Eliot Without Tears

George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’

directed by Anthony Page. produced by BBC Television
Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, PBS, April 10-May 15, 1994

The six-part television adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch now on Masterpiece Theatre is introduced by Russell Baker, who recently replaced Alistair Cooke as the program’s host. Mr. Cooke had a manner of speaking of books and their characters as one might speak of colorful family members long deceased. He was almost a literary character himself, a sort of roguish cleric, and he had a trick of blurring the distinction between fact and fiction in a way that made the stories seem a little more real at the expense of making himself seem a little less so. We would not have been entirely surprised to hear Mr. Cooke tell us that his mother’s nanny was actually once married to a cousin of Mr. Casaubon’s butler.

Mr. Baker’s approach is much more wholesome. He doesn’t pretend to a greater intimacy with the stories he introduces than is consistent with the persona of a cultivated fellow who’s done a few things in his life beside read novels. He knows, in the case of Middlemarch, that we might be glad for a few facts about George Eliot, and (in contrast to Mr. Cooke, whose manner of delivery sometimes gave the impression that he was making it up as he went along) he rattles off two or three pieces of information, mostly inaccurate, about her with the complacent authority of an anchorman.

He’s also sensible enough not to act as though Middlemarch is the sort of novel most of his viewers will ever have felt drawn to read without the stimulus of a television program, and he puts himself on those viewers’ side at once by confessing his own longstanding reluctance to plough through the thing. Dipped when still a boy into the literary prune juice of Silas Marner, he confides, he once swore off George Eliot forever. But after being obliged, in his new capacity, to tackle Middlemarch, he astonished himself by becoming “absolutely and hopelessly hooked. It was,” he exclaims, “a page-turner!” The experience emboldened him to return to Silas Marner, which he reports to be similarly absorbing stuff—all going to show, as he puts it, that “school can keep you from getting a good education.”

The good-natured and slightly anti-intellectual defensiveness of this appeal is, of course, just Mr. Baker’s hostly gambit, and wouldn’t be worth remarking on if it didn’t typify the whole public relations effort accompanying this adaptation. The Modern Library has put out a “companion edition” of Middlemarch, which is advertised as “complete and unabridged” (as opposed to what? complete but abridged?) and which reprints a brief essay by A.S. Byatt in which she recalls her youthful exasperation with the tedious Silas and subsequent enlightenment. An event staged earlier this month to publicize this new Modern Library edition (which is, of course, only the old Modern Library edition reset and with a different jacket) involved a discussion of the novel by a panel whose members included Brooke Astor, Sister Souljah, and Peggy Noonan.

It’s not boring!” is the general message, and there’s a reason for the extra hype. Middlemarch is a project of the BBC, which has had a string of failures in the costume drama department lately, and the show is evidently a high-stakes gamble made in the hope of keeping this sort of enterprise alive. It’s reported to be the most expensive BBC series ever produced, running to a million pounds per episode—a sum to which WGBH, the Boston public television affiliate, has made a contribution officially described as “substantial.” It’s sensible for everyone connected with the business to assume that, whatever the situation in England, where the show attracted large numbers of viewers earlier this year, American television can’t rely on confirmed George Eliot addicts alone to make a decent audience. It’s going to have to pull in people, like Russell Baker (at least as he presents himself), for whom George Eliot has always had a vaguely medicinal association.

There’s no quarreling with the intention. If fans of Peggy Noonan and Sister Souljah are induced to tune in, so much the better. The question is, If the producers of this series were so concerned about the belief that Middlemarch is boring, why did they make it so boring?

A film adaptation of a work of literature is an interpretation expressed in a radically different medium. It can’t help being reductive, since a word is worth a thousand pictures. Any novel translated to film—and especially a novel like Middlemarch, which depends so heavily on a literary style that enacts a kind of poetry of thought—loses something essential to its imaginative experience. In return for a penny’s worth of visual concreteness, it surrenders a fortune in implication.

