In 1856, novelist George Eliot—real name Mary Anne Evans—issued a vicious critique of other women English writers in language we would expect from the most self-satisfied of misogynists, a group of people with an unqualified monopoly on the culture, but who had very little new to say on the subject. But Eliot certainly did, in “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” Though she couches many of her critical observations in the condescending vocabulary of a male antagonist, the language only serves to make her argument more effective. The essay, writes Kathryn Schulz, “does a remarkable number of things deftly and all at once.”
Although she is an uncommonly compassionate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvious thing she does here is chiffonade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while castigating some women, she manages to champion women as a whole. Her chief objection to silly novels is that they misrepresent women’s real intellectual capacity; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the culture that produced them—through inadequate education, low expectations, patronizing critics, and fear of the real deal.
The fault, she asserted, lies with the gatekeepers, the tastemakers, the lazy thinkers. Though an accomplished essayist and translator, Eliot would only publish her first novel in 1859, at the age of 37. But “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” writes Schulz, “traces out in negative space, the contours of a truly great novel”—one that wouldn’t arrive until fourteen years later: Middlemarch: a study of provincial life. (Read online or download in various formats here.)
The book’s first chapter introduces Dorothea Brooke, a well-off 19-year old orphan—who, writes Pamela Erens, “has dreams of doing some great work in the world” but gives her life instead to “dry humorless pedant” Casaubon—with an ironic quote from the licentious Jacobean play The Maid’s Tragedy: “Since I can do no good because a woman, / Reach constantly at something that is near it.”
As with the pen name she adopted, Eliot appropriated the armor of a male-dominated culture to bring into being some of the most staggeringly insightful writing of the time, and a beacon to other great women writers. “What do I think of Middlemarch?,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “What do I think of glory?—except that in a few instances ‘this mortal has already put on immortality.’” Virginia Woolf pronounced the book “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Number twenty-one on The Guardian’s list of “The 100 Best Novels,” Middlemarch, writes Robert McCrum, exerts “an almost hypnotic power over its readers…. Today it stands as perhaps the greatest of many great Victorian novels.”
Do we have the time or the attention to read Eliot’s sprawling 900-page realist epic in the 21st century? Given that Karl Ove Knausgaard’s 3,600 page, six-part autobiographical novel, My Struggle, is one of the most lauded literary works of the past few years, perhaps we do. More specifically, in the language of many a condescending critic of today, do “Millennials” have the time and attention to read Middlemarch? At least a certain contingent of young readers has not only read the novel, but has adapted it into a seventy-episode web drama, Middlemarch: The Series—an “attempt worth watching,” writes Rebecca Mead at The New Yorker, “for its ambition as well as its charm.”
Written and directed by Yale undergraduate film student Rebecca Shoptaw, the series stars several of Shoptaw’s peers “as students at Lowick College, in the fictional town of Middlemarch, Connecticut,” and it transcribes the novel’s form into that most 21st century of mediums, the vlog. You can see the official teaser at the top of the post; watch the first episode just above, introducing Yale student Mia Fowler as Dot Brooke; and see the full series, thus far, down below. (The show has already won awards and recognition from several film festivals. See “air dates” and more on its busy Tumblr page.)
Up to now, notes Mead, Eliot’s fiction has resisted the kind of treatment given to Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen in adaptations like “a chapter book for tweens called Jane Airhead” and the Austen-inspired Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless (not to mention Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). And yet, despite the daunting size, scope, and seriousness of Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch: the Series continues in this tradition of light-hearted, pop-cultural modernizations, using the same device as the award-winning Austen vlog adaptation The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Brontë vlog adaptation “The Autobiography of Jane Eyre.”
Though it is “an impossibly tall order,” writes Mead, “to expect a Web series to approach the nuance of a nineteenth-century novel—of the nineteenth-century novel,” adaptations like Shoptaw’s don’t even attempt to do this. They express “a winning affection” for their source material, and a sense of how it still informs the very different gender identities and sexual relationships of the present. In that sense, it may be useful to think of them as, in part, working in a similar vein as another very 21st century medium: fan fiction. Would the knives-out critic Eliot approve? Impossible to say. But I dare say she might admire the ambition, creative impulses, and narrative ingenuity of Shoptaw and her cast perhaps as much as they admire her greatest work.
via The New Yorker
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
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