Thursday, October 19, 2017
Every heart longs to be seen and understood. Yet most of our lives are unwitnessed. We spend our days working, driving, parenting. We sometimes spend whole seasons feeling unnoticed and unappreciated. So how do we find contentment when we feel so hidden?
In Unseen, Sara Hagerty suggests that this is exactly what God intended. He is the only One who truly knows us. He is the only One who understands the value of the unseen in our lives. When this truth seeps into our souls, we realize that only when we hide ourselves in God can we give ourselves to others in true freedom—and know the joy of a deeper relationship with the God who sees us.
Our culture applauds what we can produce, what we can show, what we can upload to social media. Only when we give all of ourselves to God—unedited, abandoned, apparently wasteful in its lack of productivity—can we live out who God created us to be. As Hagerty writes, “Maybe my seemingly unproductive, looking-up-at-Him life produces awe among the angels.”
This book has a beautiful cover, matched with one of my favourite themes, the blessedness of being unseen. Sara Hagerty helps us develop a new way to approach being un-applauded, unnoticed and unrecognised. Instead of regarding it as falling short of our potential, she invites us to see that being hidden from sight is often the best place to be.
Hagerty starts off explaining how she was sucked into the trap of thinking the way society prompts us to. When a friend spotted her working in a gift shop, she felt embarrassed to be caught doing something with no scope for impact in her own opinion. Only when Hagerty stepped back to reconsider did she realise the hidden, personal growth she'd experienced in that place had been phenomenal. The quiet gift shop turned out to be the ideal hothouse to nurture her.
Our era reminds me of a garden in which every flower cranes forward for attention, notoriety and applause, and the fact that there are millions of them makes it seem crazy. Well, Hagerty reminds us that we feel this urge for light because God has made us with a desire to be seen and celebrated. We do like to hear our own names and enjoy the flush of satisfaction that follows a flash of attention. It reinforces that we matter in the grand scheme of things, so we needn't feel guilty. Trying to extinguish our desire for praise and recognition isn't the answer, because it isn't a bad thing. Where we err is most often in the direction we tend to look for praise and accolades.
Instead of craving the eyes, opinions and applause of other people, she suggests we simply remember to look to God instead, who knew us from the start, and His kind eye is always upon us. The switch of focus may be enough to relieve us instantly.
But to keep the garden analogy going, Hagerty's book makes it clear that we often tend the wrong plants. We carefully watch the growth of our reputations, success and achievements, and forget about nurturing a good heart - while this, in fact, is the only shoot that really matters. It's a great reminder that God doesn't look at things humans look at, and if we nurture loving hearts, well, that's all we really need to worry about.
Sara Hagerty offers frequent botanical analogies herself, urging us to shift our attention from our showy, leafy branches, where it's so easy to focus our attention, to our hidden roots instead. In other words, we could change the emphasis from our visible work for God to our secret, unseen life in Him. And she has a number of examples where this sort of thinking has played out in own life, with her husband and several adopted children.
Overall, the book left me with the feeling that while some of us may be born to God's showpiece, others are born to be His secrets, and both are equally significant.
Thanks to Zondervan and NetGalley for my review copy.
Monday, October 16, 2017
In "The Great Divorce, " C.S. Lewis's classic vision of the Afterworld, the narrator boards a bus on a drizzly English afternoon and embarks on an incredible voyage through Heaven and Hell. He meets a host of supernatural beings far removed from his expectations, and comes to some significant realizations about the nature of good and evil.
This is a convicting parable about the next world, beginning with a flying bus trip.
The departure point is a huge, empty grey city that keeps spreading its borders because quarrelsome people only need to imagine a new house, and it's theirs. Some folk are happy to stay there, since they don't recognise it as a type of hell.
For those who do jump on the bus, their choice to settle in heaven depends on their willingness to give up whatever holds the greatest grip on their hearts. It's really all about our idols, and the passengers are filled with all sorts of attitudes and hang-ups which they're loath to relinquish. There's always something they insist on clutching tight, even at the price of misery.
