Thomas Hardy Takes a Stab at Napoleon

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The Trumpet Major, Thomas Hardy, 1880

In 1880 our boy Thomas Hardy attempted a historical novel. As much as I love a romanticized historical setting, Hardy’s Regency Era novel is a big fat fail for me. The story concerns the denizens of a mill, which is a good start, because who doesn’t love a literary miller? The miller has two sons. A sailor named Bob and soldier named John. I knew from the names alone that Hardy didn’t put his thinking cap on for this one. This is the man who created Cytherea Gray, Bathsheba Everdeen and Gabriel Oak. He named the brothers Bob and John. And guess who both brothers are in love with? Anne Garland. No offense intended to the many Anne’s I love in this world, but Hardy sure didn’t strain his creative faculties for this novel.

Anne lives at the mill with her widowed mother. The miller also lost his spouse and decided to rent out part of the mill house to pretty, little Anne and her brainless mother. Of course, both his sons take a fancy to the maiden. Thomas Hardy is too cool for triangles; he loves a love square. So, the local aristocrat also falls for Anne. Anne. Come on now. At least the squire-ling is named Festus Derriman. That’s a name worth hearing. Apart from his appellation, Festus is worthless. He’s a big hulking bro who constantly attempts to or threatens to assault dear little Anne. It’s terrifying. To add another layer of horror, Anne remains silent about Derriman’s persecution, because she doesn’t want to interrupt trade between the manor and the mill. What’s more important than women’s safety in a capitalist society? Everything.

The reader is meant to admire steady, loyal John the soldier and look down on Bob the fickle sailor. However, the characters are so thin and bland, that I couldn’t work up any emotion. The great question of the book is who will Anne marry, but Anne is boring and so are her suitors. My only investment was hoping she didn’t chose Derriman for the sake of increasing her social status. It’s unclear to me why Hardy bothered with the Regency setting when it functions only as a background for his typical love square scenario. Unlike Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, the war is incidental to the action of The Trumpet-Major and not fully utilized.

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This book is light, frivolous and unlike Hardy’s other novels, free from any point of view. Yet, I can’t quite bring myself to hate it. It’s not a strong novel, but it’s still Thomas freaking Hardy we’re talking about. He’s my favorite writer. Even when he has nothing to say, he says it well. The style of his writing pleases me. Always. I think Hardy wanted an excuse to interview his aged neighbors about their memories of the Napoleonic Wars. That exercise did not result in an excellent novel, but I like to think he enjoyed the process. I still enjoyed reading it more than I’ve enjoyed anything by Henry James so far. Pick up your game, Henry James.

 

You might like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you have a thing for stories about brothers squabbling over the same lady
  • you have a thing for novels about the Napoleonic Wars
  • you want to read a decently written novel that doesn’t require much thought

You might not like The Trumpet-Major if:

  • you only have time for the best works by the best writers

Final thoughts: It’s still better than Under the Greenwood Tree. Thomas Hardy’s second worst novel so far. We have at least two truly spectacular novels to go, y’all. Have faith in our boy.

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The Forgotten Woman Who Created the Detective Novel

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The Leavenworth Case, Anna Katharine Green, 1878

You have probably never heard of Anna Katharine Green. I certainly hadn’t before I started researching notable 19th century novels. This is a travesty because this woman GAVE BIRTH TO THE DETECTIVE NOVEL. Yes, I am screaming.

She wasn’t quite the first detective novelist or even the first American woman to write in the genre. One other lady whom no one remembers beat her to that distinction, Seeley Regester. But, Anna K was a pioneer. She was the first to publish a series of novels featuring the same detective. What? Yes! She pre-sherlocked Sherlock. I’m so excited I can’t think of verbs. She invented the nosy older lady detective, pre-marpling Marple. And she introduced the first girl detective. A trail of evidence that leads straight to Nancy Drew!

Anna Katharine Green. Remember that name. I’m smiling just thinking about her. What a woman. What a genre starter. Wilkie Collins loved her. Agatha Christie cited her as an influence. Obviously. Arthut Conan Doyle made a point of visiting her when he traveled to the States.

