Middlemarch

School has once again been interfering with my ability to read for pleasure, but now that summer is here and I’m back to *only* full-time work, I fully intend to make up for lost time.  I decided to kick off my summer reading by rectifying my sad status as an Engligh major who had never read George Eliot.

The Plot: In the early 1830s, the inhabitants of the town of Middlemarch experience the trials and successes of everyday life, including politics, love, death, marriage, and careers.

The author: George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) was born in England in 1819. She had an unusually thorough education for a woman of the time, and after her father’s death in 1849 she became an active political writer.  Her many works include essays, reviews, translations, and several novels. Eliot considered herself married twice, though only one marriage was legal: from 1854 until his death in 1878 she lived with George Henry Lewes (still technically married to Agnes Jervis), and in 1880 she married the much-younger John Walter Cross. She died in 1880 at age 61 and is buried in Highgate cemetary in London.

Why It’s Awesome: Middlemarch is a difficult novel to sum up, and I’m worried that my plot summary makes it sound dull.  The genius of Eliot’s writing is that she takes what truly could be dull–the minutiae of everyday life for ordinary people–and makes it vivid and fascinating. She delves into the psyches of her many characters in a way that is sympathetic and appealing without losing the ability to be critical, a way that makes us worry and cheer for her characters as we would for our own friends. I ate my way through Middlemarch’s 800 pages in record time, because it never felt like work–in fact, I was desperate to find out what would happen next.

The scope of Middlemarch is huge in terms of the number of characters and their complex relationships to one another, but Eliot handles this complexity extremely well.  She keeps the main focus of the novel on roughly a dozen major characters, with the result that the social world of Middlemarch feels realistically populated without requiring a scorecard to keep track of everyone.

Middlemarch is unusual for its period–and in some ways still unusual now–for several reasons.  One is the way it follows its characters into married life rather than leaving them at some kind of happily-ever-after moment (in fact, one of the main arguments of the novel is that marriage may not lead to happiness at all).  Another is its treatment of women and vocation, especially in the case of Dorothea, whose natural intelligence and drive to activity are continually stifled by the prescribed roles for a woman of her class. The narrator always takes her desire for work seriously, even while the characters around her do not.

Why It’s Not Awesome: Although this is less a criticism of the book and more about the reader, it’s important to know beforehand what you are getting into with Middlemarch.  It is a 19th century novel with 19th century pacing, and the pleasure of the experience comes from Eliot’s thoughtful analysis of the characters and their actions rather than from dramatic plot twists or exciting life-and-death situations. The writing demands that you pay attention rather than steam through for plot points.

While I truly loved Middlemarch, I will say that some of the political passages were lost on me.  Most notably, a section in which Mr. Brooke attempts to run for parliament seems to demand a knowledge of 1830s British politics that I as a 21st century American simply do not possess. Much like my experience when reading Ratking, I had moments when I felt that a character’s political comment or alignment with a particular party was meant to reveal something…but I wasn’t sure what it was.

The Final Judgment: A gorgeously written epic about the triumphs and tragedies of ordinary lives.

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