Well, where to start? I’ll skip the sort of info you can find on Wikipedia and go straight to
my overall experience reading Middlemarch
It is a chunky book. Mine is 810 pages. It didn’t even fit through our letterbox. Poor postman.
I was intimidated at the beginning, knowing nothing about it except its title. I sat in my most ‘scholarly’ fashion (i.e. sitting on a chair at a desk rather than slouching on a sofa) and opened it in apprehension one day last September.
What does ‘Middlemarch’ mean? Is this something military? Something philosophical? The Prelude about a Spanish woman Saint Theresa didn’t help – my heart sunk. But chapter one started with a description of a handsome young lady, her hair and her dress, then flowed on with questions like ‘how should Dorothea not marry?’ and forecasted a dinner with Gentlemen So and So. I could manage this. My heart lifted when I met dear Celia on page 11*.
To be honest, it did take me almost three months to finish and as I went along, there were pages that I had to go over multiple times (e.g. lengthy commentaries on medical ethics and politics) and some of the pages were left behind undeciphered. But that’s OK. I enjoyed it all the way till the end.
So there, if you’re intimidated as well, no need to fear at all.
A few further encouragements
For all readers out there who have only vaguely heard of Middlemarch and never read it: Middlemarch is the name of the town where the story is set and George Eliot, the author, was a woman.
Although Middlemarch is considered one of the greatest English novels, I learnt about it a lot later than Brontës, Hardy and Dickens. I personally think Middlemarch is not the most attractive name. Consider for a second if the book were called ‘Dorothea Brooke’, like Jane Eyre, would it sound less intimidating and become more popular? After all, the story is not that different from many well-known Victorian novels: about love, about marriage and relationship, about ordinary people’s everyday life with individual joys and tragedies.
(One side note, Middlemarch had a subtitle when it was published in 1871, ‘a study of provincial life’. However the subtitle is not on my Oxford World Classic edition, nor any of the modern editions that come up in a Google search. Why’s that?)
On one level, Middlemarch is a study in marriage, ones that failed, ones that are damaged or compromised, ones that are sad but still hold strong, ones are ordinary and happy. On another level, it’s a fascinating study, as the original subtitle shows, of the provincial life in the Victorian era. I found the illustrations of ‘class’ and the interactions between people who belong to different classes in the novel especially educational and fascinating.
If I pick one thing that stands out most
that would be how precise and elaborate the writing is in laying out a person’s emotion or their motivation behind a certain action. To say it another way, the author is a master in showing what goes on in a person’s head and heart: behind every darkening of the face or a twinkle in the eyes, under the surface of a stormy argument or a frustrating misunderstanding, Eliot shows you the heart of man and woman, with all the ups and downs, twists and turns. The story is as much about what goes on in Middlemarch as about what goes on inside everyone’s head.
For example, a solid four pages are covered describing Lydgate’s internal debate about who to vote for as the chaplain for the new hospital. Every possible factor is weighed and examined from every possible angle, the relationship between Lydgate and the candidates, their personality, family situation, income, how good their sermons are, village politics, peer pressure, future prospects. I meditate along with Lydgate from the beginning to the end and understand every reasoning.
But gosh the time it takes! I don’t know if any contemporary authors still produce stories in this style. Middlemarch is written at a walking pace, at most a horse trotting pace. It’s very slow at some points. I read Rebecca (1938) after Middlemarch and I could feel a ‘gear change’ – the pace of the narrative felt more like a car driving at speed. As a person living in 2021, all of Lydgate’s concerns would cross my mind and be rid of in a few seconds. I have lost the ability to patiently examine my thoughts, lay out pros and cons, and make a conscious effort to make a decision (however ironically Lydgate, after all this complex debate, didn’t make a decision either!).
It was a very pleasant experience reading Middlemarch. If you haven’t done so, it’s well worth giving it a try :)
*I read Oxford World’s Classics 2019 version.