I haven’t read any book by George Eliot before, though I have ‘The Mill on the Floss’ and ‘Silas Marner’ at home, which my sister read, when she did her masters in literature. I have seen a play version of ‘The Mill and the Floss’ though, and I liked it. So I was curious about how George Eliot’s works would be. So, when I discovered that Ana at Things Mean a Lot was hosting a read-along of ‘Middlemarch’ this week, I jumped at the opportunity and joined it. ‘Middlemarch’ has been frequently voted as the most popular book in England (alongwith ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Jane Eyre’) and so I was curious to find out what the book was all about. I also read an essay by Zadie Smith sometime back on this book and that piqued my curiosity even more. But because I got distracted by life in the past few weeks, and also because ‘Middlemarch’ is a chunkster at around 900 pages, it took me quite a while to finish. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review.
Summary of the story
I am giving below a summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.
Dorothea is bright, beautiful and rebellious and has married the wrong man. Lydgate is the ambitious new doctor in town and has married the wrong woman. Both of them long to make a difference in the world. But their stories do not proceed as expected.
Middlemarch contains all of life – the rich and the poor, literature and science, politics and romance – and is a stunningly compelling insight into the human struggle to find contentment.
What I think
It took me quite sometime to finish ‘Middlemarch’. At around 900 pages, it was one of the big ‘chunksters’ that I have read. I haven’t read many chunksters and I haven’t read a chunkster in a while. There was a time when I used to read chunksters – ‘Gone with the Wind’ by Margaret Mitchell (around 1100 pages), ‘Shanghai’ by Christopher New (800-odd pages), ‘Destiny’ by Sally Beauman (960 pages) – but it has been quite a while since I read one. The last ‘chunkster’ I read was ‘The Penguin history of the 20th century’ by J.M.Roberts (800-odd pages), which I read a few years back. I have found chunksters to be difficult reads (that is why I am struggling with ‘War and Peace’ now), because it is difficult to do a read-a-thon during a weekend and finish one of them. Because the book keeps coming back at you, reminding you that the number of pages to be read yet are far more than the number of pages already read. One feels that one is always behind, the way one feels when one is 0-2 down in sets in a tennis match. Any amount of effort to read more pages, makes only a marginal difference to the overall reading effort.
I started ‘Middlemarch’ enthusiastically, and finished around 80-odd pages quite fast, but then I got stuck there for a while and moving forward was quite painful. I tried to step on the accelerator, but to little effect. I ploughed through slowly till around 200 pages and it was quite painful to not be able to accelerate and to not be able to read more pages everyday and get to the end. It was like walking in a desert with the hot sun burning my back with a vast stretch of sand in front with no sign of a tree or water and with no end of the journey in sight. But at some point of time, all the hardwork bore fruit. I finally found an oasis at last – the book started singing at me and the song became more and more melodious and it touched a few strings in my heart and my heart started singing back. Then the pages started rolling by and before I knew I had reached somewhere near the end of the book. Of course, my thinking now had changed quite dramatically – I didn’t want the book to end. This is what happens when one reads chunksters – one resists it a lot initially, but after one gets into it, one becomes a part of the story and one doesn’t want it to end. Reading ‘Middlemarch’ also made my reading more disciplined (“set a target and read so-many pages in a day”) and I am hoping to take that forward in reading smaller books with a higher reading runrate.
