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REVIEW: Middlemarch by George Eliot

middlemarchMy recent success with 19th century English novels has emboldened me to continue to  tackle classics. I have also gotten into the habit of downloading public domain books onto my iPhone (the app I use is Stanza). I still love my Sony PRS-505 Reader, but the thing that’s great about reading on the iPhone is that I can whip it out  wherever and  whenever (heck, I usually have my iPhone  in my hand  anyway) and read a page or two while waiting for the elevator, standing in line at the grocery store, etc. I also find that the small iPhone screen actually works better for me when reading big, meaty novels with dense text – the writing is broken up into very small, manageable chunks and I get a sense of satisfaction from turning the page frequently (okay, I may be weird about that). It’s true that it took me a long time to read Middlemarch, and that it was likely a lot of pages. I’m not sure how many because the book was only  displaying page counts by chapter, but it was 87 chapters; at an average of 50 pages per chapter, that’s 4,350 pages. But they were short pages! Anyway, thus ends my PSA for the awesomeness of reading public domain classics on the iPhone; on to Middlemarch.

My previous experience with George Eliot consists of reading Silas Marner in high school. I remember a lot of  my classmates  hating it; by my own recollection (high school was a long time ago), it was a slog but not without its rewards. (Which was true of a lot of generally-hated high school books, I have found. Except for The Old Man and the Sea. Never The Old Man and the Sea. Ugh.) But my impression of Eliot was that she belonged to that class of 19th century novelists that are more maligned than revered these days, at least by all but literature majors and English professors (others  that belong in this group include Henry James and Thomas Hardy).

Indeed, Googling “I Hate Middlemarch” yields two Facebook groups immediately, one of which suggests that Eliot should have been drowned at birth (harsh!) and calls the book “a heinous crime against humanity.” So what did I think?

I actually kind of loved Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, and indeed it captures the goings on of a fairly large cast of characters over the period of a couple of years in an unremarkable English town in the 1830s. I’ve really come to appreciate first-hand accounts of this time period (both fiction  and non-fiction), because it was such an interesting age in England. The impact of the Industrial Revolution was still spreading throughout the land, and other reforms were being vigorously pursued by various factions. Middlemarch touches on many of these issues: political reform, doctrinal religious differences, advancement in medical knowledge, the obligation of landowners to their tenants, education and the role of women in society.

One thing that really struck me reading Middlemarch was its humanity. I don’t know why, but I’m always faintly surprised by nuanced characterizations in older novels – I tend to think of them as having a more black-and-white view of humanity, with characters being either unrelentingly good or pure evil (I think Dickens at his worst is guilty of this type of characterization, though to be fair he also wrote many more complex characters). The main characters in Middlemarch are all flawed to a degree; some are more sympathetic than others, and one I spent much of the book wanting to smack, but they are human, not cardboard characters put in place to teach Important Moral Lessons. Even one of the least likable of the characters roused my sympathy by the end, because he pays so dearly for his misdeeds.

The story begins with the introduction of two sisters, Dorothea and Celia Brooke. The orphaned sisters are in the care of their uncle, Mr. Brooke, one of the novel’s few rather comical figures. Mr. Brooke is  a silly man who tends to prattle on whether he knows what he’s talking about or not (usually he does not). Dorothea is serious and devout, and a fervent believer in social  reform, particularly concerned about the plight of poor tenant farmers in the area. She’s one of the main characters in Middlemarch, and one of those 19th century characters whom the reader keenly feels is disavantaged by not being born male; she is forced to sublimate her wishes over and over again because of her sex, and can really only do the good she wants to do in conjunction with a husband or some other male benefactor. Celia is much more conventional, interested in pretty things and looking forward to the role of wife and mother. In spite of their differences, the sisters are very close. Dorothea is pursued by Sir James Chettam, a handsome and wealthy baronet, but she rejects him in favor of the clergyman Edward Causabon, and so James marries Celia (to whom he is honestly much better suited).