For example: “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.” There is nothing film can do to reproduce the nearly subliminal effects created in this sentence by the juxtaposition of the word “beauty” and the word “poor,” and by the use of “thrown into relief” as the linking phrase. “There is a spiritual kind of beauty that is incompatible with ostentation” is the manifest sense of the sentence. “Spiritual beauty has its own kind of coquetry” is the admonition that awaits a second glance. “What seems fine requires a background of commonness in order to show itself; and commonness would not seem so unacceptable to us if it didn’t have to suffer by the contrast the presence of a finer nature makes” is the idea that lurks behind it all, and that helps to explain what an epic figure like Dorothea Brooke is doing as the protagonist of a novel whose subtitle (missing from the Modern Library’s complete and unabridged edition; but they never said it was unexpurgated, did they?) is “A Study of Provincial Life.”

Film is a different experience from literature. It has different resources, and is capable of different effects. A film (or an adaptation for television, which has its own aesthetic opportunities and constraints) can’t do more justice to a novel than a single production of King Lear can do to King Lear. It can only present one idea of what the book is about. How that particular idea gets translated into the new medium depends on what the filmmakers are willing to sacrifice in order to express it.

There is no single formula. Sometimes a literal adaptation works unexpectedly well: twenty years ago, the BBC produced a pretty straightfoward television dramatization of War and Peace, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, which, at some cost to scale, articulated a certain gentleness in the story very beautifully. Sometimes a complete transposition produces a revelation. Masterpiece Theatre once ran an adaptation of Our Mutual Friend that took one of Dickens’s most grandly orchestral novels and played it as a string quartet—a subdued, minimalist rendition which seemed to get very near the true temper of the book.

The BBC Middlemarch goes a good distance in the direction of literalness. A great effort has been made, in the choice of locations especially, to get a period look that feels plausibly authentic (one reason, apparently, for the great expense). The screenplay, by Andrew Davies, who has written the screenplays for two other Masterpiece Theatre presentations, House of Cards and To Play the King, shoehorns in a lot of the book—even to the extent of making some of George Eliot’s authorial commentary (about “the roar that lies on the other side of silence”) come out of Dorothea’s mouth. The result is that the tempo, particularly in the first episode, is much too quick. But an impressive number of the novel’s characters and incidents are present and accounted for. Mr. Cadwallader, the trout-fishing clergyman who is the husband of the county gossip, has been erased completely; but no one else is noticeably missing.

Of the minor characters, most are very good, and two seem perfect: Dorothea’s harebrained uncle, Mr. Brooke, the man who has gone into everything at one time or another (he’s played by Robert Hardy), and Raffles, the nemesis of the evangelical banker Bulstrode (a much smaller role, played by John Savident). The meddlesome Mrs. Cadwallader is described in the novel as “thin but well-built”; on screen, she’s large and matronly. But Mrs. Cadwallader is much more readily imagined, in fact, as large and matronly, so nothing is really lost. Less satisfactory is the Brookes’ neighbor, Sir James Chettam, the baronet who begins by wooing Dorothea and then, rebuffed by her, turns briskly around and marries Dorothea’s imperturbably conventional sister, Celia, instead. In the novel, Sir James is blond and “blooming,” the epitome of landed aristocratic blandness—a man whose habitual reply to any statement, no matter how disagreeable, is “Exactly.” In the adaptation, most of the “exactlys” have disappeared, and Sir James always looks rather pinched and irritable.

A few other minor liberties and omissions are mildly annoying. When we first see Celia, she’s out riding horseback with Dorothea. But Celia doesn’t ride; Dorothea and Rosamond ride. A woman riding a horse for pleasure in the novel expresses a style of sexuality that Celia pointedly lacks. It’s regrettable, for similar reasons, that we never get to see Fred Vincy—the manufacturer’s son with great expectations but no great talents—try, as he does in the novel, to play the flute. And a decision has been made to pronounce Casaubon’s name CASS-a-bon, which has the authority of common usage, but not the authority of George Eliot, who pronounced it ca-SAW-bon.

