“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
Middlemarch is the most sublimely wonderful read. It is absolute perfection and that is not a hyperbolic statement. I find it amazing that I read this book in the summer of 2003 and while I remember enjoying it, I couldn’t recall very many specifics and it didn’t stand out as the Ultimate Novel. This review will not do justice to this book, but I feel like I must write about it.
Middlemarch is a fictitious provincial town filled with what one can expect in a small, close-knit community: grand homes, large pastures, small shops, and plenty of gossip (especially gossip concerning marriage and class). While there are a host of characters, the central plot falls on Dorothea Brooke; reasonably wealthy, kind, and thirsting for knowledge. She marries Rev. Edward Casaubon after a brief courtship. On first appearance Casaubon appears to be a dry, pedantic, older grump. The reader endures his cruel and jargon-laden verbosity, but underneath that shell Eliot exposes a man who realizes he is inferior, is haunted by failure and death, and ultimately feels alone in the world. Casaubon is intensely jealous of his younger cousin, Will Ladislaw, and fears that Dorothea prefers Will’s company. This leads Casaubon to make a rash decision in his will that directly impacts Dorothea and Will.
The story of Middlemarch could have easily been delightful, disarming, and ended in tidy marriages with happy heroines with neat futures. Although Middlemarch is a delight to read it is so keenly human and refreshingly realistic. Even characters that may seem on first glance to be “stock” have depth. There is no “true” bad guy. Rather, there are Middlemarchers who make mistakes or Middlemarchers who do nothing wrong but are the victims of mistakes made by others. There are those perceived pure and wonderful who end up being spoiled and petty. Characters may be viewed as being dishonest or underhanded when, conversely, their actions are being misinterpreted. Love courses through this novel, but not an immature love.
Love in Middlemarch is real. The three central couples: Dorothea and Will, Rosamond and Dr. Lydgate, and Fred and Mary all end up together, but not in a “let’s make passionate love on the moors and be starry-eyed at each other forever” kinda way. This is mature love: imperfect. Dorothea and Will try to not love each other as their love leads to malicious — and unwarranted — gossip and a loss of inheritance for Dorothea. Dr. Lydgate is a good man, but realizes that his seemingly charming wife is spoiled, sneaky, and vindictive, but he stays with her to go the right thing and because he realizes he made a hasty decision to wed her. Rosamond’s character didn’t change, but Dr. Lydgate didn’t realize who he married until months into the marriage. Fred and Mary marry, but Fred is still irresponsible and Vicar Farebrother is a good man who loves Mary and is the guy who actually deserved her hand. The romantic relationships in Middlemarch are human and realistic.
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I urge you to read Middlemarch. As much as I love Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins I have to say that Eliot is supreme when it comes to fleshing out characters and imbuing them with richness and humanity. If you are going to read one chunkster classic, let it be Middlemarch.*
(*or Villette. Villette is a damn fine Victorian chunkster).