One of the Most Remarkable Books I've Ever Read

Middlemarch - George Eliot

I'm amazed (and annoyed with myself) that it took this long for me to read anything by George Eliot. I had long heard she was one of the greatest female novelists--indeed, one of the greatest writers of either gender. Her <i>Middlemarch</i> is on a list of "100 Significant Books" in <i>Good Reading</i>. There are only 27 novels on that list, and the only other one by a woman is Jane Austen's <i>Pride and Prejudice</i>. Eliot was never assigned me in high school or college and from somewhere I got the idea she was insufferably stuffy. It turned out, at least in the case of <i>Middlemarch</i>, that couldn't be farther from the case.

It was a slow read, and by that I don't mean it was a slog, which <i>is</i> what I usually mean by that. I didn't feel as if the book badly needed an editor--either to cut away massive digressions such as the case in novels by Henry Fielding, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and Herman Melville or because it read like a rough first draft afflicted with parts that went nowhere or a rushed ending. (Defoe, Melville and Twain, I'm looking at you.) No, this is as well-structured a novel as any I've read. But it is dense--very packed and you can't speed through this prose. This is very much in the Victorian style of novel-writing. Several pages can go without dialogue, and there is a lot devoted to internal thoughts, and at times the narrator intrudes with "I" statements to comment on her characters. I remember Jane Austen, a great favorite, as better in balancing and integrating exposition and scene, more flowing in narrative and prose style and faster paced. Yet, although in lesser hands Eliot's style has aspects I often deplore in others as too "tell, not show," I can't complain of it here; Eliot isn't flabby--she's taut and you feel as if every word and scene was carefully shaped. And I didn't just love the novel, I enjoyed the process of reading it--truly it was a pleasure.

Eliot's characters came alive on the page in a way I rarely find in fiction. I would grow annoyed or irritated or outraged with them as if they were real people I knew. (Believe me, there were plenty of times I would have loved to give Dorothea Brooke or Fred Vincy a good shake.) Her characters are more rounded, more people I can imagine meeting than what I've read in say, Dickens, as vivid as his characters are, they rarely felt as real. And unlike Dickens and many another 19th century author, Eliot in <i>Middlemarch</i> never overstepped into melodrama or treacly sentimentality. Her psychological penetration and insight into character is as profound as in any author I've ever read. She finely depicts the shaping of moral character in critical but seemingly small moments. <i>Middlemarch</i> really has only one out and out villain, a minor character who appears half-way into the novel. Others are more carefully shaded. Bad things happen more because of what characters do to themselves, their foolish choices, than the malice of others. Not that Eliot is gloomy--she isn't a Thomas Hardy--for which, much thanks.

I found not just the moral but spiritual dimension of the novel very interesting. Religion is very important to her characters--but never in a preachy way. I couldn't tell, at least not from <i>Middlemarch</i>, whether Eliot was an orthodox Christian or an atheist. Dorothea is certainly partly a victim of a dream of martyrdom; Fred is pressured to become a clergyman, a career for which he has no vocation; Bulstrode is a narrow religious bigot--but one vicar, Farebrother, is presented as very likable. I couldn't say if Eliot finds religious belief admirable or deplorable. At best I can say I suspect she's sympathetic as to people's spiritual aspirations but wary of how it can be abused. But I just couldn't pin Eliot down that easily: her treatment of the theme is too complicated and subtle.

That said, not all five star ratings are equal--not for me. I admire this book and the writing more than I can express--but I'm not sure that Eliot will ever be the favorite Jane Austen is for me. I cry and laugh with Austen and reading her I feel all is right with the world and am warmed. I could imagine Austen as a friend I could gossip with over tea. Eliot is more... forbidding. This is not to say she is without humor--she often displayed a caustic wit. I don't know that I could say Austen is more good-natured. Eliot judged her characters with an evident compassion. But I didn't fall in love with Eliot's characters the way I have with characters of Austen. Maybe that's what made the difference with me. I can feel for Eliot's characters: I certainly can't say I admire any of them. They're true to life, but not larger than life or in any way heroic or very gifted or even (with the exception of Mary Garth) someone I could imagine wanting as a friend. Mind you, the above criticism feels a mere quibble, my trying to process a complex reading experience and before my memory fades fix my impressions in this review. But I can say it has been years since I've been so impressed with a novel--and I read a <i>lot.</i> I'll definitely be reading more of Eliot in the future and imagine <i>Middlemarch</i> is a novel it will pay to revisit.