Thursday, 22 November 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I finished Middlemarch the other day and felt I had lived an entire lifetime in Victorian England as well as having completed some interesting time travel. To first view this book I was intimidated by its size and the fact it is an English period piece. I have always struggled with English history. I found my intimidation took a different form to that of tackling Don Quixote last year which I really loved and it was longer yet.
Middlemarch, like much literature of its time was originally published in a serial format. It was not expected that one would read it in a weekend marathon. Though I found if I let too much time lapse between picking it up again I would have needed to go back and begin again. This was especially true with the first 1/3 of the book. After that, once I had the characters well and truly sorted in my head  I found I could not put it down and I think having had to wait for two months for the next publication in a serialised format would be difficult.

Middlemarch was published in serial form during 1871-72. Later in 1874 it was published as one entire book. 
Guardian Magazine  published an interesting review by A.S.Byatt on 4 August 2007.  She wrote, 
"Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as 'one of the few English books written for grown up people.' anti romantic, yet intensely passionate, it is one of the greatest novels of all agreed Byatt.
She went on to say, "The novel is an image of a society, political, agricultural, aristocratic, plebian, religious, scientific. "

The main characters were Mr. Brookes, his neices Dorothea and Cecilia. Mr. Casaubon, his cousin Will Ladislaw. Later on we met Rosamund Vincy the daughter of the mayor who marries the progressive town doctor, Mr. Lydgate and then we meet the Garths. There are too many characters to mention as besides the main lives we follow we have the minor characters who also play a role.  Eliot doesn't seem to include anyone who doesn't have a very specific role to play.  

I enjoyed the initial style of the book as it appeared two or three main characters were introduced and the reader gets to know them quite well. As well as those main characters a minor character or two is introduced who then turns into a main character during the subsequent section of the book. This happens during the first 3 or 4 books within Middlemarch. Although there are many characters it does not take long to get to know them all.  After we feel familiar with who everyone is,  Eliot begins mapping out the relationships that are to come between the characters as they begin to relate to one another. The final third of the book has all of the relationships in full swing and we see what happens to each of them within their relationships and community positions.

Behind all of the activities of the characters the background of society goes through social and political reform that everyone is talking about as well as the modernisation of medical practises beginning, as well as some characters focusing on agricultural practises interspersed amongst the aristocratic hierarchy from rich to poor of the various class structures. 

My favourite book about books has always been Mortimer Adler's "How To Read a Book". I have read it several times and he advocates when reading a very long challenging novel that one should compare the experiences to moving into a new city. Initially when you move into a new city you meet many people you see occasionally. The person who helps you find your accommodation, to the local grocer, the postman and others one sees daily but does not really become involved.  Then you start your new job and you meet the workers who may or may not play more of a role in your life. There are your family members and friends who you see all of the time and with whom you become very involved with. He states one should simply read through the book, no questions asked, no looking up vocabulary, simply read.  Reread it a second time if you are studying it for a class and then really pay attention to the detail. Once you have invested the time needed in the book or living in a new place, the characters fall into place and the confusion disappears. 

I applied this thinking to my reading of this tome and immediately was able to define the characters who would be 'part of my life' as opposed to those simply making an appearance here and there. 

I enjoyed the societal changes going on in the background and studying how all of the characters related to these changes.  There is much discussion about all aspects of the microcosm of a community.  People are born, living their entire life and dying in this small community. The links between people are quite stifling at times and more often frustrating in not accomplishing what they want to achieve. I don't think it is a story that dates much except maybe for attitudes towards women and technological changes. Basic premises are often the same as underlying angst of disappointed relationships, not meeting one's goals and dealing with  the busybodies of life remain quite unchanged. 

The young George Eliot
(Mary Anne Evans)
This book has often been described as the greatest novel of all times. I don't know if I agree with that as I have not read the novels of all time. It does embrace an entire generation quite effectively of a specific time period. It is certainly a societal history of this time period.  

I found the writing to be beautiful and often reread paragraphs to enjoy the prose. Eliot's writing to me is amazing. I loved it. However I will admit that there were times that the descriptions could have slowed down a bit. It did become tedious sometimes especially when I was anxious to see what was going to happen next or I was tired. 
I found there to be an interesting balance of writing between what everything looks like or what is within a person to what everyone is going to do next to resolve the dilemmas they face. There were times, especially near the end it became almost suspenseful and I was exceedingly interested in knowing what happens to these people I felt I lived with during the previous few weeks. 

Mr. Casaubon perhaps?
I am certainly not a scholar in English  history but I learned a great deal about this time period in an interesting way and it is a book I could actually reread to pick up some of the finer points in it. However I doubt I will do that soon. I would recommend giving this book a try and don't give up on it until you're well and truly through the introduction of most of the characters because that is when things begin to happen.

                                                          Applies to The Classics Club challenge


  1. This is the first Eliot that I tried, and I did give up after a few chapters, partly because I was really frustrated with the decisions that Dorothea was making, and partly because I found the language a challenge. But I know I will try it again - partly because of its reputation, and partly because so many readers like you have read it & recommend it.

    1. Thanks Lisa. It really does take a bit of patience to get into it but then it does pick up a bit. Though I also realise all books do not connect with everyone. That's the fun of reading for me. To see which ones I do connect with. Nice to hear from you. Pam

  2. I've read Middlemarch about once a decade ever since it came up in an undergraduate class. My professor said it is one of a very few books written for middle-aged people. It too me two more reads to see what he meant.

    I'm planning on reading it again in 2014 when I turn 50.

    I do think it's the best novel in the English language. I can only read English, unfortunately, but I have read everything. ;-)

    1. Thanks for your comment. Interesting re: a book for middle aged people. I can understand that but no doubt some younger people who have enjoyed might object! Nice to hear from you. Pam

  3. Thank you. I will look into this information. I really loved his work. Pam

  4. I love the comparison between a giant novel & moving to a new city! Clearly I need to track down Adler's book. :)

    I fell for Middlemarch from the first page and have been thinking it's about time to revisit it! I've read several of her other books, but none has come close to Middlemarch for me.

    1. Thanks Eva, I have always loved Mortimer Adler. He has a great way of explaining books and I am glad you enjoy Middlemarch. It is good to see you back online with your blog too!! Pam


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