World critics, “by a landslide,” have voted it one of the best British novels of all time. Does it stand up to the hype?
I shied away from this book for years on account of it simply being a multi-plot Victorian novel.
The phrase does not sit well in my mouth. “Multi-plot” is not my thing. I had a hard time dealing, for example, with “Anna Karenina” and all the domestic drama revolving around the lives of people I could hardly keep track of. I have always preferred a simple, direct sort of narrative overall. As for “Victorian,” I struggle to not find it synonymous with Charles Dickens, a man of some admitted talent who nevertheless has on more than one occasion driven me bonkers. William M. Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” was both Victorian and multi-plot and also hard for me to get through.
So when BBC recently conducted a survey among literary critics around the world and declared that Middlemarch, out of countless candidates, was the best British novel of all time it was with some reservation that I decided to finally tackle this much-talked-of behemoth.
George Eliot is new territory for me. Up till now I had only thought of her – based on subjective snippets I’d gathered over the years – as a sort of crusty feminist picking up where the Brontës left off and giving the world a piece of her mind. I had no idea I was about to encounter one of the most brilliant writers in my recent memory.
What, then, is so great about Middlemarch?
Where else can I start but with the characters? From the courageous (and outrageous) Dorothea to cranky Mr. Casaubon, from Tertius Lydgate (as lofty as his name suggests) to misguided but lovable Fred Vincy I truly cared about virtually every single character in the story. I even cared about the minor characters, from the down-to-earth town vicar Camden Farebrother to the gossipy rector’s wife, Mrs. Cadwallader. Each character has a story, a motive, a strength, and a flaw distinct from the others, and 700 pages later you still care about all of them and you can’t get enough.
The story is set in a fictitious town in Midlands, England – Middlemarch, for which the novel is named. We first meet Dorothea Brooke, a young lady both well-off and beautiful, and yet hindered in her choice of a partner by her “love of extremes,” – including a weird sort of obsession with self-denial and simple living. (“You always wanted things that wouldn’t do,” her more pragmatic sister tells her at one point).
To the mortification of all her relatives she snubs Sir James, the cheerful 20-something guy next door in favor of the “eminent” Mr. Casaubon, a 40-something clergyman and scholar who has been at work for years on a presumably important book entitled, “The Key to all Mythologies.” If you want any insight as to what other people think of Mr. Casaubon, here is one exchange that highlights George Eliot’s knack for wit:
“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a microscope and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader.
Dorothea, however, is not daunted by Mr. C’s awkward scholarliness. The unlikely pair is married forthwith and takes off for a honeymoon in Rome, where they run into Casaubon’s rather handsome and much-younger cousin Will Ladislaw. Will takes a shine to Dorothea, but the valiant girl is busy in over her head trying to adjust to this whole “marriage business” and getting along with a husband who is…truly awkward and fusty after all, and definitely not as clever as she thought he was when she first met him.
The second main plot of the novel comes to mirror the first. Back in Middlemarch, Tertius Lydgate is an up-and-coming doctor with the modest plan to “ do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world.” Not unlike Dorothea his dreams are bigger than his own backyard. He sees work in Middlemarch as a gateway to furthering his career, and is not content to merely put bread on the table. Life seems to be going fine and dandy until once again “marriage” decides to intervene, this time in the form of the charming but high-maintenance Rosamond Vincy. Although originally not interested in marriage, Lydgate is helpless against Rosamond’s remarkable feminine wiles (“she never gave up what she set her mind on”) and they are married in spite of the Vincy parents’ disapproval.
The final plot (or group of sub-plots) of the story concerns more broadly two of the most important families in Middlemarch: the Vincys and the Garths. Both are solid stock made up of respectable yet lovably flawed folk, but the Vincy set is a little bit more high and mighty. Mrs. Vincy, in particular, is not at all thrilled that Rosamond’s younger brother Fred is head over heels for the Garth’s oldest daughter, Mary, who is “plain” and “square-faced.” The Garths, on the other hand (including the generous-to-a-fault patriarch Caleb Garth, possibly my favorite among all the Middlemarchian characters) are reserved about Mary hanging out with a guy like Fred, who has a less than stellar history of staying out of debt and would rather go hunting on his handsome steed than hit the books.
As the affairs of these two families as well as the ill-fated Dorothea and Lydgate become more intertwined and topsy-turvy, and as money becomes more slippery and hope seems more dim for all we have added to the equation the controversial Nicolas Bulstrode, a well-off banker and one of the most influential men in Middlemarch. It turns out that Bulstrode has been hiding a dark secret all these years that is only now about to become rudely unearthed, and will affect everyone in Middlemarch, for better or for worse.
If there is one succinct description I could use to sum up how impressed I am with this novel it would be this: only in Middlemarch have I encountered a British 19th century world in which there is truly no black-and-white reality, and men and women are both equally praiseworthy and gullible. Where Dickens would have vilified an unlovable character like old anti-social Casaubon, Eliot shows pity. Where Jane Austen would have a field day turning Rosamond Vincy into a one-dimensional social climber (and bear in mind I love Austen), Eliot redeems her in the end. No one is “heroic”, and no one is evil, either. It satisfyingly resonates with the experience most of us will have in real life encounter our fellow human beings.
The real genius in George Eliot is her ability, moreover, to get inside of her characters. I don’t know how she does it, but she creates both dialogue and monologue for each and every person that is separable and distinct. You don’t need modifiers to know who’s talking in the conversation. She can get inside the head of a lonely and stuffy old man and make him just as sympathetic as she can a vain and disillusioned housewife.
Fair enough, one might say at this point. There’s always something to be said for excellent characters and a good plot, but is there anything more singular about this book?
There are so many directions you can go with Middlemarch: historical, cultural, feminist, economical – it’s a haven for lit theorists. But what I want to emphasize are the aspects of Middlemarch that make it more universally interesting and relatable – in particular, its timeless revelations on marriage and how screwed up people’s expectations of marriage can be.
Up until Eliot’s time, most writers ended the characters’ journey at the wedding threshold. Marriage sealed the deal – the rest of the characters’ lives are left to imagination. In Middlemarch, the author begs the question, “do they really live happily ever after?” Both Dorothea and Lydgate’s marriages are scrutinized, sometimes painfully, under a great magnifying glass of sorts. Both of them are disappointed and enlightened on just what marriage entails. It is actually surprising how timeless some of their discoveries are. Eliot describes one such discovery this way:
I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. (Ch. 20).
Dorothea, Casaubon, Lydgate and Rosamond all commit the folly of assuming that “dating life” reflects the reality of living together long term, and have serious adjustments to make as they get up close and personal with their problems and all the nitty-gritty emotions that go along with sharing your living space with another human being.
Near the end of the novel Dorothea, in a private chat with Rosamond confesses, “Marriage is so unlike anything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings.” This is certainly true for the characters of Middlemarch, and I suspect, a lot more of us today than we might care to admit.
That does not mean the story is all-doom-and-gloom for the characters involved, or that the author has a bleak view of marriage or relationships – or of people. While a story of disappointed expectations, this story also has its share of redemption – but the redemption is the part I can’t tell you about, otherwise I’d ruin the rest of the plot. You will simply have to read for yourself, as I did, to find out how George Eliot settles it all. And I daresay you won’t be disappointed.