This week, all I read was Middlemarch (1871-72), by George Eliot, and it was more than enough for me. Here I add my little voice to the chorus of millions that call out in praise.
The novel presents the intertwined lives of the people of Middlemarch, an ordinary town in the fictional Midlands county of Loamshire, between the years of 1829 and 1832. These were years of profound political and social upheaval in Britain, as unresolved questions of broadened democracy and greater religious freedom caused division in outlying communities that had seen little fundamental change in centuries. Eliot chooses to introduce her narrative and her characters in stages, concentrating on one family or a small interconnected group for fifty or a hundred pages and then branching off cleverly to the next.
Her technique reminded me of certain half-day trips we took in primary school, out into nature. Huddled around a pond in a country park or conservancy, someone in wellies would show us how to use our little nets to reach beneath the green layer of algae and frog spawn, pushing against the buoyancy of the net to dredge the shallow mud floor. Then we would pull up our meagre horde of wriggling life and dump it altogether into a white plastic tub, the better to see what we had found and inspect it for interesting matter, more interested in the beetles than the weeds. In repeating this process, bringing up from the muck and examining netful after netful, we would come to realise the diversity of submarine species that may not necessarily live in harmony, but at least reside side by side. I see this as something like Eliot’s process: not outright ex nihilo creation, which we often consider to be the fundamental source of fiction, so much as a process of discovery and intimate exposure of a jumbled world that has so far been hidden from view.
There must be at least twenty-five characters in the book of whom we are presented with private understanding, and whose lives we follow throughout the years of the narrative, and not one of them is a caricature present only to fulfil a narrative function. Often you will find that big English novels of earlier centuries try to be very didactic, meaning here that authors will impute moral ills or virtues to their characters’ actions via the medium of pithy authorial interjections and epigrams, so that through the author’s perceived wisdom the reader may learn how to live better. Maybe the greedy money-lender will be run out of town in the end, or the wife who calumnies her husband behind his back will be found out and shamed. I need hardly mention all the authors in our canon who smuggle treatises on right and wrong into their novels under the false guise of impartial judgement on their characters. Dickens made an excellent living out of it. This does not mean that these authors cannot be enjoyed, especially if you happen to agree with their perspectives. Again, Dickens.
What I found in Middlemarch is that Eliot, in her ambivalence towards concrete personal judgements, takes this popular formula and notably improves upon it by steering us away from too-easy pronouncements of reverence or condemnation. Employing a frequently intrusive narrator, the author gives us the inside track on a score of characters’ thought processes, exposing both how they think and what circumstances in their life have caused them to think in such a way. She often does so ends such passages with a skewering last summative sentence that I feel drawn to underline (the surest sign of an epigrammatic writer). All the time, we find that we must first learn precisely what factors pertain to a character’s particular dilemma—who stands to gain and who to lose; what the immediate family will think; how the impact of national movements will come to bear—and then what the narrator thinks of the whole fine mess before the story is allowed to progress. These are the points at which Eliot shows us what wisdom on the page really looks like, because her emotional adeptness makes is so glaringly plain. She never paints things in monochrome. Always, there are contaminations of vibrant colour.
