My friend told me this was a book about people who want to do great things…and not everybody gets to. She and I struggle with that. We are housewives who ache for some expression in the world. We follow politics, read classic literature, KonMari our homes and look systems to improve our budgeting, housekeeping or cooking. Still, we are not satisfied. As an adult, my favorite children’s book is the Little Red Tugboat: “I was meant for greater things!” There is nothing greater than parenting, and yet, I get to feeling unused in some strange capacity. I feel pulled into the world, but in an unhealthy way.
My friend’s synopsis intrigued me. I ordered it from the library and soon it came, all 841 pages of it. I began…slowly.
For the first 100 pages, I think I disliked every character. Then we heard more about Dr. Lydgate. I liked him. I appreciate a medical mind wanting to make discoveries. As soon as the fictional Rosamond and I had developed our crush on him, author George Elliot began to reveal his faults. She did not hide Dorothea’s faults. Dorothea was irritating from the get-go, probably much like I was as a youngster.
This book is largely about young people finding their way in the world. Dorothea and Lydgate ache to do great things. Fred, Mary and Rosamond do not. Will has all the energy to do great things but lacks motivation. They all find their way, some more roundabout than others.
Every character evolves. Every character is good and bad. Every character is capable of feeling and is capable of experience a want of feeling.
I had to stay friendly with the footnotes. Elliot manages to make references as quickly as the Gilmore Girls, only it is not my pop culture. She makes brilliant feminist commentary on what few advantages there are for women but speaks so satirically about their weakness and inability to think, their need to be governed. The author acknowledges in the end that some endings may be dissatisfying, perhaps the woman should have achieved more, but we all exist in our context. “A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life…” Not just passion but circumstances make a way for public heroes.
That is wisdom.
This is the way that great literature can teach us. With real characters who are not flat but can be felt, who take shape with flesh and blood in our imagination. In learning their lessons, it is like learning from people we know, who share life with us. Those lessons sink deeper than something stated to us with little depth or feeling. We need the lives of the saints to teach us about perseverance in spiritual dryness. We need Therese and her parents to teach us about the little way. We need Dorothea to teach us about making great sacrifices. We need to learn a lesson from fallen characters.
In the end, I loved it. I simply loved it.