Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Middlemarch / George Eliot
Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin English Library, 1974, c1871-2.
Nymeth of Things Mean A Lot set up a Middlemarch readalong for this summer, which made me happy, as it was just the push I needed to finally get to Middlemarch, a book I've meant to read for ages. Her post is up, and what a post it is -- lengthy, thoughtful and thorough, as usual.
While I am afraid I didn't love this book as much as many readers seem to, it was still a great read. It was revealing of its time, with many quotable bits, and some wonderful characters (more minor characters like Caleb Garth turned out to be my favourites). However, I found Dorothea and her idealism a bit tiresome, and as she is the focus of the book, the one we're following through a difficult growing-up situation, it probably would have been better to feel some sympathy for her rather than mostly exasperation. Oh well, I could still appreciate her and all the denizens of the small town of Middlemarch.
It's a story of youth, ideals, marriages, social position, compromises and mistakes, as well as a few sort-of happy endings. Dorothea marries Mr. Casaubon, her elderly scholar husband whom she desires to idolize, but she is sadly disillusioned of this hope after marriage. Her sister Celia marries Sir James Chettam, a local worthy whom Dorothea judged too dull, but who is revealed to have a rather noble character as a brother-in-law. Tertius Lydgate, the new doctor in town, falls for the prettiest girl and marries far too young, causing all sorts of strife between the newlyweds. Working class Mary Garth wants to marry the young gentleman Fred Vincy but he has no prospects at the moment of the story's beginning. And so on. Eliot is a genius at revealing human quirks in one or two simple phrases. She catches all the shadings of social position and the restrictions that class and gender placed on the movement of all these characters' lives.
I found the beginning slow going -- it took me a while to get into the rhythm and the intricacies of the story. Once I felt like I had a grasp of who was who in Middlemarch -- names, family connections, and less obvious social standings -- it was easier to sink into the book. Eliot published the book in the 1870s, but it was set in earlier years, right around 1830, which was a time of upheaval and reform in England. Dorothea gets interested in and involved with ideas of reform right along with the men in the story (I did find that a fascinating element of the story; while it is unusual for the women of Middlemarch, Dorothea is not a pariah because of her interest). But this makes the story a historical one of sorts -- a look at a certain time from a slight remove. Eliot has had time to consider the meaning of actions and events and create a story from them which points out her interests. One such interest is in the role each person plays in creating a society, and how this society then hinders and shapes each life. The story is full of moments that could be expanded upon, and since there are so many characters, and so many pages, you could probably go on for hours about just one thread of the story.
The more I think about it and try to write about it, the more I realize how extraordinary the construction of the book is. It's the first Eliot I've read, and I think I'll go on and read more of her work. While the story may not seem as exciting or full of vigour as Dickens or Wilkie Collins -- no eccentrics or lost heirs or crazy women in white floating about -- it is a complex look at provincial society in a time of change. I can only say that reading it will repay you for the time you have to invest in it. Try looking at others' views of their reading experience at the Middlemarch Readalong wrap-up post. Then decide if it is time to read it yourself!
Coming up in my next post: a small selection of some of my favourites of the many, many quotable bits of this marvellously written book.