My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot has been proclaimed by more than one writer as the greatest novel in the English language. Virginia Woolf, in her assessment, called it "the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people." Who am I to disagree?
The book marked another glaring gap in my literary education and so I resolved to fill that gap in 2015. There were times during its reading that I thought it might take me the entire year to fulfill my resolution. At more than 800 very wordy pages, it requires a commitment of time and attention.
I had somehow expected the novel to be difficult to get into, as 19th century literature sometimes is, but I was surprised to find that the narrative captured me almost from the first sentence and I was eager to learn just how the story would reveal itself.
Middlemarch is most definitely not a quick and easy read though. Written for a 19th century audience that expected very detailed descriptions and explanations of backgrounds for the characters and plots of the novels they read, George Eliot, I am sure, fully met those expectations with this epic tale.
The action of the novel takes place during 1830-32 in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch in England. It was written more than thirty years after that time and so the author was able to write it as one looking back upon events with the perspective of history.
There is an almost bewildering number of characters. The reader sometimes feels that she is making the acquaintance of every single soul in the town, but, in fact, the action focuses on three main characters and it is through them that everything else is revealed.
The central character is Dorothea Brooke, a well-to-do young woman who has been brought up, with her sister Celia, by their uncle Mr. Brooke, who is himself a bit of a comical character. Dorothea is intelligent and highly idealistic and she longs to lead a life of the mind. Her uncle expects her to marry their wealthy, well-respected neighbor, Sir James Chettam, but Dorothea chooses instead an intellectual, a dry pedantic scholar named Edward Casaubon who is several decades older than she. He is not in robust health and the thoroughly predictable happens. He dies some eighteen months after the marriage, leaving Dorothea even more wealthy. But before he dies, he writes a codicil to his will, that states that if Dorothea should marry his young cousin, Will Ladislaw, she will forfeit the estate.
Dorothea had first met Ladislaw on her honeymoon in Italy and there was an instant connection between them, as they talked and found they had many interests in common. Casaubon, a very jealous man, was determined to stop that relationship from developing any further.
Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, who was an idealistic young doctor who had modern ideas about reform of the medical profession, had arrived in Middlemarch and was trying to set up a practice and make his way there. Lydgate gets to know the town's financier, Mr. Bulstrode, whom, we slowly learn, has a checkered and secret past.
Bulstrode had married into the Vincy family and had a niece, Rosamund Vincy, who was the daughter of the mayor and was considered the town's great beauty. Lydgate was captivated by her appearance, giving scarcely a thought to her character (which was hopelessly shallow and self-centered) and he determined to marry her.
Rosamund had a brother, Fred, who is the third major character through whose eyes we see the "provincial life" revealed. He is university-educated, restless, and irresponsible, supposedly destined for the church (by his family) and thoroughly unhappy about that prospect. He has long - since childhood, in fact - been in love with Mary Garth, daughter of an estate manager and considered by his family to be far beneath him socially and not a suitable wife. Mary returns his feelings but tells him that she will never accept him if he goes into the church - because she knows that he would be miserable in that profession.
As we get to know these characters and all their associations with others in the town, we also get a sense of the issues of the day. We learn something, for example, of the Great Reform Bill that was hotly debated at the time and of the construction of a new mode of transportation, the railways. We also see, through Lydgate and his associations, something of the state of medical science at that time. As the community faces many changes related to these issues, we encounter the deeply reactionary mindset of the settled community, a mindset that is the living definition of "provincial."
It is remarkable that for almost 150 years, Middlemarch has been able to retain its status as one of the masterpieces of English fiction. This is true in spite of some of the quibbles expressed by some reviewers and readers about the ultimate destiny of some of the characters, especially Dorothea, whom the reader comes to identify with so thoroughly and to have such high hopes for. In the end, she subordinates her life and desires to those of the man she loves, Ladislaw. But even though she did not, perhaps, make her own distinctive mark in the world, George Eliot speaks in her final paragraph of her hidden influence:
But the effect of her 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.Many of us would be happy with such an epitaph.
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