Eliot, George. Middlemarch. Blackwood and sons, London, 1871. F; 4/20.
I still have the Riverside paperback version of this I bought at the UBC bookstore in 1968 for an English novel course. But I never read it. I remember looking at the tiny (nine point?) print and thinking no way in hell: this is far too long and will be unconquerably boring. Plus the cool young professor was more interested in contemporary ideology: Frye, Marcuse, and Norman O Brown.
Had I only known. This massive and fascinating story of early 19th century small-town life is one of the most emotionally intelligent and thrilling page-turners I’ve ever enjoyed. What a surprise.
Eliot was of course Mary Anne Evans, a plain-looking woman who lived a radical counterculture life by Victorian standards, and used a male nom de plume so her story wouldn’t be thought of as part of the chick-lit fluff usually written and read by ladies in the 1870s. No danger of that.
The main characters come to life as their personalities and values are thrown into relief under Eliot’s bright light, through the stark filters of love and marriage, money and influence, and tragic misunderstanding. No! we think: these awful things can’t be happening to this wonderful guy, this dear trusting young woman, this honest hard-working family. But they happen again and again, credibly and somehow pretty much as we’ve experienced them ourselves. Stupid mistakes, thoughtlessness, arrogance, narcissism, false hope, denial and just plain nastiness – the real stuff of life.
Here I’m going to introduce the main characters. A bit like my précis of the people and plot of War and Peace, you might if you’ve read Middlemarch (or plan to) skip this and the subsequent couple of paragraphs which outline the plot. There are three main romantic couples, two marriages which essentially fail, and four or five families in and around the town, which is also populated by a gaggle of minor characters.
Dorothea Brooke is one of the nieces of blundering would-be politician Arthur Brooke. She and her sister Celia are in every way marriageable, but spiritually-preoccupied independent-minded Dorothea marries much older and studious Reverend Edward Casaubon. Handsome, idealistic, brilliant young doctor Tertius Lydgate breezes into town and is soon captured by the unique charms and demeanour of Rosamond Vincy, daughter of one of the prominent local families and sister of Fred Vincy, an easygoing playboy back from (and none too happy with) divinity school. Fred is in love with hard-working middle-class no-nonsense Mary Garth. Young talented writer and artist Will Ladislaw also arrives in town and falls in love with Dorothea, inspiring jealousy in his uncle, her husband Reverend Casaubon. Nicholas Bulstrode is a wealthy banker married to the older Vincy’s sister, who gained his wealth by lying about the existence of Will’s mother, who should have inherited a fortune.
Lydgate overspends on his wedding and meeting his wife’s expectations, and gets into debt which throws the couple’s otherwise perfect marriage onto the rocks. Rosamond (“imagine (her) infantine blondness and wondrous crown of hair-plaits, with her pale-blue dress of a fit and fashion so perfect that no dressmaker could look at it without emotion”) is revealed as powerfully and exclusively self-centred:
…in fact there was but one person in Rosamond’s world whom she did not regard as blameworthy, and that was (herself) the graceful creature with blond plaits and with little hands crossed before her, who had never expressed herself unbecomingly and had always acted for the best—the best naturally being what she best liked.
Dorothea finds none of the spiritual fulfilment she expected from her older husband, who is selfish and secretive and preoccupied with trying to write an ambitious religious academic book he knows he can’t complete. He dies of a heart attack and leaves his fortune to Dorothea, but his will stipulates that if she marries Will Ladislaw she gets nothing. Fred Vincy expects to inherit another fortune from old Peter Featherstone who manipulates others through changing his wills, but when the final will is read the money is left to Featherstone’s illegitimate son who turns up out of nowhere. Fred and Mary end up together in spite of his at one point borrowing money from her father to cover a debt and finding he can’t pay it back, which prevents her brother from pursuing his education. Bulstrode’s dishonesty is revealed to everyone by John Raffle, an alcoholic scoundrel who knew him back in the day, who comes into town but dies of alcohol poisoning. Dr. Lydgate, desperate to cover his debt, had been refused a loan by Bulstrode but is offered the money when he gives orders for Raffle’s treatment which Bulstrode allows a servant to misapply, leading to Raffle’s death. Lydgate therefore appears to have been bribed to do the patient in.
So much strife! So much money! So much grief and disappointment! We need comic relief, and as a plot mechanism gossiping tradespeople spread good and bad news with the speed of social media. There’s Mawmsey the grocer, Mrs. Cadwallader the cynical rector’s wife, Limp the appropriately-named shoemaker and Mrs. Dollop who runs the pub. Featherstone’s grasping relatives hang around his deathbed for days on end and complain about the expected willing of his wealth to Fred Vincy (Featherstone’s nephew) which of course never happens.
The writing is Victorian, and you have to get past some of the stylistic peculiarities including double and triple negatives (“a state of doubt little more easy than…” does this mean harder than?), the use of archaic figures of speech (synecdoche and metonymy instead of direct metaphor), and some arch obscure classical references. But is it ever worth it! My above awkward attempts to outline the characters and plot don’t come close to representing our outrage at Rosamond’s narcissism, our sympathy for Dorothea imprisoned by Casaubon, how we cringe at Fred’s shame for spoiling his wonderful girlfriend’s family’s plans, and how we feel about the crippling imposed humility of debt on Lydgate, torn away from his beloved scientific objectives and feeling his marriage shrivel through his own extravagance and his wife’s greed. We hate Raffle’s vicious plot to ruin Bulstrode more than Bulstrode’s duplicity, and even worse innocent Lydgate’s suspected collusion in the death, which becomes public conviction.
Middlemarch’s subtitle is “A Study of Provincial Life”, which would have been ironic. The backwater of this small town is a familiar scene through experience or from innumerable fiction and shows from Peyton Place to half a dozen Netflix series. But its story is more a study of human society and troubles at large than an academic examination of something abstract. Nobody escapes unchanged. Everyone enjoys and suffers the consequences of their particular moral features good, bad and ambiguous, confronted by the world’s events and its people.
Eliot presents those people in a real and complicated world. But along the way she lets us know she’s thinking about what their lives mean:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
(I)n courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present.
Who can know how much of his most inward life is made up of the thoughts he believes other men to have about him, until that fabric of opinion is threatened with ruin?
Was I unconsciously prescient when I was 21? With my experience of marriage, having kids, weighing the worth of money, trying to do a difficult job well, and facing trouble and disappointment deserved and undeserved still ahead of me, I’m guessing I wouldn’t have been able to get through this long, complicated, archaic sophisticated story. Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Now old and grey and well-marinated in all of the above and more I’m lucky to have given it this second belated try and to have been surprised by its magnificence.
If you have the time and a tiny bit of determination you won’t be disappointed.
9.6/9.0 (style probably higher for contemporary readers)
Hi John, Great review! I, too, was gob-smacked by this book. I read it a couple of months ago and I think I might have mentioned it to you then. It was magnificent and such a surprise to read Eliot’s nuanced, sensitive and insightful knowledge of human beings and their motivation. How can one person see so much and then be able to say it? I had to slow down at times so I wouldn’t finish it too fast. Johanna