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13 October 2021

Why Middlemarch still matters

Published 150 years ago, George Eliot’s epic humanist novel is the antidote to our witless online world.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Reading Middlemarch can be dangerous in the age of social media. In the 150 years since George Eliot’s great humanist novel was published, readers have been professing that it has made them more sympathetic, less judgemental, more enlarged as a person. It is, as Virginia Woolf famously (and gratifyingly) claimed, “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. It would be a little basic to say that it is the antithesis of Twitter – but it might make a person resolved to be a little more patient, a little more able to entertain our witless century with the equanimity of its high-minded young heroine Dorothea Brooke.

Only, the reader is then apt to find the experience of stepping from a Warwickshire market town in 1831 to the timelines of 2021 a bit like being poisoned after a cleanse. She might start drafting sanctimonious subtweets, Instagramming melancholy passages from the book, perhaps even referring to herself in the third person. For this social-realist novel occasions the worst kind of virtue signalling: literary virtue signalling. There’s only one thing worse than posting about the fact that you’re reading Middlemarch – and that’s posting about the fact that you’re re-reading Middlemarch. It has a strong whiff of moral self-improvement. “Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not?” says Dorothea. “How can we live and think that any one has trouble – piercing trouble – and we could help them, and never try?”

Eliot’s humanism tends to inspire awe in her readers. “She seems to care for people, indiscriminately and in their entirety, as it was once said God did,” wrote Zadie Smith in a 2008 essay on Middlemarch. As it was once said God did. My first thought is of Middlemarch’s omniscient narrator: sage, a little sarcastic, a little judgemental as she tunes into the thoughts of each character, catching them in the act of realising something about themselves. 

But when Smith talks about Eliot being like God, what she means is that Eliot was “so alive to the mass of existence” that she conferred as much attention on her mediocre characters as she did on her more admirable ones. Smith’s essay is a sort of riposte to Henry James’s 1873 review of Middlemarch, in which he argued that Eliot should have focused her energies on Dorothea, who “exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness”, rather than lingering so long on the feckless horse-trading Fred Vincy, “with his somewhat meagre tribulations and his rather neutral egotism”.

[See also: The double life of Ian Rankin]

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Middlemarch was first published in eight five-shilling parts between 1871 and 1872, when George Eliot – the pen name of Mary Ann Evans – was in her early fifties. Set 40 years earlier in the Midlands of her childhood, before the first Reform Act of 1832, it centres on the 19-year-old Dorothea, who yearns to improve mind and soul. An orphan with a “toy box” education, Dorothea worships the much older religious scholar Edward Casaubon, a man who seems to be at least 90 per cent dust (though he is only 45!). As he labours away on his interminable “Key to All Mythologies”, she imagines him to be a Pascal, or Milton, or Locke, but after they marry, she realises his project is bogus and that he is incapable of emotional intimacy.

“This is certainly a very interesting story,” wrote James, who also praised the “powerfully real” parallel plot-line in which a dedicated young doctor, Tertius Lydgate, newly arrived in town, gets trapped in a fatally limiting marriage to the shallow Rosamond Vincy. But James felt Middlemarch was both “one of the strongest and… weakest of English novels”. Eliot, he said, had got herself too bogged down with the town’s more trivial folk when she should have concentrated on how a noble, intelligent figure such as Lydgate struggles to pay the butcher’s bills and has to come to terms with his “sordid disappointments”.

Middlemarch is surely the greatest novel ever written about disappointment, sordid, meagre or otherwise: disappointment with your spouse, your children, your elders, your siblings, your employers, your politicians and, most cuttingly, yourself. Dorothea peers into Casaubon’s soul and realises there’s not much to see; Lydgate realises the “blank unreflecting surface” of his wife’s mind; Casaubon realises he might die with nothing to show for his scholarly labours; Rosamond realises she isn’t actually at the centre of everyone else’s world. Then there’s Harriet Bulstrode, who realises the terrible truth of her husband’s past; the Vincys, who realise both their children will make ill-advised marriages; and Will, who realises that his employer, Mr Brooke, isn’t serious about political reform. Disappointment is the one experience that all Middlemarch’s characters share, as Eliot warns early in the book: “We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts – not to hurt others.”