Some of the bare facts of the book go like this – it has lots of characters, and though there are a few which one could say are the main ones, like Dorothea, Lydgate, Rosamund, Fred Vincy, Will Ladislaw – there are dozens of others who are equally important, as happens in any epic novel. Sometimes this lack of one or a few main characters, makes the reader exasperated – sometimes I want to know what is happening in Dorothea’s life, and Eliot goes and describes more about Bulstrode or about the political ambitions of Mr.Brooke or about the political thoughts which are currently in favour in Middlemarch. Sometimes one feels that Eliot deliberately takes the focus away from one’s favourite character and bestows it on another one which one feels is not important to the story. But later it turns out that the character which one thinks is not important, plays an important role in the story or makes us better understand the time period of the novel better. There are three love stories which are woven into the strands of the book – one of Dorothea and Casaubon, another of Lydgate and Rosamond, and a third of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. There is also the love story of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw which forms the backdrop to a considerable part of the book before it comes to the forefront towards the end. One of my favourite passages in the book is about how Lydgate and Rosamond fall in love. It goes like this :
Miss Vincy was alone, and blushed so deeply when Lydgate came in that he felt a corresponding embarrassment, and instead of any playfulness, he began at once to speak of his reason for calling, and to beg her, almost formally, to deliver the message to her father. Rosamond, who at the first moment felt as if her happiness were returning, was keenly hurt by Lydgate’s manner; her blush had departed, and she assented coldly, without adding an unnecessary word, some trivial chainwork which she had in her hands enabling her to avoid looking at Lydgate higher than his chin. In all failures, the beginning is certainly the half of the whole. After sitting two long moments while he moved his whip and could say nothing, Lydgate rose to go, and Rosamond, made nervous by her struggle between mortification and the wish not to betray it, dropped her chain as if startled, and rose too, mechanically. Lydgate instantaneously stooped to pick up the chain. When he rose he was very near to a lovely little face set on a fair long neck which he had been used to see turning about under the most perfect management of self-contented grace. But as he raised his eyes now he saw a certain helpless quivering which touched him quite newly, and made him look at Rosamond with a questioning flash. At this moment she was as natural as she had ever been when she was five years old : she felt that her tears had risen, and it was no use to try to do anything else than let them stay like water on a blue flower or let them fall over he cheeks, even as they would.
That moment of naturalness was the crystallizing feather-touch : it shook flirtation into love. Remember that the ambitious man who was looking at these Forget-me-nots under the water was very warmhearted and rash. He did not know where the chain went; an idea had thrilled through the recesses within him which had a miraculous effect in raising the power of passionate love lying buried there in no sealed sepulcher, but under the lightest, easily pierced mould. His words were quite abrupt and awkward, but the tone made them sound like an ardent, appealing avowal.
‘What is the matter? You are distressed. Tell me – pray.’
Rosamond had never been spoken to in such tones before. I am not sure that she knew what the words were; but she looked at Lydgate and the tears fell over her cheeks. There could have been no more complete answer than silence, and Lydgate, everything else, completely mastered by the outrush of tenderness at the sudden belief that this sweet young creature depended on him for her joy, actually put his arms round her, folding her gently and protectingly – he was used to being gentle with the weak and suffering – and kissed each of the two large tears. This was a strange way of arriving at an understanding, but it was a short way. Rosamond was not angry, but she moved backward a little in timid happiness, and Lydgate could now sit near her and speak less incompletely. Rosamond had to make her little confession, and he poured out words of gratitude and tenderness with impulsive lavishment. In half an hour he left the house an engaged man, whose soul was not his own, but the woman’s to whom he had bound himself.
Each of the characters has a different definition and expectation with respect to love in married life – Dorothea wants to be involved in her husband’s work and help him achieve great heights, Dorothea’s husband Casaubon finds her intelligent but doesn’t have a lot of time to spend with her – he prefers to be left alone, Lydgate and Rosamond are passionately in love with each other before they get married, but later discover that they are different kinds of people, Fred and Mary love each other, but Fred is indisciplined and is carelessly frittering away his life causing Mary a lot of heartburn. On thinking about it for a while, I feel (pardon me for these generalizations J) that the word ‘love’ comes packaged with a lot of meaning these days and seems to be a catch-all word which encompasses passion, friendship, sacrifice, conversation, listening, sharing of ideas, activity partnering, sensitivity and concern towards one’s partner, absorbing the pressure off one’s partner, financial security and much else besides. I think that it is extremely difficult for one person to fulfill all these expectations unless that person is a superman or a superwoman.
