Middlemarch is a sprawling narrative about life in an English village. In it George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) contemplates the romantic ideal of marriage versus actual marriage life, the role of women in private and public life, and inheriting versus earning money, among other life questions. There are numerous characters and multiple story lines. Some books are just meant to be read as part of college class or some other type of group endeavor. This is one of those books.
Middlemarch begins by introducing Dorothea Brooke. She and her sister Celia are orphans living with their uncle Arthur. Dorothea yearns for a life in which she can change the world for the better. Partly this reflects her religious beliefs but it also reflects a woman who wants a life that includes some sort of professional fulfillment in addition to being a wife and mother. Unfortunately Dorothea exists at a time when a woman's public and professional opportunities are limited. Dorothea instead hopes to fulfill her public ambitions by marrying Edward Casaubon, a man she sees as an intellectual who will teach her and with whom she will grow and pursue intellectual aims. Dorothea of course wouldn't quite phrase the situation like that, but that is essentially what she wants out of marriage with Casaubon.
Casaubon is considerably older than Dorothea and is understandably flattered by the young woman’s adoration. They marry and end up making a terrible couple. They are a textbook example of bad communication, constantly unintentionally offending each other with their every word. Neither really sees or appreciates the other for what they are. Even when they attempt to comfort one another the other sees it as a form of criticism or rejection.
Another terrible marriage on display is that between Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate. A doctor, Lydgate is new in town and kind of an upstart, introducing new medical methods. Change is difficult and many people are none too pleased with Lydgate and his new methods. It doesn’t help that Lydgate is somewhat oblivious to social norms. He isn’t an idiot or anything; he simply believes that hard work and the success of his medical treatments will win over people. Although he is not entirely wrong it becomes clear how important getting along with people and acknowledging social standing can help in certain situations.
At first Rosamond and Lydgate seem quite compatible. If not for a want of money they would have had a near perfect marriage. The problem for them is that the real world and its problems interfered. For Rosamond marriage is an escape out of her boring parents' home to a magical place where she gets to be a princess. She expects money to be abundant and all her needs and wants to be taken care of automatically. When her husband encounters money troubles she is ill equipped to deal with the situation.
In addition to these four characters and their two marriages there are a whole host of others with intersecting problems that arise. Eliot packs a lot into 800 pages. There is no fairytale happy ending, but it is a realistic ending and I appreciated that.
Why did I read this? Because every so often I like to really challenge myself. I read a lot and most of what I read tends to take the form of mysteries, science fiction, fantasy especially urban fantasy, romance, so called “check lit”, with some non-fiction thrown in on occasion. I enjoy these kinds of books without regret or shame but also aspire to be “well read,” an ever changing goal which to me in part means reading “classics.” By classics I mean those books that have lasted generations and tend to show up on high school and college reading list time and time again. I figure there must be a reason why these books stick around. Also, Victorian fiction is one of the genres in Literary Exploration genre challenge that I’m doing this year and Middlemarch seemed like a good way to satisfy the challenge, and it was definitely a challenge. I can usually read a book a week, sometimes two. This took about three weeks to read. Reading one book for so long was frustrating and exhausting. Halfway through, I had to take a break and picked up another book. I’m glad I read this book but it definitely felt a little bit like work which is not usually how I feel when reading. I recommend this but be prepared for the challenge.