On ‘Middlemarch’ and grown-ups
Every time I put down George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a quote by Virginia Woolf on the back cover admonishes me. Woolf famously lauded Eliot and Middlemarch especially, calling it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Naturally, publishers have splashed this quote on every edition of the novel as a ringing endorsement. It is, in fact, the only quote from a critic that is printed on the back of my version.
I can’t help but wonder if that’s true, and, if so, what it even means. Full disclosure: I have only read to the halfway mark, and so my wondering might be resolved in various ways in the next 400 pages or so (yikes). This is an enormous book with a sweeping scope that encompasses romance, politics, religion and morality while trying to present three compelling plots.
Right now, I am in the midst of a scene in which Mr. Brooke is trying to scold a tenant whose son has poached some sort of small animal — the tenant is not taking kindly to being told how to raise his son. While one feels for Mr. Brooke, who clearly views himself as a benevolent father-type figure to his tenant farmers, one can’t help but recognize that Mr. Brooke’s bumbling in this case is perhaps not as benign as first thought. The tenant farmer is incredibly angry, so much so that the reader comes to realize that Mr. Brooke is a terrible landlord, and his estate is in desperate need of management. He “collects his own rents,” as opposed to having an agent to do it for him, and this is viewed as a symbol of his lack of knowledge of how to run a successful country estate.
This is not the sort of thing one finds in Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens, where the farmer folk tend to be gracious, pastoral figures (even Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary isn’t corrupted until she moves to the city). Eliot presents us with a man and his wife, tenant farmers who may have been good people, but who are backed into a corner by the circumstances forced on them by a society based on inequality. A number of characters in the novel are very concerned with doing their best by their tenants and ensuring they are living in good conditions and making enough in wages — Mr. Brooke is not one of those people who thinks about that responsibility very much. This prompts the question: how should one act when one is responsible for the livelihood of others, and what is the moral obligation of landlords?
This scene and theme is one example of what may have prompted Woolf to praise the novel as she did. Another could be Dorothea’s marriage to the staid Rev. Casaubon. Dorothea is a woman who is obsessed with religion, but also with doing the right thing and making a contribution to society. She wants somehow to make the world better, and — in an interesting point that would be a great theme for discussion — decides that her marriage must somehow allow her to contribute to a great man’s work. As such, she agrees to marry Casaubon under the assumption that he will help her to learn Latin and Greek, and in that way, she can assist him in his research on Christianity as the root of world mythology.
Unfortunately, Casaubon has no interest in her aid, nor in an affectionate marriage. He wants a pretty young wife who can be an ornament to his home and, to be blunt, keep her mouth shut in terms of his scholarship and his personal business. The decision Dorothea has made to marry him was clouded with romantic ideas that had little to no basis in reality — apart from some profound daddy issues, brought to light when Dorothea describes the ideal husband as “like a father.”
Like God, is what she also means. Sadly, Casaubon is like God in the Old Testament, laying down rules and displaying his wrath and providing very little in terms of rational reasoning. He is terrifying and all-powerful, not the loving, accepting god of the New Testament to whom Dorothea seems so devoted. And so, the reader is presented with another moral dilemma: how does one act when one has made a binding, life-long promise based on faulty information, and how should one act when one’s marital obligations contradict one’s sense of goodness?
There are no easy answers here, and perhaps that’s why Woolf made the comment she did. This is not a book where the right path is clearly laid out; this is not Great Expectations, in which the first published ending brings Pip and Estella together again, conveniently, after much suffering. It’s not Far From the Madding Crowd, in which Gabriel Oak’s very name lays out the path Bathsheba ought to take (there’s a very picturesque swooning scene and major drama, but Bathsheba seems not as preturbed as she could have been by her impact on her disregarded suitors).
Eliot herself was not a stranger to hard choices. She took a pen name because she wanted to be considered seriously as a novelist, sacrificing fame; she was a writer and editor who lost her formerly zealous religious faith as a young woman; she lived openly with a married man for 20 years and later married a man 20 years younger than she was. Every major decision she made was fraught with controversy and sacrifice.
So, if writing about life as a series of difficult choices defines a book as “for grown-ups,” I suppose Middlemarch qualifies. Though it’s more than that, I think — it’s not so much that there are difficult decisions to be made, it’s the acknowledgment that no decision is going to magically make life perfect, and that nearly every choice one makes means giving something else up. Casaubon might die (in fact, I suspect he will), but along with him would die Dorothea’s dreams of contributing to scholarship and religious study in a meaningful way.