Francine Prose's latest book, Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, was published this month. Prose is also the author of Bigfoot Dreams, Household Saints, The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two NEA grants, two New York State Council on Arts grants, a PEN Translation Prize and two Jewish Book Council Prizes. Prose, the mother of two grown sons, lives in New York City with her husband, painter and illustrator Howard Michels.
Call them buttonhole books, the ones you urge passionately on friends, colleagues and passersby. All readers have them — and so do writers. All Things Considered talks with writers about their favorite buttonhole books. And the series continues all summer long on NPR.org.
Don't take my word about Middlemarch. Take Virginia Woolf's. When I urge my friends to read Middlemarch, as I do all the time, I often explain that the reason I re-read it several summers ago was because I'd found, in Virginia Woolf's essay on George Eliot, her description of Middlemarch as "the magnificent book which, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."
A pretty strong recommendation, I thought! And as usual, Virginia Woolf nailed it.
But early on the way to discovering what she meant, I was so overtaken by the seductions of Eliot's masterpiece that I briefly forgot about "grown-up people" and succumbed to the more juvenile pleasures of starting a long novel and knowing that, for hundreds of pages, I was going to be transported to a place where I was glad to be, and surrounded by all new neighbors whose fates I wanted to know.
In this case, it's provincial England, where two lovely but impecunious sisters, Dorothea and Celia Brooke, are trying to decide what to do with their futures. Needless to say, choices are few for women of their class and era, so the parameters of their decisions mostly involve marriage and the inner life. Jane Austen believed that things would work out, but Eliot wasn't so sure. That essential uncertainty may be part of what Woolf meant by "grown-up," and part of why Mary Anne Evans may have chosen to write under the pseudonym of George Eliot.
Celia opts for stability, the creature comforts, the neighborhood's best "catch," the affable baronet, Sir James Chettam. But the inconveniently complicated Dorothea marries an elderly sourpuss named Edward Casaubon, who is supposedly writing a massive Key to All Mythologies. (You've met this guy, just as you've met — in "real life" — nearly all the characters in this novel that was first published, in serial form, between 1871-74.) Here is how George Eliot describes their ill-starred courtship:
"Dorothea had by this time looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon's mind, seeing reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought; had opened much of her own experience to him, and had understood from him the scope of his great work, also of attractively labyrinthine extent. For he had been as instructive as Milton's 'affable archangel;' and with something of the archangelic manner he told her how he had undertaken to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with that thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed...
"Dorothea was altogether captivated by the wide embrace of this conception. Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies'-school literature; here was a living Bossuet, whose work would reconcile complete knowledge with devoted piety; here was a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint."
A deeply religious person and would-be saint, Dorothea sees helping her husband as a sort of holy vocation. But as the novel progresses, she begins to wonder if true love, authenticity, and erotic fulfillment aren't reasonable alternatives to misery, sacrifice, and pointless self-mortification.
Even as our inner children are reading to find out what happens, Eliot's taking the grown-ups on a dizzying tour past the landmarks of adulthood: the uneasy truce between ambition and limitation; how we satisfy our desires for love, excitement, and money; the compromises we make with ourselves; how hard it is to admit a costly mistake.
Unlike a history book or tract, Eliot shows us what it was like, from the inside, to live in an era in which female intelligence was considered a serious handicap, and she tells us precisely what it's like to weigh the longing for simple happiness against the desire to be a good person and lead a meaningful life.
Read Middlemarch, or re-read it. It's like getting a stronger eyeglass prescription and a new pair of lenses through which to see more deeply into the hearts and lives of "grown-up people."
NPR's Ellen Silva produced and edited this series.
George Eliot's final novel, Daniel Deronda, was also her most controversial. Few had a problem, upon its publication in 1876, with its portrayal of yearning and repression in the English upper class. But as Eliot's lover, George Henry Lewes, had predicted: "The Jewish element seems to me likely to satisfy nobody."
