Review: Middlemarch by George Elliot

If we are to call Middlemarch a novel at all, we may say that as a didactic novel it has scarcely been equalled.  Never before have so keen and varied an observation, so deep an insight into character and motives, so strong a grasp of conceptions, such power of picturesque description, worked together to represent through the agency of fiction an author’s moral and social views.  But the reservation we have implied is a broad one.  No talent, not genius itself, can quite overcome the inherent defect of a conspicuous, constantly prominent lesson, or bridge over the disparity between the storyteller with an ulterior aim ever before his own eyes and the reader’s, and the ideal storyteller whose primary impulse is a story to tell, and human nature to portray–not human nature as supporting a theory, but human nature as he sees it.

–Review of Middlemarch in the Saturday Review (7 December 1872)

Much like the above contemporary review of its day, Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf thought highly of the novel.  Some critics argue it is the greatest English novel ever written. I listened to  the audio book version on Librivox read by Margaret Espaillat for thirty five hours while I finished crocheting the beautiful Moorland afghan designed by Lucy of Attic 24. Thirty five, very long hours. If I hadn’t been blissfully distracted by the purple heathers of the Moors transitioning into the varied blues of the summer Yorkshire skies, I would have stopped.

Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life is a 19th century British novel written by George Eliot,  the masculine pen name of Mary Anne Evans. It encompasses many characters and delves into their thoughts and daily interactions in this central English provincial town. Most notably, the lives of Dorothea Brooke and Dr. Tertius Lydgate. Their stories circle around each other, but don’t intersect until late in the book. Each story focuses on the life of one of the persons of Middlemarch, connected for the simple matter of being in the same social circles, the same community. Through their thoughts, actions and conversations, Eliot takes on the political, agricultural, societal, religious, and scientific concerns during the time of social unrest prior to the Reform Bill of 1832.

Dorothea marries a much older, academic man because she believes him to be the utmost of goodness and intellect and she wants to be that. As a woman, the only to be that, is to marry that. Dr. Lydgate marries a vapid, shallow woman as if in error or for lack of backbone because he is duped by societal norms of the time. Neither marry for love, but more out of a warped idealism of what life should be or is supposed to be.

They are nearly destroyed by their choices and most of the novel is their never ending regrets and thoughts of would have, should have, could have, oh poor me. But being stereotypical British, will make the best of it all by George. Carry on.

There is no happy ending. A deviation from most novels of the time. The two characters do not eventually fall in love and marry making their sufferable lives worth it all in the end. They simply live sufferable lives until the book ends. And they analyze them. To death.

George Eliot once wrote that she wished “to trace the gradual action of ordinary causes rather than exceptional” with her writing. She did this with Middlemarch – with characters who display the most ordinary human foibles, passion, humor and tragedy. Characters who make poor choices and then live lives of regret with outward stoicism and internal angst. As if Eliot were simply documenting human lives in all their mundane living rather than writing a novel. Perhaps she was. Perhaps this is the greatness.


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