Her first novel is The Leavenworth Case. Our narrator is a young and presumably handsome lawyer whose boss is conveniently laid up when his longtime client and good friend is MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD. Convenient because, this means dashing young Mr. Raymond is sent to comfort and advise the murdered man’s two beautiful nieces. His whole world is shaken when the police inquiry immediately casts suspicion on one of the bereaved ladies. But how could anyone suspect such a lovely creature of  such a foul deed? Horrors.

Our chivalrous hero sets out to aid the eccentric lead detective, Mr. Gryce, out of curiosity, but mainly with the intention of proving that neither of New York’s finest debs could possibly commit such a grizzly deed. I know, confirmation bias. It’s ok though, because Mr. Gryce does make a fool out of him after making good use of his ability rub elbows with high society.

I was surprised by how well Anna Katharine Green tricked me. I’ve read so many books, I can usually guess the outcome many chapters away, but she lays down so many great false paths of suspicion. The actual murderer only popped into my head as a potential suspect fleetingly, before she convinced me that it must be someone else.

I’ll admit, the book is a bit melodramatic, but hey, so what. It’s such good fun. I am going to read more of her stories and I can’t wait to do so. I need to meet the original Ms. Marple and the original girl detective, who appear in later books, not this one. It’s truly delightful. If you’re a mystery fan, you owe Anna Katharine Green some of your time. She birthed your genre for you and it was hard, thankless work. She deserves to be remembered.

You might like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • you’re a fan of classic mystery writers like Conan Doyle and Christie
  • you enjoy period pieces and murder mysteries

You might not like Anna Katharine Green if:

  • mysteries just aren’t your thing

Final Thoughts: Read The Leavenworth Case. Just do it. Anna Katharine Green deserves a renaissance. Or read one of her other novels. At the very least listen to one on librivox.org. It’s free. There are 42 mysteries for you to choose from! Enjoy, darlings.

Black Beauty

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Black Beauty, Anna Sewell, 1877

Do the words Black Beauty conjure a hazy memory of an exciting adventure story about a boy and his horse that you read as a child? Me too. That book is The Black Stallion. Can’t wait to reread that one. Black Beauty is not the same type of story.

An ailing Anna Sewell picked up her pen intending to right an injustice, not to entertain anyone. She saw widespread mistreatment of horses in England. So, to humanize the humble horse Sewell wrote a book in the voice of a horse. Black Beauty recalls his days as a handsome, happy colt on a country estate. Things do not go well from there. BB is sold several times. He becomes a London cab horse. It’s not pretty.

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As someone with limited experience with horses, I am perhaps not the best person to review this book. People flipped over this novel. Immediately. Apparently sad fake horse memoirs were exactly what they’d never known they needed. Anna Sewell lived only five months after the publication of her only book, but that was long enough to see it become a bestseller. It remains among the bestselling books of all time. Sad moralizing horse thoughts. Who’d a thunk it?

Don’t get me wrong, I think Sewell’s message is noble and worthy. I’m all for compassionate treatment of horses. I’m just not for a bleak collection of plotless parables about a horse’s sad life. But hey, as an activist novel it was incredibly successful. That’s wonderful for horses and wonderful for Anna Sewell. I want things to be wonderful for you, dear reader. I sincerely hope you are kind to horses. If you are already kind to horses, you can skip this book, because it’s rather dull.

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I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so overtly and single-mindedly concerned with good behavior. On page seven the reckless behavior of an aristocrat results in the broken legs and subsequent death of a horse.  Black Beauty’s mother laments that “he was a good bold horse, there was no vice in him.” These horses are concerned about vice. I read just  seven pages before I was rolling my eyes at the moralizing. And can we talk about how bored I am of the aristocrat breaks horse’s legs/back trope. Vronsky did it. No one else needs to. Please stop with this shorthand. There are other ways to be inconsiderate.

Anna Sewell is very thorough in her reckoning of all the people who might be involved in the life of a horse and all the ways they might be cruel or kind to a horse. We have good and bad owners, buyers, sellers, riders, grooms, assistant grooms, hotel grooms, breaker inners, cab drivers, coach drivers and a whole slew of other people that didn’t stick in my memory.

Look, horses are cool. I like them as much as the next person, but not as much as girls who read lots of pony books. Pony books are not my subgenre. So, I can’t get too jazzed about the mother of all pony books. But I’m happy for the success of Black Beauty. It’s seminal. But so are some other books that aren’t very good. I’m looking at you Frankenstein and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You might like Black Beauty if:

  • you love horses

You might not like Black Beauty if:

  • you love plots

Final thoughts: It was boring.

