This is my review of Middlemarch by George Eliot.
How can a book written a century-and-a-half ago still exert such a powerful addiction over modern readers who imagine themselves to be free from the conventions concerning class, race, gender and honour which so shackled C19 society? A remarkably perceptive and articulate woman who wrote as “George Eliot” to ensure she was not merely published but taken seriously at the time, Mary Ann Evans was able to enter into the minds of her characters and analyse their complex and shifting emotions so effectively that readers in any generation are able to relate to them. Admittedly some of the minor players are caricatures, such as the complacent, censorious inhabitants of Middlemarch, but the main protagonists are portrayed in such depth, both strengths and failings, that we even find ourselves feeling a twinge of sympathy for the canting hypocrite, non-conformist banker Bulstrode when he receives his final reckoning.
Culled from two separate earlier stories, the main storylines are interwoven, contrasting the fortunes of two idealistic individuals: the wealthy well-born Dorothea, filled with the earnest but unfocused desire to make a difference in the world, and the ambitious young pioneering doctor Tertius Lydgate, determined to make his mark in furthering medical knowledge. Restricted by the naivety stemming from a sheltered upbringing and a lack of education to match her intelligence, Dorothea makes the mistake of marrying a selfish pedant, whose dry-as-dust research project has run into the ground. Her gradual realisation of the hollowness of his talent and the meanness of his outlook is made all the more poignant by the appearance on the scene of Casaubon’s intelligent and attractive young relative Will Ladislaw, who could not present a greater contrast in his open-minded spontaneity. An unwise marriage is also Lydgate’s downfall, since the lovely but shallow and materialistic Rosamund is neither willing or able to support him in achieving his aims.
With its web of many well-developed, diverse characters and entertaining sub-plots, this is a kind of glorious literary soap opera, by turns humorous and poignant, set against a background of industrial and political revolution: the drives to extend the vote under the controversial Reform Act, and to develop the railways, seen as a mystifying and needless threat to civilised life by many in Middlemarch. Just occasionally, George Eliot falls prey to the prejudices of her time: anti-Semitic asides and snobbish descriptions of some low-born characters such as the “frog-faced” Joshua Rigg, bastard son of the perverse Featherstone, whose highest ambition is to use his unexpected inheritance to set himself up in the despised profession of moneychanger. Yet overall one is impressed by the sheer force of the author’s intellect, and struck by the irony that a female writer of this calibre was obliged to write under a male pseudonym.
I am not sure whether George Eliot felt required to indulge in the flowery disquisitions so popular in Victorian writing, or revelled in displaying her skill in this, but I have to admit to struggling with some of these passages, not least where words have changed in their meaning, or turns of phrase become too convoluted for our preferred sparer style. Yet most descriptions and dialogues sizzle with a sharp wit which would not seem out of place in a modern novel.
Less bleak than “The Mill on the Floss” or “Silas Marner”, “Middlemarch” deserves to be called one of the greatest English novels of the nineteenth century.