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13 June 2012updated 13 Jul 2021 2:27pm

The BBC’s radio adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch is pitch-perfect

By Antonia Quirke

To a provincial town in England. Not in the south, not in the north. But “somewhere around the middle”, where the “economic outlook is gloomy” and “parliament is in crisis, but the effects of the crisis are felt everywhere”.

Only Juliet Aubrey – narrating Katie Hims’s adaptation of George Eliot’s 1872 novel Middlemarch (29 November, 10:45am) – could resist over-egging these opening lines of the first episode. Marvellously unshowy as an actress, Aubrey would never plus ça change anything. Then later, in a scene at a business meeting, someone chastises, “I cannot regard wealth as a blessing to those who use it simply as a harvest for this world!”

That plum line wasn’t delivered portentously either. (Although I did notice that it was used in a Middlemarch trailer in the days following John McDonnell’s “No one needs to be a billionaire” speech.) Point being – nobody at the BBC got too excited about Eliot’s “relevance”. Just as nobody was thick enough to abridge the four-volume novel into less than 12 episodes.

The best moments showed our scholarly young heroine Dorothea Brooke post-marriage to the husk of an ageing clergyman, Reverend Edward Casaubon. Gah! Their ghastly honeymoon to Rome! Encapsulated, by Rev Ed, in English literature’s least erotic line: “I should need to spend most of my time at the Vatican.”

Pretty much everything that makes Middlemarch so enjoyable, and such a great book club read, also made it perfect on the radio. The world-building, the interrelation of so many characters, the dialogue. Bankers, estate managers, minor gentry. Doctors with ideas about diet and ventilation, lawyers “with the complexion of an Easter egg”. And the 3D naturalism of the book, the flattened realism. Pointedly tamping down anything that might smack too much of Jane Austen, or
Melville, or Dickens, or Madame Bovary. Never too gothic, or too comic, or romantic, or cliffhangery. Simply; this is life in a “somewhere around the middle” town. No white whales – but plenty of people feeling sad at the kitchen table. Welcome to our world. 

BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 27 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The English Question