George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

What it’s about: England, the early 1830s. Set against the background of the 1832 Reform Act, Middlemarch tells the story of a group of interconnected characters living in a provincial Midlands town. Dorothea Brooke, a pious young gentlewoman, marries the much older cleric Edward Casaubon in the hope that she can assist him with his academic writing, only to find herself isolated and unhappy in the marriage. While honeymooning in Rome, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s young cousin, a free-spirited artist who later becomes editor of a newspaper in Middlemarch. Casaubon, suspecting Will’s attraction to Dorothea, forbids Will to visit them. He dies soon after, leaving a will that disinherits Dorothea if she marries Will. Meanwhile, Fred Vincy, the eldest son of Middlemarch’s mayor, drifts from his theological studies and lives beyond his means, borrowing against his expectation of an inheritance from his uncle Featherstone. Fred loves Mary Garth, a bright young woman who looks after Featherstone and is also admired by Camden Farebrother, the town’s vicar. When Fred asks Mary’s father Caleb to co-sign his debts but is unable to repay, the Garths lose their life savings. Fred contracts typhoid, but is cured by Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor newly arrived in Middlemarch to work in a new hospital funded by Nicholas Bulstrode, the town banker. Tertius falls in love with and marries Fred’s sister Rosamond, a beautiful and ambitious woman who hopes that marriage to a doctor will improve her social standing.

After Featherstone dies, leaving his estate to his illegitimate son Joshua Riggs, Fred abandons a career in the church and goes to work with Caleb as a property manager, hoping to repay the Garths and win back Mary’s affection. Mr Raffles, Rigg’s estranged stepfather, visits Middlemarch and blackmails Bulstrode about his unscrupulous former business dealings and deception of his first wife so as to inherit her fortune. Guilt-stricken, Bulstrode informs Will that he is the lost grandson of his first wife and the proper inheritor of her fortune, and offers to compensate him. Will refuses, and leaves Middlemarch, determined not to be seen as a gold-digger and still unable to confess his love to Dorothea. Tertius falls deeply into debt, causing estrangement between him and Rosamund, who thwarts his attempts to sell their house and secretly asks relatives for money. Mr Raffles returns to Middlemarch, seriously ill, and Bulstrode gives him shelter, but deliberately ignores Tertius’ medical advice so as to hasten Raffles’ death. Gossip about Bulstrode’s past life and neglect of Raffles sweeps through Middlemarch, and he is publicly disgraced. Tertius is similarly implicated for accepting a loan from Bulstrode that in the circumstances appears to be a bribe. Dorothea intercedes for Tertius and lends him money so he can release himself from Bulstrode’s death. Tertius and Rosamund are reconciled, while Dorothea finally admits her love for Will and agrees to marry him, abandoning Casaubon’s inheritance.

Why it’s a classic: Published in eight parts between 1871 and 1872, Middlemarch quickly became a bestseller, winning high praise from Eliot’s contemporaries and some highly-placed personages (Queen Victoria was reportedly a great fan). It’s now widely considered to be a masterpiece of 19th century British fiction and the pinnacle of the social realist tradition in English literature. Eliot’s third-person narrator, who exists as a character in her own right, continually interrupting the action to comment on the characters and the state of the universe, is frequently cited as one of the foremost examples of the third-person omniscient voice in narrative fiction. Middlemarch is also recognised as one of the earliest and most successful examples of what is now called “historical fiction”. Eliot set the book forty years before the period in which she was writing, recalling a quieter period in English history before the profound social changes made by the Industrial Revolution and mass urbanisation. Though her focus is primarily the psychological twists and turns of three pairs of thwarted lovers, Eliot incorporates an extraordinarily wide-ranging field of cultural references. The action takes place against the expansion of the railways, the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, which outlawed corrupt electoral practices and radically expanded the numbers of eligible voters (though still excluding women). We also see the beginnings of “modern” medicine – Tertius’ medical innovations include his use of the recently-invented stethoscope – and the first efforts to improve public sanitation, as news of a cholera epidemic creeps around the edges of the story.

Ultimately, though, Middlemarch‘s status as a classic stands and falls on Eliot’s characterisations, and her understanding of complex human psychology. “[T]here is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it“, she writes in her eighth and final part, which provides a neat summary of her modus operandi. By creating characters who are complex, flawed and constantly at odds with their own natures, and setting them in a specific time and place, she produces a story that feels real and lived-in, while still retaining something of the emotional distance of a tale set long ago. In this way, Eliot is able to put her characters under the microscope, examining their motivations and subjecting them to her own critical assessment, which hovers somewhere between high-minded Christian doctrine and a restless proto-feminist and Socialist radicalism.

Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge funereal bouquet. It’s taken me 25 years to finish Middlemarch, and it’s been foremost on my Guilt List of Classics I Haven’t Read. It was one of the assigned texts for an undergraduate Victorian Literature paper I took at university, led by an amiable but rather uninspiring professor who was known for reading Dickens out loud in funny voices. He taught Eliot as if we were still in the 1950s – theme, plot, point of view, characterisation and metaphor were dutifully ticked off – his lectures cheerfully clueless about the sea-change in literary scholarship created by feminism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism and queer theory. Suffice it to say, my interest in Middlemarch piqued quite early (at around page 9) and I avoided Eliot in the end of year exam in favour of a sexy psychoanalytical reading of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market.

In the decades following, I made several listless attempts to read Middlemarch, more out of a sense of obligation than any fervent desire to engage with the text. Now that I’m done, I’m rather glad it’s taken me till my 45th year to finish it. Virginia Woolf’s quote about Middlemarch being a book for grown-ups feels particularly apt. I’m sure that 20 year-olds (at least the well-behaved ones, who read all their course lists without fail) have and will continue to fall in love with it. From my middle-aged first-time reader’s perspective, it feels vaguely wasted on the young, like a guidebook for a life of struggle and disappointment they have yet to encounter. Perhaps this is why younger readers tend to relate more to the earnest and idealistic Dorothea, who’s barely 20 at the novel’s opening, rather than to older and more cynical characters like Tertius or the withered patriarch Casaubon. Methinks you need a few miles on the clock to fully appreciate Eliot’s portraits of disappointment, frustrated ambition and existential angst. Though she allows all three sets of lovers to get together in the finale, it’s a fairly muted triumph: by marrying Will, Dorothea must give up her fortune and endure the disapproval of Sir James; Tertius must learn to reconcile himself to Rosamund’s intransigence, and dies relatively young at 50; and Bulstrode creeps away from Middlemarch in disgrace, haunted forever by his guilt. Even Fred and Mary, who we are told have the most contented relationship, have to contend with poverty and (in Mary’s case) growing stout. Eliot’s disinclination to give her readers a fairytale-like Happy Ending is what gives Middlemarch its uncanny air of modernity, despite its quintessentially Victorian qualities.

Which leads me to my list of Not-Likes. The Victorian-ness of Middlemarch, in style and subject matter, often makes it a laborious read. The opening passages in which Dorothea is introduced feel especially dated: she’s continually described as resembling classical paintings of the Madonna, which we don’t generally tend to do these days, just as we no longer associate the Virgin Mary will ideal models of womanhood. Eliot’s characters speak in dialogue peppered with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, Shakespeare and Goethe, which, while impressive, makes them feel more like characters in a medieval romance than a 19th century novel (though this may well be the point). Eliot’s prose, while stately and measured, takes quite a while to get one’s head around, and more than once I wished for the clean, direct, unapologetically funny narration of Austen or Tolstoy. The omniscient narrator of Middlemarch delivers many a well-crafted aphorism about the state of the universe, which might have more impact if there weren’t quite so many of them, delivered in quite such a gratingly self-righteous tone. Like many novelists of her day, she’s fond of telling us in advance what to think of her characters, often before we’ve had a chance to see them in action: Dorothea is noble and pure-hearted but naive, Tertius is ambitious and proud, Casaubon riddled with disappointment and envy, and Rosamund is conceited, shallow and wilful. (The only character to escape these pronouncements is the plain, clever, hard-working Mary Garth, who one suspects is Eliot’s literary alter-ego). Eliot engineers her plot to fit neatly within a somewhat Puritanistic moral programme: the good and virtuous are eventually rewarded, and the wicked are punished and made to repent. While this gives the novel a great clarity of voice and intention, it all feels a bit Ye Oldie, an outdated form of storytelling from a writer who’s anxious to prescribe the meaning of her story.

But ultimately, I can forgive Eliot’s preachy ways, because her insights into human behaviour are so stunningly well-observed, and her mapping of her characters’ complex and contradictory motivations is undertaken with such forensic precision and clarity. Despite the rather narrow constraints of Christian morality that form the book’s scaffolding, all her character are engaged in a passionate struggle between their private desires, their knowledge of what society requires of them, and their internal concepts of good and bad behaviour. What matters most to her, and what she seems intent on communicating to her readers, is that our characters are defined by the choices we make. As a novelist, it’s her job to diagnose why her characters make the choices they do, and her writing is at its most powerful when she dramatises the psychic battles going on inside her characters’ minds. If Middlemarch is, as Woolf says, one of the few novels for grown-ups, it’s one of the few books that seems genuinely interested in what it is to become a grown-up. Our actions and choices make us who we are, as much as our environment, upbringing and socio-economic standing. In this moral universe, Caleb Garth is as much of a hero as Dorothea or Will, for choosing to walk away from a lucrative job rather than work for the dishonest Bulstrode.