There's 'Ikey' the businessman, who's determined to take plunder from the heavenly realm back down to the grey city, where he thinks he'll make a killing. He only manages to lift one tiny fallen apple through the sheer force of his will.
There's a pathetic society woman whose earthly finery, which she was so proud of, appeared like rags in heaven. She was devastated, because she felt it was her whole identity, which she'd devoted her life to maintaining.
There's a learned man who believes that the grey hell city could really be heaven, for its 'continual hope of morning and field for indefinite progress.' He's an ex-bishop who has written a book. In fact, libraries on earth turn out to be some of the most haunted places, filled with the ghosts of authors who keep wondering if people are still reading their books.
The plight of creative people in this story is interesting. One artist was stressed because he saw no need to paint anymore, since everything was so annoyingly perfect. It's Lewis' warning to creative folk of the trap of being sucked in to pay more attention to their own work and reputation, rather than what it's all about. 'Every poet, musician and artist, but for grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to the love of telling.' Wow, I guess our world does have a way of honouring the conduit, until it's hard for them to stay humble.
One fascinating person in the new land is Sarah Smith of Golders Green, a lady of 'unbearable beauty and grace' with a procession in her honour. The narrator is anxious to learn her identity, but she turns out to be nobody he would have ever heard of. Just a humble person faithfully doing small things in her supposedly ordinary life. But people are regarded differently in heaven to how they ever were on earth. Great news for anyone who's ever felt overworked, unnoticed and under-appreciated.
The narrator, who presumably represents Lewis himself, gets to meet his hero, George MacDonald, who becomes his guide around heaven. I knew Lewis was a fanboy of MacDonald's (see my review of Phantastes) but what a tribute this is, as he tries to find words to tell him all his writing has meant to him, since his teens.
Overall, it's a great read for anyone who'd like a bite-sized, but meaty bit of C.S. Lewis, for it's short enough to read in one day. It leaves me with the impression that I would've liked being a witness when Lewis actually did meet MacDonald.
Here are some quotes.
'What can be called 'the Sulks' in children, has 100 different names in adults, such as injured merit, self-respect, tragic greatness and proper pride.'
'There are only two kinds of people. Those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."'
'Joy on earth is defenceless against those who would rather be miserable. But in heaven, our light can swallow up your darkness, but your darkness can't affect our life.'
Monday, October 9, 2017
The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.
What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
Welcome to Weep.
I saw this lovely cover several times on my Instagram feed, and then spotted it at BigW for a great price. It's one of those times an impulse buy pays off. I'd hoped for something beautiful and surreal with such a title and cover, and that's just what I got.
The first thing I wanted to know was the sense in which the main character was a dreamer. Does the title refer to Lazlo Strange's hopes and ambitions, or his actual, nocturnal dreams when he's asleep? It turns out to include both, in a very fantastic, colourful, and eventually dangerous way.
Lazlo starts off as a war orphan in the kingdom of Zosma, who is apprenticed to work at the library. He's always been intrigued by tales of the lost city of Weep, although after two hundred years of broken contact, everyone else has dismissed the place as a legend. Lazlo is laughed at and treated like a quirky nerd, until a mighty warrior named Eril-Fane arrives, seeking recruits to help restore his city to its former glory.
He enlists mathematicians, metallurgists, engineers, an explosives handler, and Thyon Nero, the gorgeous but arrogant young alchemist. Even though structural experts seem to be in demand, bashful Lazlo is eager to get himself included in the expedition. He must find a way to convince Eril-Fane that his extensive knowledge of folklore and fairy tales might come in handy.
The quest to dismantle a menacing structure and restore daylight to the city is fraught with more peril than anyone imagined, including the offspring of former enemies who were believed purged. When recent history is revealed, it becomes more unclear whether or not Eril-Fane was a hero or a scourge, since both cases can be argued convincingly. And Lazlo meets the love of his life, who has appeared in his dreams before he even knows she exists.