Side note: Please do not judge my knitting skills by this atrocious horse. I am so embarrassed by it. I have knit other stuffed animals that turned out very nicely. Cats, rabbits, parrots, people. All very nice looking. I really failed on this poor, derpy horse though. Jeez. It is very hard to sew an accurate seam on black yarn. Yikes. I don’t have access to a horse of any color, so I tried to make a horse. I promise that next knitted item you see on this blog will be better. It is not the fault of the pattern. I have knit other patterns by Alan Dart and they turned out beautifully.

A Forgotten Gem by Thomas Hardy

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This novel is about a young society lady whose father is a butler and I got my father to pose for the picture. Cute, right?

The Hand of Ethelberta, Thomas Hardy, 1876

Did you know that if you stand before a mirror in a dark room and say Ethelberta Petherwin three times fast, a strong, ingeniously resourceful and kind literary heroine will appear?
I will let Thomas Hardy introduce dear Berta. He’s better at these things. An apparently refined and elegant young lady spots a hawk chasing a duck. “Ethelberta impulsively started off in a rapid run that would have made a little dog bark with delight and run after, her object being, if possible, to see the end of this desperate struggle for a life so small and unheard-of. Her stateliness went away, and it could be forgiven for not remaining: for her feet suddenly became as quick as fingers, and she raced along over the uneven ground with such force of tread that, being a woman slightly heavier than gossamer, her patent heels punched little D’s in the soil with unerring accuracy wherever it was bare, crippled the heather where it was not, and sucked the swampy places with a sound of quick kisses.”
Just look at all Hardy is able to do in one little paragraph. We love our girl already, because we understand her impulse to scurry after the birds. We relate to her, because we too want to know the duck’s fate. We are curious. How did such an elegant lady acquire this agility? He has already established a contrast between her fancy garb, genteel appearance and some lovable coarseness in her inner nature. That prose! The images of the delighted dog and the swampy kisses from her little heel. So good. Hardy is a champion and so is Ethelberta.

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Our heroine is a country girl, whose father sends money from his London job as a butler. E begins her long career of trying to support her many siblings and invalid mother, by becoming a governess. Don’t worry, I will spoil nothing, this is all background info. Being lovely, she of course elopes with the young aristocratic son. Soon thereafter her husband and his parents die. The elder Lady Petherwin dies last and leaves young Lady Petherwin nothing but a two year lease on an upscale London apartment. Determined to use her new social position to improve her family’s status, Berta comes up with some very creative ways of saving and making money, including:
• Writing light verse
• Becoming a celebrated performer/ storyteller
• Bringing her whole family to live with her under the pretense that they are her servants
• Ultimately deciding that she must marry, because she will not be able to hide the secret of her birth forever
As you can imagine, pretending that your siblings are your servants is a situation ripe for comedy. You have to admire the audaciousness of Ethelberta’s scheme. Hardy tops his usual love square in this book. Four men try for The Hand of Ethelberta, two of whom are loved by other women. We have a love pentagon with two love triangles branching off. Add in the tension between E and her reforming brothers, who worry that she’ll be burned as a blueblood in the coming revolution. Add her own inner tension; she constantly wonders if she’d be happier discarding her deceitful lifestyle and the trappings of wealth to become a rural school mistress. Not to mention Hardy’s bitter commentary on the scornful way servants are regarded. His mother was a servant and he does an excellent job of inverting the popular Victorian and Gothic trope of the bumbling, ludicrous, idiotic, superstitious servants.
Ethelberta is a truly unique character, with an admirable capacity for sacrifice and creativity. I love her for consulting books of philosophy in a crisis. What other Victorian heroine does that? I love her for other reasons, but I’m leaving plenty of detail out, because I really think you should read this one. The prose has all the elements of Hardy’s greatness, including such wisdom as:

“A half knowledge of another’s life usually does injustice to the life half known.”
And
“between continually wanting to love, to escape the blank lives of those who do not, and wanting not to love, to keep out the miseries of those that do, I get foolishly warm and foolishly cold by turns.”

