Middlemarch(822 pages)
by George Eliot (1819-1880)

Arguably Eliot's masterpiece, Middlemarch is a combination of romance and social commentary--as is appropriate for the Victorian time period. Eliot's heroine is a strong idealistic young woman, Dorothea Brooke. The plot follows her almost unreal purity and compares the entire community of characters "who want to be indulged in doing as they like..." to Dorothea and her unadulterated morals. One underlying theme of Eliot's is that each character "has to find out for himself what he should do and why he should do it. Morality in Eliot's fiction is not a system but a quest"(introduction to Middlemarch by Felicia Bonaparte, xii).

Eliot's work is comparable to that of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Other novels by George Eliot include: Adam Bede, The Mill and the Floss, and Silas Marner.

THE WORLD OF MIDDLEMARCH An examination of timelessness of George Eliot’s ‘Study of Provincial Life’, with particular reference to the ‘Three Love Problems’

‘All these people, solid and vivid in their varying degrees, are members of a deeply human little world, the full reflection of whose antique image is the great merit of these volumes. How bravely rounded a little world the author has made it – with how dense an atmosphere of interests and passions and loves and enmities and strivings and failings, and how motley a group of great folk and small, all after their kind, she has filled it, the reader must learn for himself.’ Henry James
Following her death, George Eliot’s reputation suffered a decline – with critics accusing Middlemarch of being too analytical and reflective. Virginia Woolf came to its defence in 1919, when she described it as, ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,’ and this is the view that I wish to defend. In Middlemarch, George Eliot has created a town that typifies English towns of the time – indeed, not just of the time, but possibly all time. Each of the characters has their own differing aspirations and grievances; different ideologies and passions; and, perhaps most importantly of all, differing views of morality and how to live one’s life. This is illustrated by the stark contrast in the nature of the novel’s three main romances: Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, and Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. Henry James criticises the novel for being, ‘a treasure house of detail but an indifferent whole,’ largely due to its being too structured. However, I will argue that it is the superlative interweaving of plots that makes Middlemarch so good – each storyline could stand on its own but, as in the real world, we come to realise that everyone has an impact on another. When Middlemarch was first published, between 1871-2, it was a time of enormous social and political upheaval. Set in the years preceding the Reform Bill of 1832, and written following the second Reform Bill of 1867, the novel documents Mr Brooke’s failed attempt to stand for Parliament, assisted by the ideological reformist, Will Ladislaw. Eliot also comments on the scientific advancements, embodied by Dr Lydgate, an ambitious young practitioner concerned with research and the establishment of a fever hospital in the town. The introduction of cholera to Britain, from India, is also alluded to, as is the conflict between church and state – illustrated by the crisis within the Church of England, regarding its Catholic or Protestant heritage and the Catholic emancipation of 1829. By the time of its publication, Eliot was widely regarded as the greatest living English novelist, and it is easy to see why. Throughout Middlemarch there is evidence of wit that would not be out of place in Jane Austen, and yet she paints a panorama more vivid and with greater depth than Dickens. While Bleak House provides a similar array of characters and inter-woven plots, it fails to encapsulate a world of its own so fully, as this ‘Study of Provincial Life.’ However, Elisabeth Jay criticises Eliot for being,
a middle-class author writing for her peers in an era where domestic labour was cheap, plentiful and therefore always replaceable. p121
She goes onto ask why Mary Garth’s servitude at Stone Court is painted so bleakly, when her time there was probably no worse than that of anyone else below stairs. But this is to miss the point. Middlemarch is not a comment on society or social conditions of the time, so much, as society in general. This is the novel’s great strength – its timelessness. Her character analysis is so penetrating and her understanding of humanity so acute that none of the novel’s main protagonists are restricted to time or place. In her portrayal of Dorothea, Will and Casaubon at Lowick one could easily be reading Forster’s description of twenties England; in her description of Lydgate and Rosamond’s courtship one could be reading a novel of Austen. That is because this is a novel about emotions, morality and humanity, all transcendent concepts – and this is never more insightful than in the depictions of the novel’s ‘romances’. In Dorothea, Eliot presents us with an idealistic young woman, with a thirst for knowledge and understanding. She marries Casaubon out of a desire to aid his scholarship and learning, but soon realises her mistake, and the chill that her husband places upon her desire to be of help. However, the sense of tragedy is so much greater because Eliot gives us a sympathetic figure in Casaubon too. He may be uninspired, dry, and even pretentious in his work – but it’s not just Dorothea who’s trapped in an unhappy marriage. The reader can sense his exasperation with his wife – the ‘total missing of each other’s mental track’ as Eliot later says of Lydgate and Rosamond. Perhaps he even feels guilty for ensnaring her in this disastrous relationship – in which emotion is so poorly expressed:
‘But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness, which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated.’ p43
The above quotation is reminiscent of Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, for its verbosity, more in keeping with a legal document than a love letter or proposal of marriage. Even his jealousy is poorly expressed, in a series of slight actions: firstly refusing to allow Will to stay at Lowick, and then the codicil, in which Casaubon pathetically strikes out against his wife and cousin in death. However, this is a tragedy that Dorothea must endure, for her ‘short-sighted belief … that knowing Latin, Greek or Hebrew would transform her view of the world.’ Dorothea is then saved, or spoiled further, depending upon your critical viewpoint, by her relationship with Will Ladislaw. Most critics seem to agree that Will is a poorly realised creation; lacking ‘sharpness of outline and depth of colour’ , whilst artistic, idealistic, sensitive and sometimes charming he can also be sulky, impetuous, tactless and something of a dilettante. However, he is vital in terms of Dorothea realising the passion and sexuality that she has tried to deny. Her world is one of sacrifices: devotion and piety, not love and pursuit of self-happiness.
She felt sure that she would have accepted the judicious Hooker, if she had been in time to save him from that wretched mistake he made in matrimony; or John Milton when his blindness had come on; or any of the other great men whose odd habits it would have been glorious piety to endure. p10
