Middlemarch Moments

Book reviews (kind of), no spoilers.

Mrs DallowayVirginia Woolf1925
Contes de la BécasseGuy de Maupassant1883
Poems selected by Ted HughsEmily Dickinson1859-1885
Middlemarch George Eliot1870-71
Books I read in December 2020

Mrs Dalloway

“Rigid, the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame” 

Virginia Woolf

The constant tunnelling pre-war to Bourton and the happiness that was makes me think of my time at university – the idea of what could have been, had paths taken a different turn (or rather, didn’t take the turn they did), coupled with the sickly nostalgia of the upper classes.

It’s funny to note how the ‘mad’ one, Septimus Warren Smith, is married to a foreigner, but the ‘sane’ one, Clarissa, keeps within the family and doesn’t follow her heart. Peter Walsh, I suppose, is also coupled in the former class due to his cavorting in India. (I watched a Danish film last night called ‘The Hunt’ (2012) and the main character, who is in the events outcast), starts seeing the foreign one).

Finally, Woolf’s writing, need it be stated, is truly class. It is a use of English that makes me gasp – a smooth command of the most formal, most intriguing, most precise formulations, expressions and mots justes.

Film adaptation of book. Not the best acting I’ve seen, but fun all the same.

Contes de la Bécasse

Et on restait trois heures à table en racontant des coups de fusil. C’étaient d’étranges et invraisemblables aventures, où se complaisait l’humeur hâbleuse des chasseurs.

Guy de Maupassant

This can be a swift, but rewarding read. All the stories are sewn together with the premise of a hunting feast, as we can see from the quote. The bécasse is a lovely bird, known as a snipe or woodcock in English, and is a now outlawed delicacy. The guest who was chosen by the host had the privilege of eating the skulls, roasted over a candle, but in return had to tell a tale to console the others guests who miss out.

Bécasse – Woodcock

Also seen from the quote above, the stories are crude and almost fantastical: a misdemeanour on a train, dogs thrown in pits, penny-pinching peasants, a right arm worth less than a ship’s cargo, ghosts in mountain chalets, old dancers in an urban garden, drunk church wardens – the list goes on. They are brilliant little stories of everyday life that may as well be real, but you can’t quite tell.

Finally, I believe that Maupassant was one of the first to transcribe Normandy dialect in his writing. More on this to come.

You’ll hear some Normand dialect along the way.

Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And immortality

Emily Dickinson

Poetry is a balm and after so much prose, Dickinson soothes the mind. These are also poems that can be read quickly, but no deep meaning will be found and the poems themselves won’t make too much sense. I must confess that I’m rubbish at deciphering poetry and the level of holistic complexity I see in Dickinson’s work reminds me of the abolished trinkets of Mallarmé, who I believe wrote at roughly the same time.

There’s a link below to a video that explains one of the poems and it is a level of understanding I could only ever dream of. Suffice it say, that I like the rhyme scheme, the word selection and the capital letters on the nouns…

Selected poems

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers
There’s a certain Slant of Light
I taste a Liquor never brewed
I heard a Fly buzz
The Soul selects her own Society
It was not Death, for I stood up 
Because I could not stop for Death

Video explanation
Nerdwriter1 on Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the Truth’


All the active thought with which she had before been representing to herself the trials of Lydgate’s lot, and this young marriage union which, like her own, seemed to have its hidden as well as evident troubles – all this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance. It said to her own irremediable grief, that it should make her more helpful, instead of driving her back from effort.

George Eliot

This has definitely been the jewel in this month’s reading. It was originally recommended to me years ago by my Latin professor, during a discussion about the significance of yew and cypress trees. Reading about Middlemarch village life was like reading the gossip of village life that I’m from: it’s pretty inane, but you’re hooked.

I couldn’t help thinking that the characters George Eliot made were in themselves 2D, but they are so full and complex that they are fascinating and placed in such natural events that their essences simply exist. Among them we have Dr Lydgate, who has stuck with me; we see this type of character (the young, promising and energetic scientific type) in Frankenstein and Dick Diver (Tender is the Night – see next month’s reading review).

There I was, the end of December, curled up in front of the fire, reading away, in the dreary North West of England and it was the perfect book to accompany those isolated hours…

Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your own active thoughts on the books, if you have read them before. Keep reading!

2 thoughts on “Middlemarch Moments

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