DISCLAIMER: only the first two paragraphs are spoiler free.
A few weeks ago, I set out to read George Eliot’s infamously long tale Middlemarch. To make sure I made progress with the novel (and to get it finished by the end of January), I set a reading goal of one-hundred pages a day. I know this can seem like a chore to some people, but I enjoy giving myself a limit as it helps me power through a larger novel. In this instance, I definitely think it helped. For the first quarter of the novel, I found it hard to put myself in the story. There were so many characters and subplots I didn’t know how to take it all in, but limiting myself really helped me to process everything I had read. I wanted to start my review off with this little pointer as I’ll be delving deep in Middlemarch and discussing a lot of the events. So for those who don’t want to be spoiled, I thought this would be useful to know.
Middlemarch can pretty much be summed up by its alternative title ‘A Study of Provincial Life’. It’s a novel concerned with a small community in a midlands town. I definitely think Eliot finds comfort in writing stories set in small rural towns. It allows her to comment on an array of issues, from personal affairs to much wider political debates. A brilliant example of this is her 1861 novel, Silas Marner, which I’d suggest reading before this. In Middlemarch, Eliot develops on a variety of notions introduced in her earlier work, which would go unnoticed if you jumped straight into this (plus, Silas Marner is a lovely little tale to read). As the size of the novel would suggest, Middlemarch is filled with a range of subplots. However, I do think the narrative can be narrowed down to four distinct ones: there’s Dorothea Brooke whose story focuses on womanhood and marriage; there’s the career of the new doctor, Tertius Lydgate; there’s the courtship of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy; and the disgraceful backstory of Nicholas Bulstrode.
As previously mentioned, I found getting into the story a hard task. There were a variety of people living in different areas with different occupations. Due to this, I found myself disinterested in the story for at least a quarter of it. For a while, I was mixing up their story-lines and forgetting important little things about each character. But once I got into the rhythm of things, and once the subplots started to overlap and I was seeing more of the characters, I found myself really invested in the story. The variety of different people captured the diversity of a provincial town. Although I wasn’t bothered with some of the characters, such as Bulstrode or Mr Farebrother, they were an interesting addition to the story and were the foundations of the Middlemarch community. It was lovely being able to see what a small, rural town would have been built like in the mid-nineteenth century. Everyone knows everyone; everyone knows everyone’s business; and there was always something dramatic happening to guide the plot. Not only this, but I think this type of setting allowed Eliot to really explore social class and how that determines one’s life. This was done effectively, I think, through the likes of Fred, Dorothea and Bulstrode.
A character who I was fully invested in was Dorothea. She was one of those characters who can never do wrong and who you’re constantly mesmerised by. It was such a privilege watching her blossom into a young woman. At the beginning of the novel, she’s a seventeen year old orphan who wants to use her privileges to help the less fortunate. She was often compared to the heroic figure of Saint Teresa of Ávila. This never changed throughout the course of the novel, but instead intensified. She was just an all-round loving character and I never saw any fault in her. Through Dorothea, Eliot managed to explore a range of topics relating to womanhood. Firstly, the “woman question”. Dorothea, as a nineteenth century woman, is very much confined by the patriarch. As a married woman, she is now “under the wing” of her husband (see William Blackstone for more on this). She is dictated by him; she cannot seek work and must submit to helping Mr Casaubon with his book. Even after his death, he was still controlling her. She wasn’t allowed to marry Will, Casaubon’s cousin and Dorothea’s true love, as his will forbid it. Eliot effectively criticised the patriarchal society through the selfish and jealous Casaubon.
Not only this, but through Dorothea, Eliot examined and ridiculed the “standard” nineteenth century marriage. Marriage was a major theme that guided the novel with almost every person alluding to it at some point. Their lives were dominated by it, thus illuminating how embedded it was in society. Through Dorothea and Casaubon’s marriage, Eliot detailed a loveless and crippling union. Dorothea had false notions of Casaubon before entering the marriage, and when she realised the truth it was too late. He was too interested in his work to pay any attention to her; and the one person who did was his cousin, Will. But Casaubon was a jealous man; he put a stop to them entertaining each other. Eliot contrasted this with Dorothea’s later marriage to Will, whom she found complete happiness with. Despite conforming to the ideal portrayal of a wife, Dorothea was content with loving her family and husband – something she couldn’t do with Casaubon. This was made all the more sweeter when Dorothea gave up her capital to live in poverty (I use that word very loosely) with Will. I was extremely happy about this later union; I was constantly routing for them since the beginning (the Rome scene, though!!).
Each character had their own unique story-line but Dorothea and Will’s were the ones that stood out for me. I definitely think Middlemarch is a book that will appeal to anyone; even if you don’t enjoy one particular subplot, there are so many I have no doubt you’ll click with at least one of them. Lydgate and Rosamond’s was interesting; it was very much concerned with a loveless marriage where one is overwhelmingly “disobedient” (in the eyes of society) and one who is consumed with his work. Then there’s the courtship of Fred and Mary, which is a bittersweet read. Fred is constantly having to prove himself worthy of Mary, and he often finds himself failing. Throughout the novel, you’re always questioning if he’ll win her over. She won’t accept him as a clergyman, but it is all he is suited for. It’s a infuriating battle, but one that is very interesting to follow. Finally there’s Bulstrode who has a sordid past he’s trying to hide by pushing his Methodist views on society. Underneath these four main narrative is a host of secondary characters. It’s an extremely entertaining read.
Overall, I thought this was really wonderful. Eliot’s writing style was perfect for this type of story; it was simple, yet detailed and sophisticated. There was Realism tucked away in every corner of this tale. I’d definitely recommend it to those who are interested in nineteenth century literature, any sort of social commentary, or a study of provincial life. There’s so much packed into this book, you’ll never find time for boredom. It sweeps you away – and isn’t that just the greatest feeling?
4 out of 5 stars.
Thanks for reading, Lauren X