Middlemarch, by George Eliot

I read a newspaper report where Andrew Motion (I think) listed ten works of literature that ought to be mandatory for English students. Various commentators reviewed his list, and the one that none of them disagreed with was "Middlemarch", so I thought I'd give it a go.

What a treat! I can't fault Andrew Motion's choice either: this book was a wonderful read. I don't feel able to summarise the book, so just include some of my impressions having finished it now.

Although it was published around the same time as The Woman in White, and shared some of the themes (e.g. unhappy honeymoons in Venice, people being constrained by social convention, "Italians with White Mice"), the writing style is completely different. Where TWIW was plot-driven, Middlemarch does have storylines, but they are incidental to the main business of the novel, which is the description of how the characters deal with the situations they find themselves in. And again, even though this book predates Freud, there is a lot of exploration of psychological motivations.

The writing style is beautiful; it seemed that practically every sentence must have been crafted - or perhaps people used really to speak like this? You sometimes have to work a bit to parse some of the more elliptical sentences, but the effort is always worthwhile.

One thing about listening to the book was that there were many occasions where (if I'd been reading a printed copy) I would have underlined sections in order to be able to revisit them after finishing the book. But like travelling on a train through a beautiful landscape, there always seemed to be more to savour, and perhaps it will be better to rediscover them when I read it again. Having said that, there were a couple of occasions where I lost my place in the tape and ended up listening to a whole side over again, and this was almost as enjoyable as hearing it afresh.

The only criticism would be that I thought the ending worked out a bit too tidily, and perhaps it would have been more faithful to the feel of the book if Dorothea hadn't ended the book so happily. But it's hard to complain when the tribute paid to her in the finale is so moving.

I couldn't fault Maureen O'Brien's reading, except to say perhaps it has spoiled me because I won't be able to think of the characters without hearing her voices. I especially liked her characterisations of Mr. Brooke and Celia.

I do hope that the rest of Eliot's books turn out to be as good as this one...

Re-read (or re-listened) in 2014. Third time I've listened to the book and it was wonderful again.

I did notice how much sympathy Eliot appears to show for her characters - she uses "poor" for nearly everyone - including (this is from searching an online edition): Poor Dorothea; Poor Mr Casaubon, Poor Lydgate, Poor Rosamond, Fred, Mrs. Vincy, Mary, Featherstone, Mrs. Cranch..

I listened to it in the car, and so couldn't do more than make mental notes of passages I liked, which I subsequently looked up in an online edition. Specific quotes I could do this with:

"That is Mrs. Waule's gig—the last yellow gig left, I should think. When I see Mrs. Waule in it, I understand how yellow can have been worn for mourning. That gig seems to me more funereal than a hearse. But then Mrs. Waule always has black crape on. How does she manage it, Rosy? Her friends can't always be dying."

Sir James paused. He did not usually find it easy to give his reasons: it seemed to him strange that people should not know them without being told, since he only felt what was reasonable.

"How do you know what men would fall in love with? Girls never know."

"At least, Fred, let me advise you not to fall in love with her, for she says she would not marry you if you asked her."

"She might have waited till I did ask her."

"Let it alone! You bring it, missy, and lay it down here," said Mr. Featherstone. "Now you go away again till I call you," he added, when the waistcoat was laid down by him. It was usual with him to season his pleasure in showing favor to one person by being especially disagreeable to another, and Mary was always at hand to furnish the condiment.

I suppose it was that in courtship everything is regarded as provisional and preliminary, and the smallest sample of virtue or accomplishment is taken to guarantee delightful stores which the broad leisure of marriage will reveal. But the door-sill of marriage once crossed, expectation is concentrated on the present. Having once embarked on your marital voyage, it is impossible not to be aware that you make no way and that the sea is not within sight—that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.

"Oh, my dear, when you have a clergyman in your family you must accommodate your tastes: I did that very early. When I married Humphrey I made up my mind to like sermons, and I set out by liking the end very much. That soon spread to the middle and the beginning, because I couldn't have the end without them."

She could not in the least make clear to herself the reasons for her husband's dislike to his presence—a dislike painfully impressed on her by the scene in the library; but she felt the unbecomingness of saying anything that might convey a notion of it to others. Mr. Casaubon, indeed, had not thoroughly represented those mixed reasons to himself; irritated feeling with him, as with all of us, seeking rather for justification than for self-knowledge.

"No, I do not yet refuse," said Dorothea, in a clear voice, the need of freedom asserting itself within her; "but it is too solemn—I think it is not right—to make a promise when I am ignorant what it will bind me to. Whatever affection prompted I would do without promising.”

She went into the summerhouse and said, "I am come, Edward; I am ready."

He took no notice, and she thought that he must be fast asleep. She laid her hand on his shoulder, and repeated, "I am ready!" Still he was motionless; and with a sudden confused fear, she leaned down to him, took off his velvet cap, and leaned her cheek close to his head, crying in a distressed tone—

"Wake, dear, wake! Listen to me. I am come to answer." But Dorothea never gave her answer.

(Maureen O'Brien read that beautifully and so movingly)
He was not only excited with his play, but visions were gleaming on him of going the next day to Brassing, where there was gambling on a grander scale to be had, and where, by one powerful snatch at the devil's bait, he might carry it off without the hook, and buy his rescue from his daily solicitings.

..he was beginning now to imagine how two creatures who loved each other, and had a stock of thoughts in common, might laugh over their shabby furniture, and their calculations how far they could afford butter and eggs. But the glimpse of that poetry seemed as far off from him as the carelessness of the golden age; in poor Rosamond's mind there was not room enough for luxuries to look small in.

"That is why I came yesterday, and why I am come to-day. Trouble is so hard to bear, is it not?— How can we live and think that any one has trouble—piercing trouble—and we could help them, and never try?”

Around the time I was reading it, the Guardian included it as one of their 100 Best novels. One of the BTL comments by a reader really struck a chord with me: "It's a book that made me want to be a better person.”. Certainly I felt, after reading the book, that I'd somehow been ennobled by the experience.

Completed : 19-Jun-2003 (audiobook, read by Maureen O'Brien)

Completed : 26-Apr-2005 (audiobook, read by Maureen O'Brien)

Completed : 15-Apr-2014 (audiobook, read by Maureen O'Brien)

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