This month I remedied one of my canonical blind spots and read George Eliot’s Middlemarch at last. Four years out of my last English classroom, on either side of the desk, it’s a kind of thrilling relief to read a book of this subject, tone, and caliber and find my instincts to think in term paper theses almost totally in remission. I say “almost”—though I read for pleasure and inspiration only; though I won’t be heading to JSTOR (or trying to sound like I have); though I only “brought the work into conversation” with anything via snarky texts to and from my friend Emily about where Eliot’s characters rank in the pantheon of Literary Bad Decision-Makers—still I may never get over the reading habit of choosing an early, favorite theme and focusing on whether and how everything else, both art and craft, works in that theme's service.
It was no contest in this case—I know I write often here about my fascination with, and love for, novels of expertise. (Are fascination and love two things? One and the same? The books themselves can help you decide!) Years ago I heard Michael Byers speak on the subgenre, and the overlap between “manners” and “expertise”—ambitions and failures of the heart and the head—in fiction. I immediately adopted the immensely useful terms and used them to parse why I love my favorite books and authors, starting with Andrea Barrett and Michael Chabon. I still hold the concept up to every work I love and/or admire, curious to map where my tastes fall on the spectrum. (It’s very possible to go too far in either direction. For instance, I’m reading a novel right now that is so preoccupied with “expertise” over emotion it feels like the author explaining his favorite hobby directly to the reader, only constructing ventriloquist dummy characters as an afterthought—it’s an unbelievable slog, particularly given that I’m not even convinced by the text that the author knows his “field of expertise” well enough to keep from stumbling in gopher holes.)
With all this in mind, it’s bonkers that it took me this long to get to the case study Byers used in his talk on the phenomenon—Middlemarch. Byers described it as a novel of expertise—a “nerd novel”—in disguise as a novel of manners. I certainly found that to be true—the success or failure of each of the novel’s marriages is wonderfully tangled up with the competence, ambition, and practical intelligence of their players. For every melodramatic twist or deliciously unlikely chance meeting, there is an equally nail-biting drama of professional talent or the lack of it—Lydgate’s frustrated medial reforms; Casaubon’s quite differently doomed Key to All Mythologies; Farebrother’s delightful side-hustle scientific hobbies, financed both by gambling and vicar-ing; Garth’s general passion for “business.” We see characters eagerly and occasionally successfully professing painting, philosophy, banking, “banking,” teaching, sewing, philanthropy, politics, estate management, child-rearing, theology...ribbon-buying, I guess we would call Rosamond’s area of expertise?, and of course hospital management and cottage design, among many other pursuits. Basically, there’s a lot of work done in Middlemarch, for an “upstairs” novel. And, heartbreakingly, there’s no static relationship between enthusiasm and success. In this, it is my very favorite kind of book.
This is a fairly straight-up recommendation; I don’t have a lot to add beyond that if you like this kind of novel, you shouldn’t wait as long as I did to crack it. But I’ll note one more thing I love about the way Eliot treats expertise in the novel. She’s non-prescriptive in her analysis of what leads to success or failure in work, just as she is about her characters’ volatile personal happiness or despair. There isn’t one factor that makes anyone in Middlemarch “good” or “bad” at their job. Education, privilege, experience, enthusiasm, self-esteem, ambition, talent, luck, or the lack of any and all—they’re all in play. (I was particularly on the edge of my seat for Lydgate’s fall from financial stability, and Eliot’s exploration of the way money troubles eat away at one’s mental bandwith for ambition and enthusiasm in other areas of life.) Farebrother, a truly amazing character, at one point intones "experto crede" in advice to Lydgate—something my edition of the novel translates in an endnote as “believe one who knows from experience,” and a phrase I've seen translated elsewhere as “trust the expert.” Eliot is occupied in Middlemarch with all kinds of complexly interlocking and entangling success and failure for her characters, personal and professional, and it’s delightful to watch an expert at work.