Middlemarch at the Beach

Illustration by Susan Coyne.

We’re taking George Eliot’s greatest novel to the beach this summer, and we’re talking to Rebecca Mead, Susan Choi, and Rosemarie Bodenheimer about it. Listen today at 2 pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

Our idea of summer reading is Middlemarch. It’s a Victorian novel of sprawling drama, psychological depth, and philosophical expansiveness. Plus, it’s intensely fun.

George Eliot.

Rebecca Mead describes the humor and irony of this George Eliot novel on our latest episode. No Middlemarch character knows the whole picture, but the reader gets the wise narrator’s perspective of the characters’ (sometimes charming) blunders, their various and changing degrees of self-centeredness.

So there’s plenty of irony here, but it’s far from mean-spirited irony. The Middlemarch narrator has a famously sympathetic attitude toward everyone. As Stephanie Burt tells us, reading this kind of book can make you a better person: more understanding, wiser, and more sympathetic—like the narrator.

And while introducing us to all kinds of characters so carefully, so sympathetically, Eliot’s novel also charts a fully realized world. The novelist Jedediah Berry called in and mentioned how Eliot’s world-building reminds him of science fiction and fantasy novels.

MM: I finished the book this week, and for what it’s worth, this reader found it absolutely incredible. For a few months I inhabited this small English town and lived among its characters with their foibles, messed up marriages and thwarted dreams, and came around to the point that Steph Burt and Rebecca Mead talked about: the novel is about being a good person, and reading it does make you think about everything differently, at least for a time.

I think it’s this idea that that the hing that we must all cultivate in ourselves is a greater — the words she would have used as sympathy but the word we probably would use today is empathy for others, and that if we do that on an individual level then the world itself will grow to be a better place. She (George Elliot) thought that there’s an idea of meliorism, the gradual improvement of the world. She was a person who had been raised in a Christian faith and in her teens had been a very religious person. She had become like Dorothea: very devoted, very pious. And she lost her faith in her 20s when she started to probe intellectually the history of the foundation of Christianity. So what the rest of her life in some ways was devoted to was trying to figure out how to be good without God. And Middlemarch is a book about how to be good..I think that you have to have the experience of reading this 800 page book to be led through the actual experience of empathy and what that is like to find yourself as a reader moved from sympathizing with one character to sympathizing with another to withdrawing to look back at it from above…What George Eliot wants to do what the artistic effort of the book is is to give you the experience of what it is to extend your sympathy to other people and I think that she probably for you to be able to take that experience and then apply it to your broader life. — Rebecca Mean on OS

We’re selling this book hard, and it seems as though it’s not as well read nowadays as it should be (Downton Abbey doesn’t come anywhere close!). At least that’s what we discovered when we hit the mean streets of Boston and polled some folks at the Boston Public Library this week. But there are some hardcore fans out there and new readers to thanks to Rebecca Mead’s book, My Life in Middlemarch (here’s a terrific review of it by another favorite writer of ours, Katherine Schulz). Stephanie Burt said she happened upon a barista once who had a line from the book tattooed on her arm: As if I were not in danger of forgetting everything else.

Read: Trust Exercise

When you’re talking about George Eliot, you’re also talking about the mind behind so much of what we think of as realism. Susan Choi spoke with us about the crisis surrounding truth and reality today; related questions shape her new novel, Trust Exercise, whose narrative challenges familiar notions of realism. But the work of George Eliot, the supreme nineteenth-century realist, still speaks to Choi, as you’ll hear in this episode. Middlemarch, after all, gives us characters who adventure dramatically through misunderstandings of one another. Its story is a continual adventure into mystery (especially the mystery of other people), and so it’s still open to reality’s hazier domains, those complexities not so far removed from the world of Trust Exercise.

Read: The Lifted Veil and Daniel Deronda

To continue with that adventure into other points of view, consider these two additional books by George Eliot: The Lifted Veil and Daniel Deronda. One’s very short science fiction, the other’s a landmark work of realism. In both, exploratory thinking fuses with something beyond rationality. The Lifted Veil’s main character can read the thoughts of others and see the future, and he finds passion particularly in the rare situation in which there’s still mystery to think about, to ponder.

Daniel Deronda, for its part, opens with a statement on the fundamentally imaginative nature of science, and so this is one of the major statements on Eliot’s science-inspired, and imaginative, realist art:

Men can do nothing without the make-believe of a beginning. Even
Science, the strict measurer, is obliged to start with a make-believe unit,
and must fix on a point in the stars’ unceasing journey when his sidereal
clock shall pretend that time is at Nought. His less accurate grand-
mother Poetry has always been understood to start in the middle; but on
reflection it appears that her proceeding is not very different from his;
since Science, too, reckons backward as well as forward, divides his unit
into billions, and with his clock-finger at Nought really sets off in medias
. No retrospect will take us to the true beginning; and whether our
prologue be in heaven or on earth, it is but a fraction of that all-presuppos-
ing fact with which our story sets out.

Listen: Liszt’s Faust Symphony

Franz Liszt.

Our episode quotes a beautiful passage in Middlemarch where Lydgate witnesses Rosamond playing the piano, and the narrator reflects on the echoes in which we all persist. Eliot herself loved music, including the music of her contemporaries, such as that of Liszt, whom she’d met while he was composing his Faust symphony (here conducted by Leonard Bernstein).

Next Week: Lewis Hyde

We almost forgot to tell you about next week’s show! Lewis Hyde is one of our favorites.

Currently Considering:

What do these two have in common?

Marianne Williamson, presidential candidate and author.
Ram Dass, spiritual teacher.

We’ve been thinking about self-help author Marianne Williamson’s run for president: what it means, what it says about the U.S., where it came from, and where it might be headed. We’ll be reading up on Williamson and her influences, and we’re looking forward to conversations about this surprising candidate.

This week’s ephemeral library:

Can reading really make you a better person? Can it make you happier? What are the connections between contemporary literature and science? The Joy of Hatred by Jamelle Bouie. Are liberals disconnect from reality? Take the survey and score yourself (thanks to George Hicks for this link). Modern Chekhov.You knew it had to happen: Peak Podcast. That doesn’t apply to us, however — the creators of the first and longest continuously running podcast in history. And you know what it takes to do that week after week, year after year, right? Throw a tip our way so we can buy an oversized overpriced iced whatchamacallit and show up for work tomorrow. If we don’t forget.

Stay cool, folks! We’ll see you next week!



An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org