Thursday, 22 January 2009

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch. I will never again look at the classics with foreboding in my heart. I'm not about to jump into reading only classics now! Not when I have 80+ books on my immediate TBR shelf! Some of which do contain some classics, I am happy to add. I am going to anticipate War and Peace with a lighter heart, though. And maybe even Ulysses.....

I feel like for the first time, I understand how great a 'classic' novel can be. The richness of the characters, the depth of their natures, so precisely rendered by Eliot, made me feel like I had just stepped over a bridge into Middlemarch. That indeed, somewhere in the mists just over there, lies this tiny town, inhabited by such a range of people that the town feels real. It's not just the characters either; Eliot takes time to notice the weather, the gardens: 'He found Mary in the garden gathering roses and sprinkling the petals on a sheet. The sun was low, and tall trees sent their shadows across the grassy walks where Mary was moving without a bonnet or parasol.' p 424. Families gather to eat, ride different kinds of horses, live beyond their means in a house they can't afford. The townspeople hold meetings, attend a rally, and we see the ranks close against what is different, or new. This is a wonderful, great, deep novel, that contains so much observation about life and people.
Look at how Mr Farebrother, a clergyman is introduced: "Before it ceased Mr Farebrother came in - a handsome, broad-chested but otherwise small man, about forty, whose black was very threadbare; the brilliancy was all in his quick grey eyes." I can already see him, and Eliot then spends the rest of the novel revealing how he is brilliant, and why he is poor.
This line is perfect: "But of course intention was everything in the question of right and wrong.' p 580. Simple, and clear, and true.
'"I know the unhappy mistakes about you. I knew them from the first moment to be mistakes. You have never done anything vile. You would not do anything dishonourable."
'It was the first assurance of belief in him that had fallen on Lydgate's ears. He drew a deep breath, and said, 'Thank you.' He could not say more; it was something very new and strange in his life that these few words of trust from a woman should be so much to him.'
p 626 You can see the characters of Dorothea and Lydgate here - Dorothea being her passionate, outspoken self, setting out to see if she can restore Lydgate's position in Middlemarch, and Lydgate, too proud to ask for help, humbled when someone offers it anyway. That is the richness of Middlemarch, that these are ordinary, mortal people George Eliot is writing about. There are smart people, dull people, ordinary labourers and landed gentleman. This novel is about Dorothea and Will, Lydgate and Rosamond, Mary and Fred, and it's about love, and what happens in a marriage as two people find their way to each other - or not, as is the case with Dorothea and Mr Causabon. This book is like a slice of English society at 1830, which was Eliot's intention, and to show how the changes to the Land act, and Parliament, were felt in the distant countryside, by ordinary people. There are the old ways - the old doctors - and the new ways used by Lydgate. People who have always been Middlemarchers, and newcomers.

There is so much that is good and delightful in this novel, that I can hardly begin to tell you. Partly I don't want to give too much away for those readers who are reading it (Bybee! I'm looking at you!) or perhaps thinking about reading it soon, or might give it a try. It's a chunky novel, I don't deny it, but it doesn't read like one. Instead, it's like being immersed in a quieter time of English life, when the life in the town still revolved around the mill, the wool industry, as well as general trades, when the main purpose in life was to settle in a career one hopefully liked, and marry. Sounds a bit like now, doesn't it? In Eliot's novel, Fred, Will, and Lydgate are the prime examples of young men trying to find a career - only Lydgate does has a dream of what he wants, a clear career he is aiming for, as the novel opens. Fred finds an unexpected one that he does well at. Will does find his calling, which is due to the changes in public life. I can't say it without giving it away! However, all these careers come in the way it does it real life - some fail - Lydgate can't do what he wants because of choices he makes, that end up pulling him away from the life he dreams of, so that he regards himself as a failure. Fred succeeds almost inspite of himself, and Will - Will finds that there is only love, after all. These characters are so vivid, so much so that I wanted to yell at Fred, that I cried as Lydgate finds himself squeezed and squeezed some more until there is no room for dreams, that I longed for Will to do something. Have a goal, man! It is refreshing to read about the dreams of people setting out in life, and then seeing what life wroughts into them. It seems to me that novels have become smaller as the 20th century ended, so that a book wasn't centered around goals about making a mark in the world, it was about one's immediate world only. Middlemarch has ideas, and discusses politics (in a very amusing way, I might add), and the characters all have opinions - rightly or wrongly, they all think and have their own ideas, and it is fun to watch them collide as the characters intersect.

