For me the most moving moment in Middlemarch is not the climax of the novel, when Dorothea and Will are united. To tell the truth, I am not terribly interested in this romance, and find Will rather tiresome – all that shaking his ringlets and what about that flirting with Rosamund Vincy? I am far more touched by this: Harriet Bulstrode has learned from her brother what her female friends have been unable to tell her: her husband is disgraced. She goes home and shuts herself in her room. She is a woman proud of her position in town, fond of fripperies and finery, but also, George Eliot tells us, her ‘honest ostentatious nature made the sharing of a merited dishonour as bitter as it could be to any mortal.
‘But this imperfectly-taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through half a life, and who had unvaringly cherished her – now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him . . . She took off all her ornments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and two bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet cap . . .
Meanwhile her husband, guessing what she has discovered, waits in anguish for her reaction. ‘He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went towards him she thought he looked smaller – he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his which rested on the arm of the chair, and other on his shoulder, she said, solemnly but kindly. “Look up, Nicholas.”‘
Wonderful . . . Did I admire this as much when I was twenty as I do now? I can’t remember.
This is my last post about Middlemarch. I’ll write about something else next time.
I don’t want to read Catcher in the Rye again – or Salinger’s short stories – though I was impressed by them when I was around twenty. Nor am I tempted to reread Wuthering Heights (though Jane Eyre is another matter). I won’t be returning to The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, all cult novels when I was a teenager (taking the Peake trilogy down from the shelf I see that they were given to me for my 21st birthday – and I haven’t opened it for, ooh, I’d rather not say how many years). Are there novels that it is best to read when you’re young as I did with all these? And conversely are there novels that one should keep for middle-age or old age?
The Great Gatsby strikes me as a young person’s novel, yet I could happily reread that. And it’s the same with To Kill a Mocking Bird. In fact I didn’t read that until I was middle-aged and loved it, but I think the optimum age for reading it is probably mid teens. On the other hand Proust is surely a writer for later life. You need to have been through the mill a bit yourself really to appreciate Swann in Love.
There are some writers who have something new to offer as you return to them through life. Tolstoy is one. As a young woman I thrilled to Anna Karenina’s tragic love story, but it wasn’t until I reread it as a mother that I understood Anna’s anguish at being parted from her son. Jane Austen I can always go back to, though it’s more often Mansfield Park or Persuasion now, rather than Pride and Prejudice. Dickens was often pushed onto the young reader when I was young, but I think that was a mistake. You should be an adult to read him. Trollope with his generous sympathies and his understanding of human relationships is evergreen. And Middlemarch is the perfect novel for any age. We have chosen that for our book group’s annual big read and I am looking forward to.
Are there books that you loved when you were young, but couldn’t bear to reread? Is there anything that you are saving for old age?
This is a good time to take stock of the previous year and plan for the next one. For me the reading highlight of 2013 had to be Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate. It towered above everything else. What a book, and what a man.
The crime novel that’s stuck in my mind is one that I read at the beginning of the year: Asa Larrson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past: brilliantly atmospheric, many-layered, haunting. Just superb.Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, another outstanding writer and a favourite of mine, deserves an honourable mention. But what about non-fiction? I didn’t read very much last year, but I am very impressed by Hermione Lee’s biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, which I have just finished reading and will blog about in due course.
It’s been a year when I’ve done a fair bit of rereading and perhaps my resolution could be to read a bit more adventurously. Being in a book group helps as I read books suggested by other people and am often glad I did. Having said that, every year we choose an optional big read, something that we’d struggle to read for one of our monthly meetings, and this year it is Middlemarch, which I have read umpteen times but am very happy to read again. And I’ll be rereading the Maigret novels as they are reissued by Penguin, one a month, in the order they were written (great idea: some of them are difficult to get hold of).
But I’ll be trying some new writers, too – Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – is our current reading group choice, and maybe I’ll follow Mrs Peabody’s example and join her on a reading challenge. So lots to look forward to, but I am well aware that I could be writing more, so that’s my main resolution: to produce more for others to read. So watch this space . . .
A very happy New Year to my readers.