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MIRIAM LEIVERS READS MIDDLEMARCH

Susan Watson

MIRIAM LEIVERS READS MIDDLEMARCH

‘You really do blossom out sometimes,’ he said.  ‘You ought to write poetry’.

She lifted her head with joy, then she shook it mistrustfully. 

D.H. Lawrence:  Sons and Lovers

 

I

 

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.

 

Ten years ago.

Now he is avid for the sparks from Clara’s heels,

grinding on grimy pavements.

 

And poetry (rather than poems),

was maidens in aprons, solitary, even steps pattering,

plain, purl and backstitch, run-and-fell,

draper’s shop, hedged-in canter.

Enervation and chime. 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.

Even the unploughable field that they stood in,

while he expounded all this,

dip and then slope up into the woods,

snapped dandelions oozing sour milk,

cuckoo spit gobbets on stalks,

mauve nacreous worms encircled by saddles of eggs.

 

Those early mornings. Alone

in her grandmother’s house, reading Middlemarch

on the sofa. Too many long white nights

after he’d cycled away. Sodden with waking dreams,

she’d study the faded cushions, soft red, powder blue.

The heavy grey absence of light in the living room window.

That stuffed owl up in the corner. She had the fantasy –

behind those feathery eye-rings, blank black spaces

was the spirit of his mother, watching.

It was this time last year.

What did he tell his mother?

 

Thinking about his mother

is like trying to imagine the bedroom in a house

where you have distant cousins.

She can envision the double bed of brass,

the counterpane of hoarded scraps of colour,

from memories of other rooms she’s known.

But can’t go up those stairs. She’s not invited.

 

II

 

But in the beginning.

When he first entered a room, shimmer and dart

like the curl of a fish through clean water

and all the light lifted. His bicycle chain

had broken, leaving him handed in oil

which he said it did ‘frequently’, and there was deftness

in the way the mild inflection fell, a deprecation, a wryness,

that did it. Then he said that her rose trees

shuddered the flowers from themselves as a dog

shakes off drops of water. She saw, not a tree,

but a dog, shaggy cur, rippling

around a rod running vital from nose to tail,

a mongrel alive.

 

III

 

And it was Middlemarch

she read, again, after that hybrid struggling thing

their friendship had turned into, stopped.

Dreading he’d be there by accident in the Free Library

each time the two blue volumes were renewed.

She read it over and over. I gave you books,

he’d said, not pages and printed words,

something they’d owned and mirrored in each other,

a language that bound them, hunger.

A fire fed on books, his mother called it.

 

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.

 

Why always Dorothea?

says George Eliot, firmly taking the reader

away to the arid husband, Casaubon,

and the other impeded couples.

Mainly she read Middlemarch over and over

for Dorothea. Paul would have judged her for it.

He would have chewed the thread of her thought

into a chaos. He would have argued the web,

that was the point, the tangled web, the market place,

where people bargained for turnips and china dishes

and told tales about each other,

that was the point.

 

Not even,

we are all members one of another,

teeming and wonderful and a necessary thing,

but types and masses and the wadding of

strictly exterior detail, purple scar on father’s cheek,

coal grit ingrained, blonde tendrils on bent necks

of machinists in heavy aprons, weaving stockings.

He always set her up as opposition,

dissolving limestone to his impervious gritstone,

a leaping Gothic arch to his relentless Norman.

His horizontal bearing down her vertical.

His threshing floor.

 

IV

 

He’d said: If people marry,

they must be commonplace with each other,

they must live as affectionate humans.

Not as two souls. But she didn’t want marriage.

She dreaded its dailiness,

she feared it would be like swabbing the filth

from the red earth tiles of their kitchen floor,

over and over. Her mother’s marriage is.

His mother’s is.

 

That evening.

She’d hung the bunches of cherries over her ears.

Because he’d said,

red berries in her hair would make her some witch or priestess,

not a reveller. She’d hoped the cherries were not priestly.

She’d wanted their jewelled globes, all shades:

vermillion, crimson. She’d wanted

to be like women who danced to castanets at sunset.

To offer him nothing but outwardness. She’d wanted.

To be like Clara, leaping the haycock,

her mass of blonde hair tumbling down,

all the hay scattered, her honey skin and her passion.

That astringency in her.

The swing of her arm.

 

And her mother had said

There is one thing in love that is always terrible

but you have to bear it. Afterwards, home, drying up,

she wiped the fluted china cup with its pattern

of overblown poppies. She clenched her hands too tight.

