A group of readers who met via Tristan and the Classics (an excellent booktube channel) voted to read George Eliot’s Middlemarch over the course of July and August. Having already missed out on two readalongs of books on my list—namely, Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Tolstoy’s Resurrection—I was determined to join the group this time for an English novel that’s long been on my radar. As a teenager, I was captivated by the story in the 1994 TV miniseries, and thus I began Middlemarch with the highest of hopes.
NOTE: This is an in-depth book review and CONTAINS SPOILERS.
The book was published in the 1870s but takes place about 40 years earlier. It follows a number of characters (in both senses of the word) who live and fall in love in Middlemarch, a fictional town in the English midlands. At nearly 800 pages, it is a veritable chunkster and well suited for a slow-paced readalong.
Book I is named after the main protagonist, Dorothea Brooke. She is an idealistic young woman with an almost Puritanical religiosity, a conviction to improve the lives of tenants, and a fascination with learning and self-improvement. At the age of nineteen, she falls for an older father-figure in the person of Reverend Edward Casaubon, whom everyone except Dorothea considers to be a decrepit academic. Dorothea hopes that by marrying Casaubon, she can find a kindred spirit for her own scholarly pursuits and someone to lift her up from the limitations of conventional female life. Meanwhile, she is pursued by Sir James Chettam, who, between Dorothea and her more lighthearted sister Celia, is eager to find himself a congenial wife among his immediate neighbors.
Of Saints and Scholars
It’s been too long since I read Silas Marner, so I went into Middlemarch unaware of what a skilled writer Eliot is. The novel throws us right into the tension of Miss Brooke’s dubious inclinations and, in spite of its length, moves along at a regular clip with enough dialogue and hilarious witticisms to keep a modern reader engaged.
Though an omniscient narrator, Eliot is far from an unopinionated one. She states her thesis in the Prelude: “Many Theresas have been born . . . the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill matched with the meanness of opportunity . . .” Eliot does not merely suggest Dorothea has commonalities with a Catholic saint—she draws a direct comparison between her and St. Teresa of Ávila more than once. I was led to wonder whether Dorothea, had she grown up in a Catholic country, would have found an outlet more suitable for her spiritual leanings than marriage with an elderly preacher. But this is 1800s England, and disdain for Catholics seems to have been more common than not (we see some of the same anti-Catholic sentiment expressed by Lucy Snowe in Brontë’s Villette). At least in the beginning, Eliot takes a sympathetic view of St. Teresa, while allowing some of the Middlemarchers—such as the (Anglican) rector’s chatty wife, Mrs Cadwallader—to voice the more conventional distaste for Roman Catholic presence.
Dorothea, in spite of her religious zeal and elegant beauty, is not without flaws. She views her sister’s delight in dress and the lighter things of life as frivolities, shirking even from wearing her mother’s jewelry except as it could be translated to some religious symbolism. The sisters are orphans and live with an uncle neither of them is especially close to—it is not totally unexpected, then, that Dorothea would gravitate towards her books and a fanciful image of Mr. Casaubon as the ideal husband. Still, Dorothea’s judgmental nature and quick temper show a great immaturity in the practice of her Christian faith. To some extent, the environment of her upbringing is to blame, but this can also be viewed as a Bildungsroman in which a teenager makes a very big mistake with the best of intentions.
Eliot would not have us totally loathe old Mr. Casaubon as Celia does. Our narrator paints him as a narrow-viewed, dull, yet not unsympathetic character. Understandably old-fashioned in his views of marriage and too thorough of a bachelor to enjoy his engagement, Casaubon strikes me as more tragic than anything. In chapter X, breaking into first person to emphasize her point, Eliot takes a moment to show us a very tiny window of his perspective:
Certainly this affair of his marriage with Miss Brooke touched him more nearly than it did any one of the persons who have hitherto shown their disapproval of it, and in the present stage of things I feel more tenderly towards his experience of success than towards the disappointment of the amiable Sir James . . . Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment, and that large drafts on his affections would not fail to be honored; for we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them. And now he was in danger of being saddened by the very conviction that his circumstances were unusually happy . . .
Naturalism or Realism?
That Dorothea’s circumstances and place in society influence her behavior is a strong theme in this novel. In this brief vlog, I mused over whether Middlemarch could be classified as merely realism (describing everyday life as accurately as possible) or naturalism (viewing characters’ lives as more of an outcome of circumstances, societal structures, and expected roles):
The Wikipedia article for Literary Realism compares the two movements as such:
Whereas realism seeks only to describe subjects as they really are, naturalism also attempts to determine “scientifically” the underlying forces (e.g., the environment or heredity) influencing the actions of its subjects.
While Middlemarch can scarcely be compared to grittier narratives such as those by Émile Zola, still, I think the mode in which Eliot is writing, plus her emphasis on concurrent social and political changes, lends some weight to the notion of viewing the novel as an example of naturalism. It is something I will keep an eye on as the story progresses.
Even More Characters!
What would a Victorian chunkster be without a huge cast of characters? Towards the end of Book I, we are introduced to the following:
- Will Ladislaw – Mr. Casaubon’s young, restless cousin and an artist
- Fred and Rosamond Vincy – the attractive grown-up children of the mayor and part of the nouveau riche manufacturer class (think Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South)
- Dr. Tertius Lydgate – a charismatic new doctor
- The Bulstrodes, the Featherstones, the Garths, and the parents Vincy – families all related and in various states of squabble or distrust with each other
I know these storylines are going to get interesting, yet fortunately I’ve forgotten what exactly happened with them in the TV series. I am looking forward to these plot twists as they arise. It is kind of odd to me that Eliot changed focus in narration at the end of Book I, but I suspect it has to do with the publishing scheme (serial installments).