Middlemarch by George Eliot *****

16 March 2024 | ,

Reading dates 18 June 2022 – 15 March 2024

‘Let’s finish Middlemarch in the middle of March’, I said to Neil in January. Finishing the beautiful finale on the 15th of March did give us enormous pleasure but not as much as reading it to each other. We had been a bit erratic, which is why it took us 18 months. Nothing to do with the novel itself, but with our lifestyle.

Middlemarch is the perfect beehive novel and we love reading those. They are like meditations where we need a little effort, but not too much, to keep our memory of the intertwined plots and the details of each character. I found it a lot better than War and Peace, perhaps because its focus on interesting, courageous and complex women, namely Dorothea Casaubon, Mary Garth and Rosamond Vincy.

The style is subdued but so elegant. There is very little flourish and guild, just plain, precise narration and a lot of sharp, pithy observation such as

But a full-fed fountain will be generous with its waters even in the rain, when they are worse than useless; and a fine fount of admonition is apt to be equally irrepressible.


[…] she had an indirect mode of making her negative wisdom tell upon Dorothea, and calling her down from her rhapsodic mood by reminding her that people were staring, not listening.


one’s self-satisfaction is an untaxed kind of property which it is very unpleasant to find deprecated.


but whatever else remained the same, the light had changed, and you cannot find the pearly dawn at noonday.


With his taper stuck before him he forgot the absence of windows, and in bitter manuscript remarks on other men’s notions about the solar deities, he had become indifferent to the sunlight.


That always makes one feel stupid. It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that it is fine—something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.


A human being in this aged nation of ours is a very wonderful whole, the slow creation of long interchanging influences: and charm is a result of two such wholes, the one loving and the one loved.


But Duty has a trick of behaving unexpectedly—something like a heavy friend whom we have amiably asked to visit us, and who breaks his leg within our gates.


[…] as Voltaire said, incantations will destroy a flock of sheep if administered with a certain quantity of arsenic.


[…] the mother too often standing behind the daughter like a malignant prophecy—“Such as I am, she will shortly be.”


She is ready prey to any man who knows how to play adroitly either on her affectionate ardor or her Quixotic enthusiasm […]

There are lots of this beautifully crafted thoughts and perceptions, expressed in such a refined way, I kept feeling I was learning something about human nature in the psychological and behavioural sense. Many passages I read expressed feelings I had had which I was not able to give form through words. I think Eliot defined her relation to language in the novel when she wrote:

To be a poet is to have a soul so quick to discern that no shade of quality escapes it, and so quick to feel, that discernment is but a hand playing with finely ordered variety on the chords of emotion—a soul in which knowledge passes instantaneously into feeling, and feeling flashes back as a new organ of knowledge. One may have that condition by fits only.

It was hard not to feel for all the characters although I must admit it took me a while, but I warmed very much to all the women, quite different (perhaps aside from Rosamond, from many nineteenth century novels). Although the don’t drive the stories – men do, usually for the wrong reasons – the women underpin it:

The difficult task of knowing another soul is not for young gentlemen whose consciousness is chiefly made up of their own wishes.


Any one who imagines ten days too short a time—not for falling into leanness, lightness, or other measurable effects of passion, but—for the whole spiritual circuit of alarmed conjecture and disappointment, is ignorant of what can go on in the elegant leisure of a young lady’s mind.

Dorothea, Mary and Rosamond (even Celia and Mrs Cadwallader) feel intensely:

She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.

My favourite was Dorothea. I found her weird and wilful to begin with, but her morality shone throughout. She is able to accept what is, yet at the same time to make the world what she wants it to be (within the century’s reason for women, of course).

‘I suppose I am dull about many things,’ said Dorothea simply. “I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.”
“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will, impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight—in art or in anything else.

And then there is the whole, Middlemarch, the beehive containing all the bees, the purpose of the nineteenth century novel. Eliot described so well what it is like to live in a small town, where everybody knows everybody else, where change is hard, where everything has the inertia it has had for generations:

Prejudices about rank and status were easy enough to defy in the form of a tyrannical letter from Mr. Casaubon; but prejudices, like odorous bodies, have a double existence both solid and subtle—solid as the pyramids, subtle as the twentieth echo of an echo, or as the memory of hyacinths which once scented the darkness.

The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases. Even without memory, the life is bound into one by a zone of dependence in growth and decay; but intense memory forces a man to own his blameworthy past. With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavors and the tinglings of a merited shame.

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