You might like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • you enjoy a strong heroine with a surfeit of love interests
  • you like unexpected endings
  • you wish the women in Period Pieces had more gumption

You might not like The Hand of Ethelberta if:

  • I dunno…you’re more into Cormac McCarthy than Jane Austen

Final thoughts: The critics didn’t love this one, but we are not Victorian literary critics. For me, this is one of Hardy’s better books and certainly worth your time. There is a very good recording on Librivox, if you’d prefer an audiobook.

A Series of Unfortunate Marriages

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The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy, 1878

Alert: The Return of the Native is one of the only audiobooks that Alan Rickman ever recorded. If you enjoy audiobooks at all, you should listen to this one before reading this post. Treat yourself. I will not divulge the entire plot here, but you might want to go give it a listen before I divulge a single thing.

This novel is a strange, mixed bag. It contains all the elements that make Thomas Hardy’s writing wonderful and some elements that let the story down. The highlight of the book is Diggory Venn, the reddleman. I love this character from the depths of my being. He roves the heath in something like a Romani wagon, selling red dye that shepherds use to mark their livestock. He’s quite successful, but his trade has the disadvantage of turning his skin and clothes red. Of course, he becomes the local boogeyman, because of his outlandish appearance. If you don’t wash behind your ears, the reddleman will carry you away. Far from being a scary kidnapper, poor Diggory is kind and resourceful and tireless in his efforts to help others. But the woman he loves, Thomasin Yeobright, will not marry him, in part because of his redness.

We must take yet another moment on this blog to recognize Hardy’s brilliance with character names. Characters in this book include:

Thomasin (Tamsin) Yeobright                                          Clement (Clym) Yeobright

Eustacia Vye                                                                        Damon Wildeve

Grandfer Cantle                                                                     Johnny Nunsuch

How does he do it?

The tale takes place on Egdon Heath. Hardy describes this wild habitat with such beauty and nuance that the setting is absolutely the second-best part of the book after Diggory Venn. I appreciate every word he uses to describe Egdon. However, when the setting is more interesting than half your characters, you halfway blew it. If he’d put the same energy into making Tamsin something more than a symbol of feminine sweetness, figuring out whether Eustacia is supposed to be an allegory or a girl, and eliminating the bizarre, abstract elements of Clym’s characterization, this would be a perfect book.

We need to talk about Eustacia Vye. Please indulge me by reading Hardy’s initial description of her:

“Eustacia Vye was the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well with a little preparation. She had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman. Had it been possible for the earth and mankind to be entirely in her grasp for a while, she had handled the distaff, the spindle, and the shears at her own free will, few in the world would have noticed the change of government. There would have been the same inequality of lot, the same heaping up of favours here, of contumely there, the same generosity before justice, the same perpetual dilemmas, the same captious alteration of caresses and blows that we endure now.”

Wow. I love this intertwining of Hardy’s worldview with his description of this woman. She is as unpredictable and arbitrary as human destiny. I’m intrigued. Did you notice that in this extended metaphor he avoided implying that any deity actually does control the outcome of our lives? Hardy was pretty much an atheist. Go team!

I wanted to love our mercurial heath goddess, Eustacia, because she dresses in drag to get close to a fella she’s interested in. But she’s a Hera, not an Athena, and we can’t love Hera, because she’s prone to imposing extravagant punishments on the women that her husband rapes. You have to exhibit a smidge of compassion to be a sympathetic character. Instead, Eustacia’s careless, egotistic meddling ruins lives. This would be fine, not morally, but as a fictitious device, if Hardy didn’t spend the last section of the novel asking the reader to bewail poor Eustacia’s sad lot. The same lot in life that she chose for herself with complete disregard for the happiness of everyone around her. Perhaps this will not be a problem for you. Perhaps you are more forgiving than I.

 

You might like The Return of the Native if:

  • you’re a fan of Thomas Hardy’s other work
  • you love anything set on a moor

You might not like The Return of the Native if:

  • you need your characters to be at least as dynamic as the scenery

Final Thoughts: Even with this flaw, the end of the book is pretty satisfying. Overall, I like it very much. Hardy’s prose is top notch in this one. There is pristine scene in which a woman looks at a heron. I read it three or four times and I got more out of it each time. Currently, I would rank The Return of the Native fourth or fifth out of the seven Thomas Hardy books I have read, which may sound low, but the three or four books ahead of it are three or four of my all-time favorite books. I think it’ll end up at the top of my second tier of Hardy novels. We shall see.

