Friday, May 14, 2010

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch (Oxford World's Classics)I try to blog immediately after I read a book, but sometimes I'd just rather move on to the next book in the pile. Such has been the case lately, and I'm already starting a third book with two to blog about. Alas! So this will be short on comments (maybe!) and long on quotations.

I have heard that some consider Middlemarch to be the prime example of the modern/Victorian novel, and if you can make it through the 800+ pages, most readers would probably agree. I found it humorous to find the following notes in the margins of my library copy: "stopped at pg. 86 - will pick it up again when more in the mood" (facing the title page) and on page 86, "This book is a struggle to read!" To be honest, there were parts that I found a little tedious (mainly political discussions for which I had little understanding or background information), but the characters were diverse and true (as in, authentic) enough to keep me reading to the end. Though I am far from a literary critic, George Eliot's (Mary Ann Evans) characters and her many insights into human character are what make this novel great. In fact, I almost ran out of post-it tags in marking memorable passages.

If I were to describe it in one sentence, I would say that Middlemarch is one of the most honest and insightful portrayals of the ideals, delusions, deceptions, and disappointments of male/female relationships, particularly the before and after of courtship and marriage, that I have ever read. Human character has not changed much in 100+ years, and I identified with and found reflections of myself, for good and ill, in several of the characters. I might even venture to say that Middlemarch could be an ideal read-aloud (or listen to an audio version together) for engaged or married couples as it would provide so much material for discussions about one's expectations and misconceptions of marriage, hopefully with the outcome of capitalizing on the (few) successes and avoiding the pitfalls of these characters.

A few quotations of some of the gems I found therein:

"The fact is unalterable, that a fellow mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same." (186)

"'It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it' [Dorothea said] 'I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,' said Will, impetuously...'If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy - when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth's character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight - in art of in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralising over misery? I suspect you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom.'" (209)

"[Mrs. Garth] had sometimes taken pupils in a peripatetic fashion, making them follow her about in the kitchen with their book or slate. She thought it good for them to see that she could make an excellent lather while she corrected their blunders 'without looking,' - that a woman with her sleeves tucked up above her elbows might know all about the Subjunctive Mood or the Torrid Zone - that, in short, she might possess 'education' and other good things ending in 'tion,' and worthy to be pronounced emphatically, without being a useless doll." (230)

"Rosamond's discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband..." (717)

"'Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings. Even if we loved some one else better than - than those we were married to, it would be no use' - poor Dorothea, in her palpitating anxiety, could only seize her language brokenly - 'I mean, marriage drinks up all our power of giving or getting any blessedness in that sort of love. I know it may be very dear - but it murders our marriage - and then the marriage stays with us like a murder - and everything else is gone.'" (759)

And my favorite - a tribute to all wives and mothers:
"Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done..." (797)

Isn't it interesting that being "only" a wife and mother was criticized in the 1800's, when we tend to think that similar attitudes are unique to the past 50 years or so. The motives behind the criticism may have changed from that of social class structures to feminist ideas of equality and empowerment, but the denigration of the roles is nothing new.

It was fun to discuss this with my book club, since everyone had a favorite character and some different opinions about the storyline. I'm interested to know, if you have read Middlemarch, would you have played matchmaker differently if you had the same cast of characters to work with? Would things have been better (they certainly would have been different) if Dorothea had married __________(fill in the blank), or if Mary had taken the rector instead of Fred? How would you have arranged the marriages of Middlemarch if you had the sovereignty to do so?

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Stepping Heavenward by Elizabeth Prentiss

Stepping Heavenward (Inspirational Library Series)I read Stepping Heavenward almost twenty years ago when it was first reprinted by Calvary Press and highly recommended by Elisabeth Elliot. Although I'm sure I reread it at least once in my late teens, I deeply regret that I didn't return to it more often in the ensuing years. That was partly due to the fact that I always seemed to give away any copies I had on hand, but I'm sure I could have used its wisdom as much or more than those I shared it with. Needless to say, when our church's women's Bible Study decided to read and discuss this book this spring (using Stepping Heavenward: A Bible Study Guide as a starting point for discussions), I was very excited to revisit an old friend.

