Middlemarch is a novel about ordinary people, living ordinary lives in 19th-century England. Book I revolved around Dorothea Brooke, who married Edward Casaubon, an older man she admired for his intellect. And you just know that isn’t going to go well. But this potential downer isn’t far from the only storyline in this rich novel. We also met a myriad of characters that I’m sure will figure into all of this somehow. Well, it whetted my appetite, that’s for sure.
Book II begins with Dorothea nowhere to be found (actually she’s off on her honeymoon in Rome). Instead the camera zooms in on Tertius Lydgate, a young doctor recently arrived in Middlemarch bent on reforming medical treatment. Lydgate is the classic outsider who, much like the reader, observes Middlemarch and its inhabitants from the sidelines. He falls for Rosamund Vincy, a young and beautiful woman, but he doesn’t want to marry for several years. It appears he may be unintentionally leading Rosamund on. Then there’s a big flap over election of a hospital chaplain. Nicholas Bulstrode, a powerful banker, wants to replace the current chaplain with a man of his choosing. He pressures Lydgate to vote for his man. I liked Lydgate, but I found all this power-mongering a bit tedious, and was glad when the story moved on.
Well, no surprise here, Dorothea is already disappointed with married life. Casaubon has proven to be a boring intellectual with no emotional depth, just as anyone paying attention could have told her:
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?
Dorothea had hoped to be a partner in creating his life’s scholarly work, The Key to All Mythologies, but Casaubon does not recognize her abilities, nor does he detect her emotional ups and downs. Casaubon’s cousin Will Ladislaw runs into the couple while in Rome; it’s evident he despises Casaubon and is sympathetic to Dorothea. Ladislaw is an artist, and couldn’t be more different from Casaubon. The seeds are sown for a deeper relationship between Dorothea and Will … what will Book III bring?
Eliot brings delightful subtle humor to the text. Casaubon is indeed a bore, and I’m sympathetic to Dorothea, but it’s hard to take his work seriously. His endless research and fact-checking, the little details squirreled away for the mammoth book that somehow never quite takes shape. Even its pompous title, The Key to All Mythologies, made me laugh. We’ve all known someone like this, haven’t we?
I’m happy to be following the traditional Victorian approach to reading Middlemarch. It was first published in installments, and likewise the Team Middlemarch readalong will spread the novel out over the rest of the year. To a modern reader, the language requires a certain level of concentration until you get immersed in the story. Reading in short sittings was ideal. Each book is further subdivided into chapters, perhaps about 10 pages each. I found it easy to knock out a chapter or two at a time. Prolonged reading sessions didn’t work so well, as I kept losing focus.
As much as I enjoy playing the Victorian in my reading, there’s a decidedly 21st-century activity happening in parallel: the BBC dramatization is streaming into my family room, courtesy of Netflix. The first episode lined up nicely with Books I & II, and I really enjoyed it. Released in 1994, it features Robert Hardy and Rufus Sewell, two actors I’ve enjoyed in lots of other programs. I’ll definitely watch the rest of the series, but I’m adhering strictly to a “read it first” rule.
At this point my Kindle tells me I’m 26% into this book (or 243 pages). I need to read 11 chapters (100 pages) in time to discuss Book III (Waiting for Death), on May 19/20. That’s doable!