The Worst Author in the Canon

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The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope, 1875

Hold on to your hats, we are about to review the worst writer in the canon! Anthony Trollope, yes that’s his name, is a horrible writer. Perhaps someone worse will come along, but I doubt it. He packs the double punch of inept writing and racism. Yep.

This is a review of three of his novels, because they do not deserve individual posts. I read The Warden, Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now. Why did I read all three? Because the racism didn’t rear its ugly head until the third book.

The Warden is a story for those of you who have always wondered how Anglican clergymen get appointed to a parish, which I presume is none of you. But if you are very concerned about the minutiae of church politics in the 19th century, boy do I have a book for you! Briefly, a clergyman who needs more money is offered a plum position that he feels he does not deserve, because he prefers gardening to actually doing his job. His colleagues argue “See here, Old Chap, you simply must take the position. Nepotism and cronyism are the zylem and phloem of the Anglican Church. Nobody in this institution deserves anything they have, Old Boy.” The Warden replies “I really feel I shouldn’t” and the go back and forth for a while. I don’t remember whether he takes the job or not, because who even cares, honestly. I read this one over a year ago.

Now, a kerfuffle over a fairly insignificant clergy appointment seems like a situation that, once resolved, couldn’t possibly have an aftermath. Nevertheless, Anthony Trollope wrote 500 pages of just that. In Barchester Towers old enmities are resolved. New enmities are formed. Lovers are kept apart by misunderstanding, overcome the misunderstanding and get married. Games of whist are described with meticulous detail for no reason whatsoever. If you just love stories of British manor houses, you might be able to tolerate this one.

That brings us to The Way We Live Now. That title. A bit on the nose, don’t you think, Trollope? It does encapsulate the aim of most fiction by squarely declaring the author’s intent to comment on contemporary life. But, why? Every non-historical novel could have this title. Why not change Pride and Prejudice to The Way We Fall in Love? The Great Gatsby could be The Way We Crush the Lower Classes Beneath Our Expensive Shoes. ChangemGreat Expectations to The Surprising Way We Ascend to a Higher Social Class While Abandoning Our Morals. Better writers come up with symbols, phrases or metaphors that encapsulate their point of view on contemporary life, rather than simply braying their intent to make a comment. As the The Catcher in the Rye symbolizes Holden Caulfield’s doomed need to hold on to innocence and The Great Gatsby symbolizes the impossible ambitions of the 1920s. But Anthony Trollope is not a better writer.

Of course, I expended considerable mental effort puzzling out Trollope’s exact comment on life in England in the 1870s. It’s not pretty. TWWLN concerns a wealthy capitalist and the swarm of aristocrats who try to profit off him. Nobles bolstering their dwindling resources by marrying the daughters of tradesmen is central to the novel, but hardly unique to the late 19th century. Sullying your blue blood by condescending to marry new money is as old as the English novel. Older, really. It’s not possible for a family to live forever off the land granted to some ancestor by Alfred the Great. Eventually, one of your heirs will have to stop hunting and gambling long enough to bestow the title of Duchess of Wherever or Lady Somethingorother on the daughter of a man who had the good sense to earn some money. I’m not trying to endorse capitalism here. I just think it’s a bit rich of British aristocrats to be completely pointless and then whine about not having any money.

To abruptly change the tone: the “now” of The Way We Live Now is anti-semitism. It’s not that men with titles are degrading themselves by befriending someone with new money. It’s that they are befriending a wealthy Jew. It’s not that their daughters are marrying merchants, it’s that they are marrying Jewish merchants. It’s not that their sons are gambling away their fortunes, it’s that their sons must now resort to marrying Jewish heiresses. Trollope’s mightiest symbol of how far England has fallen is the admission of a Jewish capitalist into Parliament. I don’t know what to say about this. Trollope wrote a horrible book with a message of racism and xenophobia. I’m glad this guy is rarely read outside of England. Y’all can keep him. No, don’t keep him. Boot him out of your canon. He’s horrible. I’m not talking about a moment of racism in an otherwise well-written book. I’m talking about a shoddily written book with racism as its main theme. Just trash.

