Middlemarch, by George Eliot.

Middlemarch: the seventh novel by George Eliot, published in serial form between 1871 and 1872, and then as a novel in 1874 (which means it is approaching its 140th birthday next year). And you have no idea how glad I re-read it. When I started this blog on 1st December I had decided to participate in Beth's readalong because Middlemarch has been a book of regret for me: I read it too quickly, I didn't pay any attention (I really do mean that literally) and the little time I spent with it was pointless. So many people seem to have an opinion on Middlemarch: Virginia Woolf, in her chapter on 'George Eliot' in The Common Reader described it as "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.", and Emily Dickinson wrote, "What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?" Martin Amis and Julian Barnes both believe it is the greatest novel in the English language, whereas Florence Nightingale, on the other hand, referred to it as "odious reading" (and said much more, but it would give the plot away to share it - if you have read it, here are a few more quotes). Henry James is also recorded to have expressed his irritation at one of the plot developments.

As for me, I didn't love this book. Because of the aforementioned reasons I now have some affection for it, and I did enjoy it very much. But I didn't love it for one very unfair reason: it wasn't what I wanted. This is not a good way to evaluate a book at all, of course. George Eliot wrote about provincial life in (possibly) Coventry in the 1830s. It's about the village of Middlemarch, and the lives, the politics, the marriages, and the relationships of those who live there, and it even gives a snapshot health and medicine. I didn't want Eliot to do all that, but Eliot did and it is her book. I would have appreciated more focus (though not necessarily a shorter length) about the characters I was interested in. And that is why I didn't love Middlemarch completely, but as I say, that's rather unreasonable of me.

And now that's dealt with, moving forward...

"Middlemarch", according to A. S. Byatt, can refer to a quote from Dante's Inferno: "Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita [In the middle of the journey of our life]". In context,
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.  
[In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.]
"Middlemarch" may also refer to border: "march" or "marchland" may refer to the border of two counties. There is that sense of being "in the middle", or rather, in the midst of it all. The introduction is comparatively brief, as is the end: Middlemarch is the centre of the lives of the inhabitants of Middlemarch: Dorothea Brooke, Edward Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, Rosamond Vincy, Tertius Lydgate, Fred Vincy, and Mary Garth (and there are more characters, important ones too, but these are the ones who I took the most interest in). One of the major themes is marriage, which ties together many (but not all) of other themes. Education for example: that, very early on in the novel, Dorothea's choice to marry reflects not love, but a desire for the education that has been denied to her. This leads to disappointment, and her's is not the only bad marriage in Middlemarch. Some marry for social status, some on idealistic and romantic whims, all are ultimately destructive. The marriages based on careful thought have the stronger ground to build upon it success and happiness.

Middlemarch is a fairly subtle novel. I wouldn't go as far as agreeing with those who class Middlemarch as realism: events that harm or potentially harm the marriages can't be said to be "low key" exactly, however at the same time they are fairly believable. Middlemarch is social criticism, and Eliot is a remarkably wise observer who describes disappointment and hope very poignantly. Those who suffer are not those who necessarily "deserve it": they aren't bad people; they aren't hateful, cruel, or mean spirited. They make very bad decisions based on very poor judgement, but oh, we do wish them well. Dorothea, for example, and Lydgate, they are decent folk, ambitious and determined to make themselves and their lives and those around them better, or happy. They do their best. At first, I found Dorothea a little irritating: too pompous, perhaps, and certainly sanctimonious, I didn't quite believe in her, but that changed fairly quickly. Whether I loved Middlemarch or not (and perhaps I did a little), I did love her and will always remember her. Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf's father, found Dorothea to have "a slight touch of stupidity". I don't think so. But she was incredibly earnest. Perhaps the two could be confused, but I think that comment from Stephen may say more about him than it does Dorothea. Is Dorothea too saintly? If so, saintliness and stupidity are frequently confused in 19th Century literature. I don't think it's fair, though!

This is a very complex novel, and at times I found it a strain. There are many other elements to it I haven't mentioned, but I would write reams if I was to try. The key to it, which I suppose I've admitted I truly failed to appreciate, is that it is a study on provincial life: that is, indeed, it's subtitle. Middlemarch is not the study of one element of provincial life, but the whole web: of people, politics, cause and effect, relationships, marriage, and intentions be they good or bad: society, in short. An almost anthropological fictional study of a microcosm of society. It is very valuable, whether it is the greatest novel ever written or not. It has to be read, and though it may not always be enjoyable, I do very much believe that it is deeply rewarding. And yes, perhaps I did love it.

*****

My posts for Middlemarch 13:

Comments

  1. I've always been a bit intimidated and intrigued by Middlemarch (and George Eliot). Study on provincial life sounds like my cup of tea, though... It has been interesting to follow your reviews, I will get to it sooner or later myself as both Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss are in my Classics Club reading list.

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    1. Mill on the Floss - there's an Eliot I *did* love! :)

      As for Middlemarch - I found it MUCH better to read the two sections a week and have breaks from it. I hardly noticed the length that way. And besides, as I said, it is very rewarding :)

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  2. My final feelings toward Middlemarch were very similar to yours. Overall I enjoyed the book but, honestly, I don't think there was one character I fell in love with. Even Dorothea, as much as I liked her social consciousness, irritated me at times. I also noticed with Ladislaw that Eliot herself didn't describe him in very flattering terms.

    The scope for the novel was so enormous that I wonder if Eliot didn't get bogged down with the societal aspect of it and let some of the character development go astray. Oh, to get inside her head and know what she was thinking when she wrote it! In any case, I was impressed by the task she set up for herself and thought she did an amazing job, in spite of the little inconsistencies. I've read it twice now and I would not be adverse to reading it yet again. I haven't read Mill on the Floss though …… must put it on my TBR list.

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    1. Mill on the Floss is wonderful! And the more I think about Middlemarch, the more impressive I think it is. The characters were very *real*, there are no angels or demons. A very admirable book. :)

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  3. It's been a long time since I read Middle arch, but I remember I thought it was very good. I think a re-read would well repay the time--someday I will.

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    1. I think I probably will as well. In a few years, though :)

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  4. Thanks again for reading along with me. I really enjoyed the experience, and like you I feel like I got much more out of the book the second time around.

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    1. Yes, it was an excellent experience. It was very well arranged - Middlemarch in four weeks is a perfect time scale I think. :)

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  5. I love Middlemarch so much. The last time I read it, I was struck by how young Dorothea is. It changes for me every time I read it, which is at 10-year intervals. Five more years to go...I may have to change that to 7 or even 5 year intervals.

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    1. :) I wonder what I'll make of it in five years... I had a two year gap. Glad I re-visited it.

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  6. Like you, I didn't love Middlemarch either.
    But I do think that Dorothea has a slight touch of stupidity. Before making the mistake of marrying Casaubon, she has an absurd idea about marriage and the roles of husband and wife. Her stupidity is also seen in the way she notices nothing and makes the same mistake twice- 1st she never sees that Sir James is courting her, thinking that he's in love with Celia, later she thinks Will's having more or less an affair with Rosamond.

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    1. I'm not sure - though, perhaps it's possible - she was very naive and too idealistic (from what I remember - it's a while since I read this!), which either did SUGGEST a slight lack in emotional intelligence, or it WAS a lack of emotional intelligence!

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