Middlemarch is a book about marriage.
But this is no story of marital kamikaze (à la Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary), nor is it the script for a “Love Conquers All” press conference penned by Romance’s PR team (à la The Time Traveler’s Wife, or anything by Nicholas Sparks).
Middlemarch is a realistic book about marriage—and it should be, as part of the “literary realism” movement of the 18th and 19th centuries. The marriages of Middlemarch are turbulent, naïve, and ever-evolving. After all, none of us really know what we’re signing on for when we commit to a lifetime with another person, other than a lot of ups and downs, eternal toothpaste woes, and the occasional Christmas gift dud.
Lydgate lives outside his means to please Rosamond. Dorothea discovers that Casaubon’s intelligence is a double-edged sword. Fred makes mistakes and works to earn Mary’s respect instead of taking it for granted. It all feels familiar, yet—because it’s happening to other people—intriguing. Maybe it’s the gossip inside all of us that takes George Eliot’s bait.
Marriage is a funny thing, especially in literature. In the classics, of course, social mores often prohibit divorce. So you, as the reader, spend a lot of time hoping lackluster/inattentive/dumb/abusive spouses will conveniently die so that the hero/heroine ends up with the “right” partner. This is definitely the case in Middlemarch when it comes to Dorothea and Casaubon—Dorothea being a human utopia, and Casaubon being a fusty intellectual elitist. The shiniest moment amid Casaubon’s prevailing dullness was his love letter to Dorothea—a love letter to her mind instead of her beauty:
…Our conversations have, I think, made sufficiently clear to you the tenor of my life and purposes: a tenor unsuited, I am aware, to the commoner order of minds. But I have discerned in you an elevation of thought and a capability of devotedness, which I had hitherto not conceived to be compatible either with the early bloom of youth or with those graces of sex that may be said at once to win and to confer distinction when combined, as they notably are in you, with the mental qualities above indicated. It was, I confess, beyond my hope to meet with this rare combination of elements both solid and attractive, adapted to supply aid in graver labors and to cast a charm over vacant hours.
But even this crosses a line we don’t see until we’re far beyond it. As it turns out, most happy marriages don’t involve the kind of teacher-pupil/boss-employee role playing Casaubon and Dorothea eagerly engage in. (Eagerly at first, that is.)
Middlemarch is also a book about religion, politics, education, gender, and the consequences of choice. It is broader than it is deep—a sweeping panorama of provincial life in 19th-century England—and it excels exactly as intended, in its quietly profound study of the mundane. In Middlemarch, a novel intent on depicting reality, the worst crime a person can commit is self-delusion. And while it may have its slow moments, Eliot’s masterpiece is remarkably interesting for all its preoccupation with the ordinary.
Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?
Virginia Woolf famously called it “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” It was selected by C. S. Lewis and Julian Barnes as the greatest English novel of all time. None of this would stop me from hating it, but I didn’t hate it—not at all. As classics go, it’s easily among my Top 20.
“He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James.
“No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader.
Though he “did” his classics and mathematics, he was not pre-eminent in them. It was said of him, that Lydgate could do anything he liked, but he had certainly not yet liked to do anything remarkable.
She seated herself on a dark ottoman with the brown books behind her, looking in her plain dress of some thin woollen-white material, without a single ornament on her besides her wedding-ring, as if she were under a vow to be different from all other women.
For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal—this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life.
It had already occurred to him that books were stuff, and that life was stupid.