“Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long-recognizable deed.” (G. Eliot, Prelude to Middlemarch)
I was 20 years old when I first read Middlemarch as part of my Victorian Literature course at university. I loved it. I loved that it was a big long book, I loved the details of small-town life, I loved the character profiling. And I was absolutely infatuated with the main female character, Dorothea Brooke, who I intensely related to. It was the first time in all my 15 years of voracious reading that I’d found a female character who I thought embodied my personality perfectly.
Self-abnegation is the name of Dorothea’s game, and self-abnegation was everything that I’d been about for most of my life up to that point. Also, her quick idealization of single traits in other people, which she then blows up out of proportion. Not to forget her equally quick judgment of others around her. Her fiercely strong intellect and big projects for the improvement of lives of people she deems less fortunate than herself, both completely wasted on a society where women must play carefully constructed, clearly defined roles, and where too much thought in a woman is considered pernicious.
I’m now almost 35 years old, and two months ago marked my third reading of Middlemarch. (The second one was about ten years ago.) I surprised myself when I shook my head with a mixture of exasperation and compassion at Dorothea’s reactions and line of thinking, and realized I’ve grown pretty critical of her in the meantime. But then again, I’m no longer the same person I was 15, 10, or even 5 years ago. And the reason I’m so critical of Dorothea now is that I’m also critical of the self I was back then. Self-criticism, too, has always been my game.
These days, it’s more about the self-criticism than the self-abnegation for me, which I seem to have dropped somewhere along the way. If I’m still too quick to judge others, I’m even quicker to find fault with myself. (Cue auto-immune thyroid disorder.) I can still relate to Dorothea to some extent, and I admire her obstinate I-did-it-my-way stance in life, but my literary heroine in the past few years has been Anne Elliot from Austen’s Persuasion. It’s her that I now hold to be the closest fictional equivalent to my true self. (Not to mention that her love story eerily resembles mine.) And maybe this shift from Eliot to Austen reflects the shift in my own outlook on life which occurred in the last few years – from ponderous, heavy, and guilt-ridden, to more light-hearted and ironic.
But when I want a perfect study of character and deep philosophy on life, I turn to Eliot.
“That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrell’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”