rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here's my belated review of George Eliot's (Mary Anne Evans') epicly un-epic portrait of small town Victorian England. Epic, because its 800 pages (in teeny tiny letters too), but un-epic because unlike most 800 page books written in the 19th century, this one isn't about war or revolution or even passionate romances for that matter. No, "Middlemarch" profiles some 5 or 6 different families of varying economic and class statuses as they make their ways through a year or two of ups and downs.
Whereas Eliot's Adam Bede lifted my soul in celebration of simple humanity, "Middlemarch" bogged me down in the reality of simple humanity's self-delusion and dogged stupidity at times. Though Eliot's insights are still psychologically and behaviorally astounding, one doesn't really feel led to identify with any of the characters. I actually attribute this to Eliot herself- whereas "Adam Bede" (her first novel and the one I read earlier this summer) abounds in loving sympathy and celebration of the characters, faults included, Eliot seems determined to keep a frosty and critical distance from the characters inhabiting Middlemarch. One is hard pressed to feel anything but cynicism towards these people as they make poor choices and suffer for it or make good choices and suffer for it (or sort of fix their mistakes and sort of feel content). The plot may have decent twists and turns, but the only characters that seem to be stirred out of complacency (or wake the reader from ennui transference) are the cloying, selfish idiots who ruin the lives of those around them. At least you can get angry at them.
Some actual scholarship would be needed here, but it seems like Eliot is working with the idea of social reform (the whole book spins around the English Reform Bills of the 1830's). By the end of the book, nearly every central character has altered their class status in some way or another. Either the "middle class" girl who fancies herself an heiress despairs at having to be a working mans wife, or the wealthy widow looks for ways to get rid of the money and power she feels incapable of putting to beneficial use. The struggle for each character seems to hinge on striving for what one wants socially or relationally, and in most cases, the two do not match. This is not a Jane Austen novel where the poor girl finds love and wealth beyond imagination. Instead, you see people settling for less than their dreams to compromise with their insensitive wife, or people chucking their fortunes in order to live simply with the poor person they love. This seems to be what Eliot is most interested in exploring: an England in the midst of re-definition. Thus, its no wonder that this book has been lauded as the great Victorian novel. Middlemarch really does seem to capture realistic portraits of imperfect people as they try to either hold on to what they feel they're entitled to, or to make decisions based on factors other than status and wealth. Published in 1871, this book clearly leads the way for authors like Henry James and Thomas Hardy to portray characters who reject the system as well as those unfairly crushed by it.
If you've got some time on your hands, give Middlemarch a try. It's outstanding literature. Just don't expect to be swept off your feet. These characters keep both feet on the ground: stubbornly and sacrificially at times.
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