More on Middlemarch
Mr Casaubon’s Key to all Mythologies must be the most famous unpublished (indeed, unfinished) book in all of literature. In previous rereadings of Middlemarch, I’ve tended to skip over details of this work, but this time I was determined to read the novel from cover to cover. I was fascinated to discover that there is a kind of overlap between Casaubon’s subject and my own Ph.D on Arthurian legend in fine and applied art 1840-1920.
There was a theory current in the late eighteenth century that all pagan religion could be explained in terms of sun worship and that King Arthur symbolised the sun. There seemed to be an element of this in some paintings of Arthurian subjects and so it was that I found myself in the British Library (the old one) calling up dusty tomes from the early nineteenth century with titles like The Origins of Pagan Idolatry and Mythology and Rites of the British Druids. These were not gripping reads and there was something soporific about the old Reading Room. I recall afternoons of struggling to stay awake. There were times when completing my thesis seemed as remote as Casaubon finishing his book. But eventually I did and even had a offer of publication from Cambridge University Press. There was a hiccup when CUP ditched me: my editor left and the new one thought the subject did not have global appeal. Manchester University Press took it and produced a very attractive book (CUP’s used to be pretty drab), so it was all for the best. And there was a certain satisfaction when it was short-listed for an American award and was reviewed in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. So much for lack of global appeal.
But during those afternoons in the British Library, that was all in the future. Reading Middlemarch brought back vivid memories of days when I feared I was destined for the same fate as Casaubon with piles of unsorted notes and a piece of work that took so long to finish that it was out of date long before it was ended.