My PhD is in Victorian Literature. I’ve read and loved a lot of big books, including the unabridged Clarissa, which clocks in at 1500 oversized Penguin classics pages. These days, though, I find such behemoths daunting. They represent a large investment of time in which I could be reading other things. Still, this spring I enjoyed re-reading and teaching Dickens’ Bleak House, so I decided to tackle another Victorian favorite, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, reading slowly and interspersing it with other books.
My project got off to a very slow start indeed. I read the Prelude (it’s a page and a half long) and then sat beside Middlemarch for many, many hours while I surfed the web or read those other books. Part of the problem was that I had made it feel like a homework assignment: what I’ll do is read a book of Middlemarch each week and do a blog post! Since I’m on summer vacation, this proved unappealing.
But I couldn’t figure out how to read Middlemarch for pleasure, rather than for homework. My pleasure reading is mainly genre fiction, which is governed by plot. I don’t mean that characters and style don’t matter to my enjoyment, but plot defines books as belonging to a particular genre, and plot will often push me to the end of even a mediocre book. Middlemarch has plot–indeed, it has plots, and some of them would be at home in modern genre fiction. But the way Eliot weaves between her multiple plot threads doesn’t exactly drive the reader forward, so I got stuck.
I found a model for slow-reading Middlemarch in an unexpected place, Marjorie J. Thompson’s Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, which I picked up in a recent Kindle sale. Thompson’s book is an ecumenical (i.e. not aimed at a particular type of Christian) introduction to some classic Christian spiritual practices, including lectio divina, or meditative reading of scripture. It’s not academic analysis, but thoughtful and reflective, a different approach to finding meaning in reading.
I’m sure I thought of lectio divina as a useful approach to Middlemarch because there’s an element of guilt-driven self-improvement in my reading of both Eliot and Thompson. However much I try to shake it, I feel some guilt about the fact that so much of my reading these days is romance. Shouldn’t I be reading better, more improving books? And although I’ve been a life-long church-goer (except for the Higher Education Years), I often feel it’s a habit I’ve failed to break rather than a sign of a robust faith and spiritual life.
Re-reading the Prelude of Middlemarch reinforced the connection in my mind between the novel and my own (lack of) spiritual life. In the Prelude, Eliot invites us to contrast her characters, particularly Dorothea Brooke, with Saint Theresa of Avila:
Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity. . . . Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long-recognizable deed.
Reading the novel as a 19-year-old women’s college student, I identified strongly with Dorothea. I wanted to be good, and ardent, and to do great things. Unlike Dorothea, I lived at a time when many of the external hindrances to greatness that once faced women had disappeared, but I feared that I had enough hindrances in my own nature to ensure I was foundress of nothing.
Reading it now, at 43, I feel more like Dorothea’s prosaic sister Celia, who just wishes “Dodo” wouldn’t make such a spectacle of herself. “The great safeguard of society and of domestic life,” Eliot writes (ironically), “was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.” Turns out I do not have the courage or “spirtual grandeur” for insane greatness, at least not yet. I think one purpose of a strong spiritual life is to help one develop that, so maybe I’ll get there one day.
There will be more about my slow reading of Middlemarch, and it won’t be All About Me (next up, I think: courtship).