Part of the plot is the most otherworldly Romeo and Juliet re-telling you could imagine. Shakespeare, eat your heart out. It's all so very romantic, and tied in with the tension between acceptance and rejection, mercy or vengeance.
Many things get turned upside down and prove to be their opposite, including Lazlo's status, since his modesty, gentleness and humility make him truly great. I really love all the scenes between him and Thyon Nero. Suspicious Thyon can't comprehend how a person could willingly offer a bully a helping hand with no strings attached. His thinking reflects our own world of ulterior motives. The young men are a fascinating study of opposites. Thyon has by far the most desirable outward appearance, but Lazlo's inner life is far more enviable. Would you rather look good to other people, or stay humble and enjoy your own good company?
A major theme is how war happens when both sides believe they are good people who were in the right. Hate happens when people close their minds and don't allow themselves to see the other side. 'Good people do the sames things bad people do, but call it justice,' says a character who's in the position to know this as fact.
The book ends at a crucial spot, and I'll be snatching up the sequel as soon as I know it's available. Talk about being backed into a corner! The concept of death was a bit disturbing at times. You seem to either dissipate into the ether or... you'll find out. But a third sort of heavenly alternative, 'Dreamer's Weep' is presented, from Lazlo's own head, and I'd love to visit it.
I hope we see more of Thyon Nero too, in the next story. He's seems to have the 'total package' that gives anti-heroes charisma. It includes looks, intelligence, a grudge, a troubled past, and lots of scope for change.
Here's some of my favourite quotes.
Lazlo Strange is referred to as 'the antidote to vile' which is a perfect tribute for a guy whose dreams become an oasis.
'The rules were different in Lazlo's mind. The truth was different. It was nicer.'
'The library knows its own mind. When it steals a boy, we let it keep him.'
'Fairy tales are reflections of the people who had spun them and flecked them with little truths, intrusions of reality into fantasy, like toast crumbs on a wizard's beard.'
'The library had seemed sentient enough to love him back. It bewitched him and drew him in and gave him everything he needed to become himself.'
I once wrote that I find it hard to get into fantasy novels which are set in a different world from start to finish, but this is one of those great exceptions. I'm beginning to think there may be more than I'd imagined. Although I don't read a huge amount of fantasy, many of my favourite novels happen to be fantasies. See that post here. You might also enjoy my thoughts about stories which lie hidden deep within other stories.
Friday, October 6, 2017
I've been a homeschooling mother for a very long time now, but still remember the great sense of relief and freedom when we first started. Sometimes friends would say, 'It would never work for us, because we're not disciplined enough. We'd probably wear our nightclothes all day.' I would reply, 'Yeah, it's great. That's one of the best things about this lifestyle.' The occasional day of not getting changed is a pleasure rather than a sign of slackness. Even now, I find it hard to think of a nicer, more refreshing treat than being able to sit in bed in my night clothes reading books past lunch time.
If you want to give it a try, consider these stories of heroes who wore pyjamas. Some had very eventful things happen to them. One thing they didn't seem to do much of was sleep. Even though they were wearing their pyjamas, they didn't let life pass them by. Some even managed to make their pyjamas their trademark and fashion statement. If you want to be a rebel and stay in your night attire, you're in good company.
I'll start with some kids' classics, since children probably spend longer in their pyjamas than adults. (This is no doubt because many parents send them to bed at early hours.)
Bananas in Pyjamas
Any Aussie kid from the nineties would remember these two instantly. They were based on an old poem by Carey Blyton, and took on a life of their own in the form of B1 and B2, who lived on Cuddles Avenue along with their neighbours, the teddies, and Rat in a Hat. Nobody ever divulged why they chose blue and white striped pyjamas as their everyday clothes. I assume it was for comfort and style. They were certainly snazzy pieces of fruit.
