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Reading Middlemarch

Cover artThis post starts with a confession:

Middlemarch, by George Eliot (pen name of Mary Anne Evans), is widely considered one of the greatest novels ever written––certainly the odds-on favorite for greatest English novel. It is my fiancée’s favorite novel and she has written about it extensively. She’s not alone––many of the greatest literary critics of all time have written about Middlemarch.

I am going into my eighth year of my PhD program, as a specialist in the English novel, and this summer I am reading Middlemarch for the first time.

There are some excuses, I swear. I specialize in eighteenth-century British literature, a hundred years or more before Middlemarch was published, and while I can say confidently I’m very well-read within my period, I have some embarrassing gaps outside it––and Middlemarch is definitely one of them. As a result, one of the few things I knew about Middlemarch before reading it was that it included a passing reference to an obscure eighteenth-century novel that I wrote my undergraduate thesis about! (I don’t recommend reading Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea for recreational purposes.)

As it turns out, I’ve really been missing out. George Eliot’s prose is as good as advertised. There are the famously beautiful passages I’ve seen so often before that they’ve become cliché, but reading them in the original context breathes the life back into them. For instance, the “squirrel’s heart beat” passage:

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 (Middlemarch, Oxford World Classics ed., 192).

I’d heard this famous passage many times before, but wasn’t prepared for it to come out of nowhere, in the course of describing one of those ordinary tragedies it references; the protagonist, Dorothea, is disappointed with her husband a few weeks into marriage. But then again, much of the plot of Middlemarch feels like a sturdy structure on which to hang character studies, witty asides, and hauntingly gorgeous observations like this one.

The original subtitle of Middlemarch is “A Study of Provincial Life,” and perhaps the most striking thing about it is how thoroughly it fleshes out its world. One of Eliot’s great talents is for describing characters pithily and keenly. For instance, a miser: “It would be difficult to convey to those who never heard him utter the word ‘business,’ the peculiar tone of fervid veneration, of religious regard, in which he wrapped it, as a consecrated symbol is wrapped in gold-fringed linen” (248). She manages to convey all you need to know about this character, in the process of claiming that it’s “difficult to convey” (one of my favorite rhetorical tricks)!

Or consider this description of a young man who habitually loses money on horses: “Fred was not a gambler: he had not that specific disease in which the suspension of the whole nervous energy on a chance or risk becomes as necessary as the dram to the drunkard; he had only the tendency to that diffusive form of gambling which has no alcoholic intensity, but is carried on with the healthiest chyle-fed blood, keeping up a joyous imaginative activity which fashions events according to desire, and having no fears about its own weather, only sees the advantage there must be to others in going aboard with it. Hopefulness has a pleasure in making a throw of any kind, because the prospect of success is certain; and only a more generous pleasure in offering as many as possible a share in the stake.” In other words, he’s not exactly a gambling addict; he’s a terminal optimist, and he gets himself into trouble by borrowing friends’ money for ‘can’t-miss’ opportunities––he really thinks he’s doing them a favor, because he can’t imagine failing until (inevitably) he does. In this description we can feel his exuberance and wince at his blind spots, and probably think of other people who know who are just like him. Notice, too, how the whole description starts with what he might seem like but is not, i.e. a conventional gambling addict. This is a pattern with Eliot: her descriptions of characters hinge on pointing out these kinds of fine-grained distinctions between different types of people, and there’s a pleasure in simply watching those keen people-watching powers at work.

Middlemarch is not a conventional page-turner, but it’s full of rewards like these. I’ve been enjoying my long-belated summer of Middlemarch, and if you want to join just pull up a chair.