Today’s presenter is Professor Gail Marshall, Head of the School of Literature and Languages, and Gail’s castaway is Dorothea Brooke, a central character in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life (1871-2).
Disc 1. Vaughan Williams, ‘The Lark Ascending’
This is Dorothea as we meet her at the start of the novel in the English Midlands, brimming with the purity of her potential, exquisitely beautiful, and ready to soar like Vaughan Williams’s lark, whilst being aware of the sadness of the world around her, of the deep plangent notes of suffering of those not enjoying her kind of privilege. But her energy wins out, as does the lark’s, and it’s her vibrant yearning that gives heart to the opening of the novel, whilst signalling a vulnerability in that yearning that Vaughan Williams’s final moments also capture.
Disc 2. Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’
This is a deliberately lighter piece of music, and a reminder of the importance of humour of Midddlemarch, which we often overlook. The song came to mind when I was thinking of Dorothea’s relationship with her younger sister, Celia, and the memorable scene early in the novel where Celia, eager to begin to wear jewellery, encourages her older sister to sort through the gems left to them by their mother. The scene is a wonderful example of the dynamic between the two young women: Celia’s quiet determination and a self-belief that plays havoc with Dorothea’s less grounded, less materially-determined sense of self. Dorothea is persuaded to take an emerald and diamond bracelet and ring, while Celia has the necklace of purple amethysts on which she’d set her heart. The song parodies Dorothea’s fears about the worldliness of jewellery, but also speaks of a collusion between women, and thus touches albeit tangentially on the relationship of the sisters, which, despite their being very different people, is the one of the most abiding and one of the closest relationships of the novel. Think Fleabag and Clare. Elizabeth and Margaret in The Crown. Jo and Amy in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.
Disc 3. ‘Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ from The Sound of Music
Another inappropriate song you might think, but I wanted something to represent Dorothea as she becomes betrothed to the middle-aged Casaubon. Dorothea, like Liesl, is overjoyed with her older beau, revelling in his maturity and her belief that he will be able to teach the dead languages and ancient wisdom that she longs to know. Rolf betrays Liesl and Casaubon betrays Dorothea, and both men betray the better selves they probably were unable to become. The song rings with ungrounded optimism, and a naïve delight that later turns to tragedy.
Disc 4. Puccini, ‘Vissi d’Arte’ from Tosca, sung by Maria Callas in 1964
Chapters 19 and 20 are in many ways the most important in the novel. Dorothea and Casaubon go to Rome on their honeymoon. He studies in the Vatican Library; she is left to her own devices and to try to make sense of the ‘stupendous fragmentariness’ of ‘the city of visible history’. Dorothea is soon found sobbing in her room after a quarrel with Casaubon. Her marriage is already falling woefully short of what she expected it to be, and Rome signals all the plenitude that Casaubon will never be able to supply. Eliot makes it clear that Dorothea is overwhelmed by Rome, its art and its history, and, by what seems clear to the reader if not yet to Dorothea, by her dawning attraction to Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s attractive young cousin. Puccini’s heroine lives for art and love, and this vision is what Rome offers – bewilderingly – to Dorothea.
Disc 5. Joni Mitchell, ‘Both Sides Now’
A popular choice recently on the real Desert Island Discs, this song speaks to the bewilderment of adulthood, and the reality that experiencing more doesn’t necessarily mean knowing more: ‘I really don’t know life at all’. Dorothea’s young expectations that knowledge would give her fulfilment are dashed, but she does begin to realise that the recognition of complexity is itself a gain. Eliot and Joni Mitchell guide their readers and listeners on a similar journey.
Disc 6. Stormzy, ‘Crown’
I love this song. And it’s perfect for Dorothea when she’s struggling after Casaubon’s death to recognise everyone’s needs, and particularly when she comes to believe that her beloved Will is in love with the married Rosamond Lydgate. Dorothea is utterly lost – ‘Searching every corner of my mind, Looking for the answers I can’t find’. Will isn’t of course disloyal, but the pain and depletion that his apparent betrayal brings upon Dorothea is beautifully recognised in ‘Crown’, as are the misunderstandings that Dorothea’s attempts to do good provoke. In its Shakespearean echo, the song also reminds us of Eliot’s on-going conversation with Shakespeare through the novel’s allusions and quiet references to the playwright.
Disc 7. Bill Withers, ‘Lovely Day’
But then, in a wonderfully romantic moment, Stormzy’s ‘rain falling down at the Brits’ is replaced by real thunder and rain crashing outside, and all misunderstandings dissolve as the lovers declare themselves:
While he was speaking there came a vivid flash of lightning which lit each of them up for the other—and the light seemed to be the terror of a hopeless love. Dorothea darted instantaneously from the window; Will followed her, seizing her hand with a spasmodic movement; and so they stood, with their hands clasped, like two children, looking out on the storm, while the thunder gave a tremendous crack and roll above them, and the rain began to pour down. Then they turned their faces towards each other, with the memory of his last words in them, and they did not loose each other’s hands.
Her lips trembled, and so did his. It was never known which lips were the first to move towards the other lips; but they kissed tremblingly, and then they moved apart.
The rain was dashing against the window-panes as if an angry spirit were within it, and behind it was the great swoop of the wind; it was one of those moments in which both the busy and the idle pause with a certain awe.
This gorgeous song knows, as do Dorothea and Will, that the world isn’t perfect, that things will continue to ‘bear heavy on their minds’, that someone else ‘always seems to know the way’, but in each other they’ve found a source of deep and lasting happiness in expressing the mutual love that’s been obvious to readers for a very long time.
Disc 8. Roger Whittaker, ‘Streets of London’
This final choice is prompted by a comment from Celia when she hears that Dorothea is marrying Will and moving to London where he’ll become an MP: ‘How can you always live in a street?’ I barely noticed this sentence until it was used by Andrew Davies in his outstanding adaptation of Middlemarch. At a time when a significant demographic shift to cities was beginning, the line signals quite how far Dorothea is moving away from Celia’s and her own previous existence. The song lyrics also show, however, that even in the city, there will be a need for Dorothea’s philanthropic work, and that it’s there on those streets that ‘the effect of her being on those around her’ would become ‘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’.
Dorothea will diligently read the Bible and Shakespeare, so I’d like to cast her away with a DIY manual, so that she can try to build a shelter. She once designed model cottages for the workers on Sir James Chettam’s estate, and with a little help, she’d probably do a good job on the island.
A miniature of Will’s grandmother. The portrait appears throughout the novel, and as Dorothea falls in love with Will she comes to relish the resemblance between the young woman of the miniature and her handsome grandson. At one point in the novel, when Dorothea fears she’ll never see Will again, ‘For the first time she took down the miniature from the wall and kept it before her, liking to blend the woman who had been too hardly judged with the grandson whom her own heart and judgment defended. Can any one who has rejoiced in woman’s tenderness think it a reproach to her that she took the little oval picture in her palm and made a bed for it there, and leaned her cheek upon it, as if that would soothe the creatures who had suffered unjust condemnation?’ It would be a comfort on a desert island.