Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
This book blew me away. Forget Jane Austen or any of the Brontë sisters. I found Pride and Prejudice tolerable and liked Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but they are nothing compared to the scope and genius of Middlemarch. George Eliot has given Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens a run for their money, and I think Middlemarch has won the title of My Favourite Victorian Novel. (Editor's note: Since writing this review, The Mill on the Floss, also by Eliot, has taken that crown.)
Middlemarch is sublime; it avoids the pitfalls that would label it “pretentious” rather than “profound”. Its plethora of characters and several intertwining plots allows Eliot to keep the pace of the book progressing quite quickly. The narrator seldom dwells on any one point too long unless it's thematically important, and he or she is always willing to gloss over aspects of Middlemarch life that are irrelevant to its characters’ stories. Eliot gives us an episodic glimpse at the lives of her characters, picking those instances which together form an overwhelming argument to advance her themes. Although Middlemarch is certainly long by today's standards, it deserves its length.
Eliot masterfully balances several related but distinct plots that take place in the fictitious town of Middlemarch. Although the story takes place during the Great Reform Bill of 1832, politics plays a secondary role. The story is largely character-driven and focuses on rural English life, which sounds boring until you realize that it's utterly fascinating. It's like the Victorian version of reality television.
Middlemarch owes its success to its characters. Every single character is three-dimensional, with virtues and vices, hopes and dreams and setbacks. Even characters who start out as seemingly two-dimensional foils or antagonists, like Rosamond Vincy and Mr. Bulstrode, turn into people for whom we feel a mixture of sympathy, pity, and disgust. Eliot doesn't pander to her readers; her characters do both noble deeds and horrible ones. Often the latter are so deliciously predictable that Middlemarch attains that enviable quality of being a trainwreck—too fascinating to turn away—without becoming camp or dull.
Almost all of the conflict in Middlemarch stems from missteps by the characters themselves, along with a little external conflict added by itinerants like Raffles and Ladislaw. Eliot loves to pit two very likable characters against each other. Take, for instance, Mr. Farebrother and Fred Vincy, who both love Mary Garth. Mr. Farebrother’s an honest vicar who's so well-meaning that he in fact sabotages his chances with Mary by acting as Fred's emissary. Fred, while somewhat indolent and unfocused, also means well and eventually determines to shape up and do whatever it takes to earn Mary's hand. As a result, Eliot creates quandaries to which there's no happy answer—a stark parallel to real life.
Of course, that's what Middlemarch is: realism. Time and again, characters entertain delusions about the world around them that prove false and even harmful. Fred Vincy—his entire family, in fact—rely on the fact that he will inherit property from the ailing Peter Featherstone; he's left with nothing when Featherstone wills his estate to an illegitimate son from out of town. Dorothea marries the unattractive Mr. Casaubon because she believes it's her purpose in life to help him in his religious scholarship; instead, she ends up an unhappy widow who remarries a flighty man. Rosamond Vincy falls head-over-heels for up-and-coming Dr. Lydgate only to discover that he’s far more in love with treating patients than attending parties. Lydgate experiences a similar dissatisfaction with his spendthrift new bride. In case you haven't noticed, a good deal of the unhappiness in Middlemarch stems from marital conflict.
Eliot's observations about marriage—in fact, about life in general—are accurate and clever. She's like a funnier, more acerbic, more ironic Jane Austen (keep in mind that I say this while acknowledging that Jane Austen is a funny, acerbic, ironic author!). While I've shelved this book under romance, it definitely doesn't qualify for “happily-ever-after”. Yet while Austen often demonstrated how marriage isn't all it's cracked up to be, her situations often felt contrived. In Middlemarch, on the other hand, the marital strife is organic; it’s also reflected in the reactions of the townspeople. Eliot's social commentary is much stronger than Austen's because Eliot has constructed an entire microcosm in the form of Middlemarch society. As someone who enjoys living vicariously, Middlemarch particularly resonated with me, but it should appeal to everyone: the variety of views espoused by its characters expose you to perspectives you may otherwise never experience. Ultimately, that is what makes a story successful, and in an era where technology makes it increasingly easier to control the perspectives to which one's exposed, Middlemarch is all the more relevant.
I re-read Middlemarch in 2020 if you want to check out my updated review.