Walking south through Manhattan from America House on weekdays—this remains my preferred way of getting home. But on days when the weather does not lend itself to walking, I take the subway. The F train is only a short distance from our front door, and on boarding I generally see a majority of the passengers—even those gripping the stainless steel poles—engaged in what might be called comfort reading, the equivalent of comfort food. Sometimes the two go together. Recently, a woman who sat down beside me drew from her carryall a cellophane bag of pretzels. Popping the first pretzel into her mouth, she pulled from the same carryall a paperback novel, and soon, thanks to these twin comforts, was lost to her surroundings. (If you know New York City subways, you also know that seeking oblivion from those challenging surroundings represents a not unreasonable goal for the average New Yorker.)
By then, I was deep into my own comfort reading: George Eliot’s 1860 novel, The Mill on the Floss. Victorian fiction has long been a favorite with me, whether on or off the subway. As for The Mill on the Floss (floss means stream), I had read it in high school, but remembered little beyond the title. Coming across a second-hand copy at a book sale was like a sign: try it again. So this somewhat battered Harvard Classics volume, bound in faded green cloth, become part of my backpack’s weekday contents.
Gradually, the story of a brother and sister—warmhearted Maggie and stern Tom—came back. And because I had time to read only a dozen or so pages per trip, I could savor all the more deeply the plot’s gradual unfolding. It takes them through their difficult childhood into an adult life that forces upon them the kinds of moral choices for which George Eliot is known. I could have continued reading the same book in the evenings, and might easily have finished its 565 pages in a couple of weeks. But for me, the pleasure of subway reading lies precisely in rationing it out over a period of time.
On my walking-home days, there would be no reading at all, no George Eliot moments. But as a kind of ancillary pleasure, my thoughts would gravitate to whatever point in the novel I had by then reached. Moving along on foot (very briskly indeed if I had the 5:30 parish Mass), and following my usual route past Grand Central Terminal and down the broad sidewalks of Park Avenue South, I could reflect on the two young people’s struggles, and that in itself constituted an absorbing interest. Would Maggie’s love for a man already committed to her cousin lead her to betray that close relationship and lose the respect of her brother? Or would she turn to another admirer, a young crippled man anxious to marry her? In the end, her inner conflict between duty and the longings of her heart is resolved by death. Days of rain cause the floss to rise and overflow its banks, and both Tom and Maggie are swept away when their rowboat is swamped by a mass of floating debris. Their bodies are found clasped in an embrace of loving reconciliation.
Besides the stories themselves, part of the attraction of Victorian novels lies in their settings in an earlier time and place. If not less complex in terms of age-old human struggles like Maggie and Tom’s, these settings are simpler when it comes to the surroundings of everyday life. Eliot herself suggests a time frame in her novel earlier than her own, when railroads had not yet cut through the English countryside. People then either walked or used horses to reach their destinations.
What a contrast to the present frantic rush of New York life that—whether on subways or on jammed streets—takes a heavy toll on the human spirit in our multitasking climate. For those drawn to them, Victorian novels can consequently serve as a soothing balm.