The last novel I completed for the Victorian Reading Challenge was Middlemarch by George Eliot. This was the second book by Eliot that I read for this challenge. The first was Silas Marner. I mentioned in my review of Silas Marner that I never had the intention to read any of Eliot’s novels. Silas changed my mind about her works. And Middlemarch has made me a fan of her forever. If you would like to read some background information on Eliot, please see my review of Silas Marner.
I am thankful that I got over my unwillingness to read her novels. I wrongly assumed that I would find them boring and a chore to read. Middlemarch is a mammoth of a book at 799 pages. From the onset of her writing career she experienced success. Her first novel Adam Bede was a bestseller when it first appeared in 1859. Middlemarch appeared in 1874 and it was an instant hit among the reading public and the critics. V. S. Pritchett said, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width or reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative.” One of the aspects that I truly appreciate about George Eliot’s writing is her insight into the human mind. Her characters are people who are wonderfully flawed. Some are tragic. Some think they are perfect. There are villains, the down on their luck, and the ordinary. She makes them interesting by showing their innermost thoughts and desires and how they interact with each other. Virginia Woolf said that Eliot “was one of the first English novelists to discover that men and women think as well as feel, and the discovery was of great artistic moment. Briefly, it meant that the novel ceased to be solely a love story, an autobiography, or a story of adventure. It became, as it had already become with the Russians, of much wider scope.”
The novel is set in an imaginary Midlands town called Middlemarch during 1830-1832. It would be hard to introduce all of the main characters and storylines in this review. There is a vast array of character whose stories are intertwined with everyone else’s. At the center of the action is Dorothea Brook, an idealistic young woman who wants to help improve the lives of those around her. However, the society she lives in does not readily accept her notions. Eliot raises awareness of several issues during her day, including marriage, the role of women, religion, political reform, education, and hypocrisy. Dorothea’s character highlights many of these issues. In the opening pages you learn that she doesn’t want to settle down and marry Sir James Chettam and have a comfortable, easy life. Instead she marries Edward Casaubon, an older gentlemen who Dorothea believes is pursuing a noble work, The Key to All Mythologies. When she marries him, she envisions that she would work at her husband’s side in this great pursuit. However, it doesn’t take Dorothea long to figure out that Casaubon, who has been toiling for years collecting his “evidence” will never complete his work. On their honeymoon, they travel to Rome so the scholar can continue his research. Instead of utilizing Dorothea’s youth and vitality, Casaubon leaves his young bride alone for hours on end since she is a woman and scholarly pursuits are not healthy or suitable for women. During her free time she befriends Casaubon’s young cousin, Will Ladislaw, who is residing in Rome. After the couple returns to Middlemarch, Ladislaw returns as well and Casaubon’s health begins to deteriorate. Before he dies he changes his will to state that if Dorothea marries Ladislaw she will forfeit her inheritance. This scandalous clause in the will wrongfully hints that Ladislaw and Dorothea had been involved in an affair.
Another main character in the novel is Tertius Lydgate, an idealistic young doctor, who arrives in Middlemarch with ideas for medical reform in the small town. He volunteers his time at a hospital that is controlled by the area’s banker, Mr. Bulstrode. Lydgate and most of the people in Middlemarch do not know that the banker has a dark secret. Before this comes to light, Lydgate marries Rosamond Vincy, the town’s beauty and daughter of the mayor. She believes that life with Lydgate would be all fun and games since he has aristocratic connections. However, she learns soon after their marriage that Lydgate despises his family connections and that he intends to make it on his own. Soon financial woes complicate his life and marriage. In addition, the town’s people do not take to his revolutionary ideas about medicine and his connection to Bulstrode makes life more and more difficult for the young man with a very unhappy wife at home.
The stories of the people in Middlemarch are wonderfully written and blended together. The twists and turns are fantastic and in the end, I didn’t want to put the book down. I am so glad that I have “discovered” Eliot’s works. My challenge to read the 1001 novels that you must read before you die has paid off since if it wasn’t for this challenge I don’t believe I would have picked up any of her works. This novel is the 28th one that I have completed. I am excited to pursue more of the authors and novels to see what else is in store for me.