WARNING – This review contains spoilers, and I haven’t yet worked out how to hide them. I suspect I’ll probably have to change my WordPress theme to do that. Admittedly, there are only two very tiny spoilers, but if you want to avoid them completely, please read the book yourself before you read my review.
It took me a while to get used to reading George Eliot again. My fiction reading in the previous year has mostly consisted of young adult books about teen angst, or stories set in a post-apocalyptic future, and occasionally teen angst set in a post-apocalyptic future. George Eliot is undoubtedly a skilled writer but her vocabulary is far more extensive and her sentences longer than in the YA and sci-fi books I am used to reading.
Ironically, I was probably more familiar with nineteenth century literary realism when I was a teen and pre-teen. At that time in my life I read Eliot’s Adam Bede and Silas Marner and works by the Brontes, Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. (To avoid sounding too erudite and snobbish, I must point out that these were punctuated by reading books such as those in The Chalet School series, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, books by Judy Blume and even Sweet Valley High.)
Middlemarch was published as a serial and consists of 8 ‘books’. George Eliot originally subtitled the story ‘A study of Provincial Life’. The characters and the main town of Middlemarch are fictional, however by references to real events she locates the story firmly in the real time of 1829 to 1832 . I appreciated the clever descriptions of each character and the author’s insights into universal issues such as the rights of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and religion, but in all honesty I did not start to enjoy the book until about halfway through Book 3.
In the first book we are introduced to Dorothea Brooke, her uncle Mr Brooke and her sister Celia, to Sir James Chetham who admires her and would like to marry her (although she is unaware of this) and to the man who will eventually be her husband, Mr Casaubon. Dorothea is 19 years old and introduced as “being remarkably clever” but her sister Celia is supposed to have more common sense. Dorothea speaks abruptly with the people that care about her, and is seen as being very devout. I didn’t find either of these features particularly attractive, but I eventually warmed to her, as I think most readers are expected to. Mr Casaubon is described as being in his fifties, ugly, sallow, and completely absorbed with his own academic studies. George Eliot does write several passages discussing Mr Casaubon’s innermost thoughts, particularly later on, but it doesn’t appear anyone is expected to warm to him at any point in the novel. Thus we sympathise rather with her sister Celia, Sir James, Mr Brooke and even the meddling Mrs Cadwallader, who all feel that she has made a rather bad decision in getting married to Causabon.
It’s all very cleverly written but I didn’t feel it an easy read. Apart from the inner monologues and the comments from the author, it was almost like reading a nineteenth century version of ‘Hello’ or ‘OK!’ or other magazines that depend on the masses being interested in lives that are separate from theirs. Here is a sample passage for illustration:
The well-groomed chestnut horse and two beautiful setters could leave no doubt that the rider was Sir James Chettam. He discerned Dorothea, jumped off his horse at once, and, having delivered it to his groom, advanced towards her with something white on his arm, at which the two setters were barking in an excited manner.
‘How delightful to meet you, Miss Brooke,’ he said, raising his hat and showing his sleekly-waving blond hair. ‘It has hastened the pleasure I was looking forward to.’
I had also been impatient when Eliot introduced Fred Vincy into the story. He is a young man whose family had paid for him to train to be a vicar, but he does not take his final exams, and instead comes back home and messes around, riding his horse, playing cards and building up debts while waiting for an elderly relative to die and leave him a fortune. This whole situation is too far removed from my current reality and, even allowing for George Eliot’s incisive commentary, I find it hard to be sympathetic with characters like this.
Nevertheless, by the time the elderly relative does eventually die (in Book 3, appropriately named ‘Waiting for Death’) I was skimming the descriptions of his avaricious relatives and turning the pages quickly to find out what actually happened with his will. Dorothea and Mr Casaubon’s relationship has also advanced from that of unstinting adoration on one hand and unthinking selfishness on the other – but I won’t introduce any more spoilers by talking about what might have prompted this change. In any case, from that point on, I was hooked.Contemporary reviewers were critical of Eliot’s focus on the doctor Lydgate and his scientific experiments to find the “primitive tissue”, the common basis of all tissues or organs in the body. Lydgate is described as being “ambitious above all to contribute towards enlarging the scientific, rational basis of his profession.” Reviewers said that Eliot was indulging her own interest in Natural Sciences and that the general public would not enjoy reading these passages. I, personally, enjoyed the passages where Lydgate conducts his experiments, and the ones in which Eliot describes the practices of nineteenth century doctors, far more fascinating than the parts where she talks about politics and the Reform Bill which was to become the Reform Act of 1832. It was also interesting to note that Lydgate’s family had disapproved of him chosing to be a doctor rather than a clergyman. The medical profession was far less regulated than the religious and less likely to bring in money. It seemed that anyone could set themselves up as a doctor, indulge in their own personal theories about what made people ill, and make money on the side by dispensing dubious ‘cures’.
In addition to the references to politics, I have to confess all the different churchpeople left me rather confused. It appears that at that time (or perhaps just in George Eliot’s writing) people did not refer to an ordained man as a ‘Reverend’ so Mr Casaubon, Mr Cadwallader, Mr Bulstrode and Mr Farebrother are all clergy of one type or another. I looked up the difference between a vicar and a rector after reading the novel, but any subtleties about the way the Church of England was administered in that epoch rather escaped me.
Something else that surprised me about the novel was the lack of descriptions of the countryside. I grew up in the Midlands myself and I thought that, although Middlemarch itself is a fictional town, there would be hints about the nearby areas that would lead me to say, “Oh, that must be the Dudley canal” or suchlike. In truth, the only thing I recognised was the name of one of the estates, Tipton Grange, which may or may not correspond to Tipton, a town about halfway between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
I deliberately did not read any reviews or any biographies of George Eliot until after I had finished the novel. I discovered that George Eliot lived for 25 years with George Henry Lewes, who had separated from his wife but was not legally allowed divorce her. George Eliot’s self-confidence and willing to risk disapproval from English society shows through when she writes about strong female characters such as Dorothea Brooke. Both Dorothea and Rosamund Vincy (who has rather different background and ideals to Dorothea) find themselves in marriages which are not what they had expected. The novel shines when Eliot writes about these women’s inmost thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, what led me to enjoy the novel despite my initial misgivings, and the reason I would recommend it to anyone, is her excellent characterisation and her description of how self-confidence and stubbornness can win even over such small-minded and unfair society as England was in the early nineteenth century.