Old Bestseller Review: Middlemarch, by George Eliot
a review by Rich Horton
I suppose one doesn't think of a novel like Middlemarch as a "bestseller", but in fact it sold very well when it first appeared (if perhaps not as well as Eliot had hoped). And of course it has sold steadily ever since. This was before there was any formal bestseller list, but make no mistake, authors were well aware of their general sales figures, and usually pretty involved in them.
That doesn't really matter any more, to be sure. Middlemarch was fairly well received critically, at first, and praised by writers like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Henry James (the latter with some reservations). Still, it wasn't until the 1940s that its reputation began to expand -- to the point that it is often called the greatest novel in English. My feeling is that at the very top level there is no way to choose a "greatest" novel from any number of candidates -- but, without question, Middlemarch is a very great novel and deserves to be in the conversation.
"George Eliot", as most people know, was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). She used the pseudonym in order to ensure that her work was treated seriously, and perhaps also to separate it from her critical work under her own name. She wrote seven novels, as well as shorter stories and some poetry. Her poetry seems to have been well regarded at the time but I must say I wasn't even aware she had done much in that field, so it doesn't seem to have survived all that well. Her personal life was also scandalous -- she lived with the married philosopher George Henry Lewes from 1854 until his death -- and that may have been another reason to separate her writing name from her own name, though the pseudonym seems to have been pretty open for a long time.
I myself had only read a few of her shorter works -- the shortish novel Silas Marner, and two shorter stories, "Brother Jacob" and "The Lifted Veil". I enjoyed them all and expected to proceed eventually to a more major novel, but it took me a while to get around to it. Indeed, I acquired copies, over time, of Romola, Daniel Deronda, and Felix Holt the Radical ... but soon it became clear that Middlemarch was the appropriate choice.
I will note, by the way, that the edition I ended up buying, a Barnes and Noble Classics trade paperback, is quite poorly done. It appears to have been OCR'd from another edition, and there are numerous typical OCR typos: for example, "my clearest" instead of "my dearest". The binding is also, not surprising, a bit inadequate for a book so large. There is some additional editorial material: an introduction by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, endnotes by Megan McDaniel, a selection of roughly contemporaneous extracts from reviews and other writing about the book. These are all decently enough done if nothing special. My fault, to be sure, for being lured by the very low price (only $5) -- I would suggest a sort of Gresham's Law of book editions might apply ("Bad [editions] drive out good").
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life was published 1872 in eight parts -- an unusual choice (three volumes was the more normal format) occasioned by its length -- it is about 330,000 words long, some 800 pages in my edition. The eight parts are of roughly similar length, about 40,000 words apiece. Eliot composed in between 1869 and 1871, beginning with two separate projects: "Miss Brooke" and "Middlemarch", but she realized that the two pieces would work better together.
The novel intertwines the stories of a great variety of characters. Miss Brooke is Dorothea, the most important character, a young woman of good if not aristocratic family. She and her sister Celia are being raised by her rather dithering uncle Arthur Brooke. Dorothea, a beautiful, pious, and intelligent woman, is courted by the neighboring baronet, Sir James Chettam, but her serious cast of mind and desire to do scholarly work leads her to the terribly inappropriate choice of Mr. Casaubon, a much older clergyman engaged in a lifelong attempt at finding the "key to all mythologies". (Celia ends up marrying Sir James.) The story of Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon, and Mr. Casaubon's impoverished cousin Will Ladislaw, is one of the two central threads; and turns much on Dorothea's anguished realization that Casaubon is a hopeless failure and a terrible husband, and on Will's feelings for Dorothea, which she is too virtuous to notice, though Mr. Casaubon notices enough to alter his will in an odious way.
The other thread concerns a new and idealistic physician, Tertius Lydgate, who comes to Middlemarch to start a practice and, he hopes, to engage in significant research, for he has modern ideas about medicine. Lydgate, who is of very good family but who has little money, falls for the very pretty and very shallow Rosamond Vincy, daughter of the town's mayor. Their thread follows their courtship and marriage, and how the financial stress due to Rosamond's demands and Lydgate's weakness poisons their marriage, and leads Lydgate into a faintly compromising relationship with Mr. Bulstrode, the religiously fanatical local banker.
Other significant threads twine around these stories. One concerns Bulstrode's checkered past, and his horror of having that past revealed, which leads him to the moral equivalent of murder, a death which will also stain Lydgate's reputation. Another thread involves Rosamond's brother Fred, a rather irresolute young man who has been unsuccessfully studying to be a minister, a profession for which he has no aptitude. Fred is in love with the plain, intelligent, and very upright Mary Garth, who is acting as companion to a much older relative, the very rich Peter Featherstone, who, it is supposed, will leave Fred a significant bequest on his impending death.
