Middlemarch

Low Res Scan: Middlemarch, George Eliot, 1871-1872.1985fb54723a7a850be5cfda20c5e255

I’m not foolish enough to review an 800 page novel considered a classic and with so much attention already paid it. (I actually don’t know how long it really is. I downloaded an edition off Project Gutenberg and read it on my kindle.)

After hearing Jonathan Steinberg’s lecture on George Eliot and Middlemarch in episode 23 of the Great Courses’ series European History and European Lives: 1715 to 1914, I was curious about the novel. Also, there’s the nagging knowledge (but not guilt) that there’s a gaping hole from my English major days in regards to 19th century English novels.

The final impetus came from the weekly book club discussion on Luke Ford’s political podcast with Luke’s deadpan claim it was only 200 pages and you could read it in a couple of hours.

Is it worth reading? Very much so. I think you could make the claim that Eliot is as insightful, if not more so, about human psychology than Shakespeare.

Shakespeare usually worked from pre-existing source material, particularly in his historical plays, so he didn’t build characters from scratch a lot of time like Eliot did. She did not have a ready-made arc for her characters’ lives that could be backfilled in with justifying characterization. Shakespeare, of course, also gets the benefit of his short, poetical language while Eliot is, of course, prosaic.

But Eliot’s prose is often witty. Her quotable lines don’t have Shakespeare’s brevity, but they have the power of truth and insight. She goes just as deeply, if not, in some cases, deeper in her characters’ thoughts, motives, self-delusions, and rationalizations than Shakespeare. I would say that, at times, they are more multi-dimensional than Shakespeare’s characters which mostly operate on two or three dimensions.

And Eliot’s novel shows that the clichéd advice writers get, “show don’t tell”, isn’t really much of a rule. Eliot does a lot of telling about her characters’ thoughts and doubts and doesn’t feel the need to dramatize everything through dialogue and action. Eliot’s telling works at keeping your interest.

Eliot reminded me of Philip K. Dick in her ability to change how I felt and thought about her characters. Some find discipline to mend their ways. Others, that first seem wise, are revealed as fools made from pride or self-delusion or habit or custom. Some gain hard wisdom too late.

Yet, despite the reputation of the book as an attack on provincial English life, I found Eliot not only clear-eyed but fair in the treatment of her characters. If she is critical of some, it is to reveal flaws that may, at times, sound uncomfortably similar to our own natures.

The book only has one character, Mary Garth, who can be said to have committed no mistakes and not deluded herself at some point. Others, like her father, Caleb Garth, and clergyman Farebrother, are good and decent but not deceived about their own flaws or mistakes they have made.

I think it no coincidence that Eliot’s father was, like Caleb Garth, a “builder”, a land agent charged with managing the physical parts of estates, repairing and constructing buildings and fences, and draining fields.

The book is actually an historical novel set in the important years of 1829-1835 when England underwent political reform. One of the things I liked is Eliot sort of adopting the air of an historian in the opening, reminding her contemporaries how different things were forty years in the past. Steinberg says this is a deliberate imitation of novelist Henry Fielding.

It wasn’t the talk of reform I found most interesting. It was things like the details of what then passed for the practice of medicine, the patter of an auctioneer at an estate sale, or the surveying for the new railroads then being lain across England.

Steinberg also pointed out another element from Eliot’s life. Dorothea Brooke, perhaps the main character in a book with many, enters into ill considered and bitter marriage with an older man, Casaubon, a scholar who has been laboring for decades on a work promising to be the key to world mythology. A German relative of his cruelly notes to Dorothea that, if Casaubon actually knew German, he would know that he’s working arid ground already surveyed by German intellectuals.

Eliot herself did know German and translated David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus from German. Like Casaubon’s never completed work, The Key to All Mythologies, it is a work of “myth theory” and was extremely controversial in its time. (Though Casaubon is a believer as well as an exponent of the sort of bogus etymological “links” of the type that reminded, unfortunately, of British-Israelism.)

Naturally, some characters hold out hope for a timely death of a relative to rescue them from debt. Mr. Featherstone constantly threatens his relations by reminding them he can add a codicil to his will at any time. (He actually dies with two wills which leads to some complications.)

Is Middlemarch the greatest English novel ever written as some claim? Greatest on what grounds? And neither I nor anyone else in the past 200 years has read every single novel written in English.

It’s good though, certainly not the tedious doorstop of a book I feared.

I’m skeptical about the notion that fiction can teach and edify and render one wiser. Or, should I say, that any particular work can be prescribed for those effects. But I will say that reading Eliot’s novel may make you a little more kindly disposed to your fellows in the 21st century because it reminds you of the lies you sometimes whisper in your own ear and the follies in your own head.

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