Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot (1872) Penguin Classics (2003) 853 pp
I bought my copy of Middlemarch from a bookshop in Wales in 2004. I’d just finished Eliot’s great debut novel, Adam Bede, and I fully intended to quickly continue my relationship with Eliot’s work. I started the book in 2006, got 100 or so pages into it, and then moved across country. I have carried the book from home to home since, and almost every New Year begins with me thinking: “I’ll read Middlemarch this year.” I actually downloaded the audiobook, narrated by Maureen O’Brien, several years ago, hoping that would help me reach my goal. Alas, the book is so long! But . . . late last year the book topped the “100 Greatest British Novels” list (see here), and I couldn’t wait any longer. I finally know what all the fuss is about! And I can think of no reason this amazing book should not top that list.
Eliot’s portrait of provincial town in the late 1820s and early 1830s is a compassionate and wise look at:
For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it.
The book is long, but richly rewarding as we go about town with the old and young. The old — Peter Featherstone, Elinor Cadwallader, Arthur Brooke, Nicholas Bulstrode, Edward Casaubon, Caleb and Susan Garth — are settled in their ways, for the most part (though the past can come back and haunt them). They are looking with beneficent or skeptical eyes at the rising generation: Dorothea Brooke, Celia Brooke, Will Ladislaw, Mary Garth, Fred Vincy, Rosamund Vincy, Tertius Lydgate, and many more. We get to know these characters inwardly and outwardly over the course of this eight-volume novel as they rise and fall in public and private. They marry wisely or poorly. The naïve gain wisdom, in the process becoming a bit slower to smile.
The book can be said to be about this transition from innocence to experience, but it is not nearly so simplistic as that sounds. Even the old have, as Eliot says, “an intense consciousness within” them. This book is more about that, giving us readers a beautiful lesson in empathy as well as criticism. Throughout, Eliot sits back as a vocal narrator, often judging the character as well as reminding her reader not to judge too harshly. She addresses us expressly, and thus makes us complicit in the story. For example, after Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon marry (note above that one is in the list of “young” characters while the other is in the list of “old”) we are naturally interested in Dorothea’s inner struggles. But after seeming to promise a chapter about Dorothea Eliot calls our prejudice into question:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea — but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for those too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.
This is not to say that we should be entirely sympathetic to Mr. Casaubon. On the contrary. Eliot is teaching wisdom. We never know quite what silent terrors a person may be struggling with. She lets us watch a few, though, as they stay up at night, thoughts raging through their head while sitting up in the silent darkness. It’s brilliant that we should witness this and then, the next day, be kept out of that person’s head because we are focused on another character. The character whose night-time struggle we sat through is now just another neighbor.
The book is also quite funny, especially when Eliot steps aside to grant us a Middlemarch philosophy lesson, such as this absolutely delightful on the “ardent charity” of making “a neighbor unhappy for her good.”
In Middlemarch a wife could not long remain ignorant that the town held a bad opinion of her husband. No feminine intimate might carry her friendship so far as to make a plain statement to the wife of the unpleasant fact known or believed about her husband; but when a woman with her thoughts much at leisure got them suddenly employed on something grievously disadvantageous to her neighbors, various moral impulses were called into play which tended to stimulate utterance. Candor was one. To be candid in Middlemarch phraseology, meant, to use an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, or their position; and a robust candor never waited to be asked for its opinion. Then, again, there was the love of truth — a wide phrase, but meaning in this relation, a lively objection to seeing a wife look happier than her husband’s character warranted, or manifest too much satisfaction in her lot — the poor thing should have some hint given her that if she knew the truth she would have less complacency in her bonnet, and in light dishes for a supper-party. Stronger than all, there was the regard for a friend’s moral improvement, sometimes called her soul, which was likely to be benefited by remarks tending to gloom, uttered with the accompaniment of pensive staring at the furniture and a manner implying that the speaker would not tell what was on her mind, from regard to the feelings of her hearer. On the whole, one might say that an ardent charity was at work setting the virtuous mind to make a neighbor unhappy for her good.
Middlemarch deserves its status as a major work of world literature. I’m thrilled it’s at the top of that list I referred to above, even if I personally like other novels more (I’m not sure I do). The book is filled with wisdom as it tells so many lovely, if painful, stories.
Late in the novel, Dorothea and her sister Celia are reflecting briefly on where life has unexpectedly taken them. Celia wishes to have a better understanding of the path:
Dorothea smiled, and Celia looked rather meditative. Presently she said, “I cannot think how it all came about.” Celia thought it would be pleasant to hear the story.
“I dare say not,” said Dorothea, pinching her sister’s chin. “If you knew how it came about, it would not seem wonderful to you.”
“Can’t you tell me?” said Celia, settling her arms cozily.
“No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.”
Fortunately, Eliot braved the difficulty and told the story. I felt it through and through.