Mid­dle­march re­vis­ited

Michael Peter­man takes a fresh look at this clas­sic of English lit­er­a­ture

The Peterborough Examiner - - ENTERTAINMENT - Reach Michael Peter­man, pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of English lit­er­a­ture at Trent Univer­sity, at mpeter­man@trentu.ca.

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.


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