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.