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.