I can’t remember when I last read a book which actually won me over despite skepticism forming in my mind as I read its opening chapters. I’ve certainly read books recently that have started out strongly but, as they wear on, squander the goodwill built up in their opening chapters (looking at you, Vanity Fair), so to find the antithesis of such a book in George Eliot’s exquisite meditation on Victorian provincial life, Middlemarch, was a wonderful surprise.
There is not really a central narrative to sustain the book (which is why any blurb of the book you care to read is about as vague as it is futile in its attempts to accurately explain what the book is really about), but the story takes place against a backdrop of change that informs so much of the general tone of the book that it’s very tempting to call it a unifying theme. Changes political, medical, theological and social abound, and the general response to all of this reform is a persistent resistance amongst our provincially entrenched cast of characters. That said, some of these changes actually manifest themselves in individual characters, such as political activism in Mr Brooke or the medical reforms proposed by Tertius Lydgate.
I’ll briefly illustrate an example of my changing opinions on the book before I continue with the rest of this retrospective. I sometimes write a few brief notes on a text from time to time as I read, and when I was about 200 pages into this one I wrote the following note about the way Eliot juggles her multiple characters and story arcs:
“In terms of which chapters follow each other, the novel is a structural mess…”
The fascinating thing for me is I remember writing that comment, and yet I can’t help but laugh at my own misconception here – especially because I later came to enormously admire the way Eliot links her stories together, especially in the last 250 or so pages. I think it was simply a knee-jerk reaction to being suddenly introduced to so many characters and situations, as well as the scope and depth with which Eliot was writing. Thankfully, I can redeem myself a little here by showing how I finished that sentence:
“…but inside each chapter exists a microcosm of plausible human interactions, mini universes of feeling that are as exquisitely imagined as they are written.”
This observation encapsulates much of what makes the book brilliant, and of the detail with which Eliot’s characters are drawn. Dorothea easily ranks among the most engaging heroines I’ve had the pleasure of spending time with in a book, and her emotional turmoil consistently tugged at my sympathies throughout. Casaubon was an interesting counterpoint to her as well as a fascinating character in his own right, especially regarding his sense of failure toward himself and his life’s academic efforts. Even though it was with Dorothea that my sympathies lay, and it was often Casaubon who was at the root of her strife, I still sympathised with him too – and that is the genius of Eliot’s writing. She writes each character’s inner life with such detail and nuance that each emerges from the book fully realised and believable, so that any conflicts that arise between characters make complete sense for the individuals and for the overall narrative. This even succeeds when one tension-causing characters fails to invoke my sympathies, such as when Rosamond exhibits irritatingly disagreeable behaviour in her attempts to relieve her husband of their financial difficulties later in the book. Even though her actions often infuriate the reader, and indeed Tertius himself, it is still clear that she means well and her thought processes make sense to us. Tertius, too, is a fascinating character, with his high ideals and moral centre tested at every turn in ways he never imagines when he first arrives in Middlemarch full of blind optimism regarding his ambitious goals for medical reform in the town.
The real masterstroke with all of these characters, though, is how multifaceted they are, and how each of their stories feed into other ones. Take Fred Vincy – most novelists would focus solely on his pursuit of Mary Garth as this is, broadly speaking, his sole narrative function – but Eliot also brings his relationship with his sister into play at various times, most notably to effect change in Lydgate at a crucial moment in his arc. Another wonderful example is of Will Ladislaw; his most important narrative function revolves around his relationship to Dorothea and Edward Casaubon, but he also has an important part to play in the otherwise completely unrelated story of Nicholas Bulstrode and his trial by society. The way these arcs all interact helps to lay out the interconnected nature of provincial life – everyone knows everyone, and secrets do not stay secret for long (*winks fiercely at Bulstrode*). This, in turn, uncannily plays into the story of Tertius Legate, whose lofty ambition to make his way through the world in a completely self-reliant fashion are not strictly compatible with this side of provincial life – or, indeed, with his wife’s expectations for living standards.
There are other ways that Eliot uses detail to make the world of Middlemarch feel alive to the reader. Take a small moment in the story where Fred Vincy is about to enter the Garth’s home to deliver some bad news. As he is about to knock on the door, the narrative discreetly cuts back in time by about five minutes to sketch a portrait of the lives of the characters inside the home Fred is about to enter. This choppy narrative style is not always the easiest to follow, and it can take one out of the novel a little, but it produces some truly interesting effects not only within the scene – providing context for the character’s interactions, which adds to the emotional effect of Fred’s bad news – but in a wider sense it is one of many instances that helps to expand the world of Middlemarch, creating a world as immersive and believable as any I’ve encountered in literature There are so many examples of subtle and intricate social relations having major bearings on the plot, all of which feel human and plausible, there is simply no point in my detailing any more of them here.
A colleague of mine claimed she’d read Middlemarch in a week, and while I don’t doubt that such a feat is possible (though would require serious commitment in terms of time and energy), I doubt it’s the best way to read it. This is a book to lose yourself in over a long period of time – I read it in about six weeks, and I wish I’d taken longer over it. The story contains many specific historical markers, with it’s 1830s politics often taking centre stage, and yet the novel functions as an incredible and almost timeless examination of a community afraid of change; of the people that comprise it, of social and personal forces pulling against each other while our heroes strive to do right by themselves and the people around them. All of this plays out in one of the best-written novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading for this blog, and I look forward to returning to more of George Eliot’s writing in the future.