The enduring appeal of Middlemarch, 200 years after George Eliot's birth
When American poet Emily Dickinson was asked what she thought of George Eliot's novel Middlemarch, she responded: "What do I think of glory?" Virginia Woolf described it as "one of the few English novels written for grown-ups." And England's A.S. Byatt says it's possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel — ever.
First published in 1872, Middlemarch established George Eliot — born Mary Ann Evans — as one of the most celebrated writers of the Victorian era.
To mark the bicentenary of Eliot's birth, Writers & Company revisits a 2014 conversation with three Middlemarch enthusiasts about the lasting appeal and impact of the novel.
Rebecca Mead is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of My Life in Middlemarch, a mix of biography, reportage and memoir that reflects on the novel's enduring questions.
Nancy Henry is an editor of the 2019 edition of The Cambridge Companion to George Eliot and the author of The Life of George Eliot: A Critical Biography.
Francine Prose is a novelist, essayist, critic and short story writer. She wrote about Middlemarch in her books, What to Read and Why and Reading Like a Writer.
Nancy Henry: "Eliot was a very brilliant child. She had a certain amount of schooling which she devoured and she also taught herself. She taught herself languages. She read everything that she could read, she studied music, she amazed her fellow pupils.
"Here was an extraordinary intellectual young woman in this somewhat confined provincial environment. I think that a lot of her fiction, and Middlemarch in particular, tries to imagine what it might have been like never to have escaped that environment, which she of course did."
Every time I come back to it, my emotional response is evolving and my understanding of the characters has changed and my understanding of myself in relation to it changes too.- Rebecca Mead
Rebecca Mead: "I first read Middlemarch when I was 17 and I completely identified with the character of Dorothea Brooke. A character who's yearning for a more significant life, because I too was a teenager yearning for a more significant life. I completely understood the experience of being in a provincial town, because I was in a provincial English town.
"It spoke very resonantly to me at that age. I went on to read it about every five years since. Every time I come back to it, my emotional response is evolving and my understanding of the characters has changed and my understanding of myself in relation to it changes too."
Acceptance of hardship
Francine Prose: "It never occurs to you that your life is not going to turn out the way you think and hope your life is going to turn out. Much of Middlemarch is about that. You don't have the information to have that kind of presentiment about the future.
"I think it is so much about disappointment. When you're young, you have your ideals and you assume that those ideals are going to be able to be put into practice. And, as you get older, they drop away one by one or you realize the complication and the difficulty of putting those ideals to work."
Mead: "It's a book that proposes that disappointment is the probable end of most of our endeavours. It has this melancholy resignation and sense of lives not fully realized — ambitions not fully realized. But, nonetheless, lives worth living.
"It's a very mature book in that kind of sober acceptance of the possibility of failure and how one might live with that having happened. It offers a more complicated ending. It's much more about the actual complications of life."
Henry: "The novel is so much about knowledge. All kinds of knowledge, psychology or the primitive tissue, but also knowledge of each other — and the knowledge that the narrator has of each of the characters.
"For example, what's happened in Dorothea's marriage is that she has acquired a knowledge of her husband that she frankly wishes she didn't have. It's a kind of exposure. She feels that she's seen into his soul and there's not much to see."
Prose: "I hate the word timeless but I'm tempted to use it. Often, when you read historical novels the people in them seem so different from us. Then you read Middlemarch and you recognize yourself in it, and it gives you a strange and wonderful feeling that there is such a thing as human nature. There are things about human life that don't change that much regardless of time and location."
Mead: "When I thought about Dorothea when I was a a younger woman, I might have been a little disappointed that she didn't do more. Now when I look at her, I see her as a representative of all that kind of burgeoning desire, energy, ambition and yearning of youth. I'm happy with the way that her life ends up. An epic journey that all of us — many of us — perhaps take part in at some point in our lives, or throughout our whole lives."
Henry: "I had intense identification with the character Tertius Lydgate when I was starting out in my career and moving to a provincial town as an assistant professor. I knew no one. I read Middlemarch and I just thought, 'I need to be on the lookout for the local politics.' I read it as a tragic story in some ways. Lydgate is someone who doesn't achieve what he aspired to achieve, and what he might have achieved, and he knows it.
It gives you a strange and wonderful feeling that there is such a thing as human nature. There are things about human life that don't change that much regardless of time and location.- Francine Prose
"That's what's almost frightening about the analysis — that this man has flaws on his mental complexion that will cause him to make the choices that he makes and the compromises that he makes. It will cause him not to achieve his ambitions and Eliot's telling us all of that at the outset, which I think is a remarkable thing to do in a novel."
The panellists' comments have been edited for length and clarity.