“Certainly, the exemplary Mrs. Garth had her droll aspects, but her character sustained her oddities, as a very fine wine sustains a flavor of skin.” (Middlemarch by George Eliot)
I have found over the past few years of Very Serious Reading that certain books stay with me – my mind conjures up scenes and dialogs for no apparent reason for years afterwards. I used to think that these were simply the books that I liked best, but I have recently discovered that there is no uncommon link between One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Magic Mountain, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, War and Peace, and now Middlemarch (to name a few). The connection is not just greatness, but a certain strength of language not achieved in other merely lovable books. The scene where the main character in The Magic Mountain metaphorically awakens from his dream life and goes to war has been with me consistently since the moment I read it, and I predict that Dorothea’s emotional dialogue with Rosemond and the picture of her sadness in Rome will also linger. I like to pretend that I can fling the conventional wisdom of literature lovers to the wayside, and care about plot above language, but the fact is that the structure and phrases of certain books haunt and color your thoughts forever after – something that not even my beloved plot-driven children’s books can do. Middlemarch is a world that I am still partially living in, and will be, to some extent, always dwelling on.
George Eliot has a particular talent for pinning down in minute detail the souls of her characters, which reminds me quite a bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Whenever I read a soul-pinning book like this, British writers in the nineteenth century were particularly fond of it, I try to use the same techniques in my own life. I try to hold onto and specify characters of the people around me; a decidedly difficult task. I think that the concept of a person’s Character was more defined and thought about a couple of centuries ago than it is now. Although George Eliot does admit that a person’s character evolves, the sense of being able to define it at every stage still permeates the whole book. It is as if the authors and thinkers during this period had a sort of shared idea about what an ideal character might be for each type of employment and class and could measure a specific person’s failings based on this unspoken agreement. Perhaps we do not do enough thinking about Character now – it would be so much more interesting to come home from a party, and instead of saying that you liked or didn’t like a person, you could say ‘her character sustains her oddities…’.