Middlemarch is a novel whose reputation precedes it. It is considered one of the great English novels, an exemplar of Victorian Realism, while also being a novel of deeply-considered characters, confined in a plot of social tension in a setting that is a microcosm of a time of larger societal change. It is also very long and slow. This ‘study of provincial life’ was famously called ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people’ by Virginia Woolf, while Salman Rushdie admits he was not able to finish it.
Dorothea Brooke, a young woman of independent income, lives with her uncle, Mr Brooke, and her sister Celia on their uncle’s estate near the town of Middlemarch; their parents being deceased. Though she herself feels no urgency to marry, she nevertheless feels the social pressure from her family. Especially since she has attracted the attention of the young and very wealthy Sir James Chettam. But Dorothea is a woman of strong moral principles guided by her religious conviction and she rejects the thought of marriage for mere social convention and is instead longing for the opportunity to participate in some greater cause for the benefit of the less fortunate. A desire brought into sharper focus by the fact that her uncle is indifferent to the living conditions of his tenants.
She then surprises everyone by beginning a relationship with the much older Reverend Casaubon; an acerbic, solitary and scholarly man. Casaubon has devoted his life to the study of the world’s religions, mythologies and superstitions, with the aim of producing a great work on the subject. His ‘Key to All Mythologies’, he hopes, will be a definitive work, revealing the similarities between all religions beneath an umbrella of superior Christian Theology.
Here was a man who could understand the higher inward life, and with whom there could be some spiritual communion; nay, who could illuminate principle with the widest knowledge: a man whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed!
[…] Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies’ school literature: here was a living Bossuet, whose work would reconcile complete knowledge with devoted piety; here was a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint.
Dorothea, admiring this ambition, hopes that in marriage she will be a true partner to Casaubon, helping to complete his life’s work.
Those who have great thoughts get too much worn in working them out. I used to feel about that, even when I was a little girl; and it always seemed to me that the use I should like to make of my life would be to help some one who did great works, so that his burthen might be lighter.
But Casaubon, who has probably never before desired a wife, is reluctant to share the world of his work with anyone.
Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was. As in droughty regions baptism by immersion could only be performed symbolically, so Mr Casaubon found that sprinkling the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream could afford him; and he concluded that the poets had much exaggerated the force of masculine passion.
Through her relationship with Casaubon, Dorothea meets Will Ladislaw; Casaubon’s young cousin. Though Casaubon is quite wealthy, Ladislaw has no money of his own and is reliant on the kindness of his cousin. The explanation for this discrepancy is that Ladislaw’s grandmother was disinherited after marrying a man deemed to be beneath her. Dorothea finds the situation unjust but can do nothing to remedy it. The mere raising of the subject provokes jealousy and suspicion within Casaubon who perceives a growing affection between Dorothea and Ladislaw.
Elsewhere in Middlemarch, Fred Vincy is a young man finding himself in increasing trouble. From a respectable, but not especially wealthy family, Fred needs to find himself a vocation. His father has paid much for his education, with the aim of a career in the church, but Fred is neither the studious type nor does he have any desire to become a clergyman. His other efforts to make money, whether gambling or speculating, have only put him into a great deal of debt which not only threatens his future but also those who have given him security. Fred’s main hope is for a fortunate inheritance from his aunt’s husband, but there is no guarantee of that.
In love, Fred’s prospects are just as bleak. He is in love with Mary Garth, a girl he has known since childhood. But, though she returns his feelings, she can’t bring herself to marry a man who lacks both good sense and work ethic.
Fred also has a competitor for Mary’s heart. Mr Farebrother is the opposite of Fred Vincy. Though he is not well-suited for the church either, he has applied himself well and become a clergyman and a well-liked and respected one. Like Fred, he also has no wealth but he is responsible to more than just himself with his mother and sisters dependent on him. Like Fred he tries to make up his shortfall in income with gambling, but he is far more skilled at it than Fred. Farebrother also loves Mary and, just as he is the opposite of Fred, Mary’s feelings for Farbrother are the inverse of those for Fred – she can see he is a sensible, respectable man, but doesn’t have feelings for him.
