Monday, June 29, 2015

Middlemarch by George Eliot

4 Stars

It seems a little unfair that all other Victorians novelists are thrown into the gigantic shade cast by Charles Dickens. To most readers, and even non-readers, his writing captures the zeitgeist of the Victorian era like none other.

It’s interesting to note that Dickens was one of the few to instantly suspect that ‘George Eliot’ was in all probability the pseudonym of a female writer. He said as much in a fan letter to her in 1858:

“…I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seems to me to be such womanly touches, in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me, even now…You will not suppose that I have any vulgar wish to fathom your secret. I mention the point as one of great interest to me – not of mere curiosity.”

George Eliot did come forward later to reveal herself as Mary Ann Evans. Her initial reticence could perhaps be ascribed to many factors: her desire to shield her private life (she was co-habiting with a married man); she was already working as a journalist and editor under her own name; and, also, because apparently she wished to be judged on her own merit, not to be compared with other female writers of the age.

‘Middlemarch’ is far from being a feminist diatribe, but in its depiction of the ‘lot’ of women, Eliot’s mature understanding of gender inequality certainly has no predecessors. The protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, is no social rebel; at least not by her standards. She doesn’t defy social restrictions. Rather, she seems to be oblivious of them; choosing to live a life guided by her conscience rather than convention.

The book has intersecting plot lines and a vast cast of characters, many of them relatively important to the progress of the narrative. The title of the book refers to a fictional manufacturing town. Eliot sets the novel in the early 1830s - forty years prior to the date of its publication. Choosing that time period for the plot enables her to delve into political issues such as the passage of the Reform Act, the onset of the British railways, the death of one king and the succession of another, and the medical practices of a bygone age. Whether the book is improved by the long-winded digressions into obsolete medical procedures and petty politics; or if it even qualifies as an actual historical novel, is a subject open for debate.

She is the quintessential Victorian writer – circuitous, verbose, unable to arrive at any point without expanding on several other topics, all of which she seems to consider germane to the central issue. And, she does seem to go over-board in her anxiety that no one in the story should be ill-judged:

“Pray think no ill of Miss Noble…”
“For my part, I have some fellow-feeling with Dr. Sprague…”
“Think no evil of her (Rosamond), pray…”

Perhaps readers should be extended the courtesy of making up their own minds.

But there’s a genuine kindness that makes one excuse her fussy empathy. And of course, Eliot has many kinds of humor in her quiver – gentle, observational, ironic.

Though she spared no effort to be taken seriously, the real strength of her writing, the enduring value of her books lies in her perceptive, and yes, very feminine understanding of human nature, or as Dickens called it, the ‘womanly touches’.

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Eliot was perhaps much less ‘wadded with stupidity’ than the vast majority of people. Her sensitive psychological insight and compassion makes her characters - every one of them - intensely real, intensely relevant for all ages.

Discussion Questions for this book at:

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