I liked most of the leading characters in the book – Dorothea, Will Ladislaw, Fred Vincy, Mary Garth, Lydgate and even Rosamond. I also liked very much some of the other characters like Mr.Farebrother the Vicar who loves Mary Garth equally well, but steps into the sidelines because Mary loves Fred. One of my favourite characters in the book was Mr. Caleb Garth, Mary Garth’s father, who knows everything about running a farm and is very much in demand in Middlemarch for managing farms, but who doesn’t care about money. I loved reading the passage where he describes his philosophy of life and work :
‘You must be sure of two things : you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, ‘There’s this and there’s that – if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is – I wouldn’t give twopence for him whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn’t do well what he undertook to do.’
I didn’t like Casaubon much, though he has his redeeming qualities. He seemed like the person who always follows the rules, does his duty, never strays from the official line, worries more about what society thinks than about what will bring him and his family happiness. It is difficult to fault such people in the real world, but difficult to enjoy their company and live with them.
George Eliot seems to have lived an unconventional life – being extremely religious at some point of time and then going to the opposite end of the spectrum, being interested in science and philosophy, having a relationship with a married man and setting up home with him for most of her life and marrying a chap who was twenty years her junior, sometime after her partner died. Some of Eliot’s experience and personality seems to have seeped through the book, especially in the strong women characters (Dorothea , though she is kind and wonderful and sweet has a strong, independent mind and holds her own with others, Rosamond repeatedly defies her husband though with good intentions, Mary Garth turns around her suitor Fred Vincy and helps him become a better person, Mrs. Cadwallader who has friends at all places and tries influencing everyone in her circle). It will be interesting to read George Eliot’s biography and find out how much of her life experiences have inspired her books. It will also be interesting to find out why George Eliot wrote with a pen name and not with her actual name Mary Anne Evans (or Marian Evans).
I found some interesting references in the story. For example, there was a description which went like this : “Did not an immortal physicist and interpreter of hieroglyphs write detestable verses?” I think that ‘immortal physicist’ was Thomas Young who was a 19th-century genius. In another place the book talks about William Wilberforce who fought for abolition of slave trade (I really have to see the movie ‘Amazing Grace’ which is about Wilberforce). There is also a reference to ‘machine-breaking’ which made me remember Kurt Vonnegut’s comments on being a Luddite.
One of the things that I couldn’t resist doing is comparing George Eliot with Jane Austen. I have read Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ many times and have loved it each time. I have also heard some of my friends say that Austen is probably the most popular British woman writer of the 19th century. So it was natural to compare Austen with Eliot. So what do I think when I compare Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ with Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and more generally the themes which are predominant in Eliot’s books when compared to those predominant in Austen’s? I have read just one book by Austen – ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – and have seen a movie version of one of her other books, ‘Mansfield Park’. And ‘Middlemarch’ is the only book of Eliot that I have read. So any generalization that I make has to be read with a pinch of salt. I think that Austen’s stories are preoccupied with relationships and marriage. Eliot’s stories also have love and marriage as major themes (from my limited reading experience), but there are also other themes woven into this strand. There are the themes of science, religion and politics of the era woven into the web of the story and there are also depictions of the role of women and the battles they had to fight for being treated equally during those times. There are also questions raised and experiences shared on topics like what is the good life and what a person should do to attain fulfillment in life. There are also interesting depictions of how people reacted to momentous social and technological changes during their time. Some of these also form an important part in some of Austen’s stories (for example, ‘Mansfield Park’ also talks about slave trade), but I find that they are embedded a bit more deep in Eliot’s book. Also, letters play an important role in Austen’s stories – a well-written letter is an important part of the story and revelations contained in it turns the story in surprising directions. I think Eliot doesn’t use the device of the well-written letter much to move her plot. I found the significant scenes in her book to be conversations.