The narrator may be godlike but she is very human and very Victorian in her determination to understand the workings of worldly things. Eliot believed in goodness in a godless universe. A devout and somewhat priggish Calvinist in her adolescence, she lost her faith in her early twenties and later took up a new religion of humanism. Inspired by the French philosopher Auguste Comte and the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, she wanted to recast so-called Christian values as humanistic ones. The experience of translating Spinoza’s Ethics helped convince her that our lives are shaped by our relationships with other people. Of course, finding meaning in other people is not always easy – not least because other people are exasperating. But they are our reasons to be good on Earth. As Fred tries to impress his childhood sweetheart, Mary Garth, Eliot writes: “Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the mind of the being they love best. ‘The theatre of all my actions is fallen,’ said an antique personage when his chief friend was dead; and they are fortunate who get a theatre where the audience demands their best.”

This idea of being good for the sake of other people – rather than heavenly rewards – goes some way to explain why Middlemarch has a status as a secular Bible and, for Howard Jacobson, at least, the acme of virtue signalling. As a young man, he annotated his copy with the words “stop preaching at me woman!”. Then in 1994, he declared that if he ever saw a woman enjoying it on the Underground, he would take it from her hands and throw it from the train. He later told BBC Radio 4 that Eliot’s attempts to be funny were embarrassing. He did, however, promise to stop boring people with his opinions on the novel.

[See also: Jonathan Franzen’s bland late style]

Middlemarch, more than perhaps any other classic work of fiction, acts as a kind of literary conscience. It’s a book that people feel they (and others) should reckon with at different intervals of their life and during periods of social and political change. But Jacobson makes it sound worthy – and it’s not. Middlemarch appeals to the kind of person who endlessly dissects the personalities and dramas of all those around them. Part of the fun of roaming round Eliot’s world is wondering which character you most identify with, which one you would fancy and which dysfunctional marriage you would most likely fall into. Shag, marry, kill. I mean, wouldn’t you be tempted to bump off a blackmailer as vile as John Raffles if he were dying of alcohol poisoning in your spare room?

If Middlemarch didn’t deal in full-blown passions  and betrayals, it wouldn’t regularly get voted the country’s favourite novel. As Martin Amis has said,  “it renews itself for every generation”, and as with  every novel, there’s a lot of projection going on. We interpret all things with the bias of our interests, just  as our ego arranges facts and events into patterns centring on us. As Eliot suggests in the book’s famous candlelit pier-glass metaphor – hold a candle to a scratched mirror, and the scratches seem to flock to  its light. In her memoir My Life in Middlemarch (2014), Rebecca Mead admits to an experience of disillusionment similar to that which Dorothea feels with Casaubon, only in her case, it was a much older university professor whom she spent “much of my twenties feeling helplessly, if resentfully, in love with”. He once told her that one of his greatest fears was becoming Casaubon. “Middlemarch doesn’t tell you how to live, but reading Middlemarch, knowing Middlemarch, thinking about Middlemarch, helps you think about how to live for yourself,” said Mead in an interview. “It’s a more demanding process than simply being told how to live.”

By now, of course, you’re probably wondering how many times I have read the book. This brings me to my own confession – one that, in my mind, has swelled to become as wicked and corrupt as Nicholas Bulstrode’s terrible secret. I lied for two decades about having read Middlemarch. Well, not exactly lied – but fudged that I’d never finished it. Only now, at the age of 40, after many false starts have I finally read it all in one go.

This starting-and-never-finishing began when I was 12 and my brilliant English teacher – who had inspired me to read the Brontës, all of Austen, and several Forsters – fetched me a copy from his office and urged me to read it. I flicked through the 900 orange, downy pages but failed to focus on the small type. I got through an English degree still having never read Middlemarch, somehow convincing myself (and others) I had. Then on a holiday in my early twenties, disillusioned with the world of work, I gave it my full attention. Its portrait of Dorothea beginning to “emerge from that stupidity” penetrated. I copied out and pinned on my noticeboard this quote: “There is hardly any contact more depressing to a young ardent creature than that of a mind in which years full of knowledge seem to have issued in a blank absence of interest or sympathy.”

