Essay 14: “What you are thinking is not true”
There is a moment in Middlemarch, which comes earlier than you’d think, where you know that everything is going to be fine. Of course it’s going to be fine. Middlemarch, after all, is a love story. It’s not only a love story, and Will Ladislaw’s many detractors, both within the novel and without, would say that the love bits shouldn’t even be in there at all. He is a bit sort of Foreign, Will Ladislaw. He is a bit groovy. There is something a bit funny about him: his hair is too curly, he is too fast and whippety and threatens to break into some kind of terrible song. He gets called “an Italian with white mice” a lot. Henry James said that he was the novel’s low point: “The figure of Will Ladislaw is a beautiful attempt, with many finely-completed points; but on the whole it seems to us a failure. It is the only eminent failure in the book, and its defects are therefore the more striking.”
Whatever you feel about Will Ladislaw, you must admit that Middlemarch is, to a large extent, a love story. The beautiful and serious Dorothea marries precisely the wrong man, while the right man, for various compelling reasons, must sit and twist around in An Agony of Love for many hundreds of pages. It is tense going there, for a while. Will Ladislaw loves Dorothea with his whole entire soul, and Dorothea loves him back, but this is the greatest novel ever written, and so things are not that simple. There are a lot of obstacles to be gotten over, not least of which is that there is something just a bit funny and groovy about Will Ladislaw. This is the prevailing opinion in the village of Middlemarch. Not everyone feels that way, of course. George Eliot, you can see, has a giant crush on him. Mr. Brooke likes him. Dorothea, naturally. And me. I love Will Ladislaw. I rooted for him from the very beginning. I couldn’t stand the thought of him and Dorothea failing to make it come true.
The scene which made me most worried was the one where he comes to tell Dorothea that he is leaving forever. He says: “I could not bear to leave the neighbourhood and begin a new life without seeing you to say good-by.” He is a man who relishes the emotional spotlight.
Dorothea is stoical and repressed throughout the scene. Will Ladislaw is giving her every opportunity to change his mind, but she will not take them. She thinks only of “bowing to a sad necessity which divided her from Will.” It is so sad, and it really seems, for a little while, as if this is the end for them.
And then there is this part:
“Will never quite knew how it was that he saved himself from falling down at her feet, when the “long while” came forth with its gentle tremor. He used to say that the horrible hue and surface of her crape dress was most likely the sufficient controlling force.”
This is the part where you know that everything’s going to be fine, in the end, because who can he possibly be talking to but Dorothea? With that “he used to say”, the novel suddenly does a great temporal leap forward, and we are in the future with happy Will and happy Dorothea, and they are quite obviously married, and he is making a joke to her about her shit dress.
I have put this theory to a few people, that this is the point in the novel at which George Eliot cannot resist telling us that everything’s going to be fine. She is saying to us don’t worry – life has a way of working out. Most people, when I tell them this theory, are sceptical. They think I am making too much of this one silly sentence, about an ugly dress.
I’ve only ever know one person who took it seriously. I went to his memorial service last Wednesday. He was only 30 when he got cancer, and he was only 31 when he died. The disgusting unfairness of this keeps hitting me in the face. The ways in which everything turns out not to be fine keeps settling in the pit of my stomach.
At his memorial service, people read extracts from the books that he loved: Schreiner, Conrad, Rilke. The readings were exactly right, better than right, but I wished that someone had read from George Eliot. K loved George Eliot the best of all. He once said to me that George Eliot had made him into a nicer person. He said, “She’s cleverer than all of us, you know. She’s the cleverest one.” He talked about her humanity and her compassion, and her terrifying breadth of learning. He talked to me about her interest in absolutely everything, her ability to animate the most apparently dull information with her insight and ability to connect.
K told me to come and speak to his Middlemarch seminar about my stupid future-Will idea, and when I chattered to them like some kind of bird for ten minutes without making any proper sense, he took everything that I’d said and made it seem interesting and clever. K had that facility, the same as George Eliot did. I think he had a crush on her. He said once that he wished he could just call her on the phone and ask her a few questions. What did she think of David Cameron? What did she think of the internet? He was joking when he said it, but you could see that he was serious, too. He really did want to know what she thought, about all sorts of things.
At the time, I thought it was a sweet thing to say. It strikes me differently now. All the people that knew K will think some version of this for the rest of their lives. We will all wish that we could just pick up the phone and call him, and find out what he thinks about all the millions of things that happen.