She colours in meetings with Will, feels inexplicably guilty about asking him to stay before consulting her husband; she even denies her obvious feelings of jealousy when she walks in on Will and Rosamond in a compromising position. Dorothea, therefore, has an unrealised romantic streak – which she tries to refute through her idealistic workings and desire for reform. The problem with Dorothea, according to Graham Handley is not that she is too good to be true, ‘rather she is too true to be effectively good.’ It is only when she casts off this shroud of piety and acknowledges the passion that lies underneath that she is able to move on – accepting the happiness that is rightfully hers and become useful to those around her. Perhaps D. H. Lawrence’s statement is never more true than when applied to Miss Brooke: ‘I am what I am, not merely what I think I am.’ If Dorothea personifies what it is to be idealistic, striving for academic and spiritual enlightenment, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy personify the grounded human, with modest desires. While Dorothea and Will appear to be seeking a grand remuneration from life, Fred and Mary appear content solely with the happiness they can find in each other. Friends since childhood, theirs is a wholesome relationship – based almost entirely upon devotion to each other.
‘I suppose a woman is never in love with any one she has always known-ever since she can remember; as a man often is. It is always some new fellow who strikes a girl,’ (pondered Fred). ‘Let me see,’ said Mary, the corners of her mouth curling archly; ‘I must go back on my experience. There is Juliet – she seems an example of what you say. But then Ophelia had probably known Hamlet a long while …’ … as (Fred) had grown from boy to man, he had grown in love with his old playmate, notwithstanding that share in the higher education of the country which had exalted his views of rank and income.’ p138
I disagree with Henry James’ view that, ‘to the end we care less about Fred Vincy than appears to be expected of us.’ He lacks the artistic pretensions of Ladislaw, and the scientific pretensions of Lydgate. He is honest and true, even if he is a little misguided. We warm to him as, naïvely, he aims to pay off his debts by:
(metamorphosing) a horse worth forty pounds into a horse that would fetch a hundred at any moment – ‘judgement’ being always equivalent to an unspecified sum in hard cash. p230
There is something inherently good about Fred, illustrated by his intervention when Lydgate is gambling and also in his unswerving love for Mary. She, in her turn, is honest, moral and has real integrity. She refuses to concede to Featherstone’s last request to burn his second will, in spite of a bribe, and her decision is ultimately to Fred’s cost. The Garths and Vincys, meanwhile, are portraits of two very different families. The Vincys appear concerned with the material and their place in the class structure. Mr Vincy and his dealings with Bulstrode encapsulate the small-scale politics, in comparison with the backdrop of Reform. The Garths, on the other hand, represent an honest, hard-working family – more concerned with the morality of an action than its monetary profit. They may be miniatures, but they further the idea that Middlemarch is as much a landscape of humanity, as it is of a Midlands town. The final relationship of great importance is that between Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate. In Rosamond we are presented with a vain, materialistic girl – obsessed with social climbing, an embodiment of Eliot’s belief that a fountain’s height is dependent upon its source. She ‘works’ Lydgate with her womanly charm and expects a certain standard of living, to which she should not be denied. She is an expert manipulator, but still a character that Eliot paints sympathetically. As a result of the industrial and transportation upheaval of the time, Rosamond can be given no dowry by her father at the time of her marriage; her union with Lydgate has a bad effect upon her – and we feel her pain deeply at the novel’s end, when Dorothea comes to comfort her. Her husband, meanwhile, is seen as the real hero of the book. James describes him as manly. While Ladislaw is dismissed as a ‘woman’s man’, Lydgate is ‘powerful, ambitious, sagacious,’ with the minimum of egotism. However, he has faults, most expressly observed in his choice of wife:
Lydgate’s spots of commonness lay in the complexion of his prejudices, which, in spite of noble intention and sympathy, were half of them as such found in ordinary men of the world: that distinction of mind which belonged to his intellectual ardour, did not penetrate his feeling and judgement about furniture, or women … p150
While he is an intellectual, a pioneer breaking the boundaries of science, he is also a snob – while it is Rosamond who pushes for a house above their means, and insists upon the extravagant furnishings, Lydgate does little to resist – he positively indulges her, believing that a man of his standing deserves no less. He desires a wife who can play the piano and make a good hostess, but merely as the backdrop to his medicine – he and Dorothea are alike in that sense, that marriage for them is never the precedent aspiration that it is for Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. While Dorothea moves on, however, Lydgate is destined for a tragic end. James believes that the domestic scenes between Rosamond and her husband to be some of the finest writing in English literature. The dialogue is short but perceptive, cutting to the quick of their relationships dilemma. In the end we are left in no doubt that ‘she had mastered him.’ Ultimately Rosamond gets the fashionable world she desires, at the expense of Lydgate’s intellectual ideals and medical ambitions:
He had gained an excellent practice, alternating, according to the season, between London and a Continental bathing-place; having written a treatise on Gout, a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side. p834
With Middlemarch George Eliot creates a landscape populated with an array of characters. At the time it provided a witty and insightful commentary upon life in provincial England, during the Industrial Revolution and the Great Reform Bills. However, it goes far beyond that – providing an intuitive analysis of character and humanity. The politics of the time may be documented in history, but the petty politics of the fever hospital and town’s tradesman is just as relevant and telling today. The population transcend their time, full as they are ‘of interests and passions and loves and enmities and strivings and failings’. Eliot’s humanist beliefs are also evident, as she describes our ability to see what we wish to see in life, but perhaps also the fact that our own perceptions of the world around us are not really false, if there is no objective truth there at all:
Your pier glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles around that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. p264
Therefore this novel, far from being over analytical, extrapolates our view of the world, and its objective truths by examining humanity from many of its aspects. It is this that makes Middlemarch a timeless work of literature, as well as a truly grown-up novel.

