This month I finished Middlemarch in middle February and I never thought I would love a literary heroine who despised puppies so much. Middlemarch is the dream novel; its words have the power to harvest truths about the world, humanity, and how Fred should probably stop buying horses.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Remember last month when I said I had read one of the greatest pieces of English literature in Jane Eyre? Well, I could not have predicted it so soon, but here I have found another! Middlemarch is the most ambitious, pure and human book I have ever read. It felt so life like that I was searching through my copy to see where it kept its brain, and when I couldn’t find it, stared at it long enough on the nightstand that I might catch the rising and lowering of its chest.
The story follows the hearty lives of ordinary people in the provincial town of Middlemarch. Dorothea Brooke exists somewhere at the centre, set apart by her philanthropic ideals, she meets and marries a scholar, Mr Casaubon, whose shaky self-confidence drives away his wife’s intelligent zeal and replaces it with closeted angst. Her only liberation is Mr Casaubon’s distant cousin, Will Ladislaw, who feels and communicates with Dorothea in a way that is more sound and true than any of the revelations in her husband’s research. Dr Lydgate too, is bound by his research ambitions. When he comes to town to set up his practice, he is much invested in building Bulstrode’s New Hospital for the good it might do for the people, and the new facilities might benefit his own scientific endeavours. Lydgate becomes bound to Bulstrode for the build, and he is made to vote with him, regardless of their conflict in beliefs. In this light, Lydgate makes a questionable reputation for himself amongst his peers in Middlemarch. When Lydgate eventually marries, he is set back in his medical pursuits by his shallow wife and her deprecation of compromise. As she eventually becomes the master of him, Lydgate must again bind himself to Bulstrode in a peculiar way that threatens everything he has strived for.
Apart from having some of the most pleasant sounding character names in literature, Middlemarch is so diversely themed that only one in one thousand imbeciles could have taken nothing away from it. The novel is a powerhouse of thought, dealing with provincial politics, science, medicine, religion, marriage, money, love, hope– and is set amongst a cast of struggling people. Eliot writes acutely of feeling and scientifically sets about as she proposes a theory, gathers the evidence and interprets the results. Her characters are crafted so wonderfully that I lose all effect in writing about them. Suffice it to say that George Eliot likely had a higher IQ than anyone around her at the time.
Virginia Woolf has famously said of Middlemarch that ‘it is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.’ And I have famously said to myself, ‘what does that mean?’ and therefore, ‘what a stupid thing to say! What does Virginia Woolf know anyway?’ Shocked I was to find that it was true. Middlemarch is written for grown-up people, but paradoxically, it is because it is about growing up.
This is a story designed to tell us that men and women work and sell themselves for a number of reasons. Here are two reasons: They might work, not because they see their vocation in a certain employment, but to service and strengthen the people at home, and be worthy of the people in their hearts (Will, Fred). Or, they might work for ambition, and to service their own purpose through a very specific vocational employment, binding their skills to a great good (Lydgate, Casaubon). Both these employments seek worthy ends but both bring struggle. With the first, the struggle is not love, but lack of vocation, and with the second, the struggle is not of vocation but of finding room for love. We must exist through these earth-shattering blows that thwart even the hardest confidence, and once beaten down, we are still asked to rise and find purpose. This is why Middlemarch was written for grown-up people; it is because, once out of youth, our common vocation is hardship.
I suggest that if you are a ‘grown up’ like me, and have not read Middlemarch, to go and read this book immediately. You can say to all your friends, as Mr Brooke does to his, that you had ‘went into it a great deal… at one time.’ Also, this review would be a failure if I did not mention that Will Ladislaw lies on a rug. So here we are; Will Ladislaw lies on a rug.
P.S. Since the writing of this review, I have found out that Middlemarch is Emma Thompson’s favourite novel. When I do part from this earth, I will be happy in the knowledge that Emma Thompson is a sinless cherub.
Silas Marner by George Eliot
It was hard to turn to another book after reading Middlemarch. What could I possibly need from a work of fiction anymore? What else could I find in a novel that hadn’t already been achieved in Middlemarch?
Silas Marner is an earlier work of George Eliot’s and takes on a much simpler fairy tale-esque plot, and yet, it feels heavier, longer and sadly less engaging. Silas Marner, sulking, demure and bitter, works at his loom all day long. At night, he counts and arranges his growing hoard of guineas, delighting only in their company and swearing off his fellow flesh and blood in the town of Raveloe. When Silas’ money is stolen, his future entwines with the past misdoings of Godfrey Cass so that, when a child appears in front of Silas’ hearth, there is more at stake than meets the eye.
Again, this work is great evidence of Eliot’s genius; the prose is insurmountable in liveliness. Her character’s and the relationships between them are given so much attention and feeling and are perfectly caked in the background of prevalent provincial attitudes. The problem with this novel is that it needed to be around five hundred pages longer. This is not a common problem, and is entirely due to the immense literary punch of Middlemarch. The ideas explored in Silas Marner only just touch the surface, whereas Middlemarch not only paints a picture of each leaf we see upon the tree, but of all the roots hidden beneath the soil.
If you have read any of these novels I would love to know what you thought of them! Comment down below or talk to me over on my twitter, if you click here you can magically apparate there. What Eliot should I read next?