I had not heard of Middlemarch by George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans) until the last several years, and whenever I looked at a description of it, it sounded rather vague – something about a community in pre-Reform-era England. That’s like saying Jan Karon’s Mitford books are about a community of people in the fictional town of Mitford, NC. They are, but that’s a pale description of the richness and depth of the characters. Yet it’s hard to know how else to describe the books in just a few sentences to someone unfamiliar with them. As I planned for the Back to the Classics challenge for this year, I decided to give Middlemarch a try, trusting that since I saw it recommended so often, it must be worth reading.
There’s not a single overarching plot to the book: it’s about the journeys of several people in the town. So it might be best to try to describe it a little by discussion some of its characters.
Dorothea Brooke is the main character, a teen-age orphan with her younger sister under the care of a benevolent older single uncle. Dorothea is ardent, serious, and pious. Though wealthy, she dresses plainly and is only interested in wealth as a means of doing good. A neighbor, Sir James Chettam, is very much interested in her, but she’s not interested in him at all except as a potential match for her sister, Celia. When a much older clergyman, Edward Casaubon, takes notice of her, everyone she knows protests against the match, but Dorothea is drawn to the marriage as a means of doing a great good by helping him in his work and a means of growth as she can increase her knowledge by sharing in his. She is sadly disappointed, however, because Casaubon is aloof (on their honeymoon in Rome, he leaves her alone while he’s off doing research for his book: he even suggested that Celia come with them as a companion for Dorothea!) and doesn’t allow her into the realm of his work until he becomes ill later on.
Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor new to the town. He was orphaned and cared for by wealthy relatives, but there was no closeness between them, and they were miffed when he chose a career in medicine, so he’s basically on his own. He’s ahead of his time medically (one source pointed out his use of a stethoscope, which was available but not routinely used at the time), but the older, established doctors don’t like the new guy coming in with new ways, and he unwittingly offends them, so he has an uphill battle starting out. But his success and availability with the people he does treat gives him an inroad into the community.
The Vincy family consists of two parents and four children, two of them grown. The father is the mayor, and he and his wife tend to live beyond their means and spoil their children. They want their son, Fred, to become a clergyman due to the position’s respectability and are paying for his education; however, he has no interest in or aptitude for it, so he drops out. But he has no other talents and is counting on getting an inheritance from an uncle. He’s in love with Mary Garth, but she won’t have him if he goes into the clergy (because she knows it would not be a good fit for him) and if he continues to be idle. The daughter, Rosamond, is beautiful, cultured, proper, genteel, and charming, which over-shadows her thoroughly self-centered nature. She sets her sights on Lydgate, thinking he is wealthy and of a higher social standing due to his family connections. He had not planned to marry for a long while and at first enjoys just flirting with Rosamond, but eventually he succumbs to her charms, and they marry.
Though things start out well for the Lydgates, they soon run into trouble when their expensive habits exceed Lydgate’s income. He insists they should economize, something totally unheard of for her: she insists he should find more or better-paying work or appeal to his family. She finds out he’s not as wealthy or well-connected as she thought; he finds out the selfish core under her beautiful exterior. Her unwillingness to bend and his extenuating financial circumstances set him up for trouble later in the book.
Will Ladislaw is Edward Casaubon’s younger cousin whom he is helping financially. Will is an artist who doesn’t know quite what he wants to do with his life, so he is traveling and painting. At first Will doesn’t like Dorothea, but as he gets to know her better, he’s grieved at her “wasting” herself on Casaubon. Will also becomes friends with the Lydgates, which leads to some trouble later on.
Nicholas Bulstrode is a banker and pillar of the community. He’s quite religious, but in a way that rubs others the wrong way. Much later in the book, an old associate comes to town for other reasons, discovers Bulstrode lives there, and blackmails him with the threat of sharing some shady dealings in his past which would destroy his reputation in the community.
There are multitudes of other characters, but these are the main ones, and their lives and situations intersect at various points. The plot moves fairly slowly by modern standards, though the book does contain riveting moments of suspense in places. But Eliot’s main strength is her pathos in getting into the heads of her characters and sharing their hearts. We know minutely what they are thinking and groan, laugh, or cry along with them.
Multiple themes emerge throughout the book. One of the top ones is marriage. The two main marriages are fraught with trouble, but others by contrast exhibit great sharing and warmth. Those who weathered great trouble on their way to marriage seem to fair better than the ones who encountered it afterward. Another theme is what some sources called “self-determination.” This was an era when there were pretty strict expectations upon people, especially women, and those who bucked the system weren’t looked kindly upon, but in this book those seemed most likely to succeed.
Eliot’s vast knowledge in a number of areas shows up here, mainly in literary references but also in politics and science. There are quite a number of biblical allusions throughout: I read in one source that Eliot started out as religious but “lost her faith” after reading about “higher criticism” of the Bible.
I think my favorite character is Dorothea. She seems a little stiff at first, but eventually she grows into the warmest, most human person in the book. Another favorite is Mr. Garth, Mary’s father, whose kindly and wise ways permeate all his actions, and I enjoyed the warmth of his family’s home scenes. The one I sympathized and ached with most by the end was Lydgate, but I can’t say why without revealing too much.
One source said that the book was kind of an anti-fairy tale, that the characters didn’t ride off happily in the sunset with all problems solved like many other books of the era. But I disagree: several found some degree of happiness, though they still had problems. Another said that Dorothea never reached her full potential, but I disagree again. In one of my favorite quotes of the book, Eliot seems to me to be saying that though some of the characters wanted to do “great things,” they found instead greatness in the “little things”:
Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. 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.
A few other favorite quotes:
It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.
And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.
What we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.
We are all humiliated by the sudden discovery of a fact which has existed very comfortably and perhaps been staring at us in private while we have been making up our world entirely without it.
Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
A prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions.
It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.
‘You must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There’s this and there’s that—if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is—I wouldn’t give twopence for him’— here Caleb’s mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers— ‘whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn’t do well what he undertook to do.’
I feel like I am not doing the book any justice, but I hope I have given you a little picture of what it’s about. I listened to the audiobook, superbly read by Juliet Stevenson. Later on I got the corresponding Kindle version, and some of the notes there would have provided me with more detail, especially to Eliot’s literary allusions, if I had been reading it all along, but I wouldn’t trade it for the experience of listening to Stevenson’s narrations. Her voice for each character as well as her intonations and expression truly enhanced my enjoyment of the book.
I’ve spent over 35 listening hours with these characters, and I am going to miss them.