Possibly the Best Sentence in ‘Middlemarch’

One of my favorite scenes in “Middlemarch,” one of my favorite novels, is when Will Ladislaw, resolved to leave Middlemarch forever, comes to say goodbye to Dorothea. Recently widowed, she’s learned that the will of her husband, Edward Casaubon, contained a certain evil provision: that she would forfeit all his money if she were to marry Will, his young cousin. Casaubon jealously suspected Will of loving Dorothea (which he was right about, though wrong to think anything had ever happened between them).  In a classic case of unintended consequences, the codicil was the first clue to the intelligent yet naive Dorothea that Will might love her.

In this conversation, she’s assuming that Will knows about the codicil too — for it seems to her in her shame that EVERYONE must know. But he doesn’t; he only knows something has happened. Dorothea’s manner, when she greets him, is constrained, and he has felt people are looking at him oddly in town, as if they suspect him of being an adventurer seeking to marry a rich widow.

“You approve of my going away for years, then, and never coming here again till I have made myself of some mark in the world? ” said Will, trying hard to reconcile the utmost pride with the utmost effort to get an expression of strong feeling from Dorothea.

(Notice how there is always something slightly ridiculous about Will, even in solemn moments like this. He’s always trying hard to seem more dignified than he actually is, and I love this about him.)

She was not aware how long it was before she answered. She had turned her head and was looking out of the window on the rose-bushes, which seemed to have in them the summers of all the years when Will would be away. This was not judicious behavior. But Dorothea never thought of studying her manners: she thought only of bowing to a sad necessity which divided her from Will. Those first words of his about his intentions had seemed to make everything clear to her: he knew, she supposed, all about Mr. Casaubon’s final conduct in relation to him, and it had come to him with the same sort of shock as to herself. He had never felt more than friendship for her — had never had anything in his mind to justify what she felt to be her husband’s outrage on the feelings of both: and that friendship he still felt. Something which may be called an inward silent sob had gone on in Dorothea before she said with a pure voice, just trembling in the last words as if only from its liquid flexibility —

“Yes, it must be right for you to do as you say. I shall be very happy when I hear that you have made your value felt. But you must have patience. It will perhaps be a long while.”

 

Both are full of things they cannot say; there is a subtext to everything they do say. Ladislaw doesn’t know about the will; Dorothea doesn’t understand that he actually does love her. Dorothea, ever since she learned of the circumstances under which Ladislaw’s mother was disinherited,  has  felt that half of Casaubon’s property should rightfully go to Will,  an idea that has never occurred to him but has long preyed on her. They are both aware of the deep social divide between them, which matters to neither of them, yet seems impossible to overcome. It’s like Eliot has put the entire 19th-century British class structure in the room with them here. It’s so restrained and yet full of feeling. And then, the one sentence that sums the thing up perfectly:

She had turned her head and was looking out of the window on the rose-bushes, which seemed to have in them the summers of all the years when Will would be away.

That she looks out the window, at plants: the theme of confinement is recurring yet always subtle, and the artificiality of the world Dorothea finds herself in is often conveyed by contrast with the natural one. Rose-bushes, decorative but useless, stuck in one place, seem a mocking counterpart to Dorothea herself; exactly what she did not want to become, and has. Flowers typically stand in for everything that’s fleeting in life; here they cleverly exemplify the opposite: an endless stretch of time filled with nothing you want, and everything you don’t. Eliot is extremely good at the selective detail that conveys an entire train of thought, and never better than here. In Dorothea’s long look at the rose-bushes we understand that her entire future life has flashed before her, and it’s empty. She sees she will never get what she wants, and there is not a damn thing she can do about it.

Further Reading, Part II

Whose Jane Austen?

It’s a question I’ve often asked myself while researching and writing The Jane Austen Project, but never more insistently than when considering the works that make up the short story anthology “Jane Austen Made Me Do It, Original Stories Inspired by Literature’s Most Astute Observer of the Human Heart.” I use the subtitle advisedly, for this is one way of viewing Jane Austen, and perhaps a message from its editor, Laurel Ann Nattress of Austenprose, of how she, at least, does.

JAMMDI is on one hand a brilliant marketing idea, combining the brand recognition of Jane Austen with some of the biggest names in Austen and Austenesque fan fiction. But ideally it is more than that, being also an effort to wrestle with the question of what Jane Austen means to people living today, nearly 200 years after her death. Continue reading

On Beginnings and Endings

A lot of advice to beginning novelists hoping to sell their work emphasizes the importance of a beginning that grabs the reader by the throat and makes he or she compelled to keep reading. And that, at the same time, sets the tone of the novel and provides accurate cues as to what it will be about.  In this respect, one cannot outdo Jane Austen’s opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This is so well known and so often cited that it is easy to forget what a thing of beauty it really is. What it accomplishes, in less than 25 words, is nothing less than to set out the major themes of P&P: money and marriage, to be sure, but also the power of public opinion, which functions as a kind of Greek chorus throughout the work. In addition, it establishes, in this single, masterful sentence (which pays homage to her favorite Dr. Johnson at the same time it subtly mocks him), the prevailing tone of P&P, which is a relentless, though good-humored, irony. In fact, the sentence means the very opposite of what it seems to be saying. (Single men in possession of good fortunes, whom the reader meets two excellent examples of shortly in the persons of Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy, seem in no hurry at all to find wives and settle down. They are enjoying the social round, shooting, riding around the country, managing their estates & etc., thank you very much.)

The first sentence. The first page. The first chapter. The first three chapters. Everyone agrees, you have to keep people turning those pages.  But there is an unfortunate lack of attention paid to something equally important, with regrettable results that are visible everywhere one turns: the need for a good ending to a novel.

The list of good books that fall apart at the end is a long and melancholy one, but time grows short and I can bear to mention only a few. (Spoiler alert)  Think of The Mill on the Floss, in which George Eliot, no slouch in the plot game, apparently decided she simply could not  get Maggie Tulliver out of the impossible situation she had gotten her into. So she drowned her!  Along with her brother, who was a bit annoying, but not worthy of death. Yes, we started with a mill, it’s in the title, there are foreshadowings of the flood, but it’s still ridiculous.

Think of The Emperor’s Children, which masterfully evokes a particular time and world (late 20th century, privileged New Yorkers), creates a very complicated and rich plot tending toward a really rockin’ conflict… and then, whoops, deus ex machina alert: The airplanes fly into the Twin Towers. But that actually happened, one might object. And people were really surprised! And it did change everything! All true. But this only points out how different fiction and real life really are. Because fictionally, it was totally unsatisfying. It was not integrated into all the things that had  happened up until that point.

A good ending has to be both inevitable and surprising. History can do the heavy lifting, as in War and Peace or  The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, but history has to fit into the plot in a logical way, not be shoehorned in as in The Emperor’s Children.

I find very few good endings. Perhaps I expect too much. Or perhaps people spend too much time polishing those first three chapters and think the ending will take care of itself.

Here are a few books with endings that did not let me down:

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

I am struggling with my own ending right now. I know what has to happen but exactly how I get there is not yet clear. Though this post may not seem to drip it,  I feel great sympathy for writers who write otherwise lovely books and blow the ending, because I see,  now, how narrow and steep the way is, how easy it is to go wrong.