by George Eliot
Eliot’s classic novel is often described as “the best English novel of all time.” How many novels can live up to that expectation? For that reason, Middlemarch has been my on-again-off-again-white-whale for about 18 months, but I finished it just a few days ago.
Why it took so long to read is a difficult thing to explain. Victorian literature is not something I can read at the end of the day drinking a glass of wine. Any effort on my part to read Middlemarch after work was a near-certain failure. Then again, at the beginning of the day, I prefer things a little more inspirational. It always seemed like there was something else I should “just finish” rather than turning back to Dorothea Brooks and Will Ladislaw. In the end, I found my most successful time to read Middlemarch was on the weekends, which was still a challenge.
That said, Middlemarch is a novel that everyone should read at least once. If you didn’t read it in school, it isn’t too late to read it as an adult. In fact, there are a lot of themes that would be completely lost on most readers in their teens and twenties.
Fred Vincy is a timeless caricature of unfocused youthful energy without a clear direction to follow. He epitomizes what my generation thinks of "the millennials." However, Fred probably epitomizes what the baby boomers thought of GenXers. Fred is full of well-intentioned ideas but lacks practical skills, common sense, and is a magnet of bad luck. I think you have to be well past your youth to appreciate Fred with his warm and endearing incompetence. Every time Fred enters the narrative, a face-palm "oh Fred" moment is sure to follow.
With Fred needing so much help, there is plenty of universally true career wisdom for readers to absorb through his exchanges with other characters. Here is an excerpt of career advice that Caleb Garth gives Fred:
"You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always 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 honorable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well, and not be always saying, There’s this and there’s that—if I had this or that to do, I might make something of it. No matter what a man is—I wouldn’t give twopence for him”—here Caleb’s mouth looked bitter, and he snapped his fingers—“whether he was the prime minister or the rick-thatcher, if he didn’t do well what he undertook to do.”
Mary Garth might be my favorite character from the novel. She is direct, smart, underestimated. She is also certain of her standards and clear to Fred when he is not meeting them. At one point she has this blunt exchange with him:
“Do you really like me best, Mary?” said Fred, turning eyes full of affection on her, and trying to take her hand. “I don’t like you at all at this moment,” said Mary . . .
And Casaubon… wow. What a pretentious, narcissistic blowhard. I actually had to look up his first name because I had forgotten it (Edward). That’s how formal this guy is. He is simply "Mr. Casaubon." Eliot masterfully wrote his dialogue, allowing the reader to gauge their own conclusions about his self-aggrandizing intellectual pursuits.
I do truly admire Eliot’s writing. There were unexpected moments of humor and situations where Eliot invites the reader to laugh at town gossip.
Middlemarch might also be the most covertly feminist book I’ve read from the Victorian era. Eliot uses diverse, three-dimensional women. Not a single character is depicted as the ideal woman or even close to perfect. Her female characters are conflicted and anxious. They exist for the sake of themselves – they do not simply further the character development of a paired male character. Eliot takes a hard dive into themes of marital inequality during her time. While both Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy are portrayed as living a little too rich for their means, she allows Rosamond several opportunities to aptly note the unfairness she suffers from her husband's poor career choices. She is expected to silently support him while he sacrifices his income, working for free, then blaming her lifestyle for their debts.
Eliot’s writing requires a little more concentration for me than Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters, who are my immediate comparisons from past reading. I had a difficult time getting used to Eliot's style in the same way I had a difficult time with Thomas Hardy in college. However, a little more effort than average was worth it in the end. The characters are memorable, interesting, and I would recommend Middlemarch to anyone looking for a worthwhile reading challenge.