Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dear George Eliot

Today's installment in my 30 Letters Challenge (not thirty letters in thirty days, mind you!) is addressed to someone who is deceased but with whom I wish I could communicate anyway.

In an autodidactic spasm a couple months ago I bought a recording of the unabridged Middlemarch for my Ipod. I knew little about George Eliot and nothing about the book -- except a vague sense that intelligent people respect both (and that dude looks like a lady).

Since I was a little girl I’ve always thought of my life as something small, like a very serious secret that, if let out, would scandalize no one but might just communicate Warmth or Calmth or Thought. Most people wouldn’t notice it at all. I still remember the look of incomprehension on HC’s face when I told her that as I child my main and ambition was to be anonymously influential. I had – and still have – ambitions that pull at me in the quiet hours, and while I never consciously assumed they are unique to me, it is startling to have each of them addressed in terms of familiarity as they were in Middlemarch by a woman whose personal life couldn’t have less in common with mine if she’d tried.

Maryann Evans (aka George Eliot) courted scandal by disavowing her Christian upbringing, living with a married man for 15 years, then, at the age of 61, married a man 20 years her junior at which point she promptly died. Known for being ugly, strong-willed and for often forming embarrassing, unrequited emotional attachments, Evans nevertheless wrote Middlemarch, which lays out more compellingly than anything else I’ve ever read, what it means to be a good wife.

Dear George Eliot,

I write to you tonight to express my admiration for your work. Reading Middlemarch didn’t change my life. It helped me to define it.

To articulate what I mean is a humbling task, since much of Middlemarch stands so perfectly on its own and adding my comments seems like costume jewelry on Venus de Milo: irrelevant, tacky and distracting. However, I must work with what I have, and what I have is my own experience.

In describing your hero Will’s emotional turmoil after he realizes that he ought to (for various complicated reasons involving class and propriety) leave the town Middlemarch and separate himself from his beloved Dorothea, you hit upon something that struck me to the core: “But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope”.

When I heard this particular line for the first time, I had to turn off the recording and brood for a minute or two before moving on. I have witnessed that type of despair (although, thank God, not experienced it myself). To hear one sentence encapsulate such destruction is stunning at first. Then, after a day or to, its truth is inescapable.

Someone very close to me has been spent an agonizing few years under the influence of this type of despair. Every day he hopes that his daughters (estranged because of a very nasty divorce) will show love and affection for him again. Every day, he expects that this time they will follow through with their promises. They never do. His hope never dies, and yet every day it is starved just a little more. The destruction this type of despair, the eagerness of unfed hope, eats him alive.

There are other types of despair, of course, for instance the kind that leads to suicide. But at least suicidal despair leads has some release. It reaches a point where living is no longer necessary – in other words, where hope is no longer a consideration.

You continue in a later passage to describe how Dorothea (Will’s hope, who is both married and above him in class rank) feels while trapped, married to an unloving, if not malicious husband. You write, “Marriage is so unlike anything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings”. Here I am, happy in a very loving marriage, and yet I find this observation so moving.

You weren’t married when you wrote this – how would you know?

I don’t see anything awful in the nearness of P– so how would I know?

I feel that the word “awful” here doesn’t have to mean something “bad” necessarily, but perhaps something frightening. The vulnerability of spousal relationships is terrifying, especially so to one who does not find comfort and reassurance in her counterpart. I value P and our marriage so highly that I can experience through my imagination what it would be like to have a marriage and husband that made me question myself. The thought is, as your observer, truly awful.

But, while individual lines of your work remain in my mind, it is not the individual lines that I found the most powerful; it was the characters themselves. With devastating delicacy, you exploit their flaws and explore their gifts in a way that seems both realistic and instructive. You write that,”We do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual,” and yet the stupidity of Rosamond, the arrogance of Dr. Lydgate, the impracticality of Mr. Garth and the hypocrisy of Mr. Bulstrode are all of a very “usual” sort. What is unusual about them is your treatment of them.

In my life, I find that the most cruel and indelicate moments arise between two friends discussing a third. Among women especially, it is easy to fall into patterns of complaining and high-horse-iveness, especially when discussing husbands. How comfortable it is to rag on and on about his various flaws! In fact, it’s so easy that sometimes he doesn’t even need to have any flaws. Invention is the pet of boredom. Ego and self-delusion are major players in mundane activity and they’re just as dangerous now as they were when Middlemarch was new.

A good wife would never behave in such a way. A good friend would never behave in such a way. I aim to be both. My job is to love my friends and family for the good in them, lead by example and never avoid a chance to make a situation right. Above all, my job as a is to practice humility. Humility is not the same thing as deference, or even the same thing as flexibility. Deference implies timidity, and the arrogant are often flexible. Humility as I understand it is, among other things, the constant cultivation of a good intention toward people. It is the practice of allowing that I may be wrong, and that someone else may be right. It is the examination of my own intentions: Am I resisting what P suggested for a good reason, or simply because I don’t want to exert the effort of thinking about it? It is the keeping in mind that P means well for me and that anything I can do in service to him or my family is part of my calling as a wife and mother. It is the setting aside of egotism and thinking of others.

Being a good wife isn’t about getting your husband’s constant admiration or surprise vacations (although for many lucky women, these are some of the perks!). It’s about setting one’s self aside and thinking him (or your children) first. I have taken a vow not just to have, but to hold. Not just to be faithful to, but to cherish, my husband. For better or for annoying. For richer or for budgeting.

As long as we both shall live.

There isn’t much wiggle room in those words, but it was my decision to enter this union and I gave my word. So let’s make the best of it. (Which, in my case, is pretty darn good.)

Besides, as you write,”What do we live for, if not to make life less difficult to each other”?


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