Summer 2017

Sentences / A History of the Lights and Shadows

Learning sympathy from George Eliot

Brian Dillon

“Sentences” is a new column by Brian Dillon each installment of which examines the mechanics and style of a single sentence chosen by the author.

“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.”
—George Eliot

The sentence—how else to say it?—embarrasses me, and not only because I could never hope to match its wisdom and its rhythms and that weird image at the end. In the spring of 1991, I was in the final year of a degree in English literature at University College Dublin. In a fit of enthusiasm at the start of the first term, I had gotten myself elected as student representative at departmental meetings. I was twenty-one years old, and all ardent for the months ahead, which I hoped would lead on to graduate school. For the first time in my life I was primed for some hard work, eager for academic success. I took a class on “Narrative and Interpretation” in the nineteenth century, and flung myself at novels and stories by the Brontës, James Hogg, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James. I had not yet opened Middlemarch (1872) when a group of fellow students came up to me after a lecture and broached the subject of Eliot’s novel.

Unlike the rest of the course, Middlemarch was being taught by a visiting professor from Texas, and word had gone around that this character was attached to the Great Books program back in Austin. Knowing nothing about the pedagogical history of these programs in the United States, my friends and I delighted in mocking a naïve allegiance to the sturdy canon. We imagined this dude and his pals all sitting around in Stetsons, occasionally slamming a meaty palm on some classic volume and declaring: “It’s a great book!” And so I didn’t balk when my classmates asked that I go see our professor and inquire, because they had grown afraid of its heft: Do we have to read all of Middlemarch? Might we not sample instead a few chapters that touched on our theme? I don’t recall much about this shameful interview in his office, except the gales of laughter and an assurance that Middlemarch was nothing but narrative and interpretation.

Of course, it is something else too: a novel about sympathy in more than one sense. As a portrait—better, a panorama—of provincial life in England around 1830, Middlemarch is intimately concerned with how much its characters know about one another, the extent to which they can credit each other’s interior lives, the capacities they own for understanding and indulgence. I’d been prepared for all of this—stock moral stuff in Victorian realism—but not for the way Eliot speaks of sympathy, or its absence: in strange and complex metaphors such as open and close our sentence. I was not expecting language like this, in which sympathy is physical or chemical as well as spiritual, moral, and aesthetic. Here is a sentence whose art as well as import demanded I become a more sympathetic reader—and person.

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