This novel by George Eliot was famously praised by Virginia Woolf as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It had me intrigued for a while now, perhaps was waiting for a sign from the universe to go ahead and embark on a read of this magnum opus which runs to eight books, eighty-six chapters and over six hundred pages (in my copy that is). And I did go on that incredible journey!
Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, and indeed it captures the goings on of a fairly large cast of characters over the period of a couple of years in Middlemarch, an unremarkable English town in the 1830s. That time period was a very interesting one in England since the impact of the Industrial revolution was still spreading throughout the land, and other reforms soon followed. Middlemarch touches on many of these issues: political reform, doctrinal religious differences, advancement in medical knowledge, the obligation of landowners to their tenants, education and the role of women in society.
The range of feeling and thought this book covers is incredibly vast – there are many plots, multitudinous characters and each with their own desires and motives. It might sound like a confusing and befuddling story, but that is probably the last thing it is! Just a hundred pages in and you will begin to see the inter-connectedness and brilliance of the ‘web’ of provincial life created by George Eliot.
Let me sketch out a few characters here which would give you a preliminary idea:
- Dorothea - young, ardent and noble-natured she is idealist and strongly feels that she has to do some good in the world, contribute to make the lives of others happier. Following her own principles she agrees to marry a man much older than her thinking it would lead to a life of service and good acts.
- Edward Casaubon – an aging scholar: cold, dispassionate and bitter who nevertheless feels a bond of sympathetic understanding with Dorothea which leads to him proposing an offer of marriage to her.
- Will Ladislaw – spirited, politically ambitious and a deeply passionate young man who is a poor relative of Casaubon, and who has been financially assisted by him for some time. He understands more than anyone else the sacrifice that Dorothea’s life would become on her marriage to Casaubon.
- Tertius Lydgate – a young idealistic doctor whose interest in advancing medical knowledge and practices ends up alienating many in Middlemarch.
- Rosamund Vincy – the vain and vivacious daughter of the Mayor of Middlemarch, who is self-centred and quite spoiled. Her flirtatious interactions with Lydgate lead to gossip regarding their relationship which leads to a hasty marriage between them.
- Fred Vincy – Rosamund’s brother and a young man who is devoted to Mary Garth, his childhood sweetheart . He is without any aim as to what profession he should get into but is guided by Mary’s love to try and become worthy of her.
- Caleb Garth – the wise and compassionate land manager who is Mary’s father. He is a man who upholds strong values and is gentle and trustworthy. Though he is poor he is very highly held in everyone’s esteem.
Consider each of these characters having three or four other characters that are connected to them and imagine ALL of them being connected to each other. It is simply too vast to detail it out but I suppose this gives one a brief idea of what to expect.
|Stills from the 1994 BBC mini-series adaptation|
Though there are some (dull in my opinion) lengthy discussions on the reform act, medical discoveries, political debates and such through some of the sections. But, it just proves how knowledgeable a writer George Eliot was. To encompass nearly all the conscious and unconscious reasons that propel an individual’s actions is no small task, but that is what she does here.
Out of the history of Dorothea's marriage and domestic life, Lydgate's marriage and domestic life, the love-affair of Mary and Fred, and the adventures of Ladislaw, a number of novels could be made for a lifetime. The style of writing is lively and witty and not one bit dipped in the sentimental romantic notions of what we commonly seem to expect in a Victorian story. One cannot but help admire the wide and in-depth understanding of human nature that George Eliot seems to craft to perfection.
This is a masterpiece like no other. And I feel it that there is a need to make this novel more widely read than it is today. In the lines of the author herself (who is commenting on Dorothea):
“..for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tomb.”
I hope that if you have never read this book, this short review (hardly doing it justice) will instill a desire in you to pick it up soon. Have patience and let the pages reveal the beauty of a masterly crafted novel to you. It is one of the greatest fictions ever.