Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)
Middlemarch has a formidable reputation as the best novel ever written in the English language. Whatever you make of that claim, you cannot deny this book’s ambition. It is a fictional history of a provincial English backwater, the eponymous town of Middlemarch, as it sleep-walks into the first shockwaves of political reform and the industrial revolution. The Reform Act of 1832 has just been passed and the first train track is laid in the course of events.
How do you do justice to such a novel? This is not the longest book I have ever read. It is not even the longest George Eliot book. But it is, by far, the most dense, with innumerable details and connections and nooks on every page, and a massive cast of characters all linked to each other in their own peculiar way. The narrative voice bursts out of the seams of every interaction, seeking the universal in the very particular; a sentence spoken by one person to another may open up a gulf between them, into which the narrator pours all her musings and observations on human nature.
George Eliot—whose real name is Mary Ann Evans—has a great ability to make her characters feel real. They are the attraction of Middlemarch. Their lives seem to carry on even when we are not observing them, with the plot uniting them feeling almost secondary, like some emergent phenomenon you are slowly assimilated into. It can be difficult for the reader to get into the hum of things; it doesn’t help that, every 100 pages or so, the focus shifts around to a different group of people. The first time this happens, it is more than a little discombobulating: what happened to what’s-his-name? This is the kind of book where you need to keep notes.
The main character, if there is one, is Dorothea Brooke. A young, intelligent, conscientious woman, she marries Edward Cassaubon, a dull clergyman 26 years her senior, against all advice. Cassaubon has devoted himself to a study of comparative religion, The Key To All Mythologies. Enraptured by the only other bookish person she happens to know, Dorothea ties her entire life to his in the belief that she is helping him to complete something of monumental importance.
The other major plot-thread concerns Tertius Lydgate. A man of destiny, Lydgate comes to Middlemarch to make his name. He wants to revolutionise the field of medicine, and seeks nothing more than a unified theory of disease. To this end, he teams up with Nicholas Bulstrode, the local banker, to establish a hospital run on modern scientific principles.
In the course of his work, Lydgate makes many enemies. He steps on the toes of the other already established doctors, who are incensed by the arrogant newcomer. And through his collaboration with Bulstrode, he attracts the ire of those people fed up with the pious, preachy banker, who, by lending money to people, ensnares and binds them to his will. The extent of Lydgate’s divided reputation is established in a clever chapter in which the narrative ranges over all the townsfolk of Middlemarch weighing-in on the matter. It’s a scene not unlike that of a TV crew interviewing passer-bys on the street.
Lydgate also meets and falls in love with the beautiful Rosamond Vincy. Rosamond is from Middlemarch old money. She is swept away with the idea of Lydgate and his important work. In marriage, she expects to live out fantasies of being a charming lady of high-standing. Lydgate, utterly preoccupied with his work, is too proud to pay attention to the petty politicking that is necessary to get ahead in Middlemarch. It is to be their undoing.
When the couple run into financial troubles, Rosamond, unwilling to down-size, frustrates Lydgate’s attempts to live within more modest means. Out of options, believing that he is his own person—and thinking nothing more of the gesture—Lydgate accepts a loan from Bulstrode. When a scandal exposes the banker’s past, and shows his wealth to have been earned in a most hypocritical, un-Christian manner, his good name is tarnished. The same guilt and judgement Bulstrode once used against the town of Middlemarch are suddenly turned against him, and Lydgate is brought down by association:
The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases. Even without memory, the life is bound into one by a zone of dependence in growth and decay; but intense memory forces a man to own his blameworthy past. With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavors and the tinglings of a merited shame. (ch. LXI)
Dorothea’s and Cassaubon’s marriage is an inversion of Lydgate’s and Rosamond’s. Like Lydgate, Dorothea is an idealist; she dislikes the "cautious weighing of consequences, instead of an ardent faith in efforts of justice and mercy, which would conquer by their emotional force." (ch. LXXII). She imagines that married life will consist of helping her husband, Cassaubon, to better the world through great works of imagination and intellect.
The real Cassaubon is a tiresome, stodgy creature who refuses to venture beyond the confines of his mind. He has no interest in his wife—except as a secretary—nor does he wish to participate in the world, except through writing the book that will redeem his miserably grey existence:
It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. (ch. XXIX)
To assist Cassaubon, Dorothea begins learning Latin, and quickly picks it up. Despite her obvious talent, Cassaubon consigns her to endlessly shuffling around his notes. It is unlikely he will even begin his book. Dorothea begins to realise that The Key To All Mythologies is not a startling work of ingenuity; it is, at best, a pedantic and marginal contribution to a narrow field of scholarship:
. . . She pictured to herself the days, and months, and years which she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies, and fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins—sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child. . . Dorothea had so often had to check her weariness and impatience over this questionable riddle-guessing, as it revealed itself to her instead of the fellowship in high knowledge which was to make life worthier! (ch. XLVIII)
Dorothea’s idealism, the source of so much hope and light, blinds her to the truth of her loveless and sterile marriage. Cassaubon’s book is a prison sentence. After a health scare, he asks Dorothea whether, in the case of his premature death, she would continue working on it. She refuses to answer; our gasp supplies her true response.
Most people, on having their dreams robbed by reality, promptly discard them. Dorothea clings to her vision of a better world. She is the only person who comes to Lydgate’s help when his reputation is destroyed. Still determined to see the good in other people, Dorothea refuses to believe he had anything to do with the scandal. Once more an independent and wealthy woman, she frees him from his debts.
The novel ends as it began. Dorothea, now a widow, must choose whether or not to marry the man she loves, against the advice of everyone around her. The first time round we suppose she made a bad decision out of naivety. Yet her persistent belief in the goodness of others turns on this naivety, and must, we suppose, be leading her towards a better world:
Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for 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. (Finale)
So concludes Middlemarch. Dorothea is never able to live out the true depth of her feelings, owing to her cruel circumstances; not just the disappointment of a failed marriage, but the bitter reality of being a woman in Victorian England. Despite her obvious intelligence and fierce convictions, the realm of politics is left to fools like her bumbling uncle Arthur, a genial but limp man with no real beliefs. His parliamentary career is cut short after a scandal emerges concerning the appalling state of the properties he lets to his tenants.
Middlemarch is about unfulfilled dreams and clinging to goodness when we have every reason to discard it. But it is also a novel about money and its new value in Victorian England. The old rhythms of the English country—centred on the agricultural calendar, orchestrated by the Anglican church, held together by a uniquely Anglo-Saxon sense of personal honour—are falling apart. Commerce reigns where dignity once organised society. If you have money, you never have to compromise your principles; but to obtain the money you need to remain an honest person, you need to have never been one in the first place.
Lydgate doesn’t have money, but somehow, through sheer force of will, he fancies that he will surmount this obstacle. Dorothea has money, but the fact that she is a woman limits what she can do with her life. In the collision of ideals with reality, Dorothea remains possessed of a sense of justice and divine grace, which allow her to see people beyond the struggles of their circumstances, and illuminates them from within, according to the brightness of their whole person.