Visions and Revisions: Books I Ought to Have Read By Now

Number 2: George Eliot: Middlemarch

My friend Sarah has been telling me for a couple of decades that Middlemarch is her favourite novel, and, coming from a woman who probably gets through a work of fiction every couple of days, unless she’s on holiday when her strike rate doubles, that’s a powerful recommendation.

I have hitherto had but the most fleeting relationship with the work.  It was the subject of one of the lectures I attended as a student, back when red meat was good for you and you could still buy cigarettes in fives, and I watched half an episode of the BBC adaptation in 1994.  Having almost no recollection of either, however, has never stopped me lauding it as a classic and timeless portrait of English provincial life on the eve of the Industrial Revolution whenever its name cropped up in conversation, which, you won’t be surprised to hear, was not all that often.

In any event, the Penguin Popular Classics edition had lowered at me long enough from the bookshelf so I thought it was high time I took it down and set to.

I struggled, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  Middlemarch is an incredibly difficult read, deriving as it does from an age when classical models were revered and Latinate language ruled. The result is that the book comes at you in great slabs of nigh-on impenetrable verbiage; sentences contain so many subordinate clauses, double negatives and modal verbs (ok, I’m showing off now) that you lose not only the sense of what the author’s driving at but also the will to live.  Some of them go on for days.  I tried setting myself a daily target of fifty pages, as recommended by Andy Miller in The Year of Reading Dangerously, but I failed miserably to meet that most days, sometimes nodding off before I was even half way through my quota.  I just had to grit my teeth and plough on as best I could.

This is a pity, since underneath all its grandiose language the book is at heart a well-plotted soap opera.  There are ill-advised love affairs, there are marriages happy and doomed, there are mysterious strangers who turn out either to be long-lost (and occasionally illegitimate) relatives or to harbour damning secrets from the past lives of otherwise respectable citizens.  There are strong women and weak men. There is a wide variety of intrigue both between and within families. There is laughter, there are tears; some characters end well and some badly.  In fact, all human life is there, as The News of the World  used to claim.

As with all good soap opera, there is also a rich seam of social comment running through the novel.  Small town politicking, with all its factions and jealousies, comes in for examination through the machinations of Bulstrode to assume control of the management of the new hospital and through Mr Brooke’s farcical aspirations to be an MP.  We also see an implicit debate about the necessity of education, particularly for women: Dorothea Brooke has an intellectual curiosity that the patriarchy tries in vain to stifle and Mrs Garth is intent on improving her children’s life chances by enabling them to study.  Not surprisingly, gender roles come under scrutiny as part of this and the book raises serious questions about a woman’s lot, concluding that if her sole ambition is to make an advantageous match she is doomed at best to a life of colourless passivity, like the vain Celia, and at worst to one of frustration and disappointment, like Rosamund Vincy.

The consequences of unwise marriage occupy much of the plot.  The established couples have found ways to co-exist peaceably but the marriageable youngsters have a difficult time of it.  Courtship is a con-trick, it seems, in which men delude women by giving false impressions of themselves or women delude themselves by ignoring warning signs in their suitors’ behaviour.  Expectations are high on both sides but are generally unfulfilled.   Considering Casaubon’s marriage to the much younger Dorothea, the author tells us that “society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy”.  No surprise, then, that, once married, Dorothea is discouraged from taking part in any activity that would help her better herself and is expected to be little more than a secretary to her husband in his ill-fated academic ambitions; eventually, “frightened, wretched – with a dumb inward cry for help to bear this nightmare of a life” she concludes that her marriage “had been a perpetual struggle of energy with fear”.

There is a great deal of reference to the wider political concerns of the day.  These are reflected in the mention of Whig and Tory positions, social reform, emerging developments in medicine and diagnosis and the struggle  of the medical profession to separate itself from venal druggists.  In general the class system takes a beating through unsympathetic portraits of the vacuous Sir James and the devious social climber Mrs Cadwallader, and Eliot assumes a Socialist stance in her criticism of the treatment the “have-nots” (tenants) receive at the hands of the “haves”(landlords).  Hard work and integrity, as personified by Caleb Garth, are, it seems, no guarantee of recognition or reward.  These matters are clearly of significance to the author and the world of the novel but a full appreciation of their importance would require much more historical and sociological research than I was prepared to put in.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though.  Mr Brooke’s inept performance at the hustings, as his address to the town is disrupted by his rival’s activists, is an unalloyed delight and the feckless Fred Vincy’s dogged pursuit of Mary Garth, despite her playing harder to get than Garbo, provides welcome moments of light-heartedness.  The novel is not without its grotesques, either, and they  are appropriately greedy and duplicitous, but are generally drawn with lighter brushstrokes than they would be in, say, Dickens. Here mention must be made of the wonderfully-named Borthrop Trumbull, a relatively minor character who is nonetheless pinned perfectly when we are told that, “there was occasionally a little fierceness in his demeanour, but it was directed chiefly against false opinion, of which there is so much to correct in the world that a man of some reading and experience necessarily has his patience tried.”   We’ve all been there.

So, is it worth it?  For me, much of the pleasure in turning the final page was in the sense of achievement of finishing it, rather like I imagine I might feel if I’d climbed Kilimanjaro or swum the channel, both of which are similarly mentally demanding and debilitating (although admittedly much less physically exacting).

Middlemarch is, undoubtedly, a classic.  But it’s also a sprawling, wordy novel whose engaging major characters and gratifying plot twists don’t always compensate for the density of its style.  I can finally understand what Sarah sees in it, but I’m not sure I agree with her assessment of its pre-eminence.

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