The marriage of Causabon and Dorothea illustrates one of the novel’s main themes, that of marriages that turn out unhappy because of mistaken or unrealistic expectations on the part of one or both partners. In this case, Dorothea is expecting to be the right hand of a brilliant man (Causabon is working on a scholarly tome  called The Key to All Mythologies), and thus share in his intellectual pursuits in the only way open to her in 19th century England. She does not realize that Causabon expects a much more conventional, biddable wife, and that in any case his brilliance is overstated – he is in fact beset by insecurity and self-doubt as he pursues his never-ending project.

Another marriage that founders under the weight of faulty assumptions is that of the doctor Tertius Lydgate, recently arrived in Middlemarch, and Rosamond Vincy, the mayor’s spoiled daughter. Their marriage itself is something of an accident, coming about when Lydgate realizes that the attentions he’s paid to the beautiful and vivacious Rosamond are viewed as being much more serious than he intended them to be. Lydgate is a flawed though somewhat sympathetic character: his devotion to his patients and to the advancement of medical knowledge ends up alienating him from some important people in Middlemarch, which has an effect on his career and his ability to support Rosamond. Like Causabon, he expects his wife to be a docile, submissive creature, but he gets more than he bargained for when Rosamond’s demand for a high standard of living forces them into ruinous debt. However much Lydgate marries without intention or love, he tries very hard to make Rosamond happy, and her childish and self-centered attitude makes her one of the least likable characters in the entire novel. If not for one brief act of self-sacrifice  late in the book, Rosamond would’ve been pretty intolerable. I appreciated that Eliot gave even this (believably) shallow character some nuance in the end.

The hasty marriages Eliot depicts are contrasted by the long courtship between Rosamond’s brother Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, the daughter of   the wise and compassionate land manager Caleb Garth. Mary is  a life-long friend of Fred’s, and she works  for Fred’s extremely cantakerous uncle, Mr. Featherstone in the early chapters of Middlemarch. Fred is often in her company as he is known to be the uncle’s heir, though it’s a changeable thing (and eventually is changed for the worse, or perhaps the better, depending on how you look at it). Fred is in love with Mary, and Mary appears to be at least quite fond of Fred, but he has a lot of growing up to do before they can be together. For one, he must settle on a career. His family pressures him to join the clergy, but Mary, knowing how ill-suited Fred is to that profession, refuses to marry him if he does.

Middlemarch is frank about the role of religion and of the  clergy in the lives of its characters. Fred is not the only character urged into this profession for practical reasons.   The Reverend Farebrother, briefly a rival for Mary’s affections, is open with his friend Lydgate over his shortcomings as a minister. He’s actually better at it than he thinks, concerned for his parishoners and full of good sense, but he must gamble to supplement his income and support his mother and aunts, and he’d really rather pursue scientific studies than religious ones.

One of the pleasures of the novel is the way that the characters’ lives become intertwined over the course of the story. Middlemarch is not a tiny village; many of the characters know or know of each other, but sometimes only in passing.   The paths of many of the pivotal characters do cross, however, sooner or later. One of the characters who ties the others together is Mr. Bulstrode, a pious and rather judgmental financier who is brother to Mrs. Vincy and thus uncle to Rosamond and Fred. Bulstrode has a dark secret (more on that in a moment) that gives him a secret connection to Will Ladislaw, who is Causabon’s cousin and who cherishes a secret love for Dorothea after meeting her on her honeymoon in Italy.

I’m sure it starts to sound a bit soap-operish in summary, but I think Eliot has a point to make about the way that the lives of these people intertwine; one drops a stone in a pond and the ripples spread to touch those that the person may barely know.

Regarding Bulstrode and his secret: it’s been my observation (albeit from limited study) that 19th century English novelists were fond of this device.  A character may be living a blameless and Christian life, but the sins of the past eventually catch up with him or her. See:  Eliot’s own Silas Marner, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of D’Urbervilles, a lot of Dickens.