To me it is one of the most odious things in a girl’s life, that there must always be some supposition of falling in love coming between her and any man who is kind to her, and to whom she is grateful. I should have thought that I at least, might have been safe from all that. I have no ground for the nonsensical vanity of fancying everybody who comes near me is in love with me.
New to Middlemarch is Dr Lydgate. Though he has wealthy relations, Lydgate has spurned any opportunity to ingratiate his way to a life of comfort. Instead, he has gained a modern medical education and, rather than use it to enrich himself in a city practice, would prefer to use his knowledge to help those who might need it best in a rural setting. His plan in Middlemarch is to work at the new hospital without asking for a salary, to do his own independent research and maintain a modest private practice for his income.
Lydgate is ignorant of the intrigues of small towns. He believes reason and efficacy is enough to establish a reputable practice and does not perceive how slander, suspicion and prejudice can undermine it. His plans go further askew when he falls for Rosamond Vincy, Fred’s sister. Rosamond naïvely foresees a prosperous future with a man of respectable family and does not realise how poor a marriage to a country doctor can be. Lydgate, similarly, does not appreciate how exorbitant marriage can be, especially to a woman of expensive tastes.
She is just the sort of beautiful creature that is imprisoned with ogres in fairy tales.
Hovering near to these characters and over much of the town of Middlemarch is Mr Bulstrode. A man of obscure origins, Mr Bulstrode, a banker, has managed, through judicious investments and a respectable marriage, to make himself the centre of the town with most people indebted to him in some way. But the arrival of an old acquaintance of dubious character threatens to destroy all he has built for himself in Middlemarch
The first thing than needs to be said about Middlemarch is that it is a very slow burn. Eliot does not make much attempt to engross the reader from the start like a modern writer might. Instead, it is quite dense, slow and complex from the beginning and remains so for the whole novel. For almost the first 200 pages or so, I am sorry to say, the main effect Middlemarch had on me was to help me fall asleep! The dialogue between characters were certainly the most enjoyable parts to read and, especially when they involved some of the more eccentric characters and rare humour, came as welcome relief.
It was around that 200 page mark that a certain critical mass was reached by which I was now in possession of enough info about the characters and their situations that the story becomes quite engrossing. Another 200 pages along and I was quite convinced of the story’s, and Eliot’s, brilliance. It was at this point, half-way through, that I felt some of the best passages lay. In another 200 pages I was growing concerned at how much of the story was still left without apparent signs of closure and wondered how things would end up with little over another 200 pages remaining.
Though it does not lack for drama at key phases, Middlemarch proceeds at a very slow pace when read. Its slowness is due to how dense it is which is in turn due to how complex it is. I am not a writer and have never attended a creative writing class but I know of the common maxim to ‘show but not tell’. I wonder how many past greats would make it as modern writers if such rules had to be followed. In Middlemarch, Eliot, I feel, does a lot of telling. She shares the intricate details of the characters and their thinking and the tenuous situations they find themselves in. It all serves to impress upon the reader how delicately things are poised and how little certainty we can have about how things will turn out.
The setting of the novel shows a time and a place in transition. Middlemarch is a partly-agricultural, partly-industrial, town and the arrival of change – whether from the railway, Dr Lydgate’s practice or Reformist politics – is far from warmly welcomed. Eliot wrote Middlemarch some 40 years after its 1829-1831 setting which allowed her to reflect on these developments with some hindsight.
The doubt hinted by Mr Vincy whether it were only the general election or the end of the world that was coming on, now that George the Fourth was dead, Parliament dissolved, Wellington and Peel generally depreciated and the new King apologetic, was a feebly type of the uncertainties of provincial opinion at that time.
Much of this is a little beyond what I can comment on, but there are some themes, more personal to the characters, that I dwelt on while reading.