Then the holiday ended, I faltered around the middle and with every subsequent attempt, never got further than Fred’s horse-trading calamity. Still, I cherished its sensibility, the way Eliot was just so fanatical about human relations. No other book I’d read was as symphonic in its sympathies – all these characters thinking and feeling so intensely! I may once have gone so far as to insist it was the best English novel; but like the English Defence League guards who formed a tight protective ring around Eliot’s bronze effigy in Nuneaton last summer, I had only the vaguest idea of what I was defending.

I also knew shamefully little about Eliot’s life, despite my eccentric great-grandmother always having claimed we were related to Mary Ann Evans (never proven). I had no idea, for example, that she had a successful early career as a translator, reviewer and editor or that she lived with her common-law husband, George Henry Lewes. I didn’t realise that her first books – Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860) and Silas Marner (1861) – were popular and critical hits, or that she went through a mid-career slump with rather dense and dry novels such as Romola (1862-63) and Felix Holt: The Radical (1866).

This might explain why Eliot was so anxious throughout writing Middlemarch, why the conviction that things will not go your way is so strong. Nearly all the main characters want to change or reform something, but find that they can’t. Dorothea wants to revolutionise the relationship between the gentry and their tenants by building workers’ cottages, but as a woman, she has a limited scope. Lydgate intends to open a new fever hospital – but marries without considering the expense of a household. Throughout, metaphors that initially express excitement mutate to capture despair. Dorothea thinks of Casaubon’s mind as “attractively labyrinthine” only to be reminded that labyrinths have dead ends, the “large vistas and wide fresh air” she imagined “replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowither”.

How do we keep on living in the face of crushing disappointment? It’s a question that feels pertinent now, when the pandemic and, let’s face it, the whole political, economic and environmental shit-show has robbed so many of us of our imagined futures. And it’s particularly poignant as Middlemarch contains so many characters trying to be good. What they discover is that decency, intelligence and hard work can’t prevent disaster. “Life must be taken up on a lower stage of expectation, as it is by men who have lost their limbs,” Lydgate reflects, rather depressingly. In one of the novel’s most devastating moments, he tells Dorothea: “I had some ambition. I meant everything to be different with me. I thought I had more strength and mastery. But the most terrible obstacles are such as nobody can see except oneself.”

[See also: Ludwig Wittgenstein: a mind on fire]

Dorothea delivers a similar, humbler speech to Will. “‘Sorrow comes in so many ways. Two years ago I had no notion of that – I mean of the unexpected way in which trouble comes, and ties our hands, and makes us silent when we long to speak. I used to despise women a little for not shaping their lives more, and doing better things. I was very fond of doing as I liked, but I have almost given it up,’ she ended, smiling playfully.”

Perhaps it’s because I’m a woman approaching middle-age, perhaps it’s because, like many, I have felt blindsided by the pandemic, but each time I read this, it breaks my heart. It’s not just the rhythm of those melancholy “ands” but her playful smile. It’s a sincere attempt not just at concealing disappointments for the sake of others – calling back to Eliot’s suggestion that we “hide our hurts” – but at making light of them.

If there’s no way of avoiding disappointment,  what may be redeemed from it? Humility? Stoicism? Moral development? For every character, growth is enabled or constrained by others – which is presumably why Dorothea has to make peace with achieving little more than marriage, children and some nebulous “unhistoric acts” of good. There is a sense of mortal resignation in the novel’s beautifully ambivalent final paragraph.

“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Many readers have felt fobbed off by this. Yet  what could be more apt for this great novel of disappointment than a slightly disappointing  end for its heroine? Possibilities slip away, ideals  are never put into practice and Dorothea doesn’t  get to be a saint or a reformer. Still not convinced? Then cling on to that word “incalculably”. It matters. We cannot put a limit on Dorothea’s impact in  the world. Her life may not end up as great, it  may not be fully realised, but it is still very much worth living.

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This article appears in the 13 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Perfect Storm