This week’s Behind the Dish podcast reunited me with my old Baseball Today co-host Eric Karabell. And you all thought I died when I went over that waterfall with Bias Cat, didn’t you?
George Eliot’s Middlemarch appears on the Bloomsbury 100 and ranks 9th on Daniel Burt’s Novel 100, but after my intense dislike of her novel Mill on the Floss*, I expected a similarly arduous read, with slow prose and distant, even odious characters. Middlemarch feels like the work of a different author, however, less bleak and moralistic, with stronger, better-rounded characters (and a few jerks), and every bit as pointed a perspective on the restrictive nature of Victorian society, especially regarding the rights of women.
* Not to be confused with Millon de Floss, one of the great biographer-stalkers of his time.
Middlemarch weaves several related stories together, all centered in the fictional English town of the title, revolving around idealistic young characters whose desires go beyond the traditional spouse-seeking of English literature prior to the 1860s. It begins with Dorothea Brooke, destined to be the semi-tragic heroine of the novel’s first major plot, as she rejects a suitor nearer her age and emotional temperament to marry the dour, chauvinistic theologian Edward Casaubon, a blowhard who is the first of the novel’s many comic side characters. Dorothea’s other suitor, Sir James Chettam, marries Dorothea’s sister in what becomes a far happier marriage. Edward refuses to induct Dorothea into his intellectual life, perhaps because it is nearly bankrupt, leaving her bored and unhappy until his early death, at which point an absurd codicil to his will forbids her to take up with Edward’s distant cousin, Will Ladislaw, who is a far better emotional match for Dorothea.
Middlemarch is also home to the Vincy siblings, Rosamund and Fred, a financially irresponsible pair who have very different aims in romance: Fred wants to marry Mary Garth, with whom he’s been in love for years, while Rosamund sinks her claws into the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, because she sees him as a path to upward mobility. Fred’s ability to marry is hampered by his dissolution, which leads him to bankrupt himself and nearly do the same to Mary’s father, while Rosamund manipulates the idealistic Lydgate, who doesn’t plan on marrying because it would interfere with his professional endeavors, into a betrothal he didn’t desire.
Eliot takes the usual themes of marriage and inheritance as the starting point for deeper explorations of character and societal mores than contemporary novels typically explored, helping usher in an era of fiction where independent women were increasingly found as central characters and where their lower standing in a male-dominated culture was fodder for entire novels. Dorothea begins as a high-minded, emotionally immature woman who reaches for some ill-defined goal in marrying the old pedant Casaubon, only to realize she’s grasped at a cloud and lost her independence without any intellectual gain. Fred has to be shamed into a life of industry and diligence, in a career that seemed beneath him, to have any chance to marry the woman he loves. Lydgate’s match with Rosamund turns out to be disastrous, as her extravagance nearly bankrupts him, his researches grind to a halt, and he’s caught up in a scandal involving the local squire Bulstrode, who makes ill use of the doctor to try to hide his own mistakes. While some characters face consequences for their own sins, others find their lives constrained by the need to keep up appearances, or by the effects of gossip about untoward appearances. Even in the epilogue, Eliot grants most of her characters middling outcomes, where financial success and happiness are mutually exclusive; Dorothea may at least fare the best, as she can find happiness even in an imperfect situation, telling Ladislaw that “if we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for,” marking why she stands above the rest as the novel’s real protagonist and most empathetic character.
As much as Dorothea stands at Middlemarch‘s moral center, Lydgate struck me as the most fascinating character because of the small window he provides into Eliot’s own views on the rise of science and research in English society and culture. Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch intending to work as a doctor to fund his researches, bringing ideas for reform and for greater service to those unable to afford proper medical care to a small town with decidedly staid ideas on what a doctor should do and say. The obstacles he encounters from the town’s aged, established medics slow his practice significantly, even when he has some success in treating difficult cases, but it is the marriage to the dim-witted, materialistic Rosamund that destroys his intellectual curiosity, because he can no longer devote time to research or volunteer work because he has to pay the debts she has accumulated. Coming from a male author, this might read as misogynistic, but Eliot imbues all of her characters, male and female, with strengths and defects, so even the venal Rosamund is multi-dimensional, while the reader cannot exonerate Lydgate of blame in his own downfall. (It’s also hard to accuse Eliot of anti-feminism when she has Mary say, “Husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”
Middlemarch might be the most-praised novel ever written in the English language. Virginia Woolf referred to it as “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” A.S. Byatt used that quote in her 2007 review, saying it was possible to argue – seriously, can you get more wishy-washy? – that Middlemarch is “the greatest English novel.” Daniel Burt’s top 100 only lists two English-language novels ahead of it – the abysmal Moby Dick and the abstruse Ulysses, the latter by an author who’d abandon English entirely in his next novel, Finnegan’s Wake. Eliot’s prose is far more pleasant to read than Melville’s and easier to digest than Joyce’s, with incisive wit (as in the “husbands” comment above) or profound renditions of human emotions:
When the commonplace “We must all die” transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness “I must die – and soon,” then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards, he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.
Writers who craft realistic characters typically exhibit this understanding of emotion and thought, whether the feelings depicted are negative (fear of mortality) or positive. Eliot can drift from compassion to disdain – Mary, the novel’s most insightful speaker, points out that “selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything in the world,” which is undeniable – over the course of a few pages, but there is always the sense that she reveres character, even if she doesn’t always revere her specific characters. I don’t share Woolf’s and Byatt’s veneration of Middlemarch, as the Lydgate/Rosamund thread tended to meander and Rosamund was the least compelling character in the book, but it is a marvelous novel, a broad study of many brilliantly rendered characters, and a lesson in integrating multiple storylines into a single narrative.