The language in Middlemarch can get a bit…byzantine, in that 19th-century way, by which I mean I occasionally did get lost in sentences that were a paragraph long with little punctuation and a lot of words that didn’t make much sense unless you read them three times, slowly. I’ve come to expect this from classics of the 1700-1800s, and actually I do find that repeated exposure does make comprehension easier. And while this is not a comic novel, Eliot manages to get in some wicked jabs occasionally. My favorite was this:

“To point our other people’s errors was a duty that Mr. Bulstrode rarely shrank from…”

How can you not love a writer who skewers her characters as neatly as that? My grade for Middlemarch is an A.

Best regards,

Jennie

Amazon | Free in various ebook formats

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

24 Comments

  1. Jorrie Spencer
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 14:13:50

    I love Middlemarch and have even read it twice, when it is, indeed, a long novel. I went on a George Elliot reading binge many years ago, and this was hands-down my favorite (and I think it’s regarded as her best work).

    I remember I pitied Lydgate. For all his flaws, I don’t know that he deserved such a marriage.

    I enjoyed reading your review :)

  2. Ros
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 14:17:14

    I would put Middlemarch pretty near the top of my all-time favourite books ever. Truly, I think that the best Victorian novels, of which I think this might be the best, do better at understanding and showing human nature than any other books I know. As a scholar I am continually haunted by the futility of Mr Casaubon’s research. I love Dorothea utterly and I want so much for her to have the happiness she deserves. But every character has so much depth and complexity – none of them are one-dimensional stereotypes.

    If you haven’t already seen it, I would highly recommend the BBC adaptation of Middlemarch from about 20 years ago, starring Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell.

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  4. DS
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 15:30:06

    George Elliot gets “taught” a lot in public schools, usually before people are ready to read her books. I date my own hatred of Silas Marner to my 7th grade teacher who would tell us to read a certain chunk of text then nod off over her desk. She was getting close to retirement age and didn’t really care. Ever so often we were given a multiple choice test.

    Luckily, I already knew that there were few things better than a good book or I would probably have been put off books altogether by this method of teaching. Silas Marner was was followed by Romeo and Juliet being given the same treatment.

  5. Tae
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 15:32:17

    I remember devouring Middlemarch when I had to read it for my Survey of British Literature class. I think I read it in one sitting, or perhaps one weekend. I also enjoyed the adaptation with Rufus Sewell

  6. Misfit
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 15:44:51

    I loved this novel. You might take a look at the lesser known Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant.

  7. Sunita
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 16:13:19

    Truly, I think that the best Victorian novels, of which I think this might be the best, do better at understanding and showing human nature than any other books I know.

    Absolutely. I was put off by Ethan Frome in school (not so much the book but the way it was force fed to us), but luckily I had great English professors in college and rediscovered the 19th century canon. I spent lots of time on trains and buses in India reading Trollope, Hardy, James, Wharton, etc. The way they depicted humanity through everyday life was amazing to me.

    I’m so glad you reviewed this, Jennie! I have a friend who rereads Middlemarch every year. It’s a great, great, novel. Yes, it can be tough to get the hang of the language and style, but once you do a lot of those writers become more accessible. And they’re all in the public domain!

  8. Liz
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 16:29:20

    Truly, I think that the best Victorian novels, of which I think this might be the best, do better at understanding and showing human nature than any other books I know.

    Oh yes. And Eliot has written very beautifully about the importance and difficulty of understanding and sympathizing with others, and the role of art in helping us do that. In Adam Bede, for instance, she explains that she doesn’t write perfect characters because caring for flawed fictional people can help us learn to love our plain, ordinary, imperfect neighbors. I love her. I’m not sure I really believe that fiction has that power, but it’s a faith I can get behind.