Above all, Middlemarch is about love, all the different ways people love, the quiet contentment and little discords that fill married life, about good matches, and about how people learn about one another. One of the best things about Middlemarch is that characters reveal depths as things happen - Mrs Bulstrode, who is Rosamund's aunt, finds herself faced with a terrible choice, and though it costs her everything, she makes the one she can live with. That part had me crying, in fact, a few scenes in the book had me crying. I didn't cry when Mr Causabon died, but I did cry before he died because of Dorothea and what she was doing to herself in order to make her marriage work. There are characters to dislike as well as love in Middlemarch, but they aren't one dimensional bad people, pure villains; they are are rich in motivation and they have longings and desires. Eliot gives them good sides as well as the bad. Even Ruffles the ruffian (I can't help it, she named him!) doesn't deserve the death he gets, and revelation of the darkness in Bulstrode is fascinating to watch. Characters are stupid - if Rosamund has a genuine original thought in her head, I believe the world would stop spinning, honestly!, they are mean to their relatives, they are kind - Caleb Garth deserves a medal! his generosity and faith changes two lives so very much, and affects a third sadly - I couldn't help but feel sorry for Mary Garth's other admirer. There are laughs, as well as tears, and Dorothea and Celia do come across as real sisters. It was just so refreshing, and humbling, to see how good a book this is.

I don't really have anything bad to say about this book. I have not come across a book like this in a long time. This is not to say we are not writing good novels now, it's to say a novel as large and well-crafted - a canvas of life - as Middlemarch doesn't come along very often.

This is a book I am so happy I read, and that I already love.


Michelle said...

I think your passion (for lack of a better word) for the book came through in this review and it's seriously tipping me in the direction of (possibly) reading this at some stage. All your nice words for it though doesn't make the book any smaller! Glad you enjoyed it :)

Bybee said...

It's wonderful, isn't it? I'm falling in love with its richness all over again. Your review is wonderful as well.

Cath said...

This is one of our British classics that I've never read. Not for any particular reason, it just hasn't happened. But your wonderful review has let me know what I've missed, so I will try to read this sometime this year.

zetor said...

That's a great review. I 'shy' away from classics normally but your analysis makes me want to try this book. Thankyou.

Jeane said...

The only George Eliot I've ever read was Silas Marner in school, but I loved it so much I've read it several times since. I've gotten out of the habit of reading classics lately, it's hard for me to concentrate on them. But what a wonderful review, you've reminded me of what's so great about them. And if I come across another Eliot in my book hunts, Middlemarch or something else, I'll definitely pick it up.

DesLily said...

I am not a classics reader but I have two sitting in my tbr pile and hope I can do them justice soon. Both are Dickens novels. The Old Curiosity Shop and David Copperfield.

Rebecca Reid said...

I have never read this book. I have it on my shelf, but something about it's sheer size has scared me away from it. Thanks for this review: now I know I must actually read it!

Lezlie said...

I'm looking forward to this one when I get to it! And I hope you love War & Peace when you get to it. That is the one that totally changed my view of classics I was afraid of.


Chain Reader said...

George Eliot is a genius! I've read all of her major novels, and am always overwhelmed by her insight and intelligence. I loved this review.

jspeyton said...

You know, I've had this book sitting on my shelf for years. I've never picked it up because, frankly, I found the size a little bit daunting. Which is sad considering I gobbled up Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White" inside of a week. I'm so glad you liked this. Thanks for putting it back on my radar!

Chris said...

I'm glad you've been converted. I really enjoy classics because there is so much to them. Eliot is a favorite of mine. The Mill on the Floss is another good one but Silas Marner is my favorite (so far).

Book Lover Lisa said...

What a wonderful review. I have started Middlemarch twice, and each time been interupted by the birth of a baby. Since there are no babies on the way, maybe it is time for me to read it. I agree that it is truly great writing. I was even doing a chapter by chapter analysis, which I have misplaced. Thanks for bringing this book back to the forfront.

Nymeth said...

"Above all, Middlemarch is about love, all the different ways people love, the quiet contentment and little discords that fill married life, about good matches, and about how people learn about one another."

I love it already. I am SO reading this book. Thank you, Susan.

Bybee said...

I love Caleb Garth's speech to his daughter, Mary about what marriage is and isn't. All fathers should be able to speak so lovingly and frankly with their daughters. No wonder Mary's got such good sense.