Final thoughts: I could continue elaborating on the flaws in Trollope’s writing, but I think you know enough by now. The only decent thing I can say about him is that his books are good soporifics. I realized when I finished reading TWWLN that I’d grown to depend on it to help me fall asleep.

Your College Professors Lied to You about the Value of Middlemarch

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Be warned: I wrote this review before I finished reading Eliot’s other works. I contend that she suuuucks and is not the feminist hero you deserve. I have receipts. More on that later. What you need to know for this review is that when you consider Dorothea’s fate in the context of Eliot’s other novels and some of the bullshit opinions Eliot professed in print in her own damn voice, you will see that Middlemarch is not the crown jewel of a shining career, but costume jewelry sitting on a dung heap. Eliot sucks. I will prove it. Later.

Before I started this project I considered Middlemarch my favorite Victorian novel. Now it doesn’t crack the top ten. Don’t misunderstand me; Middlemarch is a great English novel. Truly.  But. . .it is one of the only books I admire that I have no desire to read again. I liked it less on a second and third reading. I’m not sure I will ever make a fourth attempt.

Let’s talk about what makes this book great, then discuss where it falls down. Middlemarch is famous for being the first novel that follows a woman’s life past her marriage. George Eliot beat Thomas Hardy to that distinction by two years. To give her fair credit, Eliot’s portrays her young bride with greater psychological intimacy. Given that the English novel treated marriage as the one great crisis of a woman’s life after which she ceases to be interesting, Middlemarch is refreshing and fascinating.

Dorothea Brooke’s characterization is masterful. I especially appreciate her introductory scene. Her more materialistic little sister wants to divide up their dead mother’s jewelry, a task that Dorothea has put off, because she’s too pious and unworldly to concern herself with something so trivial. Or so it would seem. After condescendingly acceding to her sister’s whim, Dorothea becomes captivated by the beauty of the gems, “trying to justify her delight in the colours with a mystical religious joy.” Eliot very effectively sets up the contrast between Dorothea’s determination to live righteously and her sensual enjoyment of the world.

Dodo, as her sister calls her, passionately desires a life of “glorious piety.” She wants to make a great intellectual contribution to the world. Sadly, she is ruinously limited by her gentlewoman’s education. She has learned only what was thought proper for her gender and is insufficiently versed in any subject to make meaningful contributions. So, she busies herself trying to improve the lives of the people who live on her uncle’s estate, a hobby the people of Middlemarch consider eccentric. The real tragedy of the novel lies in Dorothea aspiring to a “manlier” achievement than improving the lives of others. Why did we and do we still—among many circles—value purely intellectual achievement over social justice?

Amazingly, women continue to have meaningful thoughts and experiences after marriage. However, English novelists of yesterday were not wrong in identifying choosing a husband as the most significant moment in a woman’s life. Assuming that her parents were not excessively controlling, this was the only chance a woman had of controlling her future. Men of Dorothea’s means could choose their profession. Dorothea cannot enter the church or become a politician or a doctor. So, she decides her role in life will be as helpmate for someone undertaking the type of intellectual endeavor she admires.

This compassionate, intelligent and energetic young woman picks Dr. Casaubon, a shriveled old prune of a curate, as her life’s companion. She chooses not the man, but his academic project “The Key to all Mythologies.” Everyone in town thinks “No, girl. Why? Please stop. You’ll be miserable.” Dorothea assumes that they dislike Casaubon because of his age and appearance, not because he’s secretly not a man, but a dried-up twig that is incapable of love.

They both find being married to each other a bit of a pain. Casaubon has the gall to not see much value in having a lovely young wife. Tragically, Dorothea comes to understand that Casaubon is not the scholar she thought him to be. Casaubon’s young cousin, Will Ladislaw, not knowing how much it will hurt Dorothea, reveals that his “Key to all Mythologies” is out of date and essentially worthless. It is absolutely heartbreaking to witness Dorothea’s gradual realization that she has thrown her life away on a loveless, meaningless marriage. She didn’t know! She didn’t even have the requisite education to recognize that Casaubon’s great project was pointless. It’s horrible. She wanted to be married to a Blake or a Locke, but she ended up with a prune stuck on top of a twig. It’s horrible.

