‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot
I have rarely felt as rewarded and accomplished at the end of a book as I did when I finished Middlemarch. And for good reason — my copy was 889 pages of dense copy, filled with romance, politics, intrigue and a lot of historical issues that, sadly, made little to no sense to me.
Middlemarch is George Eliot’s fourth novel, and was originally published in eight installments in 1871 or so. The novel contains two main plot arcs: one concerning Dorothea Brooke, a young woman faced with an interesting choice regarding her marriage, and the other concerning a young man named Tertius Lydgate, a doctor who arrives in Middlemarch with grand plans and ideas. The two are eventually connected by the story of Nicholas Bulstrode, a staunch Methodist about whom little else is known.
It’s a testament to the magnificence of this novel that, despite its addressing many political issues of the early 19th century, I found something true and applicable to today in nearly every chapter. Eliot was a student not only of history (she was writing about the 1830s while living in the 1870s), but of human nature, and the ways in which humans “make do” with what they are given.
One major theme running throughout the novel is that of marriage. It’s fascinating to read about Rosamund Vincy, who debates throughout the novel the merits of her marriage to Lydgate and what her options are in the case of a failure of the marriage. What can she do?
Not much, is the answer, and Eliot shines a light on Rosamund’s paramount desire to be constantly admired (albeit from afar) by everyone she comes across — something she can’t find in her marriage. Rosamund’s predicament underscores the idea that sometimes, marriage is entered into with rose-colored glasses. Dorothea, perhaps, expresses it best, when she implies that marriage so often causes the death of that innocent, perfect admiration by bringing two people so close together that their flaws cannot but become obvious.
Dorothea knows whereof she speaks, having married a man whom she believed to be perfect only to find that he had no interest in her mind, her ambitions, her desire to help people or anything apart from her youth (which he thought might be nice to have around the house). She also finds that her husband, whom she admired for the great scholarly works he was supposedly producing, is actually entirely wrong regarding his subject matter and hopelessly behind the times. In short, everything she dreamed of has died as a result of her marriage — and, she says later, it’s like “living with a murder.”
Happily, things end well for Dorothea, eventually. But one can’t help but recognize her story as a cautionary tale — that entering into marriage under the impression that one’s future spouse is perfect, without finding any evidence to the contrary, is not such a great idea. Dorothea knows so little of her husband before the wedding that she fills in the gaps in her mind with the best possible outcome, leading to intense disappointment.
This lesson is further underscored by the only unequivocally happy ending in the novel: the marriage of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. The two of them have known each other since childhood and are familiar with every single flaw in each other; Mary loves to tease and won’t tolerate being bossed around, and Fred can be lazy, spendthrift and has very little in the way of what we’d call “marketable skills.” However, these two are exemplars in that they recognize each other’s flaws, love one another in spite of those imperfections, and allow that love to inspire them to become worthy of one another. Mary remains patient, defying her parents and refusing to make a “sensible” match, while Fred strives to find a career with the potential to support a family.
I suppose, in the end, the lesson here is that everyone gets what they deserve…but as a natural consequence of their own actions, not as something handed to them from on high.
So. Despite the somewhat dense political themes running through the novel — many of which will be incomprehensible to the average modern reader — this is definitely a book worth reading. George Eliot has what I will always think of as that “Margaret Atwood” quality: the ability to create certain sentences that ring so true that you can’t help but read them several times, then dog-ear the page so you can find them later.