Read in March 2014
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
I hated Middlemarch when I read it as an undergraduate lit major 40 years ago, and although my reaction wasn’t quite that virulent this time around, the major cause of my dissatisfaction remained unchanged. I didn’t believe Dorothea Brooke then, and I don’t believe her now. Eliot presents Dorothea as an intelligent but ill-educated do-gooder with a passion for helping the poor and an ambition to leave her mark on the world. Yet for all her intelligence, Dorothea dupes herself into believing that a middle-aged minister who has published nothing is a genius writing a treatise that will be among the most important books ever written when it is apparent to everyone else, including her simple-minded sister and uncle, that Edward Casaubon is a pompous fraud. Since I didn’t buy Eliot’s premise, I couldn’t care very much about their ill-fated marriage, but I read on. This time around I had a lot less sympathy for Tertius Lydgate, who clearly talks a good game about his intended research but never actually finds the time to do the work. However, I very much admire Eliot’s creation of his bride, Rosamund Vincy, whose combination of shallowness and stubborn cunning is well-drawn and spot-on. Of all of the characters in this cast-of-thousands novel, the ones I really wanted to spend more time with were Fred Vincy and his bride, Mary Garth, who are clearly the most admirable people in Middlemarch. Fred finds the strength to both change his ways and stand up to familial pressure, redeeming himself and earning the reward he’d longed for. Mary has the strength of character to do the right thing even at the hardest time and also stand up to familial pressure, earning the reward she’d longed for. Were Eliot writing today, they’d have larger roles in the novel. For modern readers, Middlemarch may be a bit of a slog, and some of the aspects favored by Victorians, including the literary excerpts at the start of each chapter and the frequent authorial intrusions, may be off-putting as well.