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Book Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

George Eliot's "study of provincial life" is a complex, believable, immersive novel about a small town and the people who live in it.


Middlemarch

Published in 1871, approximately 318,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.



Named for the fictional community in which it is set, Middlemarch is George Eliot's rich and teeming portrait of provincial life in Victorian England. In it, a panoply of complicated characters attempt to carry out their destinies against the various social expectations that accompany their classes and genders.

At the center of the narrative is Dorothea Brooke, a thoughtful and idealistic young woman determined to make a difference with her life. Enamored of a man she believes is setting this example, she traps herself into a loveless marriage. Her parallel is Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor from the city whose passionate ambition to spread the new science of medicine is complicated by his love for the wrong woman.

Epic in scope and unsurpassed in its study of human nature, Middlemarch is one of the greatest works of world literature.




Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." I don't think I'd so casually dismiss the entire body of non-Eliot English literature, but I echo her sentiment: Middlemarch is a grown-up book. It is (so Wikipedia tells me) a work of "realism," which means there are no Dickensian implausible coincidences or farcical characters, no raving Brontë bad boys or madwomen hidden in attics. These are characters you could easily believe actually lived and events you could easily believe actually happened. But they're still damned interesting.

And how should Dorothea not marry?—a girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers. A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles—who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship. Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

The rural opinion about the new young ladies, even among the cottagers, was generally in favor of Celia, as being so amiable and innocent-looking, while Miss Brooke's large eyes seemed, like her religion, too unusual and striking. Poor Dorothea! compared with her, the innocent-looking Celia was knowing and worldly-wise; so much subtler is a human mind than the outside tissues which make a sort of blazonry or clock-face for it.


The two main characters, around whose individual plots most of the others revolve, are Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, who both wind up in unhappy marriages for entirely different reasons. Dorothea marries a dour old fool with a fragile ego, while Lydgate marries a materialistic social-climber. But neither of these "antagonists" — Dorothea's husband Casaubon and Lydgate's wife Rosamund Vincy — are portrayed as one-dimensional or without complexity themselves. We're meant to feel sorry for Dorothea and Lydgate for marrying them, but Eliot doesn't incite the reader to hate their unhappy spouses.

There are a multitude of secondary characters and side plots, from dissipated, spoiled Fred Vincy's attempts to reform and earn the hand of his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth, to the pious banker Bulstrode's disreputable past, to Will Ladislaw's desire to tweak his benefactor, the humorless, passionless pedant Edward Casaubon, and his anger at Casaubon for caging Dorothea, a sentiment shared by Sir James Chettam, who wanted to marry Dorothea but ended up marrying Dorothea's sister Celia instead.

Early in his tenure at Middlemarch, Lydgate is called on to cast the deciding vote for the position of hospital chaplain, in which he must choose between the preferred candidate of his benefactor, Bulstrode, or his friend, the amiable parson Farebrother, who really needs the money. Eliot describes in nuanced detail all the influences working on Lydgate. The way that the effects of his vote have consequences that ripple all the way to the end of the book was really marvelous plotting, as was the way that all the other small subplots involving each secondary character linked together in the end. Each character, even the smallest, gets shading and psychological depth — no buffoons or caricatures or larger-than-life representations of Eliot's contemporaries.

The story is, essentially, a soap opera. Marital discord, scandalous pasts, rakish young men and lovelorn old ones, a miscarriage and a disputed will, and all the other ingredients of any contemporary drama. The historical context includes the industrial revolution, the beginnings of modern medical practice, and English political reform, all of which is beginning to radically change life even in backwaters like Middlemarch.

I liked this book very much, for the writing (I seem to have acquired a taste for Victorian literature, in all its prolix floweriness) and for the plotting (I have to think that Eliot spent a lot of time working out exactly how to fit each character's story together), and for the characters, as Eliot is one of those authors who creates characters the way painters paint precise, realistic portraits.

Yet another "bonnet drama"?



Middlemarch (1994)

Adapted from George Eliot's novel, this BBC miniseries tells the story of virtuous Dr. Lydgate (Douglas Hodge), who heads up Middlemarch's hospital, and well-do-to Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey), who's determined to help the needy. Along the way, the dreams of these two altruists are derailed by bad marriages and selfish people, yet they also play a part in their own demise. Will this deserving pair find happiness in the twisty-turny conclusion?


This six-episode 1994 miniseries was a nice production, like most of the BBC's recent adaptations of literary classics, and follows the book closely. Although it's quite long, I tend to like adaptations that spread a big novel out over several hours. From start to finish, I don't remember anything significant that was left or changed from Eliot's novel, other than a few details being compressed or side plots summarized. Rosamund was made rather more sympathetic (and considering that Eliot took pains to make Rosamund sympathetic, she is much less infuriating in the miniseries than she was in the book). All the actors were nearly perfect for their roles, especially Causabon. Highly recommended!



Verdict: So, either you like 19th century literature or you don't. If you do, you should love this book. The story is, perhaps, not particularly striking in terms of originality or plot twists, being your basic Victorian soap opera with a minimum of melodrama, but Middlemarch is a great multi-character drama with interesting characters. This was my first time reading George Eliot, and I've definitely added her to my list of authors to read more of.




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