Middlemarch was hailed as a masterpiece when it was published in 1871 (roughly—there is some question as to which criteria to use to determine its date of publication), and it is still considered one of the greatest novels ever written in the English language. No novel becomes an instant classic and holds that status for almost a century-and-a-half without characters succeeding generations can identify with, characters whose hopes and dreams succeeding generations can identify with, characters whose problems and flaws succeeding generations can identify with, and with a plot—or multiple interwoven plots—that grabs succeeding generations. Middlemarch has all those and more.
Time should have been unkind to Middlemarch. George Eliot’s writing is extremely florid by today’s standards, far less accessible than, say, Charles Dickens,’ who died a year before Middlemarch was even published. Many of the issues she wished to discuss are both dated and obscure; I pride myself on knowing something of English history, but I hadn’t a clue why the Reform of Act of 1832 was so hotly debated and fought over.
Having said that, one of the novel’s issues has resurrected itself with a vengeance in today’s world, albeit in different forms. Religious tolerance is even more in danger today than it was then: scroll through any news source and you can find angry, intolerant fools railing against Jews, Muslims, Christianity, varying forms of Christianity, the right of politicians to have or express any faith at all, and religious freedom generally being pitted against secular freedom. Whew. Things were simpler in England in the first half of the nineteenth century, if only due to the benefits of hindsight, but even then, the attitude was that my faith was clearly closer to God than yours, a smugly self-righteous belief that was the only conviction unifying the Church of England, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism.
Many of the conflicts in the novel are extremely dated, and Eliot’s resolutions to those conflicts are themselves dated: Dorothea, the intelligent and highly educated heroine, finally finds joy and fulfillment with a life that would make any intelligent and ambitious wife of today’s world start tearing her hair out in frustration. Women today have much to rightly fight for (or against: consider recent developments at Fox News), but we live in an era when a woman came within a hair of becoming president, and today’s readers may have a hard time coming to grips with ladies who took it for granted that they should be subservient to their husbands and who never even dreamed of such extraordinary freedoms as enfranchisement. So, when you read this (and you should, you really should), you must read it within the context of its time, just as you would with Huckleberry Finn, or Pride and Prejudice, or Anna Karenina, or Madame Bovary, or any other novel written to reflect a specific time and specific place. It’s not the details of time and place that make a novel weak or strong. It is the universal and unchanging qualities of the human animal that make us identify so with yesterday’s characters and their struggles precisely because those qualities and those struggles endure.
And, oh boy, does Eliot do a spectacular job of giving us characters to love or hate, characters we recognize instantly even after all this time. She (George Eliot was the pseudonym of Mary Anne Evans, and it is proof of her talent that most readers haven’t a clue who Mary Anne Evans was, yet everyone knows the name George Eliot) has a wise and perceptive eye for human constants and foibles that make us laugh or cry in recognition. Rosemond Vincy, the narcissistic, vain, selfish, and scheming wife of one of the primary characters, was so well-drawn, so real, so nastily self-absorbed and manipulative, that at one point I had to put the book down because she reminded me too much of someone from my past I prefer to forget. But even Eliot’s most subsidiary characters ring true today. Consider this thumbnail of the unnamed ladies (of a certain social class) in the town of Middlemarch on hearing of behavior they deplore on the part of one of their own:
“‘To be candid,’ in Middlemarch phraseology, meant to use an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, or their position; and a robust candor never waited to be asked for its opinion.”
Tell me you don’t recognize that personality type.
And sometimes Eliot’s observations are hysterically funny. We were traveling when I read the following paragraph to my bride, and she laughed so hard I thought she might wake the people in the next room:
“After three months, [her sister Celia’s house] had become rather oppressive: to sit like a model for Saint Catharine looking rapturously at Celia’s baby would not do for many hours in the day, and to remain in that momentous babe’s presence with persistent disregard was a course that could not have been tolerated in a childless sister. Dorothea would have been capable of carrying the baby joyfully for a mile if there had been need, and of loving it more tenderly for that labor; but to an aunt who does not recognize her infant nephew as Buddha, and has nothing to do for him but admire, his behavior is apt to appear monotonous, and the interest of watching of him exhaustible.”
My children were constant sources of delight and amazement even as infants; yours, not so much so.
One element that runs throughout Middlemarch is the rigid stratification of society in those days. It’s not a theme, so much as it something so taken for granted, even by George Eliot, so much a part and parcel of England in that era, that it is reflected in the novel without comment, and Eliot comments on almost everything and everyone. She shows every different level of society, from laborers to landed gentry, but it isn’t commented on as either good or bad, but just as something that is, something that may possibly always be part of England.
Those of you who watched Downton Abbey remember what a momentous thing it was, especially at the beginning of the series, whenever one of the Crawley family would go downstairs to the kitchen or the wine cellar, causing disruption and chaos amongst the serving classes. Downton Abbey took place almost a hundred years later than Middlemarch, yet nothing had changed. Nor would anything even begin to change until the horrors and wholesale annihilation of an entire generation finally began the decline of the British Empire. And how much change occurred even then? How much remains the same? A friend of mine, Dale Tate, is a custom shotgun maker who lives in northern California. He was born in the rough, working-class neighborhood of Southwark, and got his start in the traditional Dickensian British manner as an apprentice for James Purdey & Sons, makers of fine guns for Queen Victoria, Edward VII, Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburg, the Prince of Wales, countless members of lesser royal houses (sniff, sniff) throughout the continent, as well as Indian princes. But Dale moved to America because he got tired of having his dreams and ambitions dismissed by wealthy men with posh “public school” accents; of being told to go around to the tradesman’s entrance; of being told to eat in the barn after his day’s work as a beater was done, so perhaps things haven’t changed that much after all.
Middlemarch has been criticized for being intentionally didactic. In theory, it is, and in theory, that should be disastrous because Eliot repeatedly steps outside the world and characters she has created to moralize about them, and yet… And yet, somehow it works. It works in part because her observations are so astute and so well expressed that one becomes hooked on them rather than put off: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.” Eliot wants us to see ourselves and our fellow travelers with sympathy and understanding, but she knows too well that none of us see or comprehend nearly as much as we should, and that none of us are God-like enough to do so completely without going mad.
I have no intention of trying to give you an idea of the plot. For one thing, there are at least two major and interweaving plot lines, and two or three (depending on how you count them) subsidiary plot lines, each of which involves multiple ancillary characters. What I will say is that in spite of its old-fashioned and arch literary style, and in spite of its length (at roughly eight hundred pages it counts as one of the longest novels written in the English language), it will leave with you with memories of unforgettable people, some of whom triumph, some of whom do not, but all of whom linger as completely and honestly three-dimensional, as delightful or disgusting, as the people in your life today.