The ending of the book is quite happy, in general, for everyone – Dorothea and Will Ladislaw get married, Fred and Mary get married and Fred becomes a more responsible person and the marriage of Lydgate and Rosamond survives and Lydgate becomes successful materially and professionally. But then George Eliot doesn’t want to leave the story at that. She adds a final brief sub-chapter, where she describes what happened to the main characters in the succeeding years. It turns out that Dorothea helps her husband by giving him support and by taking care of their home and their children. Lydgate shelves his grand dreams of doing research in the medical field, but turns out to be a successful medical practitioner and dies young. I felt sad when I read this – I wish Dorothea had been an equal partner to her husband rather than being just a normal wife. Because for most of the book, Dorothea comes out as a person who is in no way inferior to Will – in fact, she was probably the better person of the two – and influences the lives of others in positive ways. I also wish that Lydgate had found a way of realizing his dream. It feels sad when someone’s dream dies because one has to take care of the annoyances of life like making money and having a good lifestyle. I couldn’t help but feel sad for both of them, though Dorothea seems to have been content with her life.
I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.
But what a voice! It was the voice of a soul that had once lived in an Aeolian harp.
‘I don’t make myself disagreeable; it is you who find me so. Disagreeable is a word that describes your feelings and not my actions.’
…their eyes met with that peculiar meeting which is never arrived at by effort, but seems like a sudden divine clearance of haze.
If you are not proud of your cellar, there is no thrill of satisfaction in seeing your guest hold up his wine-glass to the light and look judicial. Such joys are reserved for conscious merit.
…it had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.
Lydgate was in love with this actress, as a man is in love with a woman whom he never expects to speak to.
‘An accomplished woman almost always knows more than we men, though her knowledge is of a different sort. I am sure you could teach me a thousand things – as an exquisite bird could teach a bear if there were any common language between them. Happily, there is a common language between women and men, and so the bears can be taught.’
…in the kindly mornings when autumn and winter seemed to go hand in hand like a happy aged couple one of whom would presently survive in chiller loneliness…
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. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
‘Young folks may get fond of each other before they know what life is, and they may think it all holiday if they can only get together; but it soon turns into working day, my dear.’
An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent…
A man may, from various motives, decline to give his company, but perhaps not even a sage would be gratified that nobody missed him.
Scenes which make vital changes in our neighbours’ lot are but the background of our own, yet, like a particular aspect of the fields and trees, they become associated for us with the epochs of our own history…
…a disagreeable resolve formed in the chill hours of the morning had as many conditions against it as the early frost, and rarely persisted under the warming influences of the day.
She was knitting, and could either look at Fred or not, as she chose – always an advantage when one is bent on loading speech with salutary meaning;
…a first farewell has pathos in it, but to come back for a second lends an opening to comedy…
Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life – the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it – can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances.
…we men have so poor an opinion of each other that we can hardly call a woman wise who does that.
Mary Garth – ‘…I don’t love him because he is a fine match.’ Caleb Garth - ‘What for, then?’ Mary Garth - ‘Oh, dear, because I have always loved him. I should never like scolding any one else so well; and that is a point to be thought of in a husband.’
‘He was ten times worthier of you than I was,’ Fred could now say to her, magnanimously. ‘To be sure he was,’ Mary answered; ‘and for that reason he could do better without me. But you – I shudder to think what you would have been – a curate in debt for horse-hire and cambric pocket-handkerchiefs!’
Zadie Smith has written an interesting essay on ‘Middlemarch’ called ‘Middlemarch and everybody’ which is part of her essay collection ‘Changing my Mind’. If you get a chance, do try reading it. It is wonderful.
‘Middlemarch’ is an interesting and wonderful book. It shows why English literature of the 19th century was really wonderful. ‘Middlemarch’ has been repeatedly ranked as one of the top three favourite books by readers in England. Now I know why.
Zadie Smith says this in her essay on ‘Middlemarch’ – ‘It gets better as you age’. I would love to take down this book from the bookshelf, ten years from now, and find out whether this is true.