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.

Midweek @ Musings: Middlemarch, Book III (Waiting for Death)

It’s almost time for dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch discussion of Book III, Waiting for Death.  Doesn’t that title sound ominous? Well, we certainly are waiting for the death of a certain elderly gentleman, since his estate may benefit others we have come to know.  But there’s much more going on in these 100 pages, and several lives hang in the balance.  Young Fred Vincy got himself hopelessly in debt, and permanently damaged a relationship by borrowing money he could not repay.  Then he was struck with typhoid fever, and I thought OK, that’s the death we’re waiting for then.  But no, Dr. Tertius Lydgate saved the day by correcting the first diagnosis and making sure Fred received proper treatment. Whew!  Fred lived to see another day.

Then Lydgate continued to prove his medical superiority in attending to Edward Casaubon, who suffered a heart attack shortly after returning from his honeymoon with Dorothea.  Lydgate advised Casaubon to take it very easy, but chose not to share the severity of his condition.  Instead, he told Dorothea that Edward’s heart condition will kill him someday.  Pretty tough news for our young bride, especially when it’s expected she will keep a brave face and pretend everything is fine.  So are we waiting for Casaubon’s death then?

Will Ladislaw made a brief appearance from offstage, sending letters describing plans to visit his uncle (Casaubon).  I suspect future entanglement between Ladislaw and Dorothea, but George Eliot has so far kept that at bay.  Dorothea asked her father to reply to Ladislaw’s letters, expecting him to warn off Ladislaw due to Casaubon’s poor health.  But her father offers him accommodation at his place instead!  Now was that a tactical error on Dorothea’s part, or will she be happy to see Ladislaw?

Meanwhile, Dorothea’s sister has become engaged to Sir James Chettam.  Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy are seen together often enough to spark widespread gossip about their possible engagement.

Oh, and that death we were waiting for?  It was the elderly gentlemen after all, and not at all unexpected, but he does give a dramatic performance on his deathbed, so it was worth the wait. 🙂

I have high hopes for Book IV, Three Love Problems, because of its spicier title and all the groundwork laid in Waiting for Death.  Like Book III, the next book is a bit over 100 pages spread out over 10 chapters.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to approach this.  With Book III, I decided to read a segment each time I finished one of my other books.  But I found I left too much time between Middlemarch reading sessions.  Each time I sat down to read, I had to flip back a few pages to reconnect with the story.  For Book IV, I’m going to set a weekly goal of (pages or chapters), and make sure I stick to it.  We’ll see how it works.

Just for the record, here are my impressions of the earlier parts of this book:

Midweek @ Musings: Middlemarch, First Impressions

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

That’s exactly what I’m doing with George Eliot‘s Middlemarch.  And I’m not the only one; I’ve joined dovegreyreader’s Team Middlemarch in a readalong that spreads this loooong book over most of 2012.  Now that I’ve read Book I (Miss Brooke), I see the wisdom in this approach.  First published in serial form in 1871-72, it’s meant to be read in short sittings.  There are 12 chapters in Book I; 130 pages altogether.  To a modern reader, the language requires a certain level of concentration until you get immersed in the story.  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.

Middlemarch is subtitled, “A Study of Provincial Life,” and describes the lives of ordinary people in 19th-century England.  The book opens with a young woman, Dorothea Brooke, making up her mind to marry Edward Casaubon, who is much older but Dorothea admires him and has ideals about being his intellectual companion.  But Eliot foreshadowed other possibilities, and introduced considerable humor into the text, particularly concerning the role of women.  It’s clear she’s writing a very different sort of novel from her contemporaries, and indeed Sparknotes backs this up:

Eliot hated the ‘silly, women novelists.’ In the Victorian era, women writers were generally confined to writing the stereotypical fantasies of the conventional romance fiction. Not only did Eliot dislike the constraints imposed on women’s writing, she disliked the stories they were expected to produce. Her disdain for the tropes of conventional romance is apparent … Eliot goes through great effort to depict the realities of marriage.

By the end of Miss Brooke, Eliot had introduced about a gazillion characters, and I found myself wondering which ones will turn out to be “important,” and which ones are secondary.  Also, who are the good guys?  The baddies?  I’m curious and ready for more to be revealed in Book II (Old and Young).

I missed the Team Middlemarch discussion of Book I, but the Book II “brougham halt” is March 24-25, and you can bet I’ll be there.  I hope there are scones.  Proper ones.  Yum.