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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Middlemarch and Electioneering

I love nothing better than drawing parallels between my myriad obsessions, as you know!.
In this case, my sig other and I have been enjoying my parents' awesome Hannukah present (The George Eliot DVD collection--yep it exists, and don't they know their daughter well?) by watching the "Middlemarch" miniseries courtesy of the BBc and--who else?--Andrew Davies. I think Davies missed a few key points of Eliot's masterwork, particularly the final scenes between Will and Dorothea and Will and Rosamand, which is surprising--who would have thought that prince A.D. himself would omit a really sexy scene from a novel whilst adapting it? I mean Eliot has handed it to him on a platter here, with the lightning and the thunder and hands clasping and kisses and embraces and lots of "spasmodic movements" and sobbing. Sam Mendes, are you listening?

But... enough about love! George Eliot's novels were about a lot more love, and given that this is high primary season I found all the politicking and electioneering in the adaptation refreshingly well-done and relevant. There was a particular scene between Will and Lydgate, these two young, slightly arrogant but well-meaning idealists who share the goal of genuinely reforming their corrupt society, testing each other by talking about their respective "obligations" to less-than perfect men who are giving them the one thing without which real change is impossible: money. It's such a transcendent moment--in a simple exchange, Eliot and Davies have given us this universal truth about change, corruption, idealism, compromise. As the presidential candidates jostled about who was the real change agent and criticized each other's past votes this week, Eliot's relevance and insight hit home once more.

Which brought me to the question I always come back to: of all my favorite novels, the battle for the one that's numero uno always comes down to Middlemarch vs. Pride and Prejudice, with Jane Eyre and Persuasion being the equally beloved but less perfect silver medalists (And yes, I still say that I've read Gatsby and Ulysses and Sound/Fury and all that stuff).

Pride and Prejudice is by far the most flawlessly crafted novel ever written IMO, without a word, a note out of place, with this symmetry of character, events, and understanding that's breathtaking. It also has a far better sense of humor, economy of words, and lack of didacticism than the much more traditionally 19th century Eliot.

But the perfection of Middlemarch is different--it's the scope of it, the way she crafts this world of co-dependence between people of different classes and creeds and describes the way the same problems affect poor and rich alike, and this damningly accurate understanding of the way gossip and perception filters and thwarts good intentions. It's just so complete a portrait, so complete a novel... and that last line:
for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
I can barely read it without choking up. It's so full of both the tragedy that Dorothea's sex kept her from being all she could, but also the triumph that she achieved so much by lifting up those around her. It's a question we still deal with today, no? Whether to strive for great change or just to be kind to the humans we come into contact with. Neither are easy, both are nearly impossible--look at the personal failings of our "great men."

Anyway, I still think in my heart of hearts I prefer P&P, but I'm again awed by Middlemarch. I can't wait for the feature film.

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