In general, though, the background is as complete as it needs to be. It’s the foreground that isn’t right, and the reason is a peculiar one. For in adapting the story to modern sensibilities, the producers haven’t sensationalized Middlemarch at all. They have instead taken everything sensational in Middlemarch and carefully edited it out. What has evidently made them anxious is the possibility not that the novel might not seem dramatic enough, but that it might seem a little too dramatic for twentieth-century tastes. They haven’t taken a pious Victorian marriage tale and jazzed it up; they’ve taken a great late-Romantic poem, a kind of opera of social psychology, and turned it into television’s idea of a romantic drama—that is, a lot of good-looking people chasing around after and pairing off with a lot of other good-looking people.

Juliet Aubrey is the Dorothea, and her performance is by far the finest thing about the series. She has a beauty that can be described as handsome without implying anything mannish about it; and she has, more importantly, Dorothea’s voice—“the voice of a soul,” as Will Ladislaw romantically imagines it, “that had once lived in an Aeolian harp.” She grows in composure and moral clarity as the story progresses, and her presence becomes finally splendid without losing anything in simplicity.

But there is nothing ethereal about her. What makes her appealing is that she’s the most up-to-date figure on the screen. She’s without any antique fussiness about her clothes and deportment (which follows the book, though some of her dresses here are, attractively but surely anachronistically, very low-cut). But she’s without any medieval enthusiasms that might puzzle modern viewers, either. Here is a glimpse of the novel’s Dorothea: “a young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles—who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books.” It’s impossible to imagine the BBC Dorothea doing any of these things. She is shown in the cottage of a sick laborer, but she doesn’t kneel down, or behave in any other manner alarming to secular tastes; she simply emerges shortly afterward looking properly troubled and sympathetic. She has spirit in the modern sense—which means spirit free of, precisely, the affects of spirituality.

It’s not surprising that religion plays a much smaller part in the adaptation than it does in the novel. Mr. Cadwallader, the supremely easy-going rector of the Brooke and Chettam estates, was not eliminated at random. He matters to Eliot because he’s a delightful and appealing fellow who also happens to represent the complete moral bankruptcy of established religion in nineteenth-century Britain—as Bulstrode represents the meanness and self-righteousness of the evangelical revival. Mr. Cadwallader can hardly matter to us for the same reason, though, and so he’s dramatically dispensable. But to make Dorothea more enlightened than her neighbors, less constrained by convention, without making her also much more strange—and strange, especially, to us—is to miss the point. Dorothea is “out of time,” and her real time is not (as pleased as we might be to imagine it) the twentieth century; it’s the sixteenth.

It’s true that we see Dorothea marry, a little rashly, the old-fashioned clerical pedant Edward Casaubon. But the television Casaubon (played by Patrick Malahide) is not such an obviously bad choice. He is ugly only in the way John Malkovich or Lyle Lovett is ugly—that is, he’s possibly just a very cool guy—and there is at first even something quite plausible sexually about the relationship. The adapters have added a brief bedroom scene to the story of the Casaubons’ Roman honeymoon, in which Dorothea, lying in bed, tries to rouse, by a kiss, her indifferent husband—as though her expectations about the marriage were sexual in a way that his were not.

This seems exactly wrong. Casaubon is one of the great creeps in nineteeth-century literature (where are the two white moles on his face which Celia has to point out to her dim sister?); and what is horrifying about his marriage isn’t the possibility that he doesn’t make love to Dorothea, but the certainty that he does. He’s an incubus—in life and then, by means of the will through which, inspired by sexual jealousy, he tries to prevent Dorothea from marrying Ladislaw, in death. The interpolated honeymoon scene expresses a modern, therapeutic view of sexual activity as important to a healthy and functional marital relationship. But Casaubon’s sexuality isn’t dysfunctional. It’s demonic.

The same hygienic procedure has been applied, much more thoroughly and shamelessly, to the other sexual vampire in the story, Rosamond Vincy, the woman who marries the town’s new modern medical man, Tertius Lydgate, and then coolly destroys him. T.S. Eliot once said that Rosamond frightened him “more than Goneril or Regan.” It’s a remark that possibly says more about T.S. Eliot than it does about George Eliot’s character; but no one would dream of making it about the BBC’s Rosamond.

