Dear readers, I have finally got to the halfway mark of Middlemarch! Literally . . . ’tis the middle of the march. 😮 I can’t remember the last time I struggled so much in a Victorian novel. Possibly it was The Heir of Redclyffe, which I don’t recall being even this difficult. In any case, here I am, still reading a book I don’t enjoy that much, yet so far into it, I can’t imagine stopping now.
A fellow YouTuber and book-reading friend, Joseph, recently did a live stream talking about his experience reading Middlemarch as a George Eliot fan and soon-to-be completist (!). Though I’m not finished with the book yet, I believe he hit the nail on the head as far as why some of us struggle with this book . . . it is long and meandering; it is really 3 or 4 novels mashed into 1; and Eliot wrote it as it was being published and under poor health (fascinating context which I learned from his live stream). Dorothea’s dramatic and emotional plight is oft-interrupted by subplots regarding inheritances, politics, medicine, and town gossip, though not in such a way that can hold a candle to the young lady’s struggle. It’s like being informed of a tragedy in your family and then being asked to care about local politics… as a reader, making such a transition is extremely disruptive and dissonant. These are all solid reasons why the pacing and narrative arc are (for me) painful.
And while normally I don’t mind character-focused novels in the least—in fact, I prefer them—Joseph pointed out the lack of scenery and scene-building in general in this novel. It startled me to realize that a Victorian novel of this girth didn’t have sweeping descriptions of places and scenes, even though it includes a trip to Rome and estates in the countryside. How these places look and feel is only lightly touched on, and we are just left with the verbose narrator and a long list of characters and squabbles to keep track of. Joseph also observed that some of the characters mainly exist to react to things that happen; in these moments, it takes on almost the tone of a stage play, but again, not in a way that is very gripping.
In the rest of this post, I will focus on the different subplots and characters instead of reviewing parts 3 & 4 individually.
Lydgate and Rosamund
I mentioned previously that Eliot “started the novel over” by introducing a new protagonist in the form of Dr. Tertius Lydgate (and how I did not like him). Unfortunately, my aggravation with the doctor continues in these parts of the book as he courts the shallow Rosamund Vincy, whose surface charm is overshadowed by an affinity for material possessions and social rank.
Lydgate is very bad at seeing red flags and abandons his better judgment that he is not ready for matrimony. He indulges in flirtation to such an extent that it becomes practically impossible for him not to propose to Rosamund—a thing one might get away with in the 21st century but not an 1830s English town. She, on her part, projects her desire to marry a “gentleman” upon Lydgate and envisions him as a man of prospects far beyond his status as a country doctor and, indeed, his ambitions, which are more like that of an inventor or trailblazer than a money maker. It is hard to say which one is more “opportunistic” in this relationship.
Sound kind of familiar? I had before compared Lydgate to Dorothea, but now I see more of a parallel between Rosamund and Dorothea. Different though they be, they both tied their hopes and futures to men who appeared to be their ticket to what they desired in life. Both of those men availed themselves of these women’s strange combination of naivete and determination. Unfortunately, and in part due to their narrow upbringings—Dorothea at her uncle’s, Rosamund at Mrs Lemon’s school—their illusions are of long making, overpowering good sense and the warnings of people around them.
Fred and Mary . . . and Mr Featherstone
Even more tedious to me than Lydgate’s romance are the unfortunate adventures of Fred Vincy and the Garth family.
This is, perhaps, where the novel gets the most tropey. We spend a great deal of time observing what a hapless young man Fred is and how bad he is with money. Caleb, the Garth patriarch who has more pity than sense, lends Fred some money—and of course, Fred loses it with a lame horse (literally), which puts his and Mary’s relationship in an even more awkward place than it was before. It also puts the Garths on the rocks because now they have to dig into their savings to make up the difference. Old Peter Featherstone dies and leaves his money to a “frog-faced” stranger, Joshua Riggs, and there go the last of Fred’s expectations.
If you wanted to shake some sense into Lydgate, it’s Fred who could raise even this gentle reader’s blood pressure. I am not really sure if we are supposed to have any empathy for him. I like sensible Mary Garth, but it’s hard to root for her and Fred at this point. The drama with Featherstone’s will was rather anticlimactic, and for now, Eliot leaves us to guess whether Riggs’s presence will make any particular difference in the further events of Middlemarch.
Dorothea, Casaubon, and Will
Now we get to the part of the novel I am most invested in. “Love triangle” is far too simple a way to describe what’s going on with these three, and I appreciate the nuance that Eliot brings to what could otherwise be just another trope.
Dorothea remains devoted to Casaubon, but she is beginning to feel how awful her marriage is. She is forever treading on eggshells around him; she tries to help him in his work, but she finally understands that his work is one big nothingburger in the grand scheme of things. On a personal level, Casaubon never makes her feel like her opinions are interesting or valuable to him; he is habitually polite, but that is about all she can expect of him. He has a health scare and seems close to death, but after he recovers, it’s all as it was before, only worse. They have a couple of arguments which deepens the walls between them, in spite of Dorothea’s every effort to show tenderness and submission.
Casaubon, like every great passive-aggressive dictator, grows increasingly distrustful of Dorothea and jealous of Will. It’s not that he can really find any genuine fault in his wife, but he senses her keen perceptions and they offend him. If she had only been both docile and ignorant, an intellectual nobody, she would have been what he actually wanted in a companion. But in spite of her meekness, Casaubon knows that, deep inside, Dorothea is not a “yes man,” and the fact that she knows the reality of the state of his research is deeply troubling to him. He views his distant relative Will Ladislaw as chiefly responsible for influencing Dorothea “against him,” as he perceives it. He doesn’t realize that Dorothea is far more loyal to him than he makes her out to be, and through paranoia, he rejects even the friendship she would offer him.
Finally, we come to Will. He has given up Casaubon’s patronage (and thus Casaubon’s control) and is falling head over heels for Dorothea, unsuspected by her. He takes up a gig at Mr Brooke’s new newspaper, which gives him an excuse to live in Middlemarch and be near to her. Unfortunately, the town’s bias is against him as an outsider (like Lydgate) and a foreigner (Will has some Polish heritage)—a striking example of racism among those who today would be considered the same race. The reader is inclined to like Will because of his loyalty and his ability to see Casaubon’s true wrongs, which are not that he is old and unattractive but that he had married for selfish reasons. I would say Will is a character who seems too good to be true and turns up conveniently when life is darkest, but I suppose every Victorian novel must have one of those, too.
I am trying to give this novel more of my daily attention, with the hopes of finishing it in the next week or two. Alas, September is already more than half over, and I haven’t been able to keep up with the Moby-Dick readalong as I had hoped (Middlemarch was for the same book club, but I am miles behind most of the group, who finished in late August!). However, if I manage to finish this tome, I will be quite proud of myself, as I have been actively avoiding chunksters in recent years (Kristin Lavransdatter excepted). Let us hope I do not become Casaubon-like in my sense of accomplishment. 😉