I first read and reviewed Middlemarch in 2009, so you can read my first review if you like. This review will reiterate some of the points of my earlier review, but enough time has passed and I have changed enough that I definitely took different things from this book this time. Nevertheless, still a classic and a masterpiece.
Middlemarch is a sublime example of Victorian authors recognizing and attempting to chronicle a disappearing lifestyle. Eliot was alive to witness the industrialization of the English countryside, most notably the construction of the vast railway network that knit the United Kingdom together in bonds of coal and steel. Her characters are country folk who view this industrialization with scepticism. But as I note in my first review, this novel is not about industrialization so much as it is a microcosmic snapshot of English country life amidst that paradigm shift. This is a story of marital strife, living beyond your means, and attempting to find purpose in a world that sometimes seems all too arbitrary in the fates it deals you.
To attempt to summarize Middlemarch is to fall into the wondrous experience of getting lost amongst its twist and tangle of so many delightful characters. I’ll examine each in turn.
The book opens with Dorothea Brooke marrying, in short order, Mr. Casaubon, the rector of a nearby parish. The match initially seems perfect to studious and intelligent Dorothea, who recognizes that scholarship is likely beyond her means as a lady of her status yet craves the stimulation that might come from assisting Casaubon in his work. Eventually, Dorothea discovers what many a bride does after the honeymoon is over: marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially if you didn’t take the time to get to know your groom beforehand. Dorothea, while not exactly stymied in her hopes, finds them perhaps too grand; she projected a tenacity onto Casaubon that he cannot, at his age and in his current health, match. After he dies, she find social status incredibly constrained: a rich widow, she theoretically has resources and power that she didn’t have mere months ago; on the other hand, her practical options for what she can do with her money and her life are limited.
Contrast this with Dorothea’s younger sister, Celia, who follows a far more conventional arc for a young lady: marry the rich baronet who has come sniffing around, have a baby, enjoy your married life. Celia seems much more content to acquiesce to the quotidian elements of a married country woman of means than Dorothea ever was. This juxtaposition is but one of many that Eliot uses to illustrate one of Middlemarch’s themes: in this case, she is commenting on how people whose interests lean intellectual often find themselves unhappier than those who can lose themselves in the minutiae of manual labour, trades, or other such jobs.
The juxtaposition of Fred Vincy and Tertius Lydgate provides a masculine complement to this theme. Vincy is shiftless, prone to running up debt, and has no idea what to do with his life. He eventually finds fulfillment not in intellectual pursuits but in farming and agricultural management, tutored by his father-in-law-to-be. Lydgate is well-educated, well-travelled, thoroughly intellectual, yet his aspirations to advance the cause of medicine are largely thwarted throughout the book by the cautious and superstitious townsfolk and by his ill-conceived decision to marry too early to Rosamond, Fred’s sister. Unable to follow his potential for lack of funds, unable to provide the lifestyle that Rosamond is accustomed to, Lydgate finds himself struggling for much of the novel. It’s only through the monetary intervention of Mr Bulstrode that he gets back on his feet, and even then, that soon becomes inconvenient.
Bulstrode begins the novel as a side character who is not quite sympathetic. He’s the rich banker who holds the pursestrings, calls in the debts, and decides which people will get spots on the board of the new hospital. We’re supposed to see him as a bit of a spider in the middle of a web. Yet as the novel progresses, the narrator turns up the sympathy: Bulstrode has a skeleton in his closet, and when that skeleton arrives in Middlemarch threatening to reveal Bulstrode’s dark secret, we see an internal struggle between his Christian values and his need to preserve his status in Middlemarch society. This is maybe Eliot at her most Dickensian? Whereas Dickens goes for more overt, laugh-out-loud farce and satire, however, Eliot seems more interested in humour through that subtle juxtaposition I mentioned earlier.
Middlemarch is thus, in this way, a story of duality, of opposites. Intellectuals and non-intellectuals; labourers and thinkers; youthfulness and experience. Eliot is not judging any particular class of people but rather gathering them together to illustrate how they interrelate at this time in British history. This was an exciting time politically, a time of exuberant elections and strong expressions of political will. Now that I’m out as trans, I find myself reading Dorothea’s journey and identifying a lot with her, wondering how I would have fared in her era—I mean, I’d almost certainly be stuck living as a man, and therefore I’d likely be able to pursue my scholarly leanings, but still … it’s food for thought, the way women were constrained at the time, and what it took for them to break out of moulds the way Eliot did with her work.
I love the lushness of Middlemarch’s description and prose. Eliot and Hardy together are my two favourite Victorians. Eliot doesn’t quite match Hardy’s penchant for sad endings (thank goodness), but I think they both enjoy trying to preserve in writing a landscape and culture they saw as increasingly tenuous, if not extinct entirely by their time. Whereas Hardy’s prose, informed by his inner poet, is often lyrical and mellifluous, Eliot’s is precise and architectural in construction. Her narrator explicitly tells you what some characters are like, drawing comparisons that contemporary readers especially would find illuminating. Eliot’s allusions to classical literature and art are especially rich. This is a novel of intense, dedicated craftsmanship, of construction so intricate and careful that I can only describe it as loving.
There is a phrase that comes to mind: they just don’t build them like they used to. Middlemarch embodies this phrase. I say this with all love to modern novels, which I devour and read as much as possible. But this book is to modern novels what a classic car is to modern vehicles. You just don’t see many novels like this in a lifetime (and in my opinion, as I have mentioned, Eliot knocks it out of the park at least twice, because I like The Mill on the Floss even better than Middlemarch!).
If you have read Austen and Brontë and you want to dip into Victorian fiction but feel intimidated by the verbosity of Dickens, Eliot would be a nice starting point. Yes, Middlemarch is as long as many Dickens novels, but it is not as dense. It has plenty of breathing room, moments where you can pause and luxuriate within the liminal spaces of each character’s arc and activity. Highly recommend, if you are feeling that kind of ambition come over you.