#27 Middlemarch by George Eliot
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is a novel by George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, later Marian Evans. It is her seventh novel, begun in 1869 and then put aside during the final illness of Thornton Lewes, the son of her companion George Henry Lewes. During the following year Eliot resumed work, fusing together several stories into a coherent whole, and during 1871–72 the novel appeared in serial form. The first one-volume edition was published in 1874, and attracted large sales.
Subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life,” the novel is set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch during the period 1830–32. Middlemarch is a novel about social and political reform. But it’s also a novel about love and marriage. And about trying and failing. And about second chances. It is, in other words, a huge and wide-ranging novel. And I do mean huge (by the standards of the average US citizen): the edition I used (the 1984 First Modern Library Edition) is 795 pages long. That’s a lot of pages, but then, Eliot had a lot to say. It has multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic (with an authorial voice that occasionally bursts through the narrative), and the canvas is very broad.
The length of the novel actually forced Eliot’s agent (and long-time lover), George Henry Lewes, to invent a new way to publish it. For most of the 19th-century, novels were published in one of two ways – either broken into installments of one or two chapters to be printed in a magazine (like Charles Dickens’s novels), or published in 3-volume hardbacks (called triple deckers). But Middlemarch was too big to fit into three volumes, and publishing it a chapter or two at a time would take forever. So Lewes arranged to have it printed in eight installments over the course of sixteen months to get people hooked on the story, and then to print it altogether in four volumes. This was a great move by Lewes – Middlemarch sold like crazy, and confirmed Eliot’s reputation as the greatest living English novelist.
Although it has some comical characters (Mr. Brooke, the “tiny aunt” Miss Noble) and comically named characters (Mrs. Dollop), Middlemarch is a work of realism. Through the voices and opinions of different characters we become aware of various broad issues of the day: the Great Reform Bill, the beginnings of the railways, the death of King George IV and the succession of his brother, the Duke of Clarence (who became King William IV). We learn something of the state of contemporary medical science. We also encounter the deeply reactionary mindset within a settled community facing the prospect of what to many is unwelcome change.
Her intention with the novel was to analyze recent political, social, and economic threads through a series of personal accounts. The characters and stories told within the novel are meant to show how people are affected by historical change while it happens, and how progress happens in people’s lives. Eliot manages to weave in the Catholic emancipation, the death of George IV, the dissolution of Parliament in 1831, the outbreak of cholera in 1832, and the passage of the Reform Bill later that year. Eliot manages to weave these things into the concerns of the characters and the narrative; they are not the focus of the novel, but are balanced with the novel’s literary concerns.
One of the most widespread concerns in the novel is change, and how people react to it. All the historical concerns in the novel are involved in this, as are people’s reactions under stress, and to progress in their society. Eliot is able to show people acting naturally in close detail, and present criticism on them, while still allowing the readers to form their own opinion of them. Overall, every character in this novel is human; each of them can be liked or disliked according to their personal foibles and flaws. But Eliot’s point is that we, like they, are human; we can only judge them as we judge ourselves. She is not totally impartial in the narrative, which would be impossible in making criticisms; but there is still plenty of room for people to make up their own minds, and interpret the characters in their own way.
Eliot’s stated goal with writing this novel, along with her others, was to give her readers “a clearer conception and a more active admiration of those vital elements which bind men together and give a higher worthiness to their existence,” according to a letter of 1868 that she wrote. The novel, especially the characters of Dorothea and Farebrother, are very much influenced by Eliot’s personal belief in the religion of humanity. Her views of marriage are also interjected into the novel; Eliot was not favorable about society’s ideas of gender roles and marriage, hence her depictions of Rosamond and Lydgate’s marital troubles.
The novel is very much concerned with women’s roles, women’s lives, and how they should be changed. However, it also exposes Eliot’s ambivalence on the subject. Although she had no children and lived with her lover, George Lewes, without being married, at the same time she believed that women should be married, and had obligations to their husbands and children. The novel advocates change in women’s roles, and in their spheres of influence; but, at the same time, no woman is happy who isn’t married, and in a solid partnership with her husband. This tension in Eliot’s personal views forms the struggles that Rosamond, Dorothea, and Celia face, and determines the outcome of their unions according to their character and effectiveness.
If there is one metaphor that serves to sum up the way people and society work in Middlemarch, it is a web. Just as Rosamond and Lydgate spin their own web and get caught in it, every character is bound in a huge web, and if one pulls one way or another, the web shifts, and someone is affected. Things and people are inextricable connected and an event, like Featherstone’s funeral, can have a very palpable meaning to someone who has no involvement, like Dorothea. Middlemarch is a very carefully woven work of social commentary and human analysis, with many living, breathing characters who are as real as the historical time period they inhabit.
The eight “books” which compose the novel are not autonomous entities, but merely reflect the form of the original serialization. A short prelude introduces the idea of the latter-day St. Theresa, presaging the character Dorothea; a postscript or “finale” after the eighth book gives the post-novel fates of the main characters, minus the fate of the Bulstrodes, which is left to our imagination.
In my opinion, one of the most memorable passages in the book is stated by Dorothea to Mr. Farebrother and Sir James Chettam regarding the tarnished reputation of Dr. Lydgate:
“People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors” (pg 699, para. 1) This was quite profound to me, and encouraged me to admire this character despite her quirks.
An oddity for me were the mysterious initials “E.M.” that appeared randomly on the bottom of the pages only on the right-hand side of the book (being the odd numbers). There was no rhyme or reason for the spacing of the initials on the pages. When the page numbers were inserted into a program, no numerical consistencies or patterns could be detected. Also, an oddity, is that this book was located BEA 823.8 in the library, which was strange to me, as well.
In general Middlemarch has retained its popularity and status as one of the masterpieces of English fiction, although some reviewers have expressed dissatisfaction at the destiny recorded for Dorothea. In separate centuries, Florence Nightingale and Kate Millet both remarked on the eventual subordination of Dorothea’s own dreams to those of her admirer, Ladislaw; however, Virginia Woolf gave the book unstinting praise, describing Middlemarch as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have cited it as probably the greatest novel in the English language. The book was a fairly good read using above average vocabulary, but not at a level so overwhelming to the average reader.