When in Rome

I mentioned some time back that re-reading Middlemarch made me liken its heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to the lady of Henry James' Portrait, Isabel Archer. Now re-reading James, I'm struck by the parallels in their experience. Consider, for example, these two passages. Dorothea spends her honeymoon in Rome; it's in Florence that Isabel meets her future husband.

In the clear May mornings [...] she wandered with her cousin through the narrow and sombre Florentine streets, resting a while in the thicker dusk of some historic church or the vaulted chambers of some dispeopled convent. She went to the galleries and palaces; she looked at the pictures and statues that had hitherto been great names to her, and exchanged for a knowledge which was sometimes a limitation a presentiment which proved usually to have been a blank. She performed all those acts of mental prostration in which, on a first visit to Italy, youth and enthusiam so freely indulge; she felt her heart beat in the presence of immortal genius and knew the sweetness of rising tears in eyes to which faded fresco and darkened marble grew dim. [...] To live in such a place was, for Isabel, to hold to her ear all day a shell of the sea of the past. This vague eternal rumour kept her imagination awake. [Portrait of  a Lady]

The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions. Ruins and basilicas, palaces and colossi, set in the midst of a sordid present, where all that was living and warm-blooded seemed sunk in the deep degeneracy of a superstition divorced from reverence; the dimmer but yet eager Titanic life gazing and struggling on walls and ceilings; the long vistas of white forms whose marble eyes seemed to hold the monotonous light of an alien world: all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense, and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking of them, preparing strange associations which remained through her after-years. Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze; and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter's, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina. [Middlemarch]

For Isabel, life is possibility and promise. She has yet to make her choice so everything is imaginary, ideal, unformed. Dorothea has made her choice, and the first hints of its failure (the vast wreck of her husband's ambitions) are apparent against the backdrop of Rome's great sepulchres. Both young women are ardent idealists, eager for life. Both choose fatally and exchange ignorant presentiments for painful knowledge. At different stages in their careers, both experience Italy in transformative ways.


More soon, I promise, but till I have more time, here's where I'm up to:

I picked up two books today ($5 each) from the big discount store that has moved in where Borders was. A gorgeous Vintage edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets, and Chesterton's biography of Dickens, which I shall place on the shelf next his biography of Browning. Chesterton is a marvellous biographer simply because he breaks all the rules: fiercely partial, wildly speculative, intrusively pontifical - in short, a delight. I won't read the Chesterton immediately because I'm knee-deep in Middlemarch, which I'm reading for the third time.  This time around my sympathies are given differently, and I have a much better grasp of Eliot's peripatetic narration. The sensations of my 19-year-old self reading it for the first time are there as a kind of watermark, against which I can measure my progress. I'm also thinking about how far Dorothea Brooke might be compared with Isabel Archer, of Henry James' masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady: both young women affronting their destinies, making fatal choices about where to bestow their promise. Indeed, both might be the objects of sonnet 87:
Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing,
And like enough thou know’st thy estimate:
The charter of thy worth gives thee releasing;
My bonds in thee are all determinate.
For how do I hold thee but by thy granting?
And for that riches where is my deserving?
The cause of this fair gift in me is wanting,
And so my patent back again is swerving.
Thyself thou gavest, thy own worth then not knowing,
Or me, to whom thou gavest it, else mistaking;
So thy great gift, upon misprision growing,
Comes home again, on better judgment making.
Thus have I had thee, as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

I recall that James, though with the highest admiration for her, called Eliot a 'great horse-faced blue-stocking.' Surely one of the great literary insults, of which even Chesterton might have been proud.

George Eliot on good and great

Further reflections on goodness and greatness led me to the magnificent concluding lines of Middlemarch, and the happily ever after of its heroine, Dorothea Brooke:

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.