Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Three Nineteenth-Century Favorites

Three giants of nineteenth-century British fiction were published on December 1st: 
Great Expectations (serialization began Dec. 1, 1860), Middlemarch (the first volume published Dec. 1, 1871), and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (serialization began Dec. 1, 1891). They are all among my favorites.

Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens

“Now lookee here,” he said, “the question being whether you’re to be let to live. You know what a file is?”
“Yes, sir.”
“And you know what wittles is?”
“Yes, sir.”
After each question he tilted me over a little more, so as to give me a greater sense of helplessness and danger.
“You get me a file.” He tilted me again. “And you get me wittles.” He tilted me again. “You bring ’em both to me.” He tilted me again. “Or I'll have your heart and liver out.”   ― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

His name is Pip and this is his story. Starting with the convict in the marsh we are swept away into the world of Pip with all of his friends, acquaintances and antagonists. The story is one of "the universal struggle", we are told, and this will be a motif for Pip's story. The first people Pip introduces are all dead, except his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery. He is in a churchyard and his family, father, mother Georgiana, and "five little brothers" are all buried there. The mood is set early with the sudden appearance of a convict who interrogates and terrorizes Pip. As the first chapter ends Pip is running home, running under a sky that "was just a row of long angry red lines and dense black lines intermixed", with the shadow of a gibbet in the distance.

What a beginning! This is the penultimate (complete) novel from Dicken's pen and it demonstrates all the skills that he had developed over his career. We gradually meet Mrs. Joe and Joe Gargery, Mr. Pumblechook and Mr. Wopsle; but it is a visit to an old mansion to provide companionship to a young girl that is the one of the first turning points in this story. 

Miss Havisham, the bride who is frozen in time as she slowly ages with yellowing and gray, and the young girl Estella with whom Pip almost immediately is smitten. Poor Pip, so innocent one day and the next, the sad inheritor of the knowledge that he is a poor boy with "rough" hands who does not know the proper way to play and socialize. This realization begins to stir in Pip the yearning to leave this small village and his friend Joe and take up a better life, or what he believes would be a better life. It is not long after that he is provided the opportunity as the lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, presents him with "great expectations" from a mysterious unnamed person.
Work on Great Expectations commenced in late September of 1860 at what proved to be a peak of emotional intensity for its author. Two years before, Dickens had separated from Catherine, his wife of twenty-two years, and several weeks prior to the beginning of this novel, Dickens had burned all his papers and correspondence of the past twenty years at his Gad's Hill estate. This action, in retrospect, can be viewed as a sort of spiritual purge—an attempt to break decisively from the past in order (paradoxically) to fully embrace it, as he does so resonantly in this work.

I participated in a book group discussion of this novel which demonstrated its popularity with all of the attendees showing more passion than typical for the group. Perhaps this is because everyone, myself included , seems to like this story, and in spite of his faults, the protagonist Pip. Perhaps this was because Dickens demonstrated a mastery of his novel-writing craft and, as he demonstrated in Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities, he has restrained the prolixity of his prose and yet not failed to deliver vivid descriptions and dramatic scenes. There are moments as moving as any of Dickens, for example when Joe Gargery says goodbye to Pip in London as he returns to his home and the forge. Joe, who is portrayed as the "natural man", is naturally good as the village blacksmith and somehow his Edenic life is believable. Considered by many critics to be Charles Dickens's most psychologically acute self-portrait, Great Expectations is without a doubt one of Dickens's most fully-realized literary creations.

by George Eliot

“To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern, that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely-ordered variety on the chords of emotion--a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge.”   ― George Eliot, Middlemarch

George Eliot’s Middlemarch began publication on December 1, 1871 — the first volume of eight issued, the other volumes appearing at regular intervals over the following year. Eliot's "Study of Provincial Life" was immediately popular, on both sides of the Atlantic.  It is among my favorite novels ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago.  I have reread it several times since then and my enjoyment has always increased.  I find the intelligence of Eliot shines through on every page, from her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to the epigraphs for each chapter.  
Dorothea is introduced in Chapter One as a beauty in a plain dress, the dress the product of "well-bred economy," of knowing "frippery as the ambition of a huckster's daughter," and of her aspirations for some higher perspective:
She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.

Perhaps my enjoyment of the novel is because, as Virginia Woolf famously commented:  "Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people."  It certainly is that and much more.  It is a "A Study of Provincial Life," pursued by Eliot with a very broad canvas that includes multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic in the best way possible from the perspective of this reader.  Another earlier reader, Emily Dickinson, offered biblical praise as can be seen in the following excerpt from an 1873 letter:
""What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?" What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot is one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the "mysteries of redemption," for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite…."

Tess of the D'Urbervilles 
by Thomas Hardy

“A strong woman who recklessly throws away her strength, she is worse than a weak woman who has never had any strength to throw away.”  ― Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Tess starts out as an emblem of innocence, a pretty country girl who delights in dancing on the village green. Yet the world conspires against her. Her travails begin when her family is in need and decides to seek help from relatives by the name of d’Urberville. They send Tess to ask them for help. Seduced by a duplicitous older man, her virtue is destroyed when she bears his child and her future life is shaped by a continual suffering for crimes that are not her own.

Cast out by a morally hypocritical society, Tess identifies most strongly with the natural world and it is here that Hardy's textual lyricism comes into its own. His heroine's physical attributes are described with organic metaphors - her arm, covered in curds from the milking, is 'as cold and damp ... as a new-gathered mushroom'. At the height of Tess's love affair with the parson's son, Angel Clare, Hardy describes a summer of 'oozing fatness and warm ferments'. When she is separated from him, Tess is depicted digging out swedes in a rain-drenched, colourless field, working until 'the leaden light diminishes'. Tess’ baby symbolizes Tess’ bad circumstances and innocence in the sense since this baby was innocent having done nothing wrong, but it was punished by society for coming from such an evil act. Having been raped, Tess was also innocent of the crime, but she was still punished and pushed aside by society. 

This book deals with the oppression of an innocent girl. Most of the consequences she faced were not consequences of her own actions which makes this story somewhat of a tragedy in that sense giving the book a mood that you can try to make for yourself a good life, but you do not determine your own outcome. 
Hardy uses a lot of imagery and describes the scenery in great detail. While each individual sentence may not be difficult to understand, it is the way the various sentences fit together to form a whole picture which separates him from other authors. His evocative descriptions are underpinned by a gripping story of love, loss and tragedy. According to Hardy's biographer, Claire Tomalin, the book 'glows with the intensity of his imagination'. It is this that remains the key to its lasting power. 


Brian Joseph said...

These are some great books indeed!

It has been a few years since I have read Great Expectations. You raise a good point that that in comparison to some of his other works, Dickens's writing was restrained in this one.

I did not previously know how the personnel events in Dickens's life connected with this book.

James said...


I was impressed with the coincidence that all three were published on December 1. While they are all great they are not (with the exception of Middlemarch) my favorites from the respective authors. David Copperfield is my favorite Dickens novel and The Return of the Native is my favorite from Hardy.