Wee Willy Winky
He's an eerie little chap if ever there was one. In the old nursery rhyme written by William Miller in 1841, he runs through the town after 10 o'clock in his nightgown, tapping at the windows and crying at the locks to make sure all little children are in bed. I guess it stands to reason that he considers the nightgown his uniform, given the nature of his work.
The Night Before Christmas
The dad who narrates this famous poem from the 1820s was wearing his night attire because he'd been in bed, and sprang out in time to witness a visit from Saint Nicholas. They even wore head gear, because 'Mamma in her kerchief and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap.' I'm glad we've moved on from wearing hats to bed because it sounds like a pointless exercise. One thing that hasn't changed though, is the image of jolly old Santa Claus in his sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. Almost 200 years later, I doubt the author, Clement Moore, had a clue that his concept of Christmas Eve night would become traditional.
The Darling children, Wendy, John and Michael, wore their nightclothes at crucial parts of the story, because darkness was when Peter Pan, the amazing magical boy, would fly through their nursery window to visit. They were supposed to be asleep. When Peter manages to convince them to fly away with him to his home in Neverland, it's a spur of the moment decision. They leave in what they're already wearing, which of course is their night clothes.
Tom's Midnight Garden
There is a time portal in the old Victorian house where Tom is staying with his aunt and uncle, and he just happens to discover it because he's creeping around after dark. So whenever he lands himself in the Victorian era, he's always in his pyjamas, which doesn't stop him having adventures with his new friend, Hatty. In fact, since she's never seen pyjamas before, she assumes that boys from the twentieth century wear strange, stripey flannel clothes, with shirts and pants that match. My review is here.
OK, the children don't get to have all the fun. Here's some pyjama wearers who have made their way into general folklore and classics.
The Sound of Music
It's got to be one of the twentieth century's most famous movies, and gives us one of the cosiest, loveliest pyjama scenes. When Maria first joins the VonTrapp family as their governess, the seven children are wary, stand-offish and cheeky with her. But when a loud thunderstorm scares them on her first night, they all rush into her bedroom in their nighties and pyjamas. Not only does Maria ease their fear, but also wins them over by singing, 'These are a Few of my Favourite Things.' Who can forget 'raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens'?
Poor Ron Weasley has a really rough day on his seventeenth birthday, all before he even changes out of his pyjamas. First, he accidentally eats a chocolate that's been filled with love potion, and intended for Harry. The antidote turns out to be laced with poison which almost kills him. Harry manages to cram a bezoar down his throat in the nick of time, and Ron ends up in hospital on what should be his special day when he comes of age. And all this accidental consumption happens before he even gets dressed. Some days are just not worth waking up.
This is a sad and eerie coming of age story, set in an Australian country town in the 1960s. Two boys, Jasper and Charlie, discover the body of one their classmates, Laura Wishart, hanging from a tree in her nightie. It's that nightie which adds the finishing touches to the horror and mystery of her death, as it seems whoever killed her managed to somehow lure her out of bed. Jasper's afraid he himself will be blamed for the crime, and the boys set out to do some quiet sleuthing of their own, to discover who really did it. My review is here.
In this charming novel by L.M. Montgomery, Emily's friend Perry decides to give her a gratitude kiss during a late night visit. At that exact moment, bossy Aunt Ruth snaps on the light and stands gaping at them in her nightgown. Emily has a lot of explaining to do, to make her suspicious aunt believe that the incident was more innocent than it looked. When Aunt Ruth finds out the wonderful things Perry had been up to that night, she's suddenly mortified that he saw her in her nightgown.
The Pickwick Papers
One of Mr Pickwick's young companions, poor Nathaniel Winkle, finds himself accidentally shut out of their lodging place in his nightshirt. It's not only embarrassing but dangerous, since the British winter cold has the potential to freeze anyone who isn't dressed appropriately. But Winkle, for all the impressive images he wishes to project, is accident prone, and just the person something like this would happen to. My review is here.