Dorothea’s secondary dream in life is to be a good old-fashioned martyr. So, she smothers her bitter disappointment along with all sense of self-worth and dedicates herself to the thankless and empty task of trying to be the best wife she can be to Mr. Prune. Seeing Dorothea as some sort of angel/Madonna figure, Will Ladislaw falls in love. This is where the book jumps off the rails for me. I understand why Eliot thought it necessary for her character to be otherwise perfect, except for her one failing of not loving her husband. Her point is that an otherwise perfect woman can end up in this situation, because young women were kept in such a state of ignorance that it was nearly impossible for them to choose a spouse wisely. If Dorothea had other flaws, she might be considered simply an insufficient wife, not a paragon of virtue who fell into a trap laid by society.  The problem is that paragons of virtue are horribly dull and out of place in a work of realism. Also, Will’s worshipful love for angelic Dorothea is a bit nauseating.

Eliot’s original conception for the novel was to simply tell the tale of Dorothea’s failed marriage. She then decided to add in several other stories she was working on, combining them into the sweeping story of a few years in the life of the town Middlemarch. She further explores the theme of poorly thought out marriages with Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. Tertius is a youngish doctor and Dorothea’s male counterpart. He wants to improve the world through medical innovation. As Dorothea’s energies are wasted on her marriage, Lydgate’s energies are fruitlessly expended on petty local politics and his femme fatale of a wife. Caught up by pretty Rosamond’s charms, he imprudently marries without the means to keep his wife in the style she is accustomed to. Instead of helping her husband, Rosamond mercilessly sabotages his attempts to live frugally. Lydgate’s story is tragic. If I’d written this book, I would have killed off Rosamond and married Dorothea to Lydgate. They are perfectly suited to each other morally and intellectually. I’ll never get over my sorrow over Lydgate’s fate. Instead, Dorothea ends up with Will, whom I do not care for.

Another subplot is the 1832 Reform Bill. Ironically, Dorothea’s uncle supports this effort to raise up the common man, even though he is uninterested in expending the time, thought and money to improve the lives of the people who live on his own estate. That is the most cogent point Eliot makes about the Reform Bill. For me, the rest of her treatment of this subject fizzles out without making much impact. I won’t pretend to be overly interested in Victorian British electoral politics.

Another subject Eliot dedicates herself to is religious hypocrisy. The banker Bulstrode brays loudly about piety and abstinence, representing himself as the most righteous guy in town. Meanwhile, he fleeces his customers and business partners, has a shady past and totally kills a guy. The last sentence makes Bulstrode’s story sound interesting and potentially entertaining. It is neither of those things. He is so tiresome. Every Bulstrode scene drags. I may have mentioned before that I have a hard time stomaching heavy handed expounding on themes that seem obvious to me. I already know that pillars of the community who use religion to gain wealth and status are horrible, immoral hypocrites. I knew Joel Osteen was trash before Hurricane Harvey hit. Sure, this theme was less trodden in 1874 than in 2017, but it still bores me. I’m not Eliot’s perfect reader when it comes to this plotline. That doesn’t mean she didn’t execute it well.

As for Mary Garth and Fred Vincy. I like them. That is all.

I have many more thoughts about Middlemarch. My copy is heavily annotated. Well, one of my copies is. I have a second, prettier copy that I don’t write in. I really do admire this book. It is mostly beautifully written. What Eliot does well in this novel, she does incredibly well. Her depiction of the consequences of bad matches is innovative and important. Really. This book was revolutionary for me when I read it in my early 20s. I didn’t enjoy it as much in my early 30s as I hoped to.

You might like Middlemarch if:

  • you’ve ever wondered what Lizzy Bennet’s life was like after she married Darcy
  • you like books that are good

You might not like Middlemarch if:

  • you have a short attention span

Final Thoughts: Middlemarch is a great book. It deserves its revered status. I simply have some qualms about certain parts of it that prevent it from being an enjoyable reread. Unfortunately, these qualms knock it down several positions on the list of my favorite books. You should absolutely read it, if you haven’t. May I suggest that you also read Far from the Madding Crowd? It also follows a young woman past the point of her first marriage. The themes are very similar. FFTMD is more concise and frankly more entertaining that Middlemarch, in my humble opinion. Just kidding, in my exalted and lofty opinion. No, I’m just one lady who was read a lot of books. My thinking on this matter does not fit with the scions who determine the status of novels within the English canon. Take it for exactly what it is: the opinion of one lady.