Apr 1, 2013

The Devastating, Subversive Wit of George Eliot

I don't know that much about the historical context of Middlemarch, but I know it was published well before the women's rights revolution had got up much steam, and I reckon it's fair to say she had some
revolutionary ideas swirling beneath all that glorious insight. Dig this little jab:
Dorothea had gathered emotion as she went on, and had forgotten everything except the relief of pouring forth her feelings, unchecked: an experience once habitual with her, but hardly ever present since her marriage, which had been a perpetual struggle of energy with fear. For the moment, Will's admiration was accompanied with a chilling sense of remoteness. A man is seldom ashamed of feeling that he cannot love a woman so well when he sees a certain greatness in her: nature having intended greatness for men. But nature has sometimes made sad oversights in carrying out her intention; as in the case of good Mr. Brooke, whose masculine consciousness was at this moment in rather a stammering condition under the eloquence of his niece. He could not immediately find any other mode of expressing himself than that of rising, fixing his eye-glass, and fingering the papers before him.
My audiobook version (got from Audible, exquisitely performed by Juliet Stevenson) had me guffawing at that line. "Nature has sometimes made sad oversights in carrying out her intention" is so arch, so elegant, and so close to plausibly deniable to be all the more crushing. I'm reminded of this classic Ta-Nehisi post:
When I was young my father would read my work and often would come away pleased. But equally as often he'd tell me that I was using the battle-axe, when I should be using the stiletto. "The real master," he'd say. "Can cut somebody up and the cat won't even know he's been cut. He won't even see the blade."
After an hour of that kind of restrained, deadly elegance while I'm walking to work, it is a little depressing to head back into the bloggy tirade du jour. But it's a good impetus to cut back on the blistering attacks, if only for greater effectiveness.

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