Dorothea Brooke, the young woman protagonist, is perhaps the character whose desires are the most elusive, and whose motivations remain most a mystery even to herself. We learn early that she desires freedom from the constraints of her genteel childhood, and due to her limited horizons, can only seek it in an adventurous marriage. Once she has turned down a more conventional suitor, she is thrilled to accept instead the unlikely proposal of a man thirty years her senior, Mr. Edward Casaubon. In exercising her right to choose for herself, however, we quickly find that she has overshot the mark, and caused her own imprisonment. Her new husband is a sickly academic with a singular purpose in life: he seeks to unravel the classical mysteries with a unifying theory that he will transcribe and publish as the “Key to all Mythologies”. Yet he has never been able to narrow the vast range of his inquiry; the thrust of his project has gradually diffused to nothing beneath hundreds of arcane sub-headings in his scattered notebooks. Young Dorothea quickly finds that his free-thinking intellectualism, which once she perceived to be his chief allure, has ossified through self-doubt into a dreadful yoke that inhibits all of his faculties save those he can employ in the silence of his library. Eliot presents this mutual disappointment in the most deft terms, drawing the metaphorical out of the perfectly descriptive:
“But [Dorothea] was gradually ceasing to expect with her former delightful confidence that she should see any wide opening where she followed him. Poor Mr. Casaubon himself was lost among small closets and winding stairs, and in an agitated dimness about the Cabeiri [an esoteric group of minor Greek idols], or in an exposure of other mythologists’ ill-considered parallels, easily lost sight of any purpose which had prompted him to these labours. With his taper stuck before him he forgot the absence of windows, and in bitter manuscript remarks on other men’s notions about the solar deities, he had become indifferent to the sunlight.” (188)
Eliot never allows the scales of judgement to tip irretrievably either way. We learn a great deal about Dorothea Brooke and her husband’s unhappiness, but the blame does not fit squarely wherever we try to place it. Is Dorothea to be pitied for her misfortune in marrying a bore? Or rightly scorned for her naïveté? Or should Mr. Casaubon try harder, though it pains him, to accommodate his wife’s limited demands upon his time and his affection? Much later on, a Middlemarch clergyman, Mr. Camden Farebrother, inadvertently explains why it is a failure of imagination to think that we must label Dorothea and her husband in discrete terms as potential heroine/villain or emotional manipulator/victim. He says, reproving a neighbour for their reductive opinion, that a person’s “character is not cut in marble” (700)—this is something that is self-evident in people we know well in real life, but can be very difficult to perceive or even allow in fictional characters. Any thoughtful treatment of a Middlemarcher must take into account not only how he or she was first described to us, but also how our opinion of that person must develop according to the capacities they have shown for selfishness, charity and self-reflectiveness. I cannot recall a character in the novel of whom my opinion did not develop from introduction to farewell. That sense of natural development, of growing along with people, is what the best of lengthy, skilfully written novels can provide that I don’t think any other art pieces do so well.
Along similar lines, I would also say that Middlemarch is the rare Victorian novel that does not allow characters with agreeable morals to eventually win out simply because the reader is inclined to like them. The only novel of Eliot’s that I had read before this was Silas Marner (1861), which is of a much more approachable length and well executed, but doesn’t approach Middlemarch in its moral ambiguity or complex construction. Silas Marner is a morality tale, even a fable, where the good man is eventually vindicated; Middlemarch does not for a moment pretend that life is so fairly ordered. Certain of the Middlemarch folk pursue innovation and reform in their professions and private lives, whether by running for office, pursuing Methodism, or working to inculcate new medical practices in such a culturally retentive province. The more traditional set in the town, and especially in the surrounding country estates, vigorously opposes such novelty, even as members of the two groups continue to rely upon one another in quotidian ways as they have always done. I would argue that neither the reform-minded nor the conservative position is shown to be the correct one, and neither points more directly towards a better future for the town or the country at large. This ambivalence appears to run contrary to Eliot’s own position as a prominent progressive journalist, but no strain shows. She does not appear to be forcing her even-handedness, rather the story is presented as if such things just occur—life is messy, in Middlemarch and outside it, and the location of progress is hard to track down in the moment. Though one may disagree with a neighbour about peerages, both lives go on much the same.
Even had I her talent, I find it almost impossible to believe that I could undertake to write with such social consciousness and moral discrimination without at least suggesting to my reader the path I thought was right to follow. Eliot’s loyalties lie not with her own beliefs. She trusts in the independent minds of her individual, capricious characters, and so the action of Middlemarch actually seems to be dictated by its subjects’ decisions in the moment and not by its author’s design. Where other writers might step in to reward our devotion to key characters with little serotonin infusions of joy along the way, anyone in Middlemarch who seems to be settling into hope is as likely as not to stumble soon—Eliot always gives more rope where it’s needed. Everything remains in flux, few conclusions are drawn, yet the author never loses her grip. When you sit down to write your next big novel, try to emulate this approach. You might find, mortal friend, that you struggle.
Every time the author’s perspicacity alarmed me (which, you may have noticed, was often), I became yet more certain that I was reading a book written by one of the most emotionally intelligent people ever to have lived. I came to the conclusion that the author herself must have had trouble in human company, her vast empathy overwhelming her senses as if she were a synesthete at a cacophonous concert—as she shows so often in her writing, no pleasing gift comes without its checking burden.
Image: John Constable, ‘Wivenhoe Park’