The story is one of the great Victorian mysteries by Wilkie Collins. Rachel Verinder's magnificent birthday diamond has been stolen on its first night in the house, and the detective proves that the thief must surely have a bit of scuffed paint on his clothing. While he's busy demanding a look at everyone's wardrobe, the maid Rosanna Spearman hides a nightgown belonging to Mr Franklin Blake, her crush. It turns out to have the paint mark on it, but he's mystified, because he knows he's innocent, yet nobody else was wearing it! My review is here.
The Fountain Overflows
This Edwardian family story takes place when fashionable men were just making the transition from nightshirts to the new fad, pyjamas. The Aubrey children visited an old lady who thought PJs were emasculating. Her opinion was shared by many others from the old school. They couldn't imagine anything sillier than fellows wearing a shirt and pants to bed, just to look trendy, when nobody would even see them. How horrified they might have been to imagine this would be more than a passing craze. My review is here.
So there you have them. If you can think of any others, please let me know, so I can add them to the list. You might also like to check out Intriguing Stories about Insomnia, since it sort of goes together with this post. Many of those characters are wearing their pyjamas too, for obvious reasons :)
Monday, October 2, 2017
They were a group of eighteenth century poets who earned themselves this nickname because of their favourite subject. They liked to write about guys who sat around in cemeteries, mulling over how the power of death will someday sweep away everything they've worked hard for. Or they liked to be those guys who sat around thinking that.
You might think they had morbid taste. Does it have the potential to make you feel a bit depressed just thinking about them? Why waste your living moments musing about death? Well, according to Alain de Botton who wrote about them in Status Anxiety, they were an incredibly joyful mob. It's because they kept things in the right perspective, allowing themselves not to be sucked into the traps of their average, happiness-seeking peer group.
But first a sample of some of their work. I remember studying Andrew Marvel's 'To His Coy Mistress' at school and uni. He was a bit of an opportunist, using their inevitable demise to convince the fair lady to seize the day.
At my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near.
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
The grave's a fine and private place
But none, I think, do there embrace.
The next is from Edward Young's 'Night Thoughts' written in 1742,
The sage, peer, potentate, king, conqueror,
Death humbles these.
Why all this toil for triumphs of an hour?
What though we wade in wealth or soar in fame?
Earth's highest station ends in 'Here he lies.'
Then there's this one, 'The Grave', by Robert Blair in 1743.
When self-esteem, or others' adulation,
Would cunningly persuade us we are something
Above the common level of our kind
The grave gainsays the smooth-complexioned flattery
And with blunt truth acquaints us with what we are.
And this one, 'Elegy written in a Country Churchyard' by Thomas Gray, in 1751.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Perhaps all these chaps got their original inspiration from thousands of years back, when King Solomon wrote the following words in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
'No-one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them (Ecclesiastes 1:11)
Time is the greatest power, changing our identities with steady force. Any individual can turn from a tiny toddler to a senior citizen in a flash. If life is like a wheel, I guess mine might have spun somewhere near the halfway point of a typical soul. De Botton adds his own eloquent line to the thoughts expressed by the graveyard school. 'We all end up as that democratic substance - dust.'
It used to give me the chills, but now that my 'second half' is looming, I decided it might be wise to try to embrace it with their spirit. I'm no poet, but I went strolling through our local cemetery on a gorgeous spring day by myself, armed with a book or two. It was one of those sunny days with long shadows and soft breezes that gives the illusion that time is a tortoise instead of a hare. The world seemed slow and leisurely, but I now know it's really hurtling through space at breakneck speed, turning my hair grey and forming those fine lines around my eyes and mouth. It has to be, because just a moment ago, I was the same age as my kids. Twenty odd years really is a blink.
Basically, those old graveyard poets knew what de Botton extracted from their work. 'The power of time makes a mockery of all our claims to earthly greatness and distinction.' So it's sort of silly and tiring to go jumping through society's hoops just to get nods of approval from people on the same trajectory as us. Those old timers whose bones lay deep beneath the stones were no doubt the same as we are now; attaching exaggerated significance to their own fleeting purposes and concerns, because they were the centre of their own experience of the world. It's a world they're no longer part of, and one which has simply gone whizzing on without them. One day it'll leave each of us behind too.
