Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Middlemarch, My Love

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.


Shelley said...

Wonderful homage to Middlemarch and George Eliot! She's a genius and I love her writing. I have Romola on deck to read soon, I hope. I've checked out Middlemarch to read again for Nymeth's readalong, but I don't know if I will have time :-(.

Greg Zimmerman said...

What a wonderful, fascinating post! Your passion for this novel spills off the screen - and is quite infectious, truth be told. And I love the history of the writer herself - great context for the story. And, wow! What a soap opera. :)

This novel is one that always sort of circles in the dark recesses of my literature-soaked mind, but it's not one I'd ever really been tempted to try. I love long books, though, and your enthusiasm for it actually gets me excited about the possibility of trying! Cheers!

Wait, George Eliot is a woman??? (Totally kidding...)

Grad said...

Great post. You have mentioned Middlemarch before, I think, with great zeal. In fact, I believe it is you who first made me want to read it. I am going to try to participate in Nymeth's read along. I'm just reading some Willa Cather, but will finish soon and can start.

Stephanie said...

What a gorgeous essay on Middlemarch! I've had it on my shelf for years, but I haven't read it yet. I did like Silas Marner, and I'm sure I'd love Middlemarch too.

Katrina said...

I love Middlemarch but I also loved The Mill on the Floss which a lot of people seem to dislike for some reason. I caught the end of a Philip Pullman radio interview on the BBC World Service recently and I was really surprised when he named Middlemarch as his favourite book.
Thanks for the great post.

Christopher said...

A beautiful review of one of the best books written in English! I agree too, that your love for this novel shines like the brightest star in the night sky. Well done!

I just finished a group-read of Eliot's "Daniel Deronda." It was truly superb, but not on the same plane with "Middlemarch." I also recently read "The Mill on the Floss" this summer, and absolutely fell in love with it (and Maggie Tulliver!). In my opinion, Eliot and her novels may be the zenith of authors and literature of the Victorian period. Great posting!

bibliophiliac said...

@Shelley-Romola and Daniel Deronda on on my tbr list...
@Greg-Thanks, I get that missionary zeal sometimes!
@Grad-its always good to have company when you're tackling a big book!

BookQuoter said...

I really love this idea of your reviewing all the classic books that you have read before. Your reviews are wonderful and are brimming with great information. They will be the lessons I missed in school!!!

I like George Eliot's idea of trying to find work that you love. As they say, if you love your work, then it is not work.

bibliophiliac said...

@Stephanie-Silas Marner is great too!
@Katrina & Lone Bear-I also love Mill on the Floss--but I do think Middlemarch is a better novel....

bibliophiliac said...

@BookQuoter-to love your work and do good work is one path to happiness, I think...

Judith said...

You have really, truly captured the heart of Middlemarch--at least what I consider its heart to be. It's perfect for people who all through their lives, no matter their age or circumstance, struggle to move toward work that has universal and personal meaning.

I adored Middlemarch--and I hope that many, many of your readers will be moved to read it after reading your post.

And, a thousand thank yous for The Versatile Blogger Award. I'm going to be fulfilling some of my duties on or immediately after August 8, when I get off my crazy rollercoaster.

Best wishes to you for a biblio-weekend!

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Rummanah Aasi said...

Terrific review, Lisa! I've never read "Middlemarch", but I did love the Masterpiece Theater miniseries based on the book. I do have a copy at home, but never got around to it. Must fix that problem. I also love Gaskell's work!

I did love "The Mill on the Floss" though. I'd love to join the read along but I don't I'd fit in the already growing tower of tbr pile. Next year for sure. :)

Aisle B said...

As high tech as this world has become the pleasure of reading will never be surpassed for its ultimate imprint on the reader's life. Middlemarch will no doubt reveal that life is bonded to the simple question of living one's life with no regret, regardless society's convergences or intrusions to alter lives relentlessly.
Victorian Middlemarch will surely tempt me after your review. Daunted by the volume but for the passion of words & creativity I will rise to the occassion and seek Middlemarch out.

Amanda said...

I have to admit this book scares me!

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

You have provided the most compelling argument to pick up novels from this time period - well done!!!! I adore these novels and am trying to determine which one next to read -- I guess it should be Middlemarch! :)

Suzanne said...

Middlemarch has always been on my to-read radar but I've never heard such a compelling description of it before. I plan on reading it sooner rather than later. Thanks for the post.

Julie P said...

Okay! You convinced me! I just added it to my TBR and wish lists....

Emily said...

What a fantastic review. You made me want to jump off the couch, find a copy of Middlemarch and start reading immediately! Love the quote you included, too. Thanks for sharing your enthusiasm :)

Amanda said...

Hi Lisa,

What a wonderful post! Middlemarch is one of those special classics that everyone -everyone!- tells me about and recommends and I'm going to put it on my TBR list... as my houseboat read for January 2011!
(Each year we spend a week on a houseboat on the Murray River in South Australia)

How's that?

My boss (a man) recommended this book to a male colleague who says that he can't get into books written by women, and ever since, I've been fascinated by this book.

Anyway, thanks for the shout out and classics month has been so incredible for me! I can't believe the response it's got from so many people.

I've emailed you about the guest post - yes please!

Bev Hankins said...

Fantastic review! Middlemarch is sitting here on my TBR pile...and after your review it is calling my name quite loudly. Unfortunately, I have Reading Challenges that I have to meet...better hurry those along.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic. Middlemarch is one of my favorite books. It prompted a reading of all the work of Eliot's that I could get my hands on. Might join the read-a-long.