Kara Babcock's Reviews > Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot
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it was amazing
bookshelves: 2009-read, british-historical, favourites, historical-fiction, own, romance, victorian-fiction, 19th-century, 2009-best10, 2020-read
Read 2 times. Last read August 22, 2020 to August 28, 2020.

Second review: August 2020

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.

Originally posted on Kara.Reviews, where you can easily browse all my reviews and subscribe to my newsletter.

First review: June 2009

This book blew me away. Forget Jane Austen or any of the Brontë sisters. I found Pride and Prejudice tolderable 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.

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.
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Quotes Kara Liked

George Eliot
“....whatever else remained the same, the light had changed, and you cannot find the pearly dawn at noonday. The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with whose nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship, be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch

George Eliot
“When the animals entered the Ark in pairs, one may imagine that allied species made much private remark on each other, and were tempted to think that so many forms feeding on the same store of fodder were eminently superfluous, as tending to diminish the rations....

The same sort of temptation befell the Christian Carnivora who formed Peter Featherstone's funeral procession; most of them having their minds bent on a limited store which each would have liked to get the most of. The long-recognized blood-relations and connexions by marriage made already a goodly number, which, multiplied by possibilities, presented a fine range for jealous conjecture and pathetic hopefulness.”
George Eliot, Middlemarch

Reading Progress

March 14, 2009 – Shelved
Started Reading
June 29, 2009 – Shelved as: 2009-read
June 29, 2009 – Shelved as: british-historical
June 29, 2009 – Shelved as: favourites
June 29, 2009 – Shelved as: historical-fiction
June 29, 2009 – Shelved as: own
June 29, 2009 – Shelved as: romance
June 29, 2009 – Shelved as: victorian-fiction
June 29, 2009 – Finished Reading
September 7, 2009 – Shelved as: 19th-century
January 2, 2010 – Shelved as: 2009-best10
August 22, 2020 – Started Reading
August 24, 2020 –
page 708
August 28, 2020 – Finished Reading
October 13, 2020 – Shelved as: 2020-read

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