It was a month ago, on a walk home in the late August evening, that I found a copy of Middlemarch at a Little Free Library. Little Free Libraries can be hit or miss-- most of the time, they are full of spy thrillers, romances and cookbooks, but every once in a while I find one that has an entire graduate school education just sitting there. That night I found one with Manchild in the Promised Land, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Postman, Tropic of Cancer and... Middlemarch. In a big Penguin Classics edition that had been filled with notes. I was a little intimidated by the size of the book, and by what I guessed would be a dated and labyrinthine plot, but I felt that I should make some notable literary investigation before the end of summer. And I started reading, and once I got past the novelty and difficulty of George Eliot's prose, I found myself sliding into the book. The story was not as dense, and was much more relatable, than I imagined at first.

The plot of the book, told over more than 800 pages, involves the romantic alliances of several couples, told against the background of the aspirations, and sometimes prejudice of "middle class" life in rural England. (NB: "Middle Class" means something very different in this context, than in my own, which I will discuss below). Dorothy and Celia Brooke are orphans in their late teens, being raised by their uncle, Arthur Brooke. Dorothy marries the Reverend Edward Casaubon, a man twice her age who is working on an epic tome about mythology. Her sister marries a local landowner, Sir James Chettam, and play a minor role in the plot after that. Fred and Rosamund Vincy are the children of a local businessman, and both have money problems--- Fred has been gambling on horses, and Rosamund is used to a lavish lifestyle. When Rosamund marries an idealistic young doctor, Tertius Lydgate, her expectations of a more luxurious life causes problems for them. Fred Vincy goes to work for a local "land agent" (in modern terms, a property manager), Caleb Garth, as well as courting Garth's daughter. This causes consternation for his family, as working at a practical occupation is considered socially damaging to their reputation. And, The Reverend Casaubon passes away unexpectedly, leaving Dorothy a widow in her early 20s. Dorothy has met Casaubon's distant cousin, Will Ladislaw, who is considered an outcast because...he is part Polish. Dorothy and Will feel an attraction that they both try to deny, especially since Casubon put a stipulation in his will that Dorothy can remarry---except for Ladislaw.

