Susan Watson: A Confrontation and a Conversation – Miriam Leivers Reads ‘Middlemarch’
I came upon Anne Carson’s long poem ‘The Glass Essay’ by accident, while browsing in a second-hand bookshop. ‘The Glass Essay’ is a narrative in which a nameless ‘I’ records the process of recovering from the abrupt end of a long love-affair. [i] Interwoven with reflections on anger, grief and betrayal is an account of her reading of the Collected Works of Emily Brontë. You could say that the narrator recuperates by reading, but what actually happens is far more intriguing. She starts with an image of her main fear (which she means to confront): of becoming an embittered spinster living alone on a moor. But, as the poem progresses, she reads more closely and thoughtfully and her observations on Brontë’s life and work become more absorbing and insightful.
I was excited by this conversation between writers and forms, the collaboration between a poem and an essay. It crystallised something. I knew that I too wanted to find a way of writing that would place detached, analytical, academic readings beside more instinctive and emotional responses. I wanted to explore those multiple readings that exist at the same time and through time and to commemorate them as formative events, as crucial as a birth, a death, a marriage, a life’s work.
All writers begin as readers, or they should. But I knew from my own experience that the ‘anxiety of influence’ and the ‘anxiety of authorship’ could be real and inhibiting.[ii]
I grew up in Eastwood, the birthplace of D.H. Lawrence, at a time when Lawrence was still regarded as an important, authoritative voice, even an iconic figure. If you came from a lower middle-class household where there were books, especially if you wanted to be a writer, he was inescapable. Inevitably, Sons and Lovers, Lawrence’s best-known novel, was one of my set texts for English ‘A’ level and I read and re-read and studied it closely and intensely. I would have said that I loved the book, and there is much in it to love, yet I was dismayed and confused by the presentation of his female characters. It did not occur to me to articulate or even to fully realise these feelings.
In the novel, Paul, the main protagonist, has a long difficult friendship with a girl called Miriam. They are drawn to each other through their mutual love of literature and ideas. There are periods of coolness and fracture. Eventually, at Paul’s insistence, they become lovers, but this is not successful and almost immediately he abandons her. Lawrence recognises Miriam, but his novel dislikes and resents her.
Paul’s relationship with Miriam was based very closely on Lawrence’s relationship with a real person, Jessie Chambers. I discovered that Chambers had also written a novel. Hers was not published. In Sons and Lovers Miriam practises French composition by writing a journal. She shows part of her journal to Paul, and he corrects her grammar, and says to her: ‘You really do blossom out sometimes. You ought to write poetry’. Miriam ‘lifted her head with joy, then she shook it mistrustfully. ‘I don’t trust myself’, she said.’[iii]
Later in the novel we are told that she has been writing ‘little introspective pieces which interested her’. Here was the germ of what eventually became the opening stanza of my own poem ‘ Miriam Leivers reads Middlemarch ’ :
The novel is the one bright book of life,
he said, but she should write poetry.
She saw herself at fourteen, when she first knew him,
strictly exterior view. Someone bowing her head,
browsing, glancing away, blurring edges,
not really properly there. Not in the world.
He dismissed her with trite imprecision: blossoming out,
she sees apple blossom in rain, blown, strewn,
hears Edgar her brother warning him not to get blossom,
or there will be no apples.[iv]
In his essay ‘Why the Novel Matters’, Lawrence argues that the novel is ‘the one bright book of life’ because it takes everything in.[v]
Whereas a novel
packs in the whole world, even a black tom cat,
even a rain-soaked cabbage, layered hemisphere,
muscular, shining. A cabbage alive.
When I first read Sons and Lovers I relished the descriptions of what I called ‘the emotional weather’ in which his main characters live and think. Later I came to see that another strength of Lawrence’s writing is his ability to sometimes move outwards, to draw precise and appreciative pictures of communities and personalities and the natural world. The novel is full of luminous and various things: loaves that are burned, china dishes with cornflowers, the lights of a distant train as it moves over the viaduct, the sweep and flow of the broad River Trent.
Like the narrator of ‘The Glass Essay’, Jessie Chambers read and re-read compulsively in the aftermath of the final rupture with Lawrence: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov.[vi] I decided that Miriam would read Middlemarch. It was a novel of a kind that Lawrence might well have taken as a model (albeit possibly subconsciously); it was full of various people and things, a dense web of interconnections. And it enabled me to give Miriam something of her own, something that Paul had not shown her or taught her or contaminated with strong opinions. Sons and Lovers is liberally scattered with references to books and reading, but Middlemarch is not mentioned.
