Middlemarch, by George Eliot

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Dorothea by this time had looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon’s mind, seeing reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought; had opened much of her own experience to him, and had understood from him the scope of his great work, also of attractively labyrinthine extent. For he had been as instructive as Milton’s “affable archangel;” and with something of the archangelic manner he told her how he had undertaken to show (what indeed had been attempted before, but not with that thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement at which Mr. Casaubon aimed) that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed. Having once mastered the true position and taken a firm footing there, the vast field of mythical constructions became intelligible, nay, luminous with the reflected light of correspondences. But to gather in this great harvest of truth was no light or speedy work. His notes already made a formidable range of volumes, but the crowning task would be to condense these voluminous still-accumulating results and bring them, like the earlier vintage of Hippocratic books, to fit a little shelf. In explaining this to Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon expressed himself nearly as he would have done to a fellow-student, for he had not two styles of talking at command: it is true that when he used a Greek or Latin phrase he always gave the English with scrupulous care, but he would probably have done this in any case. A learned provincial clergyman is accustomed to think of his acquaintances as of “lords, knyghtes, and other noble and worthi men, that conne Latyn but lytille.”

I had really been looking forward to this bubbling to the top of my reading list, and I was not at all disappointed. You’ve probably either already read it or decided that it’s not for you, and that’s fine; rather than review it, I’m going to run briefly over the reasons why I love this book.

  • Characterisation. Everyone in the novel has their own distinctive voice. There are no stereotypes. Even Bulstrode, who seems at an early stage to be being set up as a rhetorical target, turns out to have unexpected depths.
  • Change. I wrote a few years back that it’s rather an sfnal book, dealing as it does with the impact on society of a time of rapid social, political and scientific change. Eliot is writing 40 years after it happened, so we readers know that it’s a done deal, but her characters don’t and she takes us beautifully through the uncertainty.
  • Setting. We can guess whether or not Middlemarch is pre-industrial Coventry, but it hardly matters; it could be anywhere in England. More impressive is that she has given a compelling picture of a time 40 years ago which manages to avoid appearing anachronistic. (The same distance separates us from 1981: Reagan and Mitterand become presidents, the Hunger Strikes in Northern Ireland, martial law in Poland, MTV and PacMan launch.)
  • Plot. I’m jotting these things down in no particular order, but really the 682 pages fly by as we wonder exactly what will happen next. Eliot has a great gift for taking people into very difficult situations in such a way that we understand exactly how they got themselves there and feel deeply invested in how they can possibly get out.
  • Politics. It’s everywhere, and it’s not just the issue of the day, the Great Reform Bill; it’s also the politics of gender, with the major women characters all constrained by social (and in Dorothea’s case legal) pressure to take or avoid particular roles. She doesn’t bang on about it, but shows us enough to make it clear which side she is on.
  • Happy ending. I am a bit of a sucker for soppy conclusions, and I love this one.

If you like this sort of thing, you probably already have it, but if you don’t you can get it here.

(Also recommended: The Road to Middlemarch, by Rebecca Mead, which I reviewed here and you can get here.)

This was the top book on my shelves which I had already read but not reviewed here. Next on that pile is (shudder) The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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