I have had two previous attempts at reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch but both times abandoned the book after a few chapters. When I saw that Nymeth was planning a readalong this summer, I thought this might give me the motivation to persevere and actually finish the book. I think part of the problem with my past attempts was that I found the book so long and slow-moving it didn’t hold my attention and I ended up being tempted by other books on my shelf. This time round I decided to do things differently. I started reading the book at the end of June alongside other books (something I don’t usually do – I prefer to concentrate on one book at a time) and worked slowly through it, interspersing it with an occasional shorter book. As it turned out, this was the perfect way for me to read Middlemarch, as it meant I could take my time and give it the attention it deserved. And this is a book that really benefits from being read slowly.
The plot is so layered, every sentence filled with so much meaning, that I’m sure there are a lot of things that I’ve missed and will have to pick up on a subsequent reading. It certainly is a book that you need to concentrate on. There are so many characters, who all seem to be related by marriage in some way, that I had to make notes as I was reading and would never have kept all the characters straight otherwise. I highly recommend you do the same as I found my amateurish family trees became invaluable as I progressed through the book!
So what is Middlemarch about? Well, even after finishing the book I don’t really know how to describe the plot. Middlemarch is the story, not just of one or two people, but of an entire town and its inhabitants. It portrays the atmosphere of life in a small community where everybody knows everybody else’s business and most people’s biggest concern is what their neighbours will think of them. The relationships and interactions between the characters are wonderfully complex and Eliot cleverly weaves their storylines together, so that the actions of one person may have unforeseen consequences on the life of another.
The prologue certainly seems to refer to Dorothea Brooke and at first it appears that the book is going to be about Dorothea and her marriage to the dry and scholarly Edward Casaubon. Dorothea is an intelligent, sincere, idealistic girl who despite the warnings of her friends and family becomes determined to marry Mr Casaubon, insisting that he has a “great soul” and that nothing will give her greater happiness in life than assisting him with his studies.
“In this latter end of autumn, with a sparse remnant of yellow leaves falling slowly athwart the dark evergreens in a stillness without sunshine, the house too had an air of autumnal decline, and Mr. Casaubon, when he presented himself, had no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background.”
Just as we’re becoming absorbed in her story, however, Dorothea disappears for several chapters and we are introduced to some new characters. The first is a newcomer to Middlemarch: Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor with some new and radical ideas. Soon after his arrival, Lydgate enters into a relationship with Rosamond Vincy, which proves to be just as difficult and disappointing as Dorothea’s marriage to Mr Casaubon.
“Lydgate could only say, “Poor, poor darling!” – but he secretly wondered over the terrible tenacity of this mild creature. There was gathering within him an amazed sense of his powerlessness over Rosamond. His superior knowledge and mental force, instead of being, as he had imagined, a shrine to consult on all occasions, was simply set aside on every practical question.”
We also follow Rosamond’s brother Fred Vincy as he tries to find his true vocation in life and to earn the respect of Mary Garth, the woman he loves. These three storylines (and several other subplots) all run alongside each other, meeting and intersecting from time to time.
There are many things that make this book so impressive and so notable but the most striking, in my opinion, is the incredibly detailed characterisation. Every character Eliot introduces us to is interesting, nuanced and believable. She even gives her characters distinctive voices (literally!) – we are repeatedly told that Celia speaks “with a quiet staccato” and that Mr Brooke has a habit of repeating himself (“I thought you had more of your own opinion than most girls. I thought you liked your own opinion – liked it, you know”).
We see almost every conceivable personality type; we experience almost every imaginable human emotion. And most importantly, the characters develop throughout the book – they mature, they learn from their mistakes, they become better people. I could find something to admire in almost all of the characters. They all have their own flaws and faults but also have some good qualities – this makes even less likeable people such as Mr Bulstrode interesting to read about and allows us to empathise with them. There are plenty of characters who are very likeable, though. I particularly loved Mary Garth and her father Caleb.
“Mary was fond of her own thoughts, and could amuse herself well sitting in twilight with her hands in her lap; for, having early had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact. And she had already come to take life very much as a comedy in which she had a proud, nay, a generous resolution not to act the mean or treacherous part. Mary might have become cynical if she had not had parents whom she honored, and a well of affectionate gratitude within her, which was all the fuller because she had learned to make no unreasonable claims.”
I am not usually very good at spotting themes in books, but I could find several in Middlemarch. The most obvious is marriage and how it often fails to live up to our expectations (i.e. Dorothea Brooke and Mr Casaubon; Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate). In her portrayals of these marriages, George Eliot never places the blame entirely on either the husband or the wife. Instead, she shows how an unhappy or problematic marriage can be caused by personality differences, unrealistic idealism and a failure to understand the person we are married to.
“All these are crushing questions; but whatever else remained the same, the light had changed, and you cannot find the pearly dawn at noonday. The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same.”
Another theme is change: we should remember that although Middlemarch was published in the 1870s, it was set around forty years earlier at a time of great change: there were changes in politics (the Reform Bill of 1832); changes in transport (the arrival of the railway) and changes in medicine (as portrayed through Tertius Lydgate’s new ideas and theories).
There are so many other aspects of this book that I wanted to discuss here, but I have to stop somewhere! I haven’t even mentioned Will Ladislaw, who is made to feel unwelcome in Middlemarch by his relative, Mr Casaubon; or Mr Farebrother, who is in love with Mary Garth; or Raffles, who is as close to a villain as we get in Middlemarch.
After reaching the final page I can now see why so many people love this book so much. I would recommend Middlemarch to all lovers of Victorian fiction who are prepared to invest the time it takes to read such a long and complex novel. I don’t think this book would be for everyone though. If you prefer faster-paced stories you may have trouble getting into it, as I did on my earlier attempts. My advice to you would be to stick with it, take your time and savour every word, and the story does become more compelling as it goes on.
If I’m going to be completely honest, there are a lot of classics that I’ve enjoyed a lot more than this one, but I can’t think of any that are greater in scope, more insightful or offer a more penetrating study of humanity. After spending the summer with Dorothea and Will, Tertius and Rosamond, Fred and Mary, and the others, I’m really going to miss them all.
I’ll leave you with some more quotes from the book:
“But indefinite visions of ambition are weak against the ease of doing what is habitual or beguilingly agreeable; and we all know the difficulty of carrying out a resolve when we secretly long that it may turn out to be unnecessary.”
“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.”
Please see this post at Things Mean a Lot for other bloggers’ thoughts on Middlemarch