About the one book I read this month.
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot
As I’ve written before, some novels seem too great to write about–too large in their literary feat; too ambitious in their animation, aim, and ardor; too extraordinary in their experience; too immense in their inspiration; too sweeping in their scope; too vast in their vision; too wondrous in their ways. And yet, many may argue that that is precisely the reason why one should write about such a novel, to dare tilt towards the same windmills, strive to summarize what surely cannot be so, in the vain search of deepening one’s own understanding, experience, and sensation with the work. Well unfortunately, I fall somewhere between those opposite poles: merely a man who’s just spent the last month reading one of the world’s greatest novels.
Published serially in 1871 and 1872, this seventh novel by English novelist George Eliot is a work of misplaced hopefulness rendered through a sweeping snapshot of the English provincial town whence the title bears its name. Set from the year 1829 to 1832, the novel follows a large cast of characters, no fewer than twenty individual and important men and women from all walks of provincial life; however, there are four main characters around whom the rest more or less seem to revolve.
There is Dorothea Brooke, our heroine, who, at the start, is nineteen years old, beautiful yet aloof, intelligent yet obstinate, whose somewhat rebellious sensibility often puts her at odds with her family, in particular her younger sister Celia. And when Dorothea becomes engaged to the pompous, ineffectual erudite, Edward Casaubon, nearly twice her age, all who know them are surprised and surely convinced that their disagreeable marriage will end in discontent. And indeed, Dorothea’s marriage soon grows dire, fomented in part by Casaubon’s increased insecurity brought on by the presence of his young, handsome, talented cousin, Will Ladislaw, who gradually befriends Dorothea and gradually falls in love with her.
Then there is Tertius Lydgate, a young man in his mid-twenties, a doctor, whose arrogance seems to outweigh his social adeptness and intuition, and whose stark words and even starker convictions tend to offput rather than entrust. He marries the vainglorious Rosamond Vincy, whose air of condescension permeates her views to the other resident. But soon, as Lydgate’s ferocity towards medical discovery and intransigence in his method drive him further away from his colleagues, the two find themselves in great debt and are desperate on what to do.
There, too, is Rosamond’s brother, Fred Vincy, an eager young man with ambition though whose complete lack of fortitude and economic shrewdness thwarts any step towards achievement. Fred struggles to get a footing on his life: he gambles, takes loans out which he can’t repay, considers going into to the seminary; but one constant remains throughout his shifting scruples: that he is in love with Mary Garth, his childhood sweetheart. But their courtship is a rocky one; Fred has to prove to her and to her family that he is practical, sensible, and well-positioned to take care of Mary if she accepts his proposal–a upward climb, much steeper than Fred had assumed.
Finally, there is Nicholas Bulstrode, a banker in his middle age, whose shady past life comes back to haunt him when an unruly man named John Raffles, privy to the man’s past, returns to Middlemarch with the intent to blackmail Bulstrode. After a series of frustrating events, replete with spurious claims and injurious aims, Raffles falls ill and, under Bulstrode’s roof, soon dies, leaving the residents of Middlemarch full of suspicion. And soon his secret is out, all but ensuring a spiritual death of his name.
The plotlines of each these characters weave in and out, at times extending from Middlemarch to the parishes Tipton, Lowick Manor, Freshitt, Stone Court, and even to the cities London and Rome, before threading back into Middlemarch again, covering both distance and time. And it is the simplicity in this overview which both bestows and belies the novel’s brilliance, and its ability to rope in the reader, transport them into this fictional realm, and maintain the lucidness, the reality, and the humanness which has enabled this novel to endure the test of time.
There are many constituent parts which contribute to the novel’s greatness, certainly attested to by the countless articles and essays devoted to this singular work. These many constituent parts deserve essays all their own; however, I’ve come to categorize three specific parts which, for me, serve as the greatest sources of the novel’s magnificence, namely the scope of the novel, the themes which thread their way through, and, of course, the narrator whose unmistakable voice propels the work past the pantheon of Victorian literature and into a place all its own. And it is in the interplay of these parts, how they work together, shift and move, change and beguile, provoke and puzzle, which impressed and enchanted me in ways no other novel has.
It is the pinnacle of Victorian literature, a novel whose content seems to far outweigh and outspan the 853 pages which contain it. I struggle to describe it. The scope of the novel is truly singular–not simply Eliot’s vision, her characters, and all the events which transpire between them, but the sheer detail of those aspects, the deep and undiminishing attention granted both the greatest of characters, scenes, and themes, as well as the smallest, subtlest points, sometime a mere word buried in the text like a grace note in a symphony.
This scope is rendered through the eyes and mind of the narrator, who is a character all their own, a character who, I’m confident many would agree, in many ways outshines our list of protagonists. The omniscient third-person narrator of Middlemarch infrequently slips into the first-person, drawing closer the reader to whisper in their ear. It is a distinct stylistic endeavor which spurs the reader to consider the reliability of the story’s rendering, to trust or not trust the narrator. But for me, it was always a delight when the interjected “I” would enter the text, so infrequently, to offer at once an added dimension to the tale, an opinion or commentary, as well as a glimpse into the character of our narrator, as it was her tone which would change the effect of all that surrounded her words.
