead; and they are fortunate who get a theatre where the audience demands their best. Certainly it would have made a considerable difference to Fred at that time if Mary Garth had had no decided notions as to what was admirable in character.

 
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