How Middlemarch helps us confront reality, 150 years on

Virginia Woolf called George Eliot's novel, Middlemarch 'one of the few English books written for grownups.' It's a book that excavates happiness and unhappiness and is perhaps more relevant now than ever. This is part one of a two-part series.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch was a stand-in for the real town of Coventry where she lived as a teenager

George Eliot’s Middlemarch runs nearly 800 pages long, features 60-plus characters, and takes up eight volumes. It was published serially in 1871 and 1872, yet even today the novel still offers invaluable lessons on how we treat others. (Wikimedia/William Blackwood and Sons)

Virginia Woolf called it "one of the few English novels written for grownup people."

George Eliot's Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life was published serially in 1871 and 1872. And 150 years later, it's still one of the most read — and re-read — English novels of all time.

As A.S. Byatt once observed, it's a book from which writers learn how novels work: how "to invent a world peopled by a large number of interrelated people, almost all of whose processes of thought, developments of consciousness, biological anxieties, sense of their past and future can most scrupulously be made available to readers, can work with and against each other, can lead to failure, or partial failure, or triumphant growth." 

Setting up a marriage for failure

Growth and failure: George Eliot shies away from neither.

Just as in life, her characters are at the mercy of circumstance and their own, often terrible, decisions. It's only a small spoiler (but how do you spoil such a beloved 150-year-old book?) to say that there's no happy ending — not really — in Middlemarch.

Jane Austen's books often end with a wedding or, in the case of Pride and Prejudice, two weddings. But as Rebecca Mead, writer for The New Yorker and author of My Life in Middlemarch told IDEAS, "what George Eliot does, is she gives us a bad marriage from the very beginning of the book."

The marriage is between young Dorothea Brooke and the much older (as in, over 40!) Edward Casaubon. Dorothea lives with her uncle in the English town of Middlemarch (a fictional stand-in for the West Midlands town of Coventry, where the author grew up) and her sister Celia; the girls have lost their parents and their uncle is now their guardian.

Dorothea Brooke with Will Ladislaw from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Ladislaw is Edward Casaubon's younger disinherited cousin. (Wikimedia)

Mr. Casaubon is a vicar and a scholar who has been working, endlessly and without much progress, on an academic study of the biblical roots of the human story which he calls "The Key To All Mythologies." Dorothea, who wants to better herself and the lives of the peasants in the village, expects that such knowledge and scholarship will raise all boats, and accepts Casaubon's surprise marriage proposal in the hopes that she can help him complete his important project.

But it is not an important project.

"This book [The Key To All Mythologies] is dead in the water," said Nicholas Dames, Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York. "And he's aware of it just enough, to want to repress that knowledge. But when he's looking for a wife, he's looking for someone who's going to naively think that this project is the greatest thing ever, and protect him a little bit from the knowledge that actually this thing is already a failure."

What follows, for some 800 pages, is the story of how that marriage, and the hopeless project that brought them together, falls apart — and how Dorothea learns to live with her naive choices.

A Victorian soap opera

But what also follows are the stories of the other men and women in Middlemarch who emerge in Dorothea's orbit: the young doctor Lydgate, who, like Dorothea, has ambitious plans to set the world on its proper axis through reform of a near-medieval medical system; but who, again like Dorothea, embarks on a doomed marriage with the social climber Rosamund Vincy, daughter of the mayor of Middlemarch. Rosamund wants out of town altogether. 

There's the story of Mr. Bulstrode, the banker, an evangelist and a true believer who has ideas of making Middlemarch a more Christian-fearing community.

Dr. Tertius Lydgate, a newly arrived doctor to Middlemarch marries Rosamond Vincy, a woman who spends his money and leads him into debt. (Wikimedia)

But a dark character from his past, Mr. Raffles, pops up in the latter chapters to bully Bulstrode and threaten to reveal the truth behind his ill-gotten success, which if known would destroy his good name and position in town.

There's the story of Mr. Casaubon's nephew, Will Ladislaw, an artist and a more likely love match for Dorothea who pines after her… for 60 chapters.

There's the story of Fred Vincy, Rosamund's brother, and his inability not to lose wads of money on get-rich-quick schemes, often involving dubious horse trading. He loves Mary Garth. Mary might love him. But he needs to grow up if she's ever to admit it. 

On first blush (or first read), it all adds up to a Victorian soap opera. But George Eliot is after a bigger quarry.

"George Eliot grew up a Christian," said Mead. "But she lost her faith later in her life, when she really came to analyze and think hard intellectually about what was being demanded of her, to believe the miracles of Christianity."

For Eliot, who was born Mary Anne Evans but concocted a male pen-name to aid her in the commercial side of the publishing business, there are moral lessons in religion that can inform a life, but any attempt to explain life through the received Christian story would be as fruitless as explaining it with Mr. Casaubon's Key to All Mythologies.

Instead, according to Ruth Livesey, Head of the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London in the U.K., the "philosophical thinking that underlie[s] Middlemarch was shaped by [Eliot's] decades reviewing the latest works, reading Darwin exploring natural history and the sciences, reading the emergent science of psychology as well as philosophy, all things that are threaded through Middlemarch." 

At the age of 31, Mary Anne Evans leaves small town England for London where she meets Herbert Spencer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and her future common-law husband, the journalist George Henry Lewes (whose first name she'll wind up borrowing).

"And, you know," said Nicholas Dames, "I think that's always such a fascinating thing, to me, the willpower it must have taken not just to break away from a particular kind of community, but to break away as a young woman, with at that point no means of independent subsistence, and knowing full well, that [her] problems were not actually in the long run going to be solvable."

In many ways, her own experience, with insoluble problems and promises unfulfilled, will inform the stories of Dorothea Brooke, Dr. Lydgate and Will Ladislaw, and all the characters of Middlemarch, her masterpiece to come. 

Guests in this episode:

Nicholas Dames is the Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York.

Rebecca Mead is a writer for The New Yorker and author of My Life in Middlemarch

Ruth Livesey is Head of the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London in the U.K.

Ronjaunee Chatterjee is an Associate Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal. 

Laura Gehrke is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Washington. 

Fionnuala Dillane is at the School of English, Drama and Film at the University College of Dublin, Ireland. 

Rebecca Shoptaw is a writer and director of Middlemarch: The Series on Youtube.

Middlemarch, The BBC Series, 1994, starring Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke, written by Andrew Davies based on the novel by George Eliot. 

*This episode was produced by Tom Jokinen.

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