As played by Trevyn McDowell (or as directed by Anthony Page) Rosamond is an emotional birdbrain. “She was not given to weeping and disliked it,” George Eliot tells us; in the series, she is made to weep in almost every scene. A perfectly polished self-possession, in the shallowest provincial mode, is meant to characterize Rosamond’s manner; but on screen she is giddy, insecure, and easily betrayed into vulgarity. This has the effect of transforming Lydgate’s weakness—his “commonness,” as Eliot calls it—from a blind and fatal infatuation with surface charm into a simple inability to say no to a pretty girl. Rosamond is not just a pretty girl. She’s a killer; and when her husband finally wakes up to the fact, he finds himself already bound hand and foot.

Mary Garth, the land agent’s daughter who marries Rosamond’s brother Fred, and who is described throughout the novel as uncommonly plain (“a brown patch,” as she calls herself), naturally turns out, on television, to be positively vixenish. This is a fairly benign insult to the book, since few male readers have probably ever believed that Mary is really as unattractive as she’s said to be. But making Mary pretty (the actress is Rachel Power) is an emendation entirely consistent with the producers’ desire to cleave wherever possible to the decorums of television drama.

Different viewers will have different opinions of the BBC’s Will Ladislaw. He doesn’t seem to fit very well Mr. Brooke’s description of him as “a kind of Shelley, you know”; but Mr. Brooke is not exactly a reliable witness, and most readers have found the character something of an abstraction. In the novel Ladislaw is continually associated with light, and Rufus Sewell, who plays him here, is saturnine and solemn. Still, he’s a match for Aubrey’s Dorothea, and he’s certainly good-looking.

It’s in relation to Ladislaw that the anxiety to avoid anything that might strike viewers as alarmingly melodramatic has had the most significant consequences. One concerns Raffles’s revelations about the private history of Mr. Bulstrode. The punchline of Raffles’s tale is that the surviving victim of Bulstrode’s nefarious doings is, in fact, Will Ladislaw. Since Will has, to this late point in the narrative, seemed to belong to an entirely unrelated plot in the novel, making Bulstrode turn out unexpectedly to be his wealthy step-grandfather has an air of Dickensian theatricality about it. But nineteenth-century novels are theatrical. So, usually, are television miniseries; but the adapters of Middle-march have chosen to omit the part about Will from Raffles’s story.

The Ladislaw-Bulstrode connection is important for two reasons having nothing to do with theatricality. First, it means that apart from the clergymen, medical men, and assorted walkons, every character is related by blood or marriage to every other character in the book. The baronet Sir James Chettam is related to his struggling land-agent’s daughter Mary Garth. Seen from high enough above the social ground, the web of human obligation is revealed to be seamless, and indifferent to class boundaries. “Alle Menschen werden Brüder“: it’s the most profoundly Romantic sentiment of the book; but that doesn’t mean it’s obsolete.

The connection to Bulstrode also means that Ladislaw has been disinherited three times: by Bulstrode’s concealment of Ladislaw’s mother’s existence, which enabled him to inherit her family’s money; by the Casaubons’ disowning of Ladislaw’s grandmother, for making an unacceptable marriage; and by the will of Casaubon himself. Ladislaw, we learn in the Finale, eventually goes into Parliament: he symbolizes the dissociation of political leadership from social leadership in British life. But we’re meant to see that the dissociation has occurred because he has been cheated of his social position by puritanism and greed.

The second abridgement affecting Will involves his reconciliation, at the end of the story, with Dorothea, which the adapters have staged on a sunny day in Dorothea’s garden. In the novel, of course, their first embrace takes place while a violent thunderstorm rages outside. This was, apparently, diagnosed as a lamentable indulgence in the pathetic fallacy, and a trope which twentieth-century viewers could hardly be expected to tolerate.

