Revisiting the Genius of Middlemarch
On the Occasion of George Eliot's 199th Birthday Eve
Admirers of Middlemarch often cite Virginia Woolf ’s description of George Eliot’s novel as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” But what did she mean? She cannot have been referring only to the novel’s subject matter, even if Eliot’s attention to the travails of married life, in particular, seems to envisage readers versed in life’s disappointments as well as its hopes. Nor can she have had in mind the novel’s ambitious length and complexity, though Eliot’s work lives up to her subtitle—”A Study of Provincial Life”—by braiding beautifully together the stories of a cluster of characters and families. Surely Woolf was thinking of the way that the novel is narrated: the subtlety and insight with which the novelist discovers her characters’ motivations. “Discovers” because Eliot, perhaps more than any other English novelist, seems to approach those characters as beings who already exist. She watches them and listens to them, and draws us into her ruminations about why they behave as they do.
That subtitle might suggest that the novel was undertaken in a spirit of sociological enquiry, and Eliot herself sometimes plays with the idea that her characters, ranging across the classes of an unremarkable Midlands town, are the objects of scientific scrutiny. She uses a series of analogies from Victorian experimental science—batteries, microscopes, optical effects—to help us to understand human interactions. Yet the humorous incongruity of these is part of their point. When she is wondering why the plain-speaking, unsentimental vicar’s wife Mrs. Cadwallader is so keen on engineering a match between Sir James Chettam, recently jilted by Dorothea Brooke, and Celia, Dorothea’s sister, Eliot asks us to imagine what might be revealed by “a microscope directed on a water-drop.” A weak lens might show small creatures actively swimming into the jaws of a larger one; a stronger lens shows “certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims.” Eliot duly applies a strong lens to Mrs. Cadwallader’s apparently unmotivated matchmaking. We are asked to see the power of a kind of vicarious snobbery in her, awakening her desire to bring the socially appropriate partners together. To the closest observer of human nature, there is always an explanation.
Middlemarch might also have seemed to its first readers to have been a kind of historical study. First published in installments between 1871 and 1872, it was set some four decades earlier, at the time of Eliot’s childhood. It includes the impact of changes that, by the time it was written, had long since been accepted: the movement to reform Britain’s corrupt electoral system, Catholic emancipation, the first coming of the railways, the application of new scientific discoveries to medical care. Yet no reader will think this a historical novel. Social change is present only in the perplexities of Eliot’s characters. Instead of hearing intellectual arguments about constitutional reform, we get the comically doomed political campaign of the blustering Mr. Brooke. Instead of an account of the development of medical knowledge, we get the story of the idealistic young doctor, Lydgate, and the human weaknesses that undermine his medical ambitions. The 40 years’ distance allows the novelist to see more clearly how these characters grapple with developments that they understand only partially, as all of us understand the history through which we are living only partially.
Middlemarch is a novel for grown-up people because it truly acknowledges the complications of human motivation. By the time she wrote it, Eliot was in her fifties and a famous woman of letters. Yet she was also at an uncertain time in her career. After a long apprenticeship in literary journalism and translation in her twenties and thirties, she published three novels, Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861), in quick succession. They were widely admired and commercially successful. Freed from material anxiety, in the 1860s she embarked on two ambitious works of fiction: Romola (1863), a historical novel set in 14th-century Florence, and the highly political Felix Holt, the Radical (1866). Both reflected, in different ways, their author’s formidable intellect, yet neither enjoyed the success of her earlier work. By the time she composed Middlemarch, she was trying to rediscover her gift for capturing the small tragedies and comic dramas of ordinary life.
Middlemarch came out of two separate projects: one novel originally devoted to the arrival of an idealistic doctor in a small English town, and another, provisionally entitled Miss Brooke, about the mistakes of an ardent but unworldly young woman. Eliot’s inspired idea was to combine them. The novel followed a new mode of publication, allowing her the spaciousness to capture the life of a whole community, yet also encouraging readers to see the patterns in the relationships of a large cast of characters. Middlemarch is divided into eight “Books,” each with a carefully coined title. The Books were originally published separately at two-monthly intervals, encouraging her first readers to see how Eliot was artfully bringing together different stories within each installment. The second book, for instance, has the title “Old and Young,” referring not just to the marriage of the older Casaubon (he is in fact still in his forties) with the young Dorothea, but also to the youthful and confident Lydgate’s challenge to the town’s established medical
practitioners. The third Book, “Waiting for Death,” shows us the greedy relations who gather around the rich, dying misanthrope Peter Featherstone, but also features Casaubon’s and his wife’s first sharp apprehensions of his impending death.
Above all, the shapeliness of this structure allowed Eliot to shift viewpoints throughout her narrative in ways that constantly deepen and complicate our understanding of the relationships between characters. The possibility of things looking different from a different person’s point of view is always with us. To take a tiny example, when Lydgate, an attractive character in his passion for knowledge, scorns the ignorant conservatism of Middlemarch’s established physicians, we should be on his side. Yet Eliot for a moment sympathizes with one of these older men, Dr. Sprague, who is thoroughly nettled by the young pretender. “For my part I have some fellow-feeling with Dr. Sprague: one’s self-satisfaction is an untaxed kind of property which it is very unpleasant to find depreciated.” Amongst Victorian novelists, only Eliot would have written this sentence, which widens out the expression of sympathy to include the self-satisfaction any of us might feel. She is laughing at him and recognizing his feelings.
