November 7, 2008
There is a world in this book, a world that Eliot has wrapped up and commentated for us and handed to us for posterity. As such, a world is too much to master in a single read, and I know my careful yet single experience with this story is not enough.
The world of Middlemarch is populated by characters with the complexity of planets (they have their own weather systems of cause, continents of pathos) orbited by archetypical small-town satellites (bloviators, horse traders, shrews, useless gentlefolk).
Our fair protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, navigates the treachery of pastoral pre-Victorian England with as much tact and grace as can be possible, pitting her own individuality against the fatiguing winds of her prescribed fate. She defends herself from the inevitable (married, dull, subjugated life) with several sequential fronts: idealistic, self-effacing religiosity; ascetic academic ardor; resigned but noble widow. Of course, none of these withstand because they are false fronts to a personality too deep to be hidden.
The other planets of Middlemarch’s solar system (Eliot would say “web”, but I’ll broker my own metaphor here) are also simultaneously idiosyncratic and stereotypical. Rosamond Lydgate (nee Vincy) is so syrupy and materialistic that one spends much of the time wanting to give her a good wallop, and yet, cracks appear: what other power has she beyond nagging her husband? How can she have any control over her life without deceit? Conflicts like these characterize Eliot’s presentation of the sweeping social changes in 19th-century Britain.
The intrepid explorer of this universe needs patience and a careful eye. Eliot’s phrasing is recursive and deep, with clauses tucking into other clauses and sentences many lines long. References are dense and arcane (to the dismay of readers who might like to think of themselves as well-read); a well-noted edition is recommended (the Penguin Classics series is a good bet). Despite the length (almost 850 pages) and wordiness, be warned: Eliot means what she writes. This is not padding. Every sentence has its place, every description has its meaning.
If you’re paying attention and taking good scientific samples, what you’ll bring back from this expedition is an understanding of a world, frozen in time, and the seismic changes it is about to shudder through. You might understand better how women’s coming emancipation, a newly-enfranchised populace, and a value system redefined to encompass industry and self-made success posed such a monumental threat to the steady, patriarchal aristocracy that had been the center of this universe for so many centuries.