One more thread concerns Dorothea's uncle, Mr. Brooke, and his unfortunate decision to stand for Parliament as a Whig, in support of the proposed Reform Bill. Mr. Brooke is perhaps the funniest character in the book, which while not a comedy is often quite witty. Mr. Brooke stand for improved treatment of tenants by landlords, apparently unaware that he is regarded as an awful landlord. (One of Dorothea's passions is better housing for tenant farmers, and she goes to the extent of making architectural designs for new cottages. Sir James is willing to entertain her ideas, but Mr. Brooke seems to see no need.)
There are a great many more characters: the very honest and financially impractical Caleb Garth, (Mary's father): in essence a civil engineer; the clever if rather mean Mrs. Cadwallader (the rector's wife, and another funny character); the highly intelligent clergyman Camden Farebrother, hopelessly in love with Mary Garth but compelled by his principles to help Fred court her; Mr. Featherstone's varied pack of money-grubbing relatives; and many more less significant individuals.
All these stories weave in and out of the novel, intersecting nicely. Various deaths drive the plot, as well as a couple of intrigues involving wills. A key if somewhat understated theme is the place of women in this society and their limited opportunities for agency and power. Dorothea is by far the strongest character in the novel -- a bit of a Mary Sue perhaps: beautiful and virtuous and intelligent and (as Greg Feeley pointed out to me) "ardent"; but she (apparently happily) accepts a fate as wife and mother and behind the scenes helpmeet to her eventual husband, who, though a good enough man is quite a bit less impressive than her. (And she would have happily done the same for Mr. Casaubon had he the grace to accept.) Somewhat similarly Mary Garth is smarter and more energetic than Fred Vincy. The case in which the man is stronger still has ambiguities, for while Rosamond is selfish and and obstinate and sneaky, and Lydgate is truly intelligent, even perhaps brilliant, how much of her character is formed by lack of opportunity, and emphasis on her beauty as her prime asset; which how much of their difficulties are caused by Lydgate's own moral failures?
The story is tremendously moving by the end; though there are really no earth-shattering tragedies -- nothing like the ending of, say, The Mill on the Floss. Indeed, looked at one way, all the major characters have fairly happy endings. (To a rather lesser extent in the case of Lydgate, to be sure.) But events seem trending in a much worse way as the climax approaches, and I found the critical quiet last meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond to be stunning, and it had me in tears. The characters, as I have suggested, are beautifully drawn -- the minor characters ring true in their brief appearances, voices all sharply realized, and the major characters are portrayed with particular convincing exactitude.
And the prose -- I found it quite lovely. This is Victorian prose, long sentences and long paragraphs. But all elegant, and logical, and carefully balanced. The third person omniscient narrative voice is every present, very smart, indeed, I would say, very wise. This indeed becomes right away one of my favorite novels of all time.
Perhaps some extended quotes will be a good way to finish.
Casaubon on his attempts to have feelings for Dorothea: "Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was. As in droughty regions baptism by immersion could only be performed symbolically, so Mr. Casaubon found that sprinkling was the utmost approach to a plunge which his stream would afford him; and he concluded that the poets had much exaggerated the force of masculine passion."
(Indeed, I do wonder whether Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon ever had sexual relations.)
On Mary Garth: "Mary Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be obtained in quantities ready mixed, with a flavor of resignation as required."
Will Ladislaw and his friend the German painter Adolf Naumann encounter Dorothea in Rome: "They were just in time to see another figure standing against a pedestal near the reclining marble; a breathing blooming girl, whose form, not shamed by the Ariadne, was clad in Quakerish gray drapery; her long cloak, fastened at the neck, was thrown backward from her arms, and one beautiful ungloved hand pillowed her cheek, pushing somewhat backward the white beaver bonnet which made a sort of halo to her face around the simply braided dark-brown hair. She was not looking at the sculpture, probably not thinking of it: her large eyes were fixed dreamily on a streak of sunlight which fell across the floor."
Ladislaw on Dorothea: "Whatever else she might be, she was not disagreeable. She was not coldly clever and indirectly satirical, but adorably simple and full of feeling. She was an angel beguiled. It would be a unique delight to wait and watch for the melodious fragments in which her heart and soul came forth so directly and ingenuously. The Æolian harp again came into his mind."
Caleb Garth's philosophy: "Caleb Garth often shook his head in meditation on the value, the indispensable might of that myriad-headed, myriad-handed labor by which the social body is fed, clothed, and housed. It had laid hold of his imagination in boyhood. the echoes of the great hammer where roof or keel were a-making, the signal-shouts of the workmen, the roar of the furnace, the thunder and plash of the engine, were a sublime music to him; the felling and lading of timber, and the huge trunk vibrating star-like in the distance along the highway, the crane at work on the wharf, the piled-up produce in warehouses, the precision and variety of muscular effort wherever exact work had to be turned out, -- all these sights of his youth had acted on him as poetry without the aid of the poets, had made a philosophy for him without the aid of philosophers, a religion without the aid of theology."
There are many more, and I know I have not found again some of the very best passages.