Daphne said...

I usually love classics and wonder why I don't read more of them... I have War and Peace on my shelf... I'm reading Anna Karenina this year, but maybe War and Peace next year!

Susan said...

michelle: I hope one day your little ones will let you read chunky novels again! lol I had to wait until my youngest was 3 before I could hope to have enough time. Thus I managed to finish the Chunky challenge last year!

bybee: thanks for liking my review, and I can hardly wait for yours!!

Cath: I know, it's funny the books we miss reading for one reason or another, isn't it? Now I want to try Silas Marner (as a few people have commented to me, that is their favourite Eliot novel), and even give Charles Dickens a go. My favourite is still Jane austen, but it is wonderful to be able to say I really enjoy George Eliot also! so I hope you enjoy this when you do get to it.

zetor: when you're ready, the book will be there! I'm just glad the classics are still accessible, because I think of them as old books, and it's really enlightenting to find that authors wrote about our concerns 100 and 200 and 300 years ago. People are people no matter when they live and write! Let me know when you do give it a try :-)

Jeane: you are the third person to mention Silas Marner, so now it's on MY radar! lol thank you!

Deslily: I always think of Dickens as wordy.....I do hope to find Mystery of Edwin Drood before that marvelous book comes out in 2 weeks time :-) and I own David Copperfield, but I have to admit I only ever read the comic book of DC long ago!!! lol so I'm not so well-read either yet.

Rebecca: I hope you enjoy it when you read it. Many people seem to like Silas Marner, so if Middlemarch looks too big, you might try that one. I will be, soon!

Lezlie: Oh, I'm hoping to get to War and Peace sometime. I've had this book like for 15 years, meaning to read. How sad is that? At least it changing your view of classics for the better is encouraging!

Chain Reader: thank you! Which Eliot is your favourite? I couldn't get through Mill on the Floss when I was in university, so I have to read that fully through now, as well as Silas Marner.

jspeyton: I know, gothic mystery is far more interesting than a huge clunky book!!.... :-) It really felt like I had to draw a deep breath and just dive right in, but once I was there, it was surprisingly easy to read. Now if someone wants, there are all kinds of references to the politics of the day and Eliot was being very ironic and funny if you cared to read these, but I skipped over them - next time maybe, but this time I just wanted to know how all the stories worked out!

Chris: You, Jeane, and a few others have referred to Silas Marner and convinced me I have to give this a try! It is such a relief to know I do enjoy classics -despite my moan yesterday about wishing i read on one genre only because it would be easier to pick books to read! - I think every type of book has something to offer. I'm so happy that I liked Middlemarch, it is really satisfying to add another classic author to ones I like to read :-)
I certainly had no idea that so many of us out there liked George Eliot either, so I am enjoying all the comments! thank you.

BookLover Lisa: welcome! and I know about babies; I have 3. If you read my comment to Michelle, you'll see that I put off reading big books until my little ones had left the baby stage. There was no point trying to read big books because i couldn't get hours uninterrupted. I would recommend reading it through once so you see the story arcs better and how her themes intersect, and then do a chapter analysis, but that's how I usually do it. I do enjoy how she portrays her characters, and how lively and real they are with one another. I hope I've convinced you to try it again! :-)

nymeth: thank you!! Hurray! and like with Bybee, I can hardly wait for your review - you both do such better plot synopsis than I do. I'm glad my review made you want to read this book. I'm really eager to see what you think. And if you like Will, and Lydgate, and Dorothea as much as I do :-)

bybee: this whole book is filled with good sense! Even with the characters that do stupid things, someone is always there to comment on it - the way we do in real life. I really liked how Caleb gave Fred his break. and how Mary stood by him, though part of me wonders if Mr Farebrother mightn't have been a tiny bit better for her. he was so sweet too.

Daphne: I know. I don't know if reading classics has fallen out of favour, or if there is such an explosion of books and genres of books, that the old and the good have fallen by the wayside until we pick them up again, dusting them off. I hope to get to War and peace soon, but i can't even promise myself this year to do it - not if i want to read 100 books this year! anna Karenina is another book I cheated on in university - only read part of it - so I do have to read the whole thing at some point. To be fair, I was going through my divorce when I read it, so the fact that she does what she does didn't sit well with me, I didn't agree with it. When you've read it, come let me know and we can have a good discussion! :-)

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