Anne Carson thinks of ideas as having shapes. In an interview with Will Aitken she said, ‘When I sense that two different texts or writers have the same shapes in them, I know I can bring them together.’[vii] Some of the matching shapes were clear. Like Miriam, Dorothea Brooke was idealistic and eager for learning and, like Miriam, had hoped to gain an education through a love relationship. ‘The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, where you wished it’. She had dreamed of ‘large vistas and wide fresh air’ and instead had found ‘ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowither’.[viii]
I re-read both novels many times as I drafted my poem, not in a consciously academic or critical way, but trying to simply appreciate what I read, noting anything that caught my attention, reading as I imagined that Miriam might read. As I read, I began to see more subtle connections and correspondences between them, particularly in the ways that the two novelists described the world. Lawrence likes objects and landscapes and actual weather, but also tends to impose his own or his characters’ emotional weather and symbolic significance onto them:
In Middlemarch a fire can be itself,
can be a wondrous mass of glowing dice,
a thing to sit by, source of light,
the words draw what is there,
make it no more. No less.
And not a pent-up euphemism
for what would make Paul whole
(or so he said), the spark his mother achieved,
(if only once), for what,
presumably, he has now won with Clara.
Paul as Prometheus, stealing fire.
Towards the end of the poem Miriam rejects Paul’s (imagined) response to a bramble bush (‘fat clenched baby fists’) and concentrates on seeing it herself, in precise detail. ‘Clusters of droplets. | A frail bristle between each one.’
The two novels were in conversation. I began to see other connections and to allow Miriam, too, to enter into a collaboration with George Eliot, experiencing ‘small mental joys | that her attention hooks on, prowls through and examines’ and a process of
inner herringbone, chain stitching,
over and under the words, care of her soul
over embroidery in her own boudoir.
Some ideas seemed to grow organically from the juxtaposition of the two novels. In Middlemarch, Dorothea’s boudoir and the furnishings within it are used as metaphors for her mental state. There are many images of confinement. In Sons and Lovers, Miriam empathises with Mary Queen of Scots, a prisoner. And Lawrence tells us that Miriam has a reproduction of Veronese’s ‘St Catherine’ on her bedroom wall. ‘She loved the woman who sat in the window, dreaming. Her own windows were too small to sit in.’[ix] In Miriam’s own words this becomes dryer: ‘St Catherine looking up at a dungeon lunette | apparently thinking high thoughts | chains tactfully placed’ (a veiled allusion to an image used by Eliot).[x] The view from a window becomes a revelation for Dorothea, and it suddenly came to me that this was the end of the poem. As Miriam reads and remembers, this may just possibly be a turning point, or at least a place of recuperation, for her, too.
She sees a man with a bundle on his back
and a woman with a baby.
Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light.
There is the usual imagery of hymns:
light, dawn, shepherds, pearl,
washed clean of moralising,
by a sense of expanding space.
A lifted burden.
She felt the largeness of the world.
And changed her life.
[i] Anne Carson, Glass and God, (London: Cape Poetry, 1998)
[ii] The ‘anxiety of authorship’ is a term used by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination, (New Haven; London: Yale Nota Bene, 2000). ‘The ‘anxiety of influence’ that a male poet experiences is felt by a female poet as an even more primary ‘anxiety of authorship’, a radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a ‘precursor’ the act of writing will isolate or destroy her.’
[iii] D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)
[iv] Susan Watson, ‘Miriam Leivers reads Middlemarch’, Long Poem Magazine, Issue 23, Spring 2020
[v] D.H. Lawrence, Selected Critical Writings, ed.by Michael Herbert, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998)
[vi] Chambers, Jessie, D.H. Lawrence: a personal record by E.T., (London: Frank Cass, 1965)
[vii] Will Aitken, ‘Interview with Anne Carson: The Art of Poetry No 88’, The Paris Review, No 171, Fall 2004
[viii] George Eliot, Middlemarch, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965)
[ix] D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers
[x] To Dorothea, the chance of seeing the man she secretly loves is ‘like a lunette opened in the wall of her prison, giving her a glimpse of the sunny air’.
You can read the full poem here:http://longpoemmagazine.org.uk/poems/1930/