The elusive “I” of the text (like Emerson’s transparent “eye” absorbing all before it) peers into a scene, a person, their conversations, dynamics between others, as well as their very mind, painting the world through the filter of an individual perspective, replete with the perceptions, experiences, histories which affect that rendering. And then the narrator spans outward again, moving into a terrain of objectivity and lingering to capture all that stands before it, this provincial town in the English countryside peopled with characters of all walks of life. And then she moves in again, to another character and their relations, and the process is repeated across a large cast of varied characters, each one afforded the same degree of care and attention as the rest. This is the scope of the novel; the scope resides in the narration. It is as if Eliot were trying to capture both the micro and the macro via both the few and the many, so as to cast the most encompassing view possible, to write a truly sweeping novel.
Astoundingly, in her enterprise to achieve such a sweeping novel, Eliot (or perhaps the narrator) adopts the role of the historian, the scientist, the artist, the poet, the politician, the businessman, the banker, the craftsman, the maid, the bettor, the lover, and the many other roles which comprise her cast of characters. And yet imbued throughout the text are tiny moments of self-awareness tinged with a satirical tone that holds a commentary on fiction as a mode of art. As Eliot affirmed the role of Victorian realism in her novel Adam Bede, I can’t help but wonder at the degree of veracity in these moments–Eliot herself speaking through her narrator earnestly, or simply having fun with herself. These historians, scientists, artists, etc. are fictional; they are the “number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” But if, as literary critic John Tucker writes in his study of narration in Middlemarch, “history has roots in myth, may not fiction call itself history?” This sentiment undergirds one of the beauties and brilliances of this novel: Eliot is playing the relationship between fiction and history, two disparate sides of the rendering of experience.
Moreover, this interplay between fiction and history gives rise to numerous other thematic motifs and interpretations, which countless scholars like Tucker have dedicated much time and attention to, crafting essays upon essays exploring the enormity of these ends. But one major motif which often arrives in conversation about the novel is a feminist perspective. The women in the novel, in their relations with men, with marriage, with their access to fulfillment in life, are an important and salient aspect of the novel through which one can find a well of critical interpretations, many of which surely pertain to the culture of domesticity. The conventions of the time are challenged through characters like Dorothea and Rosamond, characters indebted to their husbands by virtue of matrimony, characters whose ambitions, ideas, desires, and hopes are thwarted by the stifling of their agency. In these aspects, I’ve read that many feminist scholars cannot help but glean shades of Eliot’s own life.
And as all the elements overlap and merge, a reader will undoubtedly find feminist notes attached to the meta-fictional elements of the novel, in particular this relation between fiction and history. Dorothea’s doomed marriage to Edward Casaubon commences its devolution largely in part because Casaubon is working on a great scholarly work, a book which he’s fated never to finish. Failure is sewn into his enterprise, and Casaubon, blinded by his unwavering determination, allows it to mar his marriage to Dorothea. The title of Casaubon’s magnum opus is “The Key to All Mythologies,” a title which not only calls to mind the conversation about myth and its role regarding history and fiction, but also carries an air of sardonicism, as the key which Casaubon claims to hold is the key to his own demise. This deprivation of the superiority that Casaubon strives to withhold over Dorothea is a wonderful example of the convergence of these interweaving thematic threads flowing through the novel.
But more than anything, more than the depths of intellection, imagination, interpretation which plumb far from the surface of the novel and deep into literary history, culture, and the world, it is the absolute delightfulness of Eliot’s prose which struck, seized, and completely stimulated me. This is a novel that commanded my focus, controlled my mental faculties, captivated and enthralled me in ways which no other novel has, and after I would close my copy after a prolonged period of reading, the story would stay, still occupying my thoughts, its scenes stirring and spiraling, the dialogue between characters echoing as often as single lines and lone words lingered, hanging suspended mid-flight in my memory, slowly etching their myriad meanings into my mind.
And I read this thing everywhere. I kept my tattered Bantam classic within arm’s reach for a month straight. I read it in my green reading chair up against the wall in my apartment, feet perched on the ottoman before me, sounds of Philly city life serving as my soundtrack. I read it on the bench at Suburban station as I waited for the West Trenton line arrive, my morning commute to the office, and then read the whole twenty-minute ride out, and again after five, on my way back into the city. I read it at the Rodin Garden, seated at one of their lone metallic tables, one leg laid across the other, Rodin’s Gates of Hell set centerstage in the grand marble edifice across the garden pond. I read it at the Balcony Café at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during intervals of rest and coffee from wandering the long halls teeming with works of art. I read it bar-side at McCrossen’s on 20th street on sunny afternoons, a tall pint of beer collecting moisture on the bar-top, the sounds of sports games, laughter, the voices of my friends permeating the air around me. And I read it on the rickety fire-escape backside of my building, and it was there that I read the novel’s final words.
I’ll forever remember June of 2023 as the month that I read Middlemarch, a novel that has affected me deeply and powerfully, a work which I believe is one of the greatest works of literature in history.