Middlemarch is about a fictional English town called Middlemarch, starting in 1829. It really is about the entire town; there is no single main character. The novel is a far-reaching character study, encompassing all sorts of citizens of the country town. Dorothea, despite her youth, is serious and passionate, wanting to “do good” in the world but relegated by the times to focus her energies on being a lady. Her sister, Celia, is more conventional and shares the dreams of most young women to find a suitable husband and raise a family. Though orphaned, the two young women have been taken care of by their uncle, Mr. Brooke.
Fred Vincy has a cheerful disposition but struggles to find the right path for his life; his father has paid for him to study to be a clergyman, but Fred wants to just have fun and ride horses and hopes to simply inherit his wealth in the form of land from a beloved uncle. His sister Rosamond, well-known as the prettiest girl in the area, is self-absorbed and a bit spoiled. Dr. Lydgate arrives in town, excited to apply the very latest in medical science in this country outpost. Additional characters – both old and young, wealthy and struggling – fill out the story.
I am not typically a fan of Victorian literature, but I was immediately struck by Eliot’s exceptional writing talent. Though this novel was written in 1871, so many of her sentences are clever and witty that my copy of the book is filled with turned-down corners. Some of the quotes I tagged are funny just because they describe a world so different from our modern one (particularly with regard to women’s roles), but other observations of life and human nature are surprisingly relevant even today.
Here, Eliot reflects on whether the strong-minded and unconventional Dorothea is suited for marriage, while also commenting on the need for conformance in those times:
“Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”
See what I mean about Eliot’s dry wit?
Here she shows her remarkable insight into human character as a young woman named Mary, who is adored by the idle and carefree Fred, explains to him, “But selfish people always think their own discomfort of more importance than anything else in the world…”
Here, with both wit and insight, another character muses about how to convince her friend and neighbor, Mr. Brooke, not to run for public office:
“There is one good chance – that he will not like to feel his money oozing away,” said Mrs. Cadwallader. “If I knew the items of election expenses I could scare him. It’s no use plying him with wide words like Expenditure: I wouldn’t talk of phlebotomy, I would empty a pot of leeches upon him. What we good stingy people don’t like, is having our sixpences sucked away from us.”
I smile every time I read that line about phlebotomy and leeches. So, you can see how her amusing turns of phrase helped me to keep working through such a lengthy book. In addition, she made the characters come alive, even though I knew little of life at that time. I came to care about the characters and to root for them (and to want to shake them when they did stupid things!). Their lives were real and complex, fully fleshed out through Eliot’s delightful words.
799 pages, The Modern Library