A Study of Provincial Life
By George Eliot
Oh my goodness, where to begin? Middlemarch is a book that carries so much weight, with Virginia Woolf declaring it one of the few English novels written for grown up people, and everyone I know saying how much they love it and then it’s by George Eliot who has written some of my favourite books of all . And yet I found I was struggling; I didn’t really care about Dorothea Brooke and her grey dress, she seemed too good to be true and too earnest to ever be interesting. But then I heard Mariella Frostrup on Open Book (BBC Radio 4) saying that she too couldn’t get past the first paragraph and the advice given to her was to just keep reading – so I did, and somehow around the time Will Ladislaw appeared I was hooked and over a couple of very hot weeks in July it became my constant companion, sitting on a bench in the garden, drink in one hand Middlemarch in the other.
Starting in the Autumn of 1829 and finishing in Spring 1831, Middlemarch is the story of a fictional Midlands town in England, during the run up to and passing of the first Reform Act – a time of social and political unrest as demands are made to change the electoral system and science and the rise of empiricism dispute old religious thought. George IV dies and is replaced with William IV and the ultra conservative Duke of Wellington is replaced as prime minister by Charles Grey; change is in the air, and religion, science, art, money, class divisions, education (especially women’s), politics, everything going on in England is covered under the microscope of one town.
But what makes it so readable and enjoyable is that it’s all so true! All the characters (and there are loads) are given their own voices so that as well as our central characters we are also listening to the men in the field worrying that the land is being ruined by the railways, to Selina Plymdale, Harry Toller the brewer, Borthrop Trumbull “a distinguished bachelor and auctioneer” and hundreds of others. And as Virginia Woolf says in her essay “George Eliot makes us share their lives, . . . in a spirit of sympathy.” (Common Reader Vol.1). Even the villains, Mr. Bulstrode, literally Old Nick, obsessed with power and money is shown so that we might understand him. For me the scene with his wife when all his shame has become known is one of the most touching:
“He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her month, all said, ‘I know’, and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing with him . . . his confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent,”
you want them to be able to move on and be happy.
And Rosamond Vincy and Lydgate; the new doctor with “lots of ideas, quite new, about ventilation and diet”, who wants to do ‘good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world”, but instead meets Rosamond who has a ‘great sense of being a romantic heroine, and playing the part prettily”. She is vain and selfish and just looks on Lydgate as a means to getting her out of Middlemarch, he apart from wanting reform for medicine is very conservative and has no desire for overall reform.
“Lydgate’s anger rose: he was prepared to be indulgent towards feminine weakness, but not towards feminine dictation.”
But still Eliot doesn’t judge them, she uses them to show the expectations of the times and the opportunities available, especially to women. They are just who they are – we’re all given choices and sometimes we make the wrong ones.
Even Edward Casaubon, as dry as can be, shut away in his library working on his theological studies which “had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge”, is treated with some sympathy so that while we never think it’s fair that he has married Dorothea, and his treatment of her and Will is cruel, so we are also given some insight that at least partially helps us to understand why he is the way he is.
“For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold . . . “
You almost want to hug him.
As the novel moves from autumn to spring so Dorothea moves from Casaubon who looks “like a death’s head skinned over “(!), to Will Ladislaw, “the incarnation of spring”. A rebel who doesn’t feel the need to submit to anything he doesn’t like, he’s a bit of an artist, a bit of a writer and poet, an idealist all for reform and progress. It’s the idealism, “young hopefulness” that he and Dorothea share that for me, makes her bearable and not too good to be true. And it’s the artist who stands for imagination, that will eventually bring about progress. So it’s no surprise that in the finale we learn that it’s Will who has entered parliament and is” in the thick of a struggle” against wrongs. Hooray!
And it’s funny:
“Caleb!”said Mrs Garth, in a deep contralto, expressive of resigned astonishment.”
“We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time”
“In fact most men in Middlemarch. . . held that Miss Vincy was the best girl in the world, and some called her an angel. Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner.”
I get the feeling George Eliot loves ordinary sinners!
But I haven’t mentioned Fred and Mary, or Caleb and Susan Garth or the Cadwalladers, all fabulous. And then there’s Campden Farebrother . . .
George Eliot’s grave at Highgate Cemetery, with it’s garden planted with pens! This was my first read for The Classics Club challenge.