I was especially enthralled by Eliot’s depiction of the two unhappy marriages at the heart of Middlemarch – the marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon, which unravels immediately (and predictably) into a loveless nightmare, and the sado-masochistic power struggle between Tertius and Rosamund, which is all the more alarming for having seemed to start so well. These portraits are as fascinating and horrifying as anything in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, but without resorting to the violent denouements of those plays. Ever the sensible, down-to-earth Northern girl, Eliot doesn’t need the big dramatic excesses of theatre (though she does throw in a thunderstorm or two during big romantic moments). She’s acutely attuned to the terror of the normal and the everyday, and how marriage – the cornerstone of Victorian society and family life – was more often than not a prison, particularly for women. (Tellingly, Eliot’s own domestic arrangements were much more unconventional – she lived for many years with her married lover George Lewes, and after his death married a much younger man). There’s little need for a feminist critique of Middlemarch, as Eliot does most of the analysis herself. Dorothea may be the heroine of the story, but she’s also a cautionary tale about what can happen to an intelligent, curious young woman in a restrictive patriarchal society. Inadequately educated, deprived of any career prospects and neglected by a well-meaning but fatuous uncle, her only feasible option is to attach herself to a man and assist him with his career. Though she ends up happier with Will than with Casaubon, her role as dutiful supplicant is essentially the same in both relationships – suggesting that “happiness” for a Victorian lady is just a matter of which prison she chooses.

The temptations of money and the ease of getting into debt create another type of prison, with consequences (for Fred and Tertius) as damaging as a bad marriage. Eliot understands the psychology of debt extraordinarily well – the guilt, the shame, the resulting secrecy, the denial that manifests as optimism that all will turn out well – and she comments approvingly on characters who can free themselves from enslavement to Mammon. It’s noteworthy that Dorothea finds happiness not just by accepting the love of a man who loves her, but by giving up part of her fortune, and resolving to have “no new clothes” and to “learn what everything costs“. Once again, the Garths come out rather well in this analysis, being happy to live without a lot of money, and turning down frequent opportunities for ill-gotten gains.

The final section of Middlemarch is one of the most emotionally satisfying reads I’ve had in some time. Like the final episode of a long-form TV drama, it repays the reader’s careful attention, and builds on the momentum established in previous sections to create some thrilling dramatic moments. Eliot is at her best when she puts her characters in motion and allows us to walk alongside them, rather than peering at them from above as they squirm around in petri dishes. The careful accrual and layering of details about each character allows us to know and understand them intimately. By the finale, we know that Tertius will be too proud to take Dorothea’s money, that Will is too headstrong to simply declare his love, that Rosamund is too beset with guilt to face Dorothea, and that Mr Brooke can only be counted on to say something vacuous, punctuated with his customary “you know”. Everyone seems bound up in a Gordian knot of their own making, which seems nearly impossible to untangle, which is as exciting to read as it is frustrating.

That everything ends so well is almost entirely due to Dorothea’s goodwill, and her determination to think the best of people. In a world where everyone goes to church but very few people consult their Bibles for moral guidance, Eliot’s religion seems to boil down to the redemptive power of friendship, and the power of one person’s faith (in this case, Dorothea’s) to save others from despair. “The presence of a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity, changes the lights for us,” Eliot tells us; “we begin to see things again in their larger, quieter masses, and to believe that we too can be seen and judged in the wholeness of our character.” It’s a wonderfully humanist sentiment, coupled with Eliot’s wistful final statement that “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.”

I finished Middlemarch with my own air of wistfulness, knowing that I’d miss my daily visit into the lives of these characters, who I’d come to think of as members of my extended family. I felt satisfied as if I’d finished a nine-course degustation menu at a Michelin-chef restaurant, though sad that the feast was over. I can’t wait to re-encounter them all on my second reading, perhaps in a year or two from now. I can certainly understand now why people return to Middlemarch again and again, and why it’s a strangely fitting book to read during lockdown, despite its ungainly length: Eliot’s characters, and her own quixotic mix of speechifying and hard-won wisdom, will keep you company all your life.

Quotable Quote: “Suppose we turn from outside estimates of a man, to wonder, with keener interest, what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity: with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labors; what fading of hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within him; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause.”


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