Friday, May 9, 2014

Book Review - George Eliot's Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot
Published by: Modern Library
Publication Date: 1871
Format: Hardcover, 799 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition then one reviewed)

"When I told my much-beloved little sister that I was going to write a book about a young Victorian woman who married a much older antiquarian and then finds him not at all who she thought him to be, there was a pause, followed by, “So, basically, you’re writing Middlemarch.”

Have I mentioned how much I love my little sister?

I will admit, I did have Dorothea and Casaubon on the brain, as well as Effie and Ruskin, when Imogen and her husband Arthur popped into my head. (That’s what my characters do: they pop. I don’t make them up piece by piece. They come to me fully formed, and then I have to figure them out as I’m writing about them.) But that’s pretty much the extent of the overlap between the two stories.

If you’re going to read Middlemarch, parcel out a long period of time and make a big pot of tea. Because you’re not going to want to stop once you start. Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon is just the beginning…." - Lauren Willig

Ah, to be young and idealistic. Dorothea Brooke longs for nothing more then to marry an intelligent man and help him in his great work, like Milton's daughters, but with less complaining. She thinks she finds that man in the much older Edward Casaubon and they are wed. Tertius Lydgate is a young doctor who has bought a practice in Middlemarch and has such visions for the new fever hospital and a life of study and medical advancement. Instead he is beguiled by the young Rosamund Vincy and they are wed. Rosamund's brother Fred has hopes of a large inheritance and the hand of the humble Mary Garth, despite his family's objections to Mary, though they all cling to the thought of the inheritance because Fred doesn't seem that interested in a career. Another young idealist uncertain of where life will take him is Will Ladislaw, the cousin of Casaubon. But after meeting his cousin's young wife he feels that his life will take him wherever Dorothea is. All these young idealists, all these young hearts with dreams and ambitions shall be tried by fire and be thwarted in one way or another as they try to live their lives in Middlemarch.

Back in 1996 a costume drama made the biggest splash stateside since Upstairs, Downstairs. I'm of course talking about Pride and Prejudice. While a wet shirt might have changed the fusty notions that are attached to period pieces, it also made a household name of the show's writer, Andrew Davies. Andrew Davies became the go-to screenwriter to adapt 19th century novels into miniseries. Emma, Vanity Fair, Wives and Daughters, The Way We Live Now, Daniel Deronda, He Knew He Was Right, Bleak House, The Diary of a Nobody, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Little Dorrit, have all been adapted by his fair pen. But the fact is Colin Firth isn't the first Firth to brood sexily and shoot pool in an Andrew Davies adaptation. That honor belongs to Colin's younger brother Jonathan, as the gambling Fred Vincy in Middlemarch. We often forget how hard it was to see shows that had previously aired in this current age of streaming and YouTube. Even in the early days of DVDs you had to wait months after they were available to rent in order for them to be affordable to buy. Pride and Prejudice had stoked my interest in costume drama and Andrew Davies was the go-to guy, so obviously I had to get my hands on Middlemarch. With a region free DVD player and an Amazon UK account I was able to achieve my ends.

The adaptation was long and it didn't satisfy any need in me and actually made me want to read the book more. Of course with the length of my to be read pile it isn't any wonder that it took me almost two decades to get to it. I can see what frustrated me in the miniseries because it frustrated me in the book. Middlemarch has an almost unwieldy cast and Eliot has a way of overwriting that makes it very hard to connect. But unlike a miniseries which only has six hours to win us over, with almost 800 pages Eliot is able to build her narrative so that by the end you are so invested in the characters lives that if she hadn't written that little "finale" you would have wept tears of frustration. As for her overwriting and meandering habits to pad chapters with so much information that doesn't build on the plot to insane degrees, I can actually forgive her. The reason being that every once in awhile there is such an insightful line or comment that gives you a clear beam of light shining down from on high that you just want to shout "Yes, a million times yes!" There is also the fact that over time Eliot tends to pontificate less and less focusing more on the plot and the interaction of the characters. I also wonder if the fact that the novel was published in serialized form might have something do to with this shift. By writing in this way I'm sure she was able to gauge what her readers wanted and tweak the novel more to their tastes, and to mine.

What struck me most forcefully about Middlemarch is that while this book was written 142 years ago it is still so relevant in it's issues that it's eerie. With this "study of provincial life" Eliot taps into the universality of people everywhere. Jealousy, money problems, medical advancement, xenophobia, misunderstandings, misconceptions, thwarted ambitions, atonement, all these issues and more are handled in such a way that you, as the reader, connect with a similar incident in your life. The one thing I really connected with was an interesting aspect of Lydgate's practice which caused much stir in the town among his prospective patients. Unlike other Doctors, Lydgate didn't deal with prescriptions for medication cutting out the middle man. It is unclear among the villagers if this is from a lack of knowledge or a lack of self interest, because Doctors could make more money if they cut out the pharmacist, as it were. But it seems to me more that Lydgate, with his newfangled ideology and research believed more in the idea that under most circumstances the body can heal itself and therefore doesn't need drugs. This rang so true to what Doctors say nowadays. Of course, when you now go to the Doctor it's more they're worried that if they proscribe something when they don't need to that you will develop an immunity to the drug that will later cause problems when you truly do need drugs. How many times have I been on the losing end of that argument that I needed drugs for a sinus infection and they told me no? The answer is too many to count... so I have a feeling that if I did reside in Middlemarch, Lydgate just might not be my Doctor because of how many times I then ended up in Urgent Care getting the meds my Doctor was hesitant to proscribe.

But this little meditation of Lydgate's habits only touches on one aspect of one character in a book with enough characters to almost give George R.R. Martin a run for his money. With this many characters, of course you are going to have your favorites, those you love, those you hate, and of course, those you love to hate. But what I found so interesting is that I had sympathy for all the characters, even those I didn't like. In books I usually never root for the antihero. If a character is unlikeable, that's it, we're done, the book and me will not be able to reconcile our differences. But the way in how this community was made up and how each life touched and influenced the other it's like a house of cards or a train of dominoes, you can't pick and choose, everyone is in it together and everyone is therefore needing of our sympathy. While Dorothea is the most obvious character to have feelings for, with her thwarted ambitions in her marriage and then the impositions placed on her by her husband's will, I was even worried about Bulstrode. I worried about a man who, in his past, had dubious dealings which came back to haunt him and I was perfectly happy for him to get away with murder if he could. The lives that Middlemarch is teaming with all need each other and form a perfect view of what provincial life was and how aspects of human nature transcend the generations. This is a must human novel indeed.


Middlemarch has been on my wishlist for a very long time and due to its length I haven't picked it up yet. Wonderful review, Elizabeth! :D

PS: I recently shared on my blog a very small review of North and South and I took the liberty of posting one of your beautuful illustrations of Margaret Hale (of course there is your name under it and a link to your blog). But if you want me to remove it, I will as soon as you tell me.

Remove it? I am BEYOND HONORED! Thank you so much! To be included in a post with a picture of Richard Armitage is my dream! Speaking of him... come back to my blog on May 25th... I'm actually right now reading Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton. She is an amazing writer.

Totally pick up Middlemarch! The length intimidated me for so long too, but I'm glad I finally read it!

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