Why should busy, texting, tweeting readers of the 21st century read a sprawling, nearly nine-hundred page novel about the provincial lives of characters living in the Victorian era? Why read Middlemarch? My dear readers, I will tell you.
Middlemarch is a big triple-decker novel written at a time when readers of novels (an already privileged group) had more leisure time in which to read. Victorian readers didn't have such important and urgent activities as watching Real Housewives or tweeting about the thought that just happened to pass through their brains. Plus, servants were included in the deal if you were relatively well-off (a time-saver for everyone but the servants). Novels were published in volumes, usually three; they were also usually serialized in magazines, which smart people also took the time to read. People talked about the characters in novels the way we talk about those Housewives today. But, Middlemarch has something that every reader will be interested in: this novel makes the reader think about life and how we should live it. No, it isn't a sermon, but Middlemarch is full of problems, ideas, and issues that are relevant to today's reader--and there are characters the reader will care about. Here, in no particular order, are some of the reasons you might want to read Middlemarch.
1. Dorothea Brooke is a young woman who is trying to decide how to live a meaningful, useful life, despite being female, and therefore without education, power, or the ability to follow a profession. George Eliot had unusual insight into this dilemma, because she was really a woman named Mary Ann Evans--more about Eliot and her reasons for using a pseudonym later. This problem of living a meaningful, useful life is still pretty relevant.
2. Eliot's central metaphor is a web: we are all connected. I love a novel with a really good central metaphor, don't you?
3. Here's another relevant idea: finding the work that we love is important to leading a good and useful life. Here is one of my favorite passages from Middlemarch:
You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not always be looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honourable in you to be doing something else....No matter what a man is-I wouldn't give twopence for him....whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn't do well what he undertook to do.That's Caleb Garth speaking to the spoiled and thriftless Fred Vincy. How to apply our talents and abilities is a question most of us confront, and Eliot's characters (Lydgate, Vincy, Will Ladislaw, Dorothea Brooke) don't find happiness unless they satisfactorily answer this question: What will I do with my life?
4. According to Freud, we have two needs: love and work. Both needs must be satisfied and in balance for us to have good and satisfying lives, and many of the characters in Middlemarch are going about the business of looking for love. Eliot shows her readers just how important a decision we make when we choose to spend our lives with another person: marry the wrong person, or marry for the wrong reasons, and there will be doleful consequences. Still true today.
5. Life without passion is dull, dry, and sad. The Victorians are known for their allegiance to propriety, but Middlemarch illustrates how denying passion for work, life, art, and love can be crushing to the spirit.
George Eliot knew about the constricted lives of Victorian women because she was one. Many people assume that Eliot wrote under a masculine pen name because of prejudice against women writers. Certainly such prejudice existed, which is why the Bronte sisters chose masculine pen names. But there was already a tradition of female novelists in England; Fanny Burney and other women had been successful in the 18th century, and Elizabeth Gaskell (called Mrs. Gaskell by her readers) was a highly successful contemporary of Eliot. Mary Ann Evans used a pen name for reasons having to do with a scandal connected to her name: she was living out-of-wedlock with the married writer George Lewes. The two writers were deeply in love, and had a romantic and intellectual partnership that was nourishing to Evans/Eliot; when Lewes died before her, she was bereft. The living arrangement shared by Evans and Lewes was so infamous that Evans was afraid books published under her own name would be scorned by the reading public. Evans made great sacrifices to be with the man she loved.
The reason that Lewes, a married man, was unable to divorce was that, at the time, divorce was difficult to obtain. For the most part, adultery was the only grounds on which divorce could be obtained: adultery of the wife. Since women could not represent themselves in court (they weren't really people you see) only men could bring suit; they could prove their wives were unfaithful and thus get rid of them. It wasn't uncommon for men to falsely accuse their wives of adultery in order to rid themselves of wives they no longer wanted. Women married to adulterers had no legal recourse. Also, in the event of divorce, men retained custody of any children in the marriage.
Lewes must have been the ultimate gentleman, because his wife actually was unfaithful--in fact she had a child or children by another man. Despite this fact, Lewes never subjected his wife to the scandal and shame of a divorce; instead, he lived with his love and life partner Mary Ann Evans, without benefit of clergy.
This fascinating personal story might surprise readers who think of the Victorians as staid, stodgy, and bearded. However, that's hardly a reason to dive into a nine hundred page novel. One reason for reading Middlemarch is the same reason a reader might pick up any contemporary novel: for the pleasure of the experience. The greatest pleasure of Middlemarch is the active and ever-present intellect of its author, leading the reader through a complex narrative about ordinary and extraordinary people living their lives.
Middlemarch has everything a reader could want: compelling characters; a large and complex world that, aside from historical details is not so unlike our own; thoughts on the big questions of life; an overarching metaphor to draw it all together. So, dear reader, I hope I have convinced to to at least consider giving Middlemarch a read.
If you'd like company in your Middlemarch venture, Nymeth at Things Mean A Lot is hosting a readalong for the novel; readers will be sharing (and tweeting) their thoughts August 23rd-29th.
If you'd like to get in on a great conversation about classic books, Amanda at Desert Book Chick is hosting Classic Books Month. She has some great posts, including a guest post by Jane Doe of Dead White Guys.