I was pretty proud of myself that I managed to figure this all out while reading. There were certain things that were easy to understand and still resonated. With Rosamund Vincy and Tertius Lydgate, I could imagine it in modern terms: perhaps a college student marrying an idealistic partner, and then being surprised to find out that it was not just a phase and that she wasn't going to be moving to a house in the suburbs. I mean, I used to live next to Reed College, so I have seen this. As a story about young people's expectations meeting reality, and what happens when romance turns into a relationship, some of the stories it tells are perennial. Other things were somewhat difficult for me to understand: Fred Vincy, in his early 20s, with no interest in religion, and with a penchant for gambling on horse racing, is considered to be a perfect fit to be a minister, because he has a Bachelors of Art, and his father is disappointed that he chooses not to go into the ministry, which is apparently a lucrative career, more so than being a doctor. It is pretty hard to understand that in 2021 terms.

As mentioned above, this is a record of "middle class" life---as that meant by someone in England in 1870, describing life in 1830. As such, there was many things that I didn't understand. The term "middle class" here means that people are not aristocracy, apparently, but by my standards they seem to be very wealthy. Some of the fine distinctions in profession and status were hard for me to understand. The United States, in general, has a much wider and flatter version of "middle class". Fred Vincy leaves a profligate life of gambling to work hard in a junior managerial position--- something that I can only imagine would be seen as a great blessing in my time and country. In the book, however, it is almost scandalous, as if he is throwing his life away. While young people in the United States do take into account the socioeconomic status of partners (and face pressure to do the same), we live in a much more forgiving system. The sharp focus on small gradations in status was foreign to me. And that brings us to another problem: the back of the novel has a quote by Virginia Woolf: 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'. As I have mentioned before, one of the definitions of "literary fiction" is that what is at risk in the story is people's self-image. And so it is in this book: people's self-image and standing in society can be threatened, but the basic safety of their existence is never in doubt. This is most telling in the case of Dorothy Brooke/Casaubon, who must sacrifice her inheritance from her ex-husband to remarry with Will Ladislaw. However, as the book makes clear, she is left with an annuity of "only" 700 pounds from her uncle...or about $100,000 in today's money. While married to a newspaper editor. When Tertius Lydgate and Rosamund face financial ruin, one of the consequences is that they must live with...a single servant, which is apparently a sign of dire poverty. As I have mentioned before, the definition of poverty is often quite different in books like this. And Middlemarch almost totally ignores the existence of anyone truly poor. Except for one encounter with an angry farmer, and another encounter with some angry field hands, the absolute floor of social status that the book can deal with is what to me would be lower middle-class.

There is another thing that I found symbolic, if perhaps not intended. The Reverend Edward Casaubon has spent years working on a book on comparative mythologies. The idea of mythology, that it represents a key to universal human experiences, and that it connects individual struggles to a more cosmic world, is a powerful one. However, in the story, Casaubon's interest in mythology is repeatedly described as pedantic and rather boring, just a man looking at dusty old books that he doesn't understand. The book seems to totally eschew a connection with anything deeper, even symbolically. The myths and legends, or even fairy-tales, of the English countryside, are left out of the book, in favor of total social realism. This is perhaps due to Eliot's own social and political views about religion, but I found myself disappointed that there wasn't even a hint of a dream beyond the book's world. This puts it in contrast with The Dream of the Red Chamber, which intersperses its similar social realism with hints of a larger Buddhist cosmology.

My overall feelings are that this book explains a milieu perfectly, and that despite the differences in era, I could understand the motivations and situations of the characters in that milieu. But the book seems to not an idea of there being anything outside of its scope: neither a higher, transpersonal reality that might redeem the characters struggles, or a wider social and political world to give a contrast to their situations. This is perhaps an unfair criticism---not every book can be everything to everyone --- but I did find this to be missing pieces. This was my serious summer reading, a break from thinking about a real world that continues to be difficult to understand. And despite liking it and appreciating the literary skill involved in making it, I found a sense of incompleteness after finishing it. With all its insight and descriptive power into human psychology and society, this book missed the chance to be transformative.

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