Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Middlemarch is a Victorian novel about ordinary people in provincial England.  In writing it, George Eliot defied the traditions and expectations of her time by exploring real issues and allowing “bad things” to happen to her characters.  As in real life, misfortune and unhappiness are common.

Central to the story is Dorothea Brooke, who early on marries the intellectual Edward Casaubon.  But she is disappointed in marriage:

How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?

As Dorothea struggles to find happiness, two other couples are forging their way: Dr. Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, and Fred Vincy and Mary Garth.  Will they marry or won’t they?  And if they do, will they be happy?  Middlemarch is quite unpredictable in this regard.  And Eliot uses these couples, and the large cast of characters surrounding them, to explore how seemingly isolated events can ripple out to affect a broader population in ways large and small:

Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbors’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history, and make a part of that unity which lies in the selection of our keenest consciousness.

Along the way Eliot adds liberal doses of humor and irony:

But we all know the wag’s definition of a philanthropist: a man whose charity increases directly as the square of the distance.

I read Middlemarch over a period of several months, which required frequent consultation with my notes to keep the characters and plot lines straight in my mind.  I was most impressed with the women of Middlemarch.  I started out thinking Dorothea was a bit of milquetoast, but came to like her a lot.  She had a strong social conscience which both trapped her into marriage and provided her path to long-term happiness.  Rosamond Vincy, however, lowered in my estimation with each turn of the page.  And then out of nowhere Rosamond’s aunt, Mrs. Bulstrode, rose up and showed herself to be an amazingly strong woman.  Where the typical woman of this period was meek and obedient, Harriet Bulstrode stood up to the most serious social pressure she and her husband had ever faced:

But this imperfectly taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her–now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him. There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity. She knew, when she locked her door, that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach. But she needed time to gather up her strength; she needed to sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life.

Well, I could go on.  Eliot covers a lot of ground in 880 pages, and it’s filled with memorable moments and brilliant writing.  Sure, I could have finished several shorter books in the time it took to read this one, but I have no regrets.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot

  1. Well done on finishing thise one! I have read some of Eliot’s shorter works but never made it through Middlemarch. I wish I felt I had the stamina to attack some longer books (I currently struggle with shorter Dickens!)

    • kaggsy, I took this book at a verrrry slow pace, starting sometime around the beginning of the year. I’m sure if I sat down to read it all in one go I would have struggled, not because it isn’t wonderful but because I would have become impatient and eager to get on to something else. But when I realized I had about 100 pages to go heading into a 3-day holiday weekend I decided to buckle down and finish it. I hope you manage to read Middlemarch someday!

  2. I was just thinking about this book the other day. I’ve never read it- or The Mill on the Floss- and I was kicking myself for it. Nice review and thanks for the reminder that I really do have to read this writer!

  3. Yes, this book is quite a challenge but such a good read if you stick with it. I liked Mary Garth’s parents’ relationship – it showed how shallow some of the other marriages were in comparison.

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