In 1962 Federico Fellini was trying to make a film about a man who suffers from a creative block. All he had were fragmentary images and a hazy notion of the story he wanted to tell. Frustrated and ready to quit, he suddenly struck upon an inspired idea. He decided to make a film about a director who doesn’t know what movie he wants to make. The resulting work, 8 1/2, became an instant classic of the cinema for its whimsical mix of fantasies, memories, and dreams.
In a small way, I feel myself in a similar situation to Fellini. For the last few months, I have been attempting to write a post about George Eliot’s brilliant 19th-century novel Middlemarch. But my personal circumstances have made it difficult to focus. As a result, I have been in no condition to tackle the book’s sprawling intricacies, the depth of its characterizations, and its substantial themes of intimacy and loss.
But, perhaps, since I am in a similar case to the Italian director, I can borrow a page from his script. So in what follows, I’ve decided to write about my efforts to reflect on this classic work.
If I were to write an article about Middlemarch, I’d probably begin with Virginia Woolf’s insightful quote that it is the only English novel written for grown-ups. The acerbic mistress of Bloomsbury was undoubtedly correct. Few novels delve as deeply into the psychology of intimate relationships. Eliot’s characters strike us as real flesh and blood people, and the interplay between lovers and spouses is often so painfully acute that we almost feel like embarrassed eavesdroppers.
But unfortunately, thinking about Virginia Woolf always reminds me of my first encounter with her novel Mrs. Dalloway. When I was eighteen, I hitchhiked through the mountains of the Northern Philippines, toting a copy of this work. I was picked up by an eccentric elderly Dutch woman wearing a fedora. As we wound through the green machinery of the jungle, I alternatively tried to make small talk and peruse the battered paperback on my lap. So for me, Virginia Woolf always brings to my mind the sun reddening on rice terraces, the smell of Turkish cigarettes, and the feeling of youthful freedom.
However, pulling myself out of this pleasant reverie, I’d have to return to Middlemarch. Usually, at this point, I might try to give readers some sense of the story. But here, the complexity thickens. The many tangled strands of Middlemarch’s plot wind through its 900 pages like tributaries in a Louisiana bayou. Its characters fall in love, go into politics, commit murders, fall out of love, get married, fail in their businesses, succeed in their businesses, buy horses, visit Rome, sketch, and occasionally die. And although this makes for an absorbing read, it remains a daunting task to summarize in the slender space of a blog post.
But at the last, I’d probably alight on the relationship between Dorothea Casaubon and Will Ladislaw. When Dorothea Brooke decides to marry the wealthy, elderly scholar, Mr. Casaubon, the gossips of Middlemarch set themselves against it. But Dorothea, being a determined and devout young woman, sees the aged rector as a saint who will be able to guide her religious development. Her marriage, however, is complicated by her introduction to Mr. Casaubon’s young cousin, Will Ladislaw. Ladislaw is an impoverished dilettante artist, a free thinker, and wanderer. He falls deeply in love with Dorothea, but his peculiar temperament will hardly allow him to admit his true feelings even to himself.
Dorothea, however, is no Anna Karenina or Hester Prynne. A friendship springs up between the two, which is remarkable for both what is said and what the characters hide from themselves and each other. The reader can sense their growing love under the surface of their talk and the frankness they feel with each other. But what draws Will to Dorothea is her virtue, and for him to attempt to seduce her would destroy the very thing he loves in her. And by this time, we know Dorothea. Her innate goodness and selfless devotion to her ideals would never permit her to consider such a possibility.
Unfortunately, her husband, Mr. Casaubon, cold and crabbed scholar though he is, possesses more insight into their relationship than either of them. He amends his will that if he dies, Dorothea will be disinherited should she marry Will Ladislaw. Shortly after this spiteful act, he succumbs to heart failure while musing in his garden.
This codicil in Casaubon’s will casts the chaste and unacknowledged love between his widow and the rootless artist in a scandalous light. So naturally, friends and the neighborhood gossips of the ever gossipy Middlemarch neighborhood resolve to do everything in their power to keep this pair apart. But they needn’t have bothered. The baseless suspicions that the document casts on both of them embarrass and anger them to the point where they cannot pursue each other.
However, here I would undoubtedly hesitate at my own inadequacy. How may I say anything about what has been called the greatest English novel? And what can I contribute to the study of a writer so brilliant as to translate Spinoza and so artful as to be able to plumb the depths of the human heart?
In Fellini’s 8 1/2, a critic accuses the director of daring to “leave behind a whole film, like a cripple who leaves behind his crooked footprint.” Perhaps this post is merely a crooked footprint in the sand, a testament to my inability to say something meaningful about a work of literature that moves me. Perhaps I have nothing to say about Middlemarch that is worth reading.
Yet, in the end, I think I would choose to go on. I would write about Middlemarch because the love between Will and Dorothea winds through the byzantine complexities of its plot and occasional touches of melodrama like a golden thread of shocking reality. It strikes us as no facile infatuation but a communion of two hearts in which we cannot help but believe. It stands as a unique and vibrant achievement in literature with few if any rivals.
And finally, I would choose to write about Middlemarch because, for all the sage words of critics and scholars, the profound experience of a work of art is incommunicable. I know that I shall never capture that evanescent radiance that delighted me while I turned its pages. I am simply the wind that strikes so that the fruit may fall. I am the rain that runnels the earth that it may grow. And one day, you may hold in your branches these same leaves and speak to the sky words that only the sky may understand.
The 8 1/2 of Middlemarch: Copyright Jonathan Golding 2021. All Rights Reserved.
Artwork: Publicity still from Fellini’s 8 1/2. Public Domain