The first concerns the problems that arise in making bad choices in marriage. Having read a fair bit of that other icon of Victorian Realism, Thomas Hardy, lately, it should be no surprise that this was something that did not escape my notice in Middlemarch. Whether we look at Dorothea and Mr Casaubon or Rosamond and Dr Lydgate, we see the difficulties that can arise when people make, or fail to communicate their, assumptions about their partners or their expectations of marriage.
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts – not to hurt others.
In contrast, Mary Garth shows both a strong knowledge of herself and her needs and will not rush into anything with any suitor until she feels assured.
What it must be for a wife when she’s never sure of her husband when he hasn’t got a principle in him to make him more afraid of doing the wrong thing by others than of getting his own toes pinched. That’s the long and short of it, Mary. Young folks may get fond of each other before they know what life is, and they may think it all a holiday if they can only get together; but it soon turns into a working day, my dear. However, you have more sense than most, and you haven’t been kept in cotton-wool: there may be no occasion for me to say this, but a father trembles for his daughter, and you are all by yourself here.
Don’t fear for me father, […] I will never engage myself to one who has no manly independence, and who goes on loitering away his time on the chance that others will provide for him. You and my mother have taught me too much pride for that.
Contrasting matches in professional relationships are also highlighted in the novel. There is the relationship between Dr Lydgate and the new hospital’s funder, Mr Bulstrode, and the relationship between Ladislaw and Mr Brooke as the latter considers a political career. In each case the complexity of doing things out of pragmatism or principle, of means and ends, and how such relationships influence public perception are all in play.
Like many 19th century novels, Middlemarch also explores the problems that arise from the distinction between the private and the public selves. Middlemarch is a gossipy town and several characters find they have to defend themselves from slanderous rumour, both deserved and undeserved. While Dorothea’s friendship with Ladislaw, or the Lydgate’s financial difficulties, may raise eyebrows, it is far less damaging than the attacks on Lydgate’s medical methods. Lydgate’s scrupulous methods and progressive principles struggle in the fight against tradition, confirmation biases, professional jealousies and guilt by associations in a small town.
For the first time Lydgate was feeling the hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions, and their frustrating complexity.
As well as people being unsuited to each other, another theme is of people being unsuited to their occupations, even to their social class, or being frustrated in pursuing their passions. Fred Vincy knows he is unsuited to a career in the Church but the restrictions placed on him by his social class and lack of income leave him little other choice. When his attempts to find alternatives fails he becomes increasingly frustrated and miserable. Farebrother’s ability to tolerate a career in the Church that he is also not suited to has allowed him to make a little more of himself. Lydgate is one who is very sure of his calling, but the backwardness of the country town, its petty politics and the responsibilities of marriage thwart his ambitions. While Dorothea is similarly determined to improve the lives of the less fortunate but is also frustrated by the restrictions imposed on her. The want of fulfillment for those with grand ambitions, the size of the forces opposed to change and the smallness of their achievements against the larger, slower, pace of history is possibly one of the more significant things the novel has to say.
The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
After finishing the novel, I also watched the 1994 BBC miniseries adaptation. My impression before watching it was that the series had been well received by the public but less so by critics. I enjoyed it. My wife, who has not read Middlemarch, enjoyed it a great deal. I thought the acting was good but the directing left a little to be desired. The use of audio flashbacks, for example, feels pretty amateur by today’s standards. I would still recommend it, both to people who have and have not read the novel.
I probably enjoyed the TV series better than the novel, but that may be because of the pace and simplicity of the series which lacks the complexity of the novel. The characters, for example, seemed far less complex on screen than they did in the novel, which might be said of most adaptations. I don’t recall Rosamond being quite so silly, Lydgate being quite so proud or Mr Brooke being quite the braggart in the novel that they were on the series. It could be, as I say, that the series over-simplified, or it could be that these things are simply easier to pick up on when watching than while reading.
Middlemarch the novel is intricately complex and I fear I may not have had patience for its excessive detail at times. I still liked it well enough. I believe, though, that like the long works of Eliot’s Russian contemporaries, it will be when I read it again that I will enjoy soaking in all that detail and will enjoy it more than a simplified adaptation. When that time comes, I may even consider it one of my favourites, but will that time ever come?