Middlemarch, George Eliot (reviewed Sept 2019)
BPS Book Club : Middlemarch, by George Eliot September 2019
I think this is probably the densest (most dense?!) novel many of us will ever read. Eliot herself started these narratives as two separate novels, and as most books in the mid- 19th century were published in smaller pamphlet style ‘chapters’, it is no wonder that our minds were somewhat blown by the demands of reading this in one tome.
Having come out the other end of it, we all conceded an appreciation of the finesse of the writing. Eliot was much revered in her own lifetime as a writer, and we can see why – 200 years later her eye for humanity in all its weakness and strength is as sharp and insightful as ever. If we are allowed to criticise this icon of English literature at all (and we should be allowed), perhaps her relentless detail and scene setting gets in the way of the ‘story’, particularly at the outset when it appears that nothing much is really happening.
She lived her beliefs, choosing not to marry her partner (as he was already married!) and speaking out strongly against romantic ‘silly novels’ and against hypocritical religious belief. After dutifully caring for her father until the age of 30, she moved away immediately from her small-town middle England life. After travelling independently in Germany, she worked for a left-wing journal as a writer in London, and supported the liberal, humanist and progressive movement in Europe.
All of these principles found their way into her writing – for example in her sympathy for Farebrother, the ‘not very good’ cleric but who is essentially a good human being, versus the cold horror of the super pious and intellectual Casaubon. Her portrayal of Rosamund as the shallow and heartless social climber stands out versus Dorothea’s earnest and ardent (a favourite Eliot word) attempts to better herself and those around her through education.
The various relationships (Rosamund & Tertius, Dorothea & Casaubon, Mary and Fred) are brilliantly described, sometimes in excruciating minute by minute observation, but it is so much more than a novel of people’s lives. Their lives are lived out within the context of social progression, the rise of the merchant classes, the coming of the railways, the Reform Bill and change in British politics, all of which Eliot brings in subtly.
We all enjoyed the ‘comeuppance’ of characters like Bulstrode, his outer piety and obvious wealth hiding a series of dirty secrets which of course, cannot remain hidden in a small society like Middlemarch. Eliot’s own voice is quite clear in her ‘obvious narrator’ at times and she guides us clearly to our ‘judgments’. She is one of the key writers in the new Realism movement, along with Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope.
In conclusion? Huge sense of achievement in completing the novel, a fine and pleasurable read, but unless bedridden or on a desert island, it’s hard to imagine picking up another any time soon….