‘Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people’- Virginia Woolf When I read this quote I suddenly realised that I had to read Middlemarch by George Eliot. Like, now. Have you ever experienced that overwhelming sense of needing to read a book? It took me completely by surprise. You see, I’ve been dodging George Eliot for years.
It’s not that I have anything against her. If you’ve been reading here for long you know I love a good Female Author. But, there’s something about coming face to face with 900 pages of Victorian literature that makes you feel, well sick actually. It’s a mammoth undertaking, especially when you peek at those 900 pages and see size 9 font and 0.5-line spacing
Seriously, what kind of sadist prints in size 9 font?
The same one who chooses 0.5 line spacing I guess
*shakes fist at Penguin Classics*
It’s enough to make you run screaming from the room! Or put the book in a box, put that box in another box, send that box to the attic and never think about the box, or the book again. (Emperor’s New Groove ref anyone?)
But wait, I’m about to tell you to do exactly the opposite. You need to go to the attic, get that box and take out Middlemarch and read it. Today, now, ok…when your amazon order arrives.
Am I a glutton for punishment? No! Would you believe me if I said you’ll enjoy yourself? Well, I’ll leave that up to you. But what I can tell you is that I really enjoyed reading Middlemarch and here’s why:
Slow and Steady wins the race
My usual reading pace is fast with a dash of super-fast. I like to cover a lot of ground when I get the chance to read because I don’t have as much time these days to do so. I think modern literature really caters to this. Plots race and dialogue carries you across pages and before you know it, girl has met boy, they’ve got together, broken up and voila, back together again and you’re done.
But for all I’m an advocate of inhaling literature, I realise that changing the pace is good too.
Enter Victorian lit.
Sometimes it’s nice to spend a bit longer with a book. And Middlemarch makes the perfect candidate. It’s a book that luxuriates in taking its time to get there. The plot ambles along, taking detours into description and resurfacing leaving you feeling like you’ve experienced something profound. I didn’t realise I missed that feeling until I spent three weeks reading Middlemarch.
George Eliot is a genius at noticing the tiny details. She’s like a master painter, gradually layering colour and tone until you step back from the picture and realise that she’s encompassed the length and breadth of human experience within her work.
That’s great, but what one earth is it actually about?
Good question. I know you’re just here for the facts, or to avoid reading it for a class! So here you go:
Middlemarch, or to give its full title ‘Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life’, was written by George Eliot between 1871-2 and published in eight instalments, in part due to her fears that it had become too long to fit into the standard ‘three volumes novel’.
The novel centres on the fictional, rapidly industrialising, Midlands town- ‘Middlemarch’ and its plot revolves around the interconnected lives of four families; The Brookes, The Garths, The Vincys, and the Bulstrodes as well as a host of supporting characters, who live there during 1829-32.
We follow each family, and in particular Dorothea Brooke, Fred Vincy, Mary Garth, Tertius Lygate and Nicholas Bulstrode, as they try to make the best out of their lives and individual circumstances, with varying degrees of success. One of the things I appreciated was that George Eliot resists giving happy endings to all of the ‘good people’.
Middlemarch is a tour-de-force of Realism which refers to many important events, such as the reform bill, the dawn of the railways, the death of the King and the birth of medicine as a respected science. Written in third person, thematically it tackles the status of women (both pre and post marriage), idealism, religion, hypocrisy, reform and education.
Phew, did you get all that?
Why Should I Read It?
Reading Middlemarch is like binge watching 9 series of an intense drama on Netflix! Think House of Cards. Except like, so literary. Seriously, I got so addicted to reading my nightly instalment of Middlemarch. I was totally in the character too, think cups of tea, candlelight, comfy chair by the fire…I promise I stopped short of dressing like a Victorian (or did I?)
So much happens in Middlemarch, that when you finally finish you just kind of sit there and think, well….wow. There’s characters you’ll love, characters you’ll love to hate, and characters you’ll hate and then love (it’s complicated). Additionally, one thing I didn’t expect, but greatly appreciated, was George Eliot’s sarcasm. Her narrative voice carries the novel along and when you think that George Eliot was a woman who spurned custom to live with a man she wasn’t married to, a lot of the customs she highlights as ludicrous make sense.
I feel like I learned more from Middlemarch than I did from a year studying Industrial Britain at school. Even better, it made all the arbitrary facts that percolate in my brain have context. Suddenly The Reform Act seems such a turning point for democracy. I really felt how trapped women were, with no rights and little independence. I felt, for that portion of time, I was experiencing things as they happened to the characters.
Even better, I can’t begin to tell you how much taking time to slow down the pace was beneficial. I feel like we all rush from one thing to the next, and at the end of the day our brains are frazzled. I really came to crave my ‘slow hour’ with Middlemarch.
And if that’s not the sign of a great book, I don’t know what is.
Middlemarch is packed with great Quotes, but short of copying and pasting all 900 pages here, I thought I would share a couple of my favourites. Hopefully they’ll give you a sense of the book:
“When a man has seen the woman whom he would have chosen if he had intended to marry speedily, his remaining a bachelor will usually depend on her resolution rather than on his.”
“If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is so apt as youth to think its emotions, partings, and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new. We are told that the oldest inhabitants in Peru do not cease to be agitated by the earthquakes, but they probably see beyond each shock, and reflect that there are plenty more to come.”
“I had some ambition. I meant everything to be different with me. I thought I had more strength and mastery. But the most terrible obstacles are such as nobody can see except oneself.”
“If one is not to get into a rage sometimes, what is the good of being friends?”
“I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”
“Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world and leave only a margin by which we see the blot? I know no speck so troublesome as self.’
So there you have it, will you be reading Middlemarch by George Eliot?
This review is part of my 2016 Book Challenge. You can catch up on all the books that are included in the challenge here:
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