  9. Jill Q.
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 17:08:26

    See, I loathed Dorothea and loved Rosamond.
    I found Dorothea the 19th century of a Mary Sue. She was sweet, intelligent, lovable, a paragon of womanhood. I felt Eliot did explain very well why an intelligent woman of that era might be that naive about marriage and what she was getting into. That being said, I couldn’t summon up much sympathy for her being entangled in a bad marriage.
    I didn’t like Rosamond, but I found her a much more interesting and active character than Dorothea.
    Then again, I could probably fall into the “I hate Middlemarch” club, so clearly different people get different things out of it. :-)

  10. KAT
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 18:11:03

    I really like Middlemarch also. Recently I reread it for a book group I am in and one of things that really struck me is that you could see it as a novel looking back affectionately on time of upheaval and change (the industrial revolution, the Charter movement, etc., when idealistic young people (Dorothea, Will, and Tertius) believe that they could remake the world into a better place. Elliot wrote the novel from about 1869-1873–so it’s a bit like someone thinking back to 1960s in the 1990s/2000s and saying yes this was interesting time period, but also there limitations and disappointments. And also acknowledging that not everyone was part of the revolution–that in fact many people were and remained conservative.

    Can’t you see Tertius as one of the guys running the SDS and preaching the importance of the revolution and yet still insisting that the girls should be making coffee? And Dorothea as someone going to Woodstock and protesting the war and yet still subordinating herself to her grad student husband who wasn’t nearly as smart as she was?

  11. Barb in Maryland
    Jul 14, 2010 @ 18:41:08

    I was never much of an Eliot fan. Believe it or not, I much preferred Trollope–especially things like his Palliser series (6 novels superbly done on BBC in the late 1970’s). And I cannot read Hardy with a straight face now that I’ve read Cold Comfort Farm!!
    But I am here to campaign for Emily Eden for your next 19th century read. The Semi-Attached Couple is a classic Regency Romance, written in the early Victorian era, by a woman who was a young lady of very good Ton during the Regency. Her other famous novel is The Semi-Detached House, which has an early Victorian setting.
    For those of you who are put off by the convoluted language of the late Victorians–Emily Eden is a breeze! Go Emily!

  12. Jennie
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 01:45:28

    @Jorrie – yeah, say what you will, Lydgate did try to make his wife happy. He definitely got the short end of the stick there.

    @Ros – I actually have that adaption ready to go on Netflix – I started it after finishing a really good version of Wives and Daughters, but I couldn’t get into it right away. I need to get back to it.

    @Sunita – that’s so funny; I’m reading Ethan Frome on my iPhone now! Boy, it’s depressing. I knew it was going to be because I saw the Liam Neeson/Patricia Arquette/Joan Allen movie years ago, but sheesh. Zeena is hateful even though I understand a little bit why she is the way she is.

    @Jill Q – hmm, it’s funny, because I did not like Dorothea at first because she seemed too pious in an obnoxious martyrish way. I didn’t see her as a Mary Sue because I felt that Eliot showed her as flawed for choosing Causabon and it was really only after her marriage and the unhappiness that it caused that she became sympathetic to me. I don’t think she was perfect, but I think she was one of the characters that grew in the course of the story, from someone who had a lot of theoretical ideas about life and living to someone who had actually had experiences that shaped and matured her.

    Rosamond was just too much the spoiled child for me. If she’d been fun or wicked I might’ve been amused by her, but as it was she was just a big spoiled baby.

    @KAT – I think that’s an excellent observation! And yes, Tertius reminds me of some earnest old hippies I’ve known, who do better with the idea of people and of helping them than with actual flesh-and-blood people who need help.

    @Barb – I will have to give Emily Eden a try – never heard of her! I actually want to read Cold Comfort Farm, too. And some Hardy, though I’m a bit trepidatious on that one.