Elizabeth Prentiss writes with incredible insight into a woman's character and shows how an impetuous, selfish girl is transformed into the image of Christ by growing in grace and sanctification through years of inward and outward struggles. Stepping Heavenward is written as a diary that the protagonist, Katy, begins on her 16th birthday and continues into her early forties. Although it is set in the mid-1800's, it is truly remarkable to see how little human nature has changed in almost 200 years. This novel seems to capture that so remarkably (as opposed to other classics from this time period) because there is comparatively little description of time or place, and the most striking cultural differences seem to be in the susceptibility to illness and the general frailty of life that we forget in the 21st century. Instead, the setting is primarily Katy's heart and inward life, though of course she describes how her own actions and interactions with others, as well as other trials and circumstances, refine her spirit until she eventually exclaims, "Yes, I love everybody! That crowning joy has come to me at last. Christ is in my soul; He is mine; I am as conscious of it as that my husband and children are mine; and His Spirit flows forth from mine in the calm peace of a river whose banks are green with grass and glad with flowers" (339).

Here are some more of my favorite quotations, several of them pertaining to motherhood, since it seems I need those reminders most at this stage of my life, but many of them pertaining to the "journey to godliness" which is not bound by life's stages or circumstances.

"I wonder if, after all, mothers are not the best friends there are!" (51). I know this is true for me - my Mom has been my best friend for years and years!

"'Go home and say over and over to yourself, "I am a wayward, foolish child. But He loves me! I have disobeyed and grieved Him ten thousand times. But He loves me! I have lost faith in some of my dearest friends and am very desolate. But He loves me! I do not love Him; I am even angry with Him! But He loves me!"'" (59)

"'I hope [my heart] is renewed,' I replied. 'But I know there is a great work still to be done in it. And the more effectually it is done, the more loving I shall grow. Don't you see, Father? Don't you see that the more Christ-like I become, the more I shall be filled with love for every living thing?" (175)

"God never gives us hindrances. On the contrary, He means, in making us wives and mothers, to put us into the very conditions of holy living. But if we abuse His gifts by letting them take His place in our hearts, it is an act of love on His part to take them away or to destroy our pleasure in them. It is know that there are some generous souls on earth who love their dear ones with all their hearts yet give those hearts unreservedly to Christ" (212)

"Here is a sweet, fragrant mouth to kiss; here are two more feet to make music with their pattering about my nursery. Here is a soul to train for God; and the body in which it dwells is worthy all it will cost, since it is the abode of a kingly tenant. I may see less of friends, but I have gained one dearer than them all, to whom, while I minister in Christ's name, I make a willing sacrifice of what little leisure for my own recreation my other darlings had left me. Yes, my precious baby, you are welcome to your mother's heart, welcome to her time, her strength, her health, her tenderest cares, to her lifelong prayers! Oh, how rich I am, how truly, how wondrously blest!" (228-229)

"What I am, that I must be, except as God changes me into His own image. And everything brings me back to that, as my supreme desire. I see more and more that I must be myself what I want my children to be and that I cannot make myself over even for their sakes. This must be His work, and I wonder that it goes on so slowly; that all the disappointments, sorrows, sicknesses I have passed through have left me still selfish, still full of imperfections!" (287)

"But I see now that the simple act of cheerful acceptance of the duty imposed and the solace and support withdrawn would have united me more fully to Christ than the highest enjoyment of His presence in prayer could. Yes, every act of obedience is an act of worship..." (311)

There are few books that I would consider reading on a yearly basis, but Stepping Heavenward is one that I think I need to read annually. I urge every woman to read it, too, and give it away liberally if at all possible. Whatever stage of life you might be at, you will find encouragement and above all truth!

While you can find Stepping Heavenward on Amazon (if you purchase through the links in this post I'll get a teeny, tiny percentage to support my book fund), this and several other of Elizabeth Prentiss's books are also available through Grace & Truth Books, and many facsimiles of old editions are entirely online. I am particularly interested to read The Home at Greylock, which is described as "A masterpiece which explains the task of Christian parenting in story form."