At my stage, I do get their point. It is liberating and happy-making to think of the graveyard school, sitting in those cemeteries in their frock coats with their fountain pens so long ago. It gives me mental clarity to stand back and remember that in a short time, all my issues won't matter a bit. Here's how Alain de Botton puts it. 'Before a skeleton, the repressive aspect of others' opinions have a habit of shedding their power of intimidation.' That's not sad, it's great news, in a stark sort of way. Also a good reminder to set our hearts on things above, where we'll spend far longer than our brief time down here.
Maybe I'll let Sir Thomas Browne, another of the graveyard school, have the last word. 'The duty of an honest Christian is to make an impression not in the record of man but rather in the register of God.' Take that as you will, to me it's a tip to get my white-knuckled grip off impression management, self-promotion, social media stats and all those things which can tie us in knots. I did come home from the cemetery feeling refreshed, in an ironic sort of way.
Monday, September 25, 2017
A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.
Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market has her questioning what’s been missing in her life, and when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.
I've been interested in reading this title since I've seen it on several book lists and heard that book clubs love it.
On her 18th birthday, Victoria Jones is let loose on the world, after being shuffled about between foster homes and homeless institutions. All she has are the clothes on her back and a vast knowledge of different flowers acquired from Elizabeth, the loving lady who almost adopted her once.
Victoria is an independent and prickly heroine who believes she has no reason to ever trust the goodness and promises of others. One of the most consistent lessons she's learned is that vulnerability seems to be taken advantage of. That's why flowers appeal to her so much. Not only are they just what they seem, but she hoards their unique meaning all to herself, believing it gives her the one-up over others.
In the Victorian era, each flower was well known to symbolise some virtue, vice or emotion, and people chose their bouquets carefully with that in mind. In other words, the recipient could tell the giver's mood by their choice of bloom. One day a young man at the flower markets alarms Victoria because he clearly understands 'flower speak' too. Then she recognises his face from her past, when she was almost happy.
It's the sort of story we can predict turns sour. Chapters weave back and forth between Victoria's childhood and the current day, and she's obviously not with Elizabeth anymore. The story is geared toward making us want to find out what happened, but when I did reach that part, the reasons for their separation seemed disappointing and a bit pathetic. It so didn't have to happen. What an anti-climax of human misunderstanding, and people ruining their own lives. I like the optimistic feeling that things were about to look up again, but couldn't quite believe how it happened.
Victoria's falling into a successful floristry business, and managing to become a business woman in high demand stretched my credibility. She's the darling of many wealthy, classy people, before she's even one year on her own. Sure she has the flower lore, but who taught her presentation skills, or bookkeeping savvy, or business acumen? It's also a stretch that the general public would start demanding her services en-masse, to the extent that some would be placed on her waiting list or miss out. Would so many people really be willing to pay big money for the language of flowers, rather than just choosing their favourite flowers as they've always done? I can't really imagine it happening in my small part of Australia, but hey, this is a huge American city, so maybe.
Anyway, I wonder how many modern florists are up with all this. If you want to pursue it further yourself, there's a good glossary at the back, with a long list of flowers and their meanings. That was a wise move on the publisher's part, since it comes across generous, but if they hadn't included it, I for one would have complained about its absence.
So overall, I found it a pleasant read but not brilliant. Too many poor decisions, and too much unbelievable luck in spite of them all. Maybe I'm just sore because one of my favourite flowers, lavender, gets a bad wrap. It's meant to mean 'mistrust' and Victoria manages to get all the sprigs of lavender in the city wilting, un-bought in their buckets. Hey, I'd still buy it. No herd mentality for me. At the end of the day, a pretty flower and lovely scent mean just what you want them to.
