The Sunday Edition

Celebrating George Eliot on her 200th birthday. Did she write the greatest English novel of all time?

Many eminent literary critics say yes. Rohan Maitzen, who teaches English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, readily agrees. She talks to Michael about Eliot’s legacy, and how there are new treasures to be found in Middlemarch with each reading. Professor Maitzen has read it dozens of times.
Rohan Maitzen's fourth teaching copy of Middlemarch by George Eliot. She says they last several years then fall apart. (CBC/Mary-Catherine McIntosh )
Listen26:32

Some people will tell you Middlemarch is one of the classics of English literature — or even the greatest British novel ever written. Others say it's impossible to read.

Rohan Maitzen, who teaches English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is firmly in the first camp. She spoke with Michael Enright, host of The Sunday Edition, who admits he has found the novel to be impenetrable.

"I hate to tell you it is not a very exclusive club you're in," said Maitzen, "and I don't think you need to approach it with such trepidation."

Rohan Maitzen teaches English at Dalhousie University in Halifax. (CBC/Mary-Catherine McIntosh)

She has read the book dozens of times since she first picked it up at the age of 18.

"I'm on probably my fourth teaching copy, which usually lasts several years, and then they fall apart!" she said. "At its most intimate level, Middlemarch really is just a novel about three marriages – two bad marriages and one good marriage – and if you zoom out a bit, it's about a community at a time of really profound historical change."

Maitzen is an ardent fan of the author, Victorian novelist George Eliot, the pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, whose bicentenary was on November 22, 2019.

"I think the reason that she gets called the greatest is because she does brilliantly all the things that, cumulatively, all the other 19th century novelists do. She has a lot of the kind of social capaciousness of someone like [Anthony] Trollope. She incorporates a lot of stories, a lot of characters, and she's very interested in institutions as Trollope is, the church for instance. She has the kind of sharp and witty dialogue that [Jane] Austen has. Her social commentary is just as astute as Austen's," said Maitzen. "Her novels are as far reaching in their social implications as [Charles] Dickens'. They're as full of pathos and tragedy as [Thomas] Hardy's. But it's all there in the one package."

Maitzen advises readers who have struggled with Middlemarch to try again and list the characters.

"If you want a teaching strategy I use, I would say start with each house and just fill in who lives there," she said. "One of the exercises I often set for myself when I'm re-reading the novel is, can I reconstruct the relevant family trees? It gets easier over time, but there are some intricate relationships. Again you can decide you're going to read it and wrestle with all the details. Or you can trust her to unfold the story for you."

Middlemarch, first published in instalments, is about 800 pages, a length some readers find daunting or excessive.

"There's a kind of fetishization right now of novels that are what critics often call 'spare,' as if to be as minimal as possible is to be as artistic as possible," said Maitzen. "Obviously, that was not the norm in the 19th century."

She says she is disappointed no one has produced a brilliant biopic about George Eliot "because her life really is extraordinary and she deserves it to be better known."

Rohan Maitzen believes Middlemarch is the greatest novel of the Victorian era. (CBC/Mary-Catherine McIntosh)

Eliot's early life was modest. She was born in a small farmhouse in Warwickshire, England, and raised as a country girl; but she was, as Maitzen put it, "intellectually voracious" from a young age. She became an editor in London, in the heart of the city's literary scene, working with people as eminent as John Stuart Mill. Mary Ann Evans lived, unmarried, with a man who was married to someone else. She didn't want the "scandal" of her personal life to be projected onto her writing and adopted the pseudonym George Eliot.

"A number of women authors did that in the 19th century because it wasn't considered particularly ladylike to put yourself out in public by writing. The Brontës [sisters Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë] for example, also wrote under male pseudonyms originally," said Maitzen. "But the pseudonym didn't hold. By the time her second full-length novel The Mill on the Floss came out, it was kind of an open secret."

Maitzen says Middlemarch has affected her life in different ways as she has matured as a reader.

"I read it at 18 and I identified very strongly with Dorothea. I read it now in middle age and the characters who have tried to shape their lives according to their aspirations, and who have failed, and who look around them and say, 'This isn't what I thought was going to happen,' they feel very familiar to me sometimes," said Maitzen. "And that sympathy that she has for how much we all hope when we're young that the decisions that we make will pay off; but when we're older we realize maybe we never had that possibility. It's a novel that really does let you grow along with it, or grow into it."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview. 

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