Middlemarch is so careful to correct any habit to side with one person rather than another that the narrator even corrects herself. Chapter 29, soon after the Casaubons have returned from their utterly unrapturous honeymoon, opens in this extraordinary manner:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?
Eliot has caught herself in too easy a habit of sympathy, and instead redirects her attention and ours to Casaubon’s “intense consciousness,” hungry and fearful as it is. The subsequent exploration of his character, of all that makes it fend off sympathy, is as finely done as any of the novel’s psychological sketches—and as sympathetic. “Mr. Casaubon, too, was the centre of his own world.” His very egocentricity, being a “trait . . . not quite alien to us,” “claims some of our pity.” The reader who takes sides will always stumble. Even the odiously self-righteous banker Bulstrode will be made a surprising object of sympathy, fully humanized at just the moment when he is revealed to be a hypocrite.
Eliot is able to mix amusement at a person’s follies with a kind of compassion. Casaubon’s discovery that the prospect of approaching marriage is not as pleasant as he had supposed is both ominous and funny. “Hence he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was.” But the eventual lack of love in her marriage is terrible for Dorothea. When we find her crying bitterly, on her own in her honeymoon apartment in Rome, we can infer all the more vividly her feelings when we know that she cannot herself exactly understand them. She has “no distinctly shapen grievance that she could state even to herself.” Part of this must surely be, as many a commentator has said, that the sexual aspect of her marriage is unsatisfactory—probably nonexistent. George Eliot was no prude, but out of the Victorian novelist’s code of reticence in such matters she makes something subtle and psychologically profound. Dorothea avoids the subject even in her own thoughts.
Nothing is finer than the way in which Eliot shifts viewpoints to explore the mutual misunderstanding that characterizes the two unhappy marriages in the novel: those of Dorothea and Casaubon, Lydgate and Rosamond. The first of these is so painfully convincing because Eliot allows us to be as understanding of Casaubon, in all his proud reticence, as we are of Dorothea. The Lydgates’ marriage, in contrast, is built on physical attraction and a kind of mirroring of self-regard. It begins to founder because of a lack of money. Eliot brilliantly shows how financial pressures painfully squeeze the affection out of this marriage. As Henry James admiringly said, “It is a tragedy based on unpaid butchers’ bills, and the urgent need for small economies.” It is an ordinary disaster. In Middlemarch, debt is a powerful influence. Prosperity is admired or envied, but is often precarious. Eliot had tested this precariousness before, in The Mill on the Floss, a novel that turns on a man who falls from apparent affluence into bankruptcy. And in Middlemarch, as in that earlier novel, financial success and failure are social facts, witnessed by neighbors.
The hunger for money is at the root of the novel’s deeply laid plot—so deeply laid that for a long time it is almost hidden. An introduction such as this must needs be reticent about its details, except to say that the plot is intimately connected to the depiction of “Provincial Life” that is the novel’s ambition. It involves (as plots so often do) the unearthing of actions hidden in the past, revealing that respectability can cloak larceny and conspiracy. It brings blackmail and worse into the complacent world of these Midlanders. It is a world in which people know their neighbors well enough to come to the wrong conclusions about them. Dorothea, who has to learn to distrust her own conclusions about people, says to her sister, “One is constantly wondering what sort of lives other people lead, and how they take things.” It is out of that wondering that Eliot made her magnum opus.
Some great novelists, like Jane Austen, mostly absent themselves from their narratives. George Eliot is present everywhere in Middlemarch, often speaking in the first person. We are in the company of someone humorously wise. It is risky for a novelist to explain her characters’ behavior by making observations from life, but she does so with a subtlety that animates those characters rather than turning them into demonstrations. When Sir James Chettam persists in carrying out Dorothea’s scheme for cottages for the poor, despite the fact that she has become engaged to another man, Eliot exonerates him from mere self-regard. “Doubtless this persistence was the best course for his own dignity: but pride only helps us to be generous; it never makes us so, any more than vanity makes us witty.” To put it bluntly, we are like these characters.
Eliot earns a special intimacy with them, and therefore a special willingness to pity them. “Poor Lydgate! or shall I say, Poor Rosamond! Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing.” This is said with good reason of two people who are, at the time, falling in love with each other. We are made to realize that we are watching helplessly. The novel understands misunderstanding. Dorothea guilelessly asks her husband if he might divert some of the wealth that he has left to her towards Will Ladislaw, the grandson of his Aunt Julia, unjustly disinherited by her family. Casaubon, resentful and jealous of her interest in Will, bitingly rejects her appeal. “Poor Dorothea, shrouded in the darkness, was in a tumult of conflicting emotions.” She does not understand, but we do. Yet here, where Casaubon appears to be at his most vindictive, Eliot twice says “Poor Mr. Casaubon,” understanding all too well how, “distrustful of everybody’s feelings towards him,” he is condemned to self-torment.
“Poor Mr. Casaubon!” It is one of the novel’s triumphs that the “inward drama” of this man who dreads sympathy should become the very reason for our sympathy. It is one example of the way in which Middlemarch triumphs in the essential undertaking of fiction: allowing you to imagine what it is like to be someone else.
From Middlemarch. Courtesy of The Folio Society. Copyright by George Eliot. Introduction copyright 2018 by John Mullan. Feature photo by Pierre Mornet.