Curse the TBR jar! When I set up my low-tech book selection system for what I’m going to read this year, Middlemarch was the one book I really dreaded picking. After I facepalmed a few times, though, I had a thought: hey, at least I’m getting it out of the way early!
Middlemarch (subtitle: A Study of Provincial Life) is widely regarded as one of the Great Novels of English Literature. It was first published in eight volumes over the course of 1871 and 1872. Virginia Woolf described it, in 1919, as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” but she was one of the very few people actually reading it at the time. It didn’t really make an impact on the literati until a book by F.R. Leavis in 1948, The Great Tradition, “rediscovered” it.
Now, before we get started on Middlemarch itself, here’s a note on the author. George Eliot is a pen name, taken by Mary Ann Evans. It wasn’t unusual for women authors to take masculine or androgynous names at the time, given the pervasive patriarchal bias in publishing at the time (ahem), but there has been particular attention paid to this author’s choice. I’ve tried to find a bunch of fancy diplomatic ways to say this, but the hell with it: basically, there’s good reason to suspect that Eliot was a trans man (or would have been, had Eliot lived in a more progressive time), and TERFs super-hate anyone pointing that out. I’ll use feminine pronouns (she/her) for Eliot throughout this review, though, for a couple of reasons. First, it will make this review consistent with all the Official(TM) sources about Eliot’s work and identity, and second, we really can’t know what Eliot would have chosen. But I want it to be clear that I’m totally open to the idea that Eliot was in fact a man (which trans men are, by the way), and I wholeheartedly support academic endeavours to uncover more about Eliot’s true identity, as best we can.
Okay, with that out of the way, here we go! Believe it or not, Middlemarch is actually a historical novel – the action takes place about forty years or so before it was published. The fictional town for which the novel takes its name was likely based on Coventry, an area where Eliot lived before she moved to London.
It doesn’t so much have a “plot” as it does a series of interweaving and interconnected stories about various residents of Middlemarch. The main players are Dorothea Brooke (who loves cottages and is disillusioned by her marriage to an older dude), Tertius Lydgate (a doctor with crazy ideas about how medicine should be a science), Fred Vincy (a privileged gambler who swears he’ll grow up if Mary Garth agrees to marry him), and Nicholas Bulstrode (a banker with a sordid past).
So, Middlemarch makes for 900 pages of who’s going to marry whom, who’s going to inherit, who’s in debt, who’s on which side of a political divide… and none of it works out the ways characters would hope. Their marriages suck, their inheritances are poisoned chalices, their debts won’t let them buy nice food, and the politics of the 1832 Reform Act tear the town in two. It all sounds very exciting, but it’s so dragged out and the characters so wooden, it’s hard to pluck out a storyline that really moves the reader. There’s a marked absence of the emotion or passion you see with other 19th century writers – certainly no tears for the reader in this bad boy.
Oh, and if you’re picking up Middlemarch for the first time, steel yourself for some anti-Semitism and racism – yeah, yeah, it’s “of the time”, but it’s still yucky.
On the upside, though, Middlemarch has a lot of really sick burns. I would’ve hated to come up against Eliot in a Twitter beef, but I would’ve loved to have sat next to her in an office.
Mr Rigg Featherstone’s low characteristics were all of the sober, water-drinking kind. From the earliest to the latest hour of the day he was always as sleek, neat, and cool as the frog he resembled.Middlemarch
I feel a bit blasphemous saying this, but it’s true: it’s enough to get the “gist” of what’s going on in Middlemarch. I didn’t feel the need to absorb every single nuance or pore over every word. Maybe I would’ve got more out of it if I did, but a skim here and there made for a much easier read. Come at me if you must!
Initial reviews of Middlemarch were mixed, but now they’re wholly gushing. I feel like a lone reed, buffeted by the wind but rooted firm in my conviction that – like Anna Karenina – it’s just okay. I’m sure studying the novel would illuminate more of it, make it feel richer and more engaging, but as a casual reader… *shrug*. I didn’t hate it, but I’m glad to have put it behind me.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Middlemarch:
- “Hard ole English to understand. Bla, bla, bla, bla.and, yada,yada, yada.Did have some antagonist and vllians to like and hate.” – Amazon Customer
- “Pay attention to the dimensions. It’s made for tiny hands and tiny eyes. It’s the size of a graham cracker. Great story” – Victor Gloria IV
February 15, 2023 at 5:05 AM
Ugh, you are NOT alone! This was pretty much my exact reaction to Middlemarch, and I also felt like the only person in the world that didn’t gush after reading it. #solidarity
February 16, 2023 at 2:50 PM
YES! THANK YOU Hannah for validating my middle-of-the-road response 😅😍
February 15, 2023 at 11:53 AM
Oh, shame it didn’t do more for you! I read it deep into lockdown where not much else was happening – totally the write headspace for a novel like this.
February 16, 2023 at 2:50 PM
Oh wow, hats off to you – I barely had the brain power to read a Tweet in the middle of lockdown! Definitely wouldn’t have made it through Middlemarch 😅 Maybe I’ll come back to it one day when my tastes have matured (or whatever they say).