Wrenched off the handle. What had happened that night

in the pinewood was nothing to do with love,

but a double line drawn brutally under a final total.

Lying there helplessly pinned, thinking,

everything going too fast, this is what I have deserved,

slurred darkness is what I have made him.

 

V

 

Middlemarch:

felicitous clusters of words slipped in,

sharp pictures, small mental joys

that her attention hooks on, prowls through, and examines,

not quite like all those metaphors for marriage,

dim ante rooms and winding passages,

cramping and leading nowhere,

nor quite like Dorothea, newly widowed

walking through all the rooms at Lowick,

framing speeches to her dead husband,

but more like gazing out at a landscape

through a large bow window.

 

What catches her attention:

not unmixed joy. A perpetual struggle

of energy with fear, about the marriage,

the way that trouble comes and ties our hands.

Sometimes it feels like a glancing blow. A girl

who would require you to see the stars

by daylight, reminds her Clara’s mother

said something similar about her,

once. (Someone made sure she heard.)

Something about her wanting wings,

superior wings, so she could fly away,

soar over all their heads.

 

As she reads

she grafts on her own connections,

inner herringbone, chain stitching,

over and under the words, care of her soul

over embroidery in her own boudoir. Wings.

The husband’s soul went on fluttering

in the swampy ground where it was hatched,

thinking of its wings and never flying,

making her think of scales, stretched leather,

something with tepid blood.

.

Paul had once said, I can’t,

any more than I can fly up like a skylark,

love you. Walking the fields, they’d often heard skylarks

rippling and running, one long floating passage

opening out of another, endlessly,

and talked about Shelley. Larks also

fall down in an instant

straight down like a stone.

 

VI

 

That day at Wingfield Manor

she’d begun to think about windows,

and women at windows. Crumbled spiral stair

and racing wind. At first, she’d looked out

at the hills whence no help came to Mary Queen of Scots.

She was only lively, he’d said. As she was meant to,

she strained to imagine how a woman condemned to death

might see those grey-green slopes,

bleached dislocated gritstone shearing through.

But what unsettled her were broken rooms,

strange random openings.

 

Her own bedroom window,

too small to sit in and covered in ivy,

and that Veronese print on her wall,

St Catherine looking up at a dungeon lunette

apparently thinking high thoughts,

chains tactfully placed. If Paul had known,

he would have added another layer to the long accretion

of little daubs and spots splashed wrong

in the way he’d paint her.

 

Dorothea alone

in a room. Having longed for vast libraries,

she found herself bound by grey stone, echoing,

all draped in red, like a disease of the retina.

Then her room in Casaubon’s house.

Blue draperies, faded, portraits in miniature

of powdered and wigged long-dead people

not known or chosen.

A tapestry stag looking down through a ghostly mist.

A light shelf of volumes unread.

Polite literature.

The bow-window.

 

She particularly likes the passages

describing Dorothea’s indoor life:

Dorothea, the room, the landscape outside the room,

long avenue of limes leading away,

the room, Dorothea, concentric circles,

like ripples from a raindrop in a pond.

She likes the way the furniture became fragile

and seemed to shrink when Dorothea returned

from Italy to the snow and the disillusion,

the ghostly fantastical stag,

immovable imitations of books,

and then, how the chairs and tables and the hangings

gradually became seasoned with her own endurance,

a kind of consolation.

 

 

 

VII

 

She walks the lane with a basin,

looking for blackberries.

The path rises steeply beside burned stubble.

On her left, the hedge, part hawthorn, part bramble.

Not for the first time, she thinks

what an unremarkable plant the bramble is,

in the way that girls like herself are unmemorable,

yet too tenacious. She can’t stop thinking

of the Devil being in them after Michaelmas,

all those unpleasant seeds,

though it isn’t yet Michaelmas.

 

Out of habit

she tries to see the berries as he’d describe them,

fat clenched baby fists, but all she sees at first

is something difficult to reach.

The over-ripe ones burst and smear over her fingers.

Hard unripe green, streaked red,

and engorged purple black.

Clusters of droplets.

A frail bristle between each one.

 

VIII

 

At almost the end of Middlemarch,

after a long night bleached in anguish

Dorothea looks out of her window.

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.

 

 

Note: The quotations in italics are mostly taken either from Sons and Lovers or from Middlemarch.  The first line of the poem, and the subsequent reference to ‘a cabbage alive’ are taken from D.H. Lawrence’s essay ‘Why the Novel Matters’.

 

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