The other night I went to do a bit of Christmas shopping and found myself in a department store looking at one of those miniature villages. It was an elaborate display, each and every little figurine placed perfectly and lit to lend authenticity to the scene of what was touted as an English village, nineteenth century style. Many people find such collectibles to be desirable, and the price tags certainly reflect that value held by some. Of course each piece is sold separately. While I was marveling at the intricate layout of the porcelain village, something occurred to me. I was nearing the end of Middlemarch, the novel so often proclaimed as Mary Anne Evans’ masterpiece. I had truly enjoyed my time in that fictional Midlands village amid each sentence and character so lovingly drawn and perfectly plotted. There is so much of both, plot and superbly drawn characterization, that Middlemarch never sags or becomes anything less than delightful to pick up. Yet I was feeling towards the novel more dimly lit than a figurine lamp whose fuse had blown.
I had allowed the whirl and buzz of modern life to creep into my times alone with the über Victorian, not to mention a clamor from the shelves of all the 3 or 4 novels I had passed over in the month it took to read Middlemarch. Mostly though, I became distracted about halfway through the novel by thoughts of what it must have been like to be Mary Anne planning and implementing sentence upon sentence in order to carry out the vision and statement which is Middlemarch. Did she sit on a worn carpet at times, tired from bending over the manuscript at a table, only to rise with an aching back from hours on the floor with her fountain ink pen and reams of paper? Did her hand hurt the way mine sometimes does when I’ve spent too many hours clicking and typing without watching the angles of my wrists? Did she have to interrupt her work to fix meals or tea? How did she do it?
Middlemarch can only be compared to a marvel of urban planning or perhaps to the software engineering coup that brings an entirely new system into being. I’m forced to look at the novel and its creation through the lens of modern life, my only frame of reference, and a somewhat poor one for understanding the intricacies of an imagination so all encompassing that I can only stand and gawk. The overwhelming presence of Middlemarch the creation had pushed me away from Middlemarch the story. George Eliot’s light of genius fairly snuffed my candle of twenty first century devotion to the work, all because I couldn’t fully enter the story without the aura of its creator blinding and diverting me.
So what’s the use in pulling a volume such as Middlemarch from the shelf? Surely there are other more rapid fire forms of delivery for the reader’s fix. Why did I bother if the whole time I would be held back from true appreciation for the tale by a case of the dumbstrucks at the mechanics it took to bring about?
As I stood looking at the Christmas village display, I wondered what it would take to bring a twenty third century person back into our times for a look. Could it be accomplished by a porcelain representation? Or will it take something like Richard Price’s Lush Life to shout into the future from our present? There was nothing to learn from the department store arrangement. There was everything to be gained by finishing Middlemarch, by letting the huge novel seep into me in the coming weeks and months, by imagining Mary Anne with her full skirts and the discomforts of her nineteenth century life as she executed her artistic vision about a Midlands village and its inhabitants. It does matter, and I answered my own question thusly:
Yes, Virginia, there is a Middlemarch. It exists as certainly as art and creativity and imagination exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Middlemarch. It would be as dreary as if there were no Mary Annes. There would be no Victorian novels then, no Brownings, no Brontës to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment of the worlds that are gone, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which literature fills the world would be extinguished.
You may tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance as they are found in literature can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else more real and abiding.
I think Mary Anne might agree.