I finished reading Middlemarch last weekend. The reading pace I had set for myself didn’t come off as planned, but that didn’t matter. There was no hurry, I just wanted to keep momentum. I enjoyed just about every minute of reading Middlemarch, even when I could only squeeze in a few pages before bed. It’s been eight days since I finished this amazing novel and my mind is still a whirl from the experience.
The discussions around political reform were the only bits that made me feel antsy to get back to other parts of the story. That said, one of the stand-out scenes of the novel, a rather heart-wrenching one, happens late in the story at a political rally. This scene produced such strong feelings of human connection in me and brought all of the earlier political talk to ahead. It was like a stealth wave that I didn’t see coming. As the wave broke, I got the significance of so many of those earlier political discussions and the manner in which they were written. It really was like a wave of insight washing over me.
Indeed, for just about every philosophical statement a character makes or theoretical conversation between characters, Eliot expands on these with a big scene later in the novel. Eliot’s skill at planting seeds and developing character’s lives makes this novel such a joy to read.
The depictions of primary character’s lives led up to scenes that are filled with such tenderness for the human condition that it’s hard not to love most of these characters. They are so human. Tenderness might not be the right word. Eliot’s writing evokes feeling of tenderness, but she does it through realistic descriptions showing how people think and respond.
Anyway, it’s impossible not to see yourself reflected in Eliot’s characters even if you initially judged them. This writing magic that Eliot performs is just one of the reasons why so many people have loved this novel for almost 150 years. I can already taste how sweet it will be to re-read it.
Why I read it
Middlemarch had been on my To Be Read List since about 1992. I was an undergrad when I first learned that it is considered one of the best novels of all time, if not THE BEST. I don’t recall the name of the class or even of the professor, but I can still picture him standing in front of the class going over the syllabus on the first day of the semester and saying something to the effect that if you’re going to read George Eliot, you should read Middlemarch but, for his class, we would read Adam Bede instead.
Why! I shouted to myself. Why tell hungry English majors one thing and do another?
Perhaps he figured we’d read it in another class or get to it on our own, but squeezing in an 800+ page novel as an English major with an already heavy reading load isn’t the easiest thing to do. And then I spent my graduate school years focused primarily on American writers, but ever since that day in class so many years ago, the idea of reading Middlemarch has pulsed at the back of my mind.
Squeezing in an 800+ page novel post-school isn’t any easier when you’re working and have a growing stack of books to read that are calling your name. So, long story short, it took me awhile to get to this weighty tome, but I couldn’t let another year go by without reading it.
A ridiculous avoidance
To make matters worse, for all these years I’ve also been steering clear of reading about Middlemarch and George Eliot in an attempt to avoid spoilers. That began to feel ridiculous many moons ago. When you’re in your 50s you definitely begin to understand that you will not get to ALL the classics so you’d better zero in on the ones that are calling to you the loudest.
Would I have regretted not reading Middlemarch on my deathbed?
Historical fiction with big themes
Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life was originally published in eight installments between 1871-1872. It is set, however, in the years 1829-1832, and so it is historical fiction. For modern readers, it’s a bit of a Russian doll — A Victorian novel looking back at the late Romantic Period. The political talk in the novel that I mentioned above is regarding the Reform Act of 1832, something of which I knew very little and only Googled after finishing the novel. (I’m trying to stay in a book when I read these days.)
But the political talk is just one small slice of this novel that is filled with many themes, some big ones include marriage, gender inequality, advances in medical practice, and the impact of the industrial revolution to name a few.
The coming of the Railroad
One issue that fascinated me was the coming of the railroad into land that had long been settled. The novel is set in the Midlands of England. I’d never thought about what the laying of track meant for European countries whose land had been plotted out for generations.
Here in the USA, the mythology of the Transcontinental Railroad as a pivotal moment in American history focuses on tracks laid through “unsettled” land. There’s no doubt the railroad disrupted established cities and settlements, not to mention that it was an invasion of Native lands and built on the backs of the poor and immigrants, but my generation didn’t tend to learn about those things. The coming of the railroad was taught as a highlight of American ingenuity and determination.
In Middlemarch, Eliot depicts the tensions that arose over the coming of the railroad in central England, the destruction of a way of life versus progress. See Chapter 56.
In many ways, I’ve avoided talking about the details of Middlemarch in this post because, based on my own history with the novel, I’d hate to reveal spoilers. Even if it’s over 100 years old, a book is always new when its read for the first time.
If you’re into audiobooks, Juliet Stevenson’s performance is excellent. She’s a talented actor who gives each character a distinct voice and accent, which I’m assuming are class and regionally accurate. I primarily read the Signet Classics paperback, but listened to about eight hours of the audio book when I had a longish drive and while doing some mindless chores. Since finishing the novel I’m still dipping into the audiobook.