Michael Peterman takes a fresh look at this classic of English literature
I spent many pleasant hours this summer enjoying George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch (187172). It stands near the top of all the ‘best of’ lists for Victorian and English novels and is well worth a leisurely read today. Julian Barnes and Martin Amis agree on its greatness while Virginia Woolf famously commented that Middlemarch is “one of the few English novels written for grownup people.” Certainly, few are as detailed, socially precise, psychologically probing, and emotionally intense as Middlemarch. Some are nearly as long but most are relatively simplistic by comparison, excepting of course such Russian chestnuts as War and Peace. Victorian enthusiasts tend to split their affections among Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope and Hardy, but, for my money, there is no Victorian novel to match the story of Dorothea Brooke, Dr. Tertius Lydgate, and several other residents of the English town of Middlemarch, circa 1831. I was amazed at the book’s many relevancies to the ways we live today
Each summer a few of us down on Feltzen South choose a novel to read and then discuss together. I had only read Eliot’s novel once before and that was many years ago. Hence, I was excited to return to it and to rediscover its many attributes. At our September seminar just past, it was clear that all of us were thrilled by our selection. Let me offer a quick sampler of George Eliot’s wit and cleverness as a narrator. She writes, “In the British climate there is no incompatibility between scientific insight and furnished lodgings: the incompatibility is chiefly between scientific ambition and a wife who objects to that kind of residence.”
The length of Middlemarch owes much to the convergence of three separate stories that George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) had been working on in the 1860s. It was in fact published in 8 separate parts that together made it longer than most of the three-volume novels then in vogue in London. Dickens came marginally close with Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend. But Middlemarch is a realistic novel par excellence. Eliot creates all of her characters as living human beings caught in the strong social web and class structure of Middlemarch. To that end she carefully balances their strengths and weaknesses, their passions and their foibles, their ambitions and their personal limitations. She sets the novel just before the great Reform Bill was enacted in England (1832), just as railways were beginning to affect everyday life, and just as the deadly cholera outbreak was being felt across the country. Think here of the Moodies and Traills only a year later immigrating to Upper Canada and worrying constantly about the deadly effects of that fast-spreading disease.
Eliot’s Middlemarch is a provincial town, tied to its agricultural lands and its hereditary possessions. A contemporary reader is bound to be struck as much by the town’s conservatism as by the complexities of its social order. While dramatizing the privileged place of the landed gentry, Eliot also takes her readers into the lives of its middle-class citizens, be they clergymen, bankers, farmers, auctioneers or businessmen. With an acumen born of close study, she breathes rich life into the various social interactions that make up her several plots. At the same time the novel is remarkable for its social insights, its quiet wisdom, its range of literary and cultural references, and its humour. I relished those many passages when Eliot commented philosophically or socially on her characters, their positions and personal preoccupations. Dr. Lydgate, who is a newcomer to town comments in confidence at one point, “the ignorance of people about here is stupendous.” But, surprisingly, the same can eventually be said about him: his high-minded ambitions about medicine and scientific research are eventually undermined and stunted because of his insensitivity to the people he serves and his personal vulnerability to the power of romantic love.
Caught up in its provincial preoccupations and dominated by the established religion of the day, Middlemarch is very much a town of its own time. A Dissenter there was simply mistrusted and seen as too irrelevant to be taken seriously. An individual’s identity owed much to his or her Anglican commitments and established social position. No one knew and used this fact as powerfully as Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, the banker. In his hands religious seriousness is both a weapon to achieve his social and commercial interests and a blind to hide certain crimes that much earlier had served to build his impressive wealth. He is Eliot’s portrait of the religious hypocrite as bully; in her hands, however, he is not merely the victim of satiric criticism and belated revelation. She treats him sensitively and sympathetically; we feel his pain when his past is revealed just as if he were a hero or heroine in the novel.
Speaking of leading figures, Middlemarch splits most of its attention between Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. Dorothea is well-born and has been raised by her charming but feckless uncle, Mr. Arthur Brooke. But unlike her easy-going uncle, she is governed by an ardent Puritanical spirit; she is a principled young woman with a strong will. Unlike her comely and well-grounded sister, Celia, she has a tremendous desire to do good for those less fortunate than herself and yearns to use her high ambitions and privileged position to contribute to the advancement of human understanding. Eliot uses the adjective ‘ardent’ often to distinguish Dorothea from others. Her fate, however, unfolds in an untoward way when she first shows an interest in the work of the Rev. Edward Casaubon, and then, against the advice of those around her, accepts his proposal of marriage. The dour and learned Casaubon has devoted himself to the pursuit and mastery of all human knowledge. He calls his consuming project “The Key to All Mythologies,” but, as we soon learn, he is a brittle and selfabsorbed scholar who is as much bent on protecting what he regards as his own vulnerable territory as he is on completing his endless research.
Casaubon is a portrait of the intense scholar as pathetic individual; he is so caught up in the importance of his research that he injures not only himself but all who take him seriously. The marriage is a kind of genteel hell for Dorothea who wants above all to help her husband and contribute to his high-minded project. However, he always manages to keep her at a distance, regularly dismissing her ardent overtures. Only with his death is she freed from his dark, domestic thrall. Only then can she take up a fresh opportunity to do good by designing and building small workers’ houses on the estate and by providing financial help for Middlemarch’s new hospital.
But then she also has some freedom—despite the legal constraints imposed in Casaubon’s will--to take up an amorous connection with Casaubon’s Shelley-like relative, Will Ladislaw. That thread takes the reader to the novel’s conclusion. It provides a kind of reward to Dorothea for the consistency of her ardent idealism and to Ladislaw for his unspoken but deep affection.
Middlemarch is a busy and absorbing novel. Beyond Dorothea’s story—so central to George Eliot’s own desire to explore the spiritual potential of a young woman—there are other interesting stories. There is the lengthy (and somewhat less interesting) courtship of Mary Garth by Fred Vincy, there is the fall of banker Bulstrode from his commercial eminence, and there is Lydgate’s career as a rising doctor and medical researcher in the town. I’ll give him the attention he deserves in my column a fortnight hence.
The acclaimed English author George Eliot was Mary Anne Evans (1819-1880), who wrote Middlemarch and other classics under a pen name.