Deronda was the first of Eliot's novels to be set in her own period, the late 19th century, and in it she took on what was a highly unusual contemporary theme: the position of Jews in British and European society and their likely prospects. The eponymous hero is an idealistic young aristocrat who comes to the rescue of a young Jewish woman and in his attempts to help her find her family is drawn steadily deeper into the Jewish community and the ferment of early Zionist politics.
Their appearance in the book was as unwelcome to some of her readers as it is to some of the characters. While the novel's Lady Mallinger bemoans Daniel's "going mad in this way about the Jews", Eliot's friend John Blackwood noted upon publication: "The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world, but even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a Novel." Many years later, FR Leavis called for the Jewish sections of the novel to be cut out completely, leaving a country-house romance to be called Gwendolen Harleth, after the fatally self-absorbed gentile who falls for Deronda.
Forcing such a Jew-free version of the novel to make sense would have been difficult - yet people have continued to try. In this trailer for the 2002 BBC adaptation, the focus - apart from a brief shot of the Jewish singer Mirah by the Thames - is exclusively on a supposed romance between Daniel and Gwendolen - a romance that barely takes place in the sense hinted at here.
(Jewish readers could be just as boneheaded; an 1899 essay in the Ha-Shilo'ah periodical called for all the book's gentile sections to be deleted, arguing that they had "almost nothing to do with its main theme and basic idea".)
Why was Eliot so interested in Jewish life? She was brought up an Anglican, but from an early age became interested in the history of religions, and in her twenties fell in with a group of freethinkers in political and religious matters. The differentiation or mingling together of human races was also a subject of interest to her in the wake of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
In the 1860s Eliot met Emanuel Deutsch, a Jewish scholar and early Zionist. Deronda's character of Mordecai - the Jewish scholar and mystic - seems to have been partly based on him. Eliot wrote to Harriet Beecher Stowe after the publication of Deronda that "towards the Hebrews we western people who have been reared in Christianity have a peculiar debt and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment". She remained interested in Judaism throughout her life, publishing an essay against antisemitism three years later.
What does Daniel Deronda show us about the place of Jews in Britain in the late 19th century? First, that they were unpopular, suffering from easy, casual prejudice, even during the premiership of the Jewish-born Benjamin Disraeli. Eliot is keen to show us what she considers the typical view of Jews - from the upper classes (who superciliously refer to Mirah as a "little Jewess"), to the middle classes (Mrs Meyrick instantly presumes Mirah might have "evil thoughts"), to the working classes (the man in the pub who asks, "[If] they're clever enough to beat half the world - why haven't they done it?")
But Eliot is not above prejudice towards a certain sort of Jew herself. She assumes the reader will not take to the Cohen family, headed by a shiny-faced pawnbroker, and even apologises in the last chapter for allowing them to attend a key wedding. Meanwhile, her portrayal of the innocent Mirah swings the other way, so saintly it has shades of the noble savage. She is so childlike that when she finally finds romance it feels almost unsavoury.
Yet in her portrayal of Mordecai, the visionary intellectual who entrances Daniel, Eliot creates a complex character with both sympathetic and unsympathetic sides and reveals a sometimes overwhelmingly detailed fascination with the minutiae of Judaism, its religious practices, culture and literature. The fact that Daniel becomes Mordecai's disciple and agrees to carry on his work to seek a homeland for the Jews after his death - an idea presumably as baffling to Eliot's readers as it is to most of the book's gentile characters - also shows a real commitment to the subject by the author.
Yet today Mordecai's Zionism could not seem more relevant. Israelis are voting today in elections likely to reinstall rightwinger Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister on a platform opposed to withdrawal from the occupied territories.
For those today who find Zionism difficult to understand, Eliot's depiction of its origins is evocative and powerful. Mordecai both describes and embodies the wandering Jew, forever an alien in a foreign land, never at home, "a people who kept and enlarged their spiritual store at the very time when they were hunted with a hatred so fierce as the forest fires that chase the wild beast from his covert".
But neither Eliot nor Mordecai acknowledge that Palestine was already populated; as such Mordecai's optimistic vision of a future Israel as "a new Judea, poised between East and West - a covenant of reconciliation - a halting-place of enmities, a neutral ground for the East" cannot help but read as grimly ironic today.