Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, May 2014
Memory is fallible. I read once that ‘old people’, read everyone, have very unreliable memories about weather in the past. I applied this test to myself, and though I am reluctant to admit it, my own memories of hot summers, the weather of my youth is completely unreliable.
I begin with this preamble because I have a distinct and fond memory of first reading George Elliot’s Mill on the Floss that I am beginning to feel is not quite accurate. I was 23 years old in Canada studying postgraduate science but enjoying reading literature, influenced perhaps by my girlfriend at the time and other friends. I think I was young and impressionable, or perhaps easily impressed, naïve and with a foolish ambition to write. I also discovered at this time that Winnipeg, Manitoba was the centre of the universe for food, but that is another story.
My memory is of marvellous and precise vocabulary and of scintillating description of the English countryside, employed by George Elliot in The Mill on the Floss in the first few pages and chapters. It was so erudite that I wondered whether I’d ever know enough and understand enough to write so well. The introductory passages, while difficult and requiring me to consult the dictionary regularly were also just wonderful.
I recently bought a second hand Penguin copy at a stall for two dollars, which I didn’t mind defacing with a pink marker pen. The results were not quite what I expected and I may download a few chapters of Middlemarch just to make sure that I hadn’t got the wrong book.
I’m joking and I haven’t!
By the way and quite independent of anything relevant to these musings, I think that Middlemarch is wonderful and important; one of the best English novels written in the nineteenth century. I think Jane Austen is better but think of her as 18th century, perhaps for no good reason.
The Mill on the Floss is arguably better written than Middlemarch. I found the first three chapters of the former beautifully wry and amusing; and the aunts are incredible. The Mill on the Floss, however, is not quite so memorable because of the ongoing and unbelievable melodrama, climaxing with an ending that forbids suspension of disbelief (at least to a late 20th century mind).
A cautionary example, perhaps, to the American writing workshop, is that it is dangerous to begin a novel thinking of the blockbuster ending. Although, in my lifetime, popular American non-fiction in general could be improved immeasurably should a strong ending be envisaged from the start. In my experience the suspenseful build up in popular American non-fiction, across a wide range of disciplines, invariably ends in premature ejaculation and a long sticky wind down into trivia.
I have similar views in comparing The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Tolstoy’s latter book is more engaging, if flawed, whilst the former though a complete and rounded novel is less interesting. It also has a similar dramatic ending envisioned from the start: although Tolstoy handles the denouement much more believably than Elliot does.
However, perhaps I am getting grumpy in my old age, I recently re-read War and Peace and shocked myself that I found Natasha irritating, the old Prince not so bad, Prince Andrei unlikeable and Pierre almost logical in his behaviour. The antithesis of my youth.
Sorry, I am pathologically addicted to irrelevant digressions —and if you’ll wait, while I wash my hands —there’ll be no more.
I was disappointed in the first few chapters of The Mill on the Floss because I could find none of the vocabulary or erudite brilliance that I had such a clear memory of.
On re-reading more carefully I can understand how I was gulled into a misunderstanding that was partly due to youth and naivety. I wasn’t yet properly aware of purple prose in literature (though more than aware of it in pulp science fiction). I was quite aware of fine technical sentence and paragraph construction in fiction (particularly Christopher Isherwood and to a lesser extent Hemingway). However, I wasn’t yet cognisant of the deeper processes in plot and story construction. Perhaps few are; some friends are completely unaware of irritating chapter endings, the result of the above-mentioned writers’ workshops in America.
For example, now on reading the first few chapters of Mill on the Floss especially the introductory chapter I find it almost matches the beginning of The God of Small Things in purple prose. I recently read The God of Small Things again and once you overcome the over-blown prose in the first few chapters, Arundhati Roy settles into writing a very good book. One also has to forgive her this first attempt, which perhaps has led to her clear writing and common sense in non-fiction on important subjects. Her activism is admirable.
I can now see that I mistakenly admired the wrong things in the writing of the first three chapters of The Mill on the Floss.
First, it was the surfeit of adjectives: fluted, trimly, brimful, withy, leafless —some of them unusual; similarly the nouns: gables, river-brink, beehive-ricks, withes, hedgerows, wavelets were redolent of English rusticity, with which (although bombarded by foreign England through my childhood in Australia) I was unfamiliar. Having recently spent some months in the countryside of central England I am now suddenly familiar with the reality of these nouns and descriptions.
Then, there was the attempt at humorous uneducated dialogue and a surfeit of adjectival phrases that were strange: a great curtain of sound, meek-eyed beasts, moist necks, eager nostrils, unresting wheel, diamond jets of water, queer white cur, waxen complexion and fat hands.
And finally, statements of pompous import intended to facilitate the dialogue: had had his comb cut for once in his life, a man of safe traditional opinions, plotting covetousness and deliberate contrivance, lazy acquiescence, small frauds neutralized by small extravagances, maladroit flatteries and clumsily improvised insinuations.
Yet this analysis is insufficient to support my flawed memory of brilliant vocabulary, clear description and erudite writing. It is simply unsustainable. But, I still remember it so clearly, though not clearly enough to go beyond the first few chapters and finish the book.
Thus memory is unreliable and belief untrustworthy.
All that is left is the grave and the laying out on fresh new linen kept for a lifetime to this purpose. Pity, I haven’t got an eager throng awaiting inheritance and providing fine entertainment in my declining days.
Some limited further reading
The Guardian on 150th Anniversary
Key Words: The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, George Elliot, Christopher Isherwood, Hemingway, Arundati Roy, The God of Small Things, fallible memory, unreliable memory, untrustworthy belief, weather