  13. Ros
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 02:02:32

    @Jennie: A friend of mine once wrote a satire of Hardy called ‘The Man Who Dies At The End’. Be prepared for some serious misery if you go ahead with that plan. Some people love it, of course, but there are none of the happy endings I need in his books.

  14. ErinW
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 03:01:16

    After reading your review, I rushed over to Amazon and ordered a copy of this book… for my grandmother, who always looks to me for book recs! I’ve been stumped as to what to recommend for her next, and when I read your review, I knew I’d found it! I think this is just what she’s been looking for. And, her 84th birthday just happens to be next week, so perfect timing! :) Thanks for a great review; I love that you’re reviewing classic lit… I’m definitely making sure this one is on my ereader!

  15. Susanna Ives
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 08:16:26

    Thanks for the tip about Stanza. It’s fabulous. I downloaded Middlemarch this morning. My friend is always urging me to read the book, but I’ve been daunted by the size.

  16. Lynne Connolly
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 11:30:04

    One of my favorite all-time reads. Always in my top ten. It’s so – satisfying.

  17. Jennie
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 17:16:07

    @Ros – I don’t always require a happy ending but I don’t really like unrelenting misery where everyone just suffers and suffers and there’s no point to it. I can handle something like “Anna Karenina”, where Anna dies but there are other characters whose lives go on and the message is not: Life Sure Sucks.

    @ErinW – thanks! I hope your grandmother likes it!

    @Susanna – I really think Stanza is the way to go for intimidating tomes. I might be even willing to try Les Miserables on Stanza, and all I’ve heard about that (descriptions of battles that go on for hundreds of pages) makes me think I couldn’t hack it.

  18. Sunita
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 17:19:43

    @Jennie: I agree that some giant books work really well on little screens. I read 4 volumes of the Three Musketeers series on a Palm Pilot back in olden times.

    For me, books that have a fairly linear format work the best. Books that jump around among different storylines give me problems because I can’t easily flip back and forth to remind myself what happened previously.

  19. Janine
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 17:31:18

    @Jennie: You’re a braver woman than me. I’d say Tess of the D’Urbervilles was the only book I read for my senior year English class in high school that I found more depressing than Ethan Frome.

    I do like Hardy’s poetry, FWIW.

  20. Jennie
    Jul 15, 2010 @ 22:10:02

    @Sunita – yeah, I can see how something non-linear would not work that well – I really don’t like to have to go rooting through pages on the Stanza app! But I do love the free books – so far I’ve read The Wind in the Willows, Middlemarch, My Man Jeeves and now Ethan Frome (obviously I’m trying to balance the heavy and light!).

    @Janine – I kind of want to try Tess and kind of don’t – I know you’ve said before how depressing you find it. Maybe I should just try one of Hardy’s other books? Except I think maybe they are all depressing.

  21. Ros
    Jul 16, 2010 @ 01:51:41

    I’d say that ‘Life Sure Sucks’ really is the message of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. For a happier Hardy, try Under the Greenwood Tree.

  22. Cecilia Grant
    Jul 17, 2010 @ 21:48:11

    I love Middlemarch to pieces.

    There’s a bit where someone’s wracking his brain to remember a name, and when he gets onto something else, it suddenly comes to him. Eliot describes the sensation as “agreeable as a completed sneeze.” Just a morsel of absolutely perfect writing, in my opinion.

    Also, late in the book, when Dorothea thinks Will has betrayed her and she’s indulging in a private little rage/pity party:

    Why had he brought his cheap regard and his lip-born words to her who had nothing paltry to give in exchange?

    I just love that Eliot allows her heroine to look kind of petty and ridiculous at that moment, so sure of her own pure and noble spirit. The antithesis of the Mary Sue, by my reading.

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  24. George Eliot
    May 09, 2011 @ 08:09:16

    Great review. I’ve tried reading Middlemarch a couple of times but found it really hard work and consequently gave up. I much preferred reading Silas Marner and some of her poetry, however after reading this I’m going to give it another shot. Cheers :)

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