Author: George Eliot
Publishing Date: 1997
Number of Pages: 747
Genre: Novel, Bildungsroman, Realism, Classic
Subtitled ‘A Study of Provincial Life’, George Eliot’s greatest novel is a tale of many marriages centering on the town of Middlemarch. A complex web, Middlemarch society is woven of myriad lives: the ardent idealist Dorothea Brooke, seeking to reform the world; the ambitious medical man Tertius Lydgate, dedicated to scientific research; the traditional Vincy and Garth families; and the outsiders like exotic Will Ladislaw, and Raffles whose secrets reveal the sordid past of one of the town’s most reputable citizens.
Looking back to the turbulent years immediately preceding the Reform Bill of 1832, Middlemarch dramatizes the pressures of political, economic and cultural change in this microcosm of English society.
A Study of Provincial Life
It was in 2015 that I purchased Middlemarch, with the aim of enriching my grasp of classic English literature. Due to excuses, it was left to gather dust, until I decided to beat the backlist. With the advent of a new year, it was an opportunity for me to start reading the books that have been long stuck in my bookshelves, beginning with the one that has gathered the thickest dust, Middlemarch by George Eliot. Without design, I am starting my reading journey with an English classic for the second consecutive year; I started 2018 with William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair.
Middlemarch was originally published in eight installments/volumes from 1871 to 1872. Set about forty years before the book’s publication, it is a novel relating the lives of the residents of Middlemarch, a fictitious Midlands town. The narrative follows several subplots but it is the lives of Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate that take the spotlight. Dorothea Brooke is a young, orphan who was living with her uncle, Mr. Brooke. An idealist with the dream of becoming an intellect, she fell in love with the Reverent Edward Casaubon who is known for his pursuit for knowledge.
Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate is the newest doctor in Middlemarch. In many an instance, he mirrors Dorothea. He is an idealist who is filled with his own opinions and standards on doing things. He marries one of the town’s old residents, Rosamund Vincy. In between these two is a bevy of characters that make provincial life colorful, or bleak, or at least interesting.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” ~ George Eliot, Middlemarch
It takes a while to appreciate the novel as it slowly builds up to what it truly is: A Study of Provincial Life. “A Study of Provincial Life” is the book’s subtitle and readily summarizes that the book is a study of the dynamics of small-town living. However, most of the time, the subtitle is omitted in printing, perhaps to obscure what it truly is about. Even I have learned of this only after reading the novel. Thankfully, the words flowed fluently it was easy to conclude the direction the novel was trudging on. This central theme is very critical in appreciating the novel and its nuances.
The typical features of provincial life were embedded into the fabric of the novel. Such can also be gleaned on in popular English classic novels but they were dealt only in passing unlike in Middlemarch. More importantly, it portrays middle class living. It is no surprise that the story is abound with gossipmongers, and characters who are narrow-minded, and short-sighted.
The words are spun into intrigues and rumors. The characters are keen on preserving their honors, of keeping their places in the Middlemarch society; tainting the family’s name is a taboo. Material wealth, and inheritance, along with the elements, produced tension amongst the characters and played a part in how the characters handle the forces society exerts upon them. The suffocating qualities of small-town life is very well portrayed in the confines of the novel.
“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.” ~ George Eliot, Middlemarch
The portrayal of marriage also takes a centrifugal role in the narrative. A universal mantra comes to mind while reading the novel: within its confines are the unsuccessful unions of the two principal characters. No marriage is indeed perfect. Through the passages in the story, the impact of their unsuccessful marriages in their personal endeavors can be gleaned.
The novel also follows the growth of Dorothea. She is the image of an independent woman, once dreaming of emulating St. Theresa. Her dream was stymied by being born “amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.” Dorothea and her pursuit for knowledge, her libertarian spirit represented the book’s dip into the fundamentals of feminism.
In stark dichotomy to Dorothea Brooke’s persona, Casaubon is her polar opposite, an archetype of typical male mentality. When Dorothea married him, it was in the hopes of partaking of his intellectual pursuits. To her disappointment, it was the opposite. However, this didn’t stop her from her own libertarian pursuits, ultimately going against her husband’s wishes.
On the technical side, lyrical would the last word I would use to describe the novel. Clinical would be more like it. It was very straightforward, so straightforward that at times it comes up too bland, too dry. It didn’t help that it takes some time to warm up to the narrative. The interaction amongst the characters is very consistent with the narrative’s main theme but it could get very bland and boring.
George Eliot took time in developing her characters. At times, however, Dorothea comes off to strong and domineering while Lydgate is at times passive. Moreover, it is apparent that most of the characters have preset roles, acting the way they are expected to. The only character that I felt worth appreciating was Ladislaw. Maybe because he was wrapped up in enigma? I just find it lamentable that Ladislaw played a minor role.
“Confound you handsome young fellows! You think of having it all your own way in the world. You don’t understand women. They don’t admire you half so much as you admire yourselves.” ~ George Eliot, Middlemarch
Nothing can ever go wrong with an English classic. There is a lot that is packed into this novel, from religion to philosophy to marriage to wealth. To a fault, it makes the narrative, at times, dry. However, it is with ease that one can relate to the book because it reverently reflected the qualities of small-town living. Although the execution was very clinical and typical of its contemporaries, its depiction of English society was impeccable. Eliot’s conscientious research rendered her an on-point depiction of the period.
About the Author
(Portrait by Frederick William Burton, 1864) George Eliot was born Mary Anne (later Mary Ann, then Marian) Evans on November 22, 1819 at Arbury Farm in Warwickshire.
In early 1820, when she was just five months old, her family relocated to a farmhouse at Griff. Even when she was young, George Eliot already exhibited a voracious appetite for reading. Her intelligence, coupled with her “plain” looks made her father invest in her education. She attended schools at Attleborough and Nuneaton. She also boarded at the Misses Franklin’s school in Coventry, studying a considerable range of literature.
With the death of her mother in 1836, Marian returned home to become her father’s housekeeper. When Marian and her father moved to Coventry, she was introduced to the free-thinking Charles Bray and his wife Cara, who played a key role in enriching Marian’s life. They influenced her reading, her thinking, and even her early career which effectively began with the translation of Strauss’s Life of Jesus (1846).
After spending some months in Switzerland following her father’s death in 1849, she returned London where she became a distinguished contributor to, and editor of, John Chapman’s Westminster Review. There she George Henry Lewes, the man with whom she live with until his death in 1878.
In 1857 she published her first – and well-received – fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life, and became George Eliot. Amongst her successful works include Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), Felix Holt: the Radical (1866), Middlemarch (1871-1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876). She also published poetry works and her last work was The Impressions of Theophrastus Such (1879).
In 1880 she married her devoted friend J.W. Cross, but died a few months later. She is buried close by Lewes in Highgate Cemetery.