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
By the time the novel appeared to tremendous popular and critical acclaim in 1871-2, George Eliot was recognized as England's finest living novelist. It was her ambition to create a world and portray a whole community--tradespeople, middle classes, country gentry--in the rising provincial town of Middlemarch, circa 1830. Vast and crowded, rich in narrative irony and suspense, Middlemarch is richer still in character, in its sense of how individual destinies are shaped by and shape the community, and in the great art that enlarges the reader's sympathy and imagination. It is truly, as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'.
First off, there might be some minor spoilers, because this is like a review/discussion hybrid. But you'll forget them by the time you get stuck into Middlemarch.
When I was 19 and read this classic for Uni, I thought it was the best English novel on the syllabus. Years have passed and now that I've returned to it, I think it might well be the best English novel ever written. My husband said, 'But isn't it just about people living their country lives without much happening?' Some readers might answer yes, which makes the thickness seem incredible. But I love it because it's all about attitude. This book is like a magnifying glass George Eliot holds up to us, because we keep bumping into our own buried attitudes when we see them mirrored in the characters. We can't read it without wanting to make course corrections or set good thinking habits in place.
Basically, two poor marriages take place between couples who go into them assuming that what they see is what they'll get. Young Dorothea Brooke wants to make the world a better place for others, and believes it will be a step in that direction to marry Edward Casaubon, a crusty scholar twice her age, who is working on a comprehensive book in which he hopes to reveal the meaning of life. But instead of being a valuable helper to a great man, she discovers too late that he's a hopeless pedant, snuffling around in research which is already antiquated.
Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, the new young medical man, is seduced into marrying local cutie, Rosamond Vincy. He believes she'll support him in his genuine cutting edge research, but discovers too late that she's not remotely interested in any part of his life that doesn't concern herself. Rosamond has simply latched on to Lydgate to boost her own lifestyle. When things don't happen the way she expects, her contagious misery infects him.
Lydgate is the poster boy for those of us who may claim, 'There's no way in the world I'd ever do (fill in the blank)' But until you've tried walking in somebody else's shoes, there's no predicting how you'll react. It's wise not to throw around the word 'never' because you might end up with egg on your face. And while you're at it, it's a hard lesson to learn not to look down on those who do things of which you don't approve. I really loved Lydgate, and reading his humbling experiences was hard.
Casaubon reminds me a bit of Owl from Winnie the Pooh. He tries to project an image of himself as lofty and important, but gets rumpled feathers, because the hardest person to convince is himself. He's middle-aged with the bearing and attitude of an 80-year-old, which finally catches up with him. Lydgate's professional advice shows he's too far gone to be told in effect, 'Hey man, lighten up and smell the roses,' but maybe we readers can take it on board, in case we ever need cobwebs blown off us. Poor dude. Imagine coming to the end of your life with the fear that you might've completely wasted your time. But setting ourselves the task to know absolutely everything is just too big a goal. We can learn the lesson of this guy who tried it.
Rosamond is a princess in the most negative sense of the term. She doesn't realise that her mind filters out anything that doesn't put herself at the centre of everyone else's world. She's too well-bred to throw a complete Veruca Salt style hissy fit, but she's got the passive-aggressive sulk down to a fine art. And every disappointment is magnified to a disaster, because it adds to her challenge to get her own way. Truth be told, I thought back to some of my own melt-downs I remember in the light of Middlemarch and thought, 'Yep, I'm afraid that's Rosamond.' If you can relate too, there's no better incentive to stop the next time you might be tempted to react that way.
Dorothea is like a breath of fresh air, even though she has moments of deep depression, bursts into tears, finds herself stuck in bad moods and sometimes makes dumb decisions. In fact, the mistake she starts off with is a real doozy, but she wins our hearts easily, because her attitude of wanting to relieve the pain and discomfort of others is such a sound compass. She even tells Will, the true love of her life, 'Even if we had lost our own true good, other people's good would remain, and that is worth trying for,' and means every word. You can't get to the end of the book without wanting to adopt Dorothea's habit of seeing the best in everyone. Eliot shows through her intriguing heroine that it's not an attitude of naivety or idealism, but the healthiest way to inoculate yourself against the gossip, cynicism and disillusionment that's all around you.
Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch 'a novel for grown-ups.' It's hard to miss this quote if you ever want to read the book, because it's splashed around every discussion, website and on the covers of many editions, without anyone really threshing out what she might have meant. Lest you get the wrong idea, it's not an 'adult' novel as some might understand the word. It's exemplary and squeaky clean without any X-rated content. I think 'grown up' in the sense Woolf meant is more to do with the way we handle disappointments.
'Happily ever afters' are low key in Middlemarch, because characters haven't lived up to what they considered to be their full potential. It's not for lack of investing lots of toil and tears. Hopes and dreams have crashed and burned everywhere, because the chokers and creepers of real life have strangled them, as they often do.
The wrap-up chapter tells us that both Lydgate and Dorothea considered themselves fall-shorts who never achieved a fraction of what they hoped. Lydgate never makes a major medical discovery, but finds simply paying the bills and providing for his family is a major drain for him. Dorothea never helps bring an amazing book to the public, or start a colony, but she encourages others in all the small, low-key ways she can. She's basically in the gentlewoman's trap. You're technically free to do as you please, but can't do any of the the good things that fall into your head because of society's restrictions.
The novel also has its share of people slogging away at jobs they wouldn't have necessarily chosen, because that's just what we have to do. Mr Farebrother knows he would have made a better biologist than clergyman, but life wasn't designed for a middle-aged man supporting dependent females to make a sea change. Then there's Fred Vincy, who at the start of his working life, grumbles that he would have made a great gentleman of leisure, but has to either pull something out of the bag, or keep sponging off his struggling parents. He decides estate management and agriculture is as good as anything else. (I feel for him because I've got a 'Fred' in my own household right now. It's my elder son, who's almost finished Uni and hasn't a clue what to do next. Even their surnames are similar. Vince or Vincy, you've got to love 'em.)
Mary Garth appeals to me because she understands all this from an early age, putting her in a strong position. We are told, 'She had good reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, and wasted no time in astonishment or annoyance at the fact.' That helps Mary leap ahead of the entitled Vincy kids in her outlook. She's not one to be taken in by her current versions of the 'whatever you believe you can achieve' sort of messages we still wade through in modern times. I'm sure George Eliot wouldn't be surprised that even by the 21st century, we don't really grow up until we learn to handle disappointment graciously.
I didn't get all this out of Middlemarch the first time through. But back then, I was still the teenager who aspired to write the great Australian novel, earn a fortune and go on world tours. When Farebrother tells Lydgate, 'I have paid twelve or thirteen years more than you for my knowledge of difficulties,' I probably shrugged it off just like Tertius. Virginia Woolf was right, in some ways, this is very much a book for grown-up retrospection.
But even though she gives us this dose of reality, Eliot still presents a world where wonderful surprises can catch us off guard, and refresh us to keep smiling.
A middle-aged vicar, disappointed in love, can help his young rival win the girl's hand, for the sake of her own happiness.
A young man who's been diddled out of two rightful inheritances can keep bitterness at bay, and claim that his goal is to see the good and beautiful in everything. All he wants is good friends and a soft rug to stretch out on. (We love you, Will Ladislaw.)
A couple madly in love can say, 'Stuff this mean codicil, let's get married anyway.'
A wife and mother who's been used to the good life can whip off her bright clothes and jewellery and resolve to stand by her disgraced husband through thick and thin. (Harriet Bulstrode, you're a hero.)
A young doctor who has suffered major blows, including those inflicted by his nearest and dearest, can look in the face of an angelic benefactress who tells him, 'You'd be taking a great burden off my shoulders if you'd accept this hand-out.'
Middlemarch is dense and thick, and sometimes takes lots of concentration, but is well worth the time it takes to read.