Just finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch a few minutes ago. I actually had read it in grad school, but since that was several decades back, much of it had become a tabula rasa for me in rereading it.
What got me started was New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead’s recent memoir, My Life In Middlemarch, that intriguingly offers parallels to Middlemarch gleaned from her own life.
Rereading this novel of 900 pages came easily to me, since I’ve always admired Eliot deeply for her keen mind and “truth of fellow feeling,” expressed movingly in her earlier Adam Bede. I also identify with her painful transition from evangelical piety to fervent humanism. It will be interesting to see if Mead finds affinity with this aspect.
No other writer, apart from John Stuart Mill has influenced me more.
Unfortunately, I suspect Eliot isn’t much read by people today apart from English majors, but that’s a pity since Eliot never fails to deliver on those fundamental truths promoting understanding and tolerance and, consequently, a greater happiness, despite all hell breaking loose around her.
Set in 1832, the novel’s action occurs against the backdrop of Britain’s political turbulence in the guise of the First Reform Bill addressing social inequity and the first serous environmental impacting of the Industrial Revolution with the coming of the railroad. Thus, Middlemarch offers parallels with our own times and lessons to be learned.
Virginal Woolf famously commented that Middlemarch was “one of few English novels written for grown-up people” (Times Literary Supplement, November 1919).
Eliot, surprisingly for someone writing before the nascence of modern psychology, exhibits a profoundly intuitive grasp of the inner origins of human conduct. Middlemarch is ultimately a novel about wrong choices and their consequences, or of great aspirations and colossal blunders. Freud might have found it demonstrative of the psychical conflict between Id (idealization) and the Super Ego (reality) with its polarity of indulgence vs restraint.
Middlemarch also exhibits a Darwinian flavor: those who adapt, survive; those who can’t, perish, a pervasive thread prescient of the incipient rise of naturalists like Zola, Hardy, Dreiser, Crane and Norris, who would convert determinism into literary art.
At the same time, Eliot exhibits a heightened sympathy for her characters caught in the web of human weakness, however well-meaning. Take the idealists Lydgate and Dorothea, for example. Both want to promote the public good. Both tragically make wrong marriages, blinded by youthful idealization, frustrating their ameliorative quests. Both live with the anguish of narrowed options as a result.
Lydgate emerges a nearly Hamlet figure, knowing what he must do to save his marriage to the narcissist, spendthrift Rosamond, yet unable to muster the necessary resolve. Ironically, his innate sensitivity proscribes his hurting someone he loves, impinging not only on his happiness, but potential to shift the paradigm of traditional medical practice to one rooted in modern science and innovation.
Then there’s the quixotic Dorothea, marrying a man thirty years older than herself, believing it will amend her cultural shortcomings and lead to achieving a social good by helping her pedantic husband, Casaubon, succeed in his massive, never ending study, The Key to All Mythologies, only to find him a repressive, paranoid, vindictive spouse indifferent to her selfhood and social idealism. As with Lydgate, Eliot holds nothing back in her graphic depiction of Dorothea’s descent into an emotional maelstrom.
In many ways, Middlemarch is our first feminist novel, replete in its championing the right of women to self-realization in a patriarchal society. Consider Lydgate’s sexist notion of the ideal woman:
An accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair’s breadth beyond–docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from beyond that limit.
Eliot also succeeds brilliantly in taking the pulse of small town life dominated by its xenophobia, unyielding mores, and proclivity for gossip. Appropriately, Eliot’s sub-title, A of Provincial Life, hints that a principal theme of her story embraces the quest for emancipation from the tyranny of one’s small-minded fellows.
Middlemarch isn’t by any means a perfect novel, as Virginal Woolf noted in her essay, among its weaknesses a fondness for using two sentences when one would suffice.
Some Eliot readers find her editorializing intrusive, as though she can’t risk readers missing her point or foregoing an opportunity to superimpose her worldview; but I don’t mind this at all, for her rummaging through the morass of conflicting emotions in her characters and expansive reflections work to heighten my sensibility to the novel’s nuances and, best, expose me to Eliot’s spacious mind and resonant empathy sufficient to encompass even the hypocritical banker Nicholas Bulstrode, cloaking himself in religious piety. Her empathy enlarges my own.
The Guardian in its ranking of the 100 best novels written in English, ranks Middlemarch at 27th, and deems it the greatest of Victorian novels, no mean compliment in an era of Dickens, Trollope, Hardy and Thackeray. There are others, however, and not a few, who rank it first among the myriad novels written in English. Noted critic Harold Bloom thinks Middlemarch is among the greatest novels written in any language (Western Literature, 1994).
I always like to end any book review I write with resonant passages that may entice readers. While there are many in Middlemarch. I like this one best, coming at its close:
But the effect of her [Dorothea] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Great books deserve re-readings, as by their very nature, they never fail to enlarge our awareness, advance our human sympathy, and promote optimism for, if not a better world, at the very least, a life lived in reconciliation with our fellows.