The adaptation’s reconciliation scene is very sweetly done. But sublimity, not sweetness, is the note of the original. For the storm isn’t merely the natural correspondent of human passion; it’s also terrifying, and it reduces the lovers to children. After the kiss, “Will stood still an instant looking at her, then seated himself beside her, and laid his hand on hers, which turned itself upward to be clasped. They sat in that way without looking at each other, until the rain abated and began to fall in stillness.” It’s an echo of the book’s first sentence: “Who…has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?” The image of maturity confronting, as though a child all over again, the wonders of a world both fallen and new is the epic image in English: it closes Paradise Lost, and it closes Wordsworth’s Prelude. In Middlemarch, it’s the image that expresses everything Eliot wants to claim for Dorothea as a heroic soul. But this is one of those effects, words reaching back to words, that film cannot achieve, and Eliot’s adapters, seeing in the thunderstorm scene only a cliché, have let it go by.

Nietzsche thought that what George Eliot wanted was Christian morality without the Christianity. “They have got rid of the Christian God,” he says of the English in Twilight of the I dols, with Eliot in mind, “and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality.” He was being contemptuous, of course (and he probably hadn’t read any of Eliot’s novels); but many other commentators have assumed that Eliot did write her books in order to articulate a post-Christian moral and social philosophy, and they have devoted themselves to the business of deciphering it. It’s this idea of Eliot as, in some systematic sense, a moralist that is responsible for the assumption that modern readers (and modern viewers) will find her preachy and dull.

Various candidates have been proposed as bases for Eliot’s putative moral theory: the Comtian “religion of humanity”; the philosophy of duty; what Bernard Semmel, in his excellent new book on Eliot and nineteenth-century political theory, calls “the politics of national inheritance.”* Like anyone with strong intellectual interests, Eliot had views on the political and ethical principles desirable for modern society. But searching for the articulation of those views in her novels mistakes the nature of the form. Novels don’t articulate theories; they disarticulate them. They are to ideals of conduct what hunger is to table manners: they are keenly aware of the disproportion between the elegance of form and the exigencies of appetite.

Middlemarch is about the effort to make morality consistent with uncertainty. About uncertainty, Eliot is certain; but about morality, she is not. Nearly every discussion of Eliot’s thought retells the story of her evening walk in the garden with F.W.H. Myers, which ends with her sibylline utterance of the word “duty” as the one peremptory commandment surviving the passing of the age of faith. But if Middlemarch has anything to say about duty, it is to ask, Duty to what? On one view of duty, Dorothea has a duty to marry Chettam, so that their adjoining estates can be combined by their heir. On another view, she has an obligation to respect the testamentary wishes of her husband concerning her remarriage. The only way in which we can understand her union with Ladislaw as expressive of “duty” is to say that Dorothea has a duty to her own happiness—but this can hardly stand as a moral philosophy. Rosamond feels a duty to her happiness, too, and it brings her marriage to ruin.

Signs are small measurable things,” Eliot says of The Key to All Mythologies, the work in which Casaubon proposes to demonstrate that all myths derive from a single source, “but interpretations are illimitable.” The world is sensible, in other words, but there is no end to making sense. We feel comfortable in holding this doctrine against Casaubon, whose maze is so clearly without a plan. It takes us a little longer, perhaps, to see that it applies as well to Lydgate, whose quest for the physiological “primitive tissue” that underlies all matter is no less quixotic because it adheres to the most advanced methods of modern science. But we’ve missed the experience of the novel if we fail to see that the point has still another target, which is the moral authority of the author herself.

With Eliot, interpretation takes the form of moral discrimination, for which her capacity is so fine and apparently inexhaustible that we begin to feel that there is no wickedness in which she could not discover a virtue, and no virtuous act which she could not show to originate in some self-serving motive. We start to suspect that it’s only the author’s sympathy with our desire for coherence at any price that prevents her from deconstructing morality all the way down to the ground; and Middlemarch comes, at that moment, to seem like a bubble of light held aloft only by our gaze. That’s an image for another film maker to try for.

  1. *

    George Eliot and the Politics of National Inheritance (Oxford University Press, 1994).