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.
Middlemarch is on my Classics Club List and also qualifies for Sues Big Book Summer Reading Challenge.
Oh Chris, Thank you for this thoughtful post!
You put this so well: “like a stealth wave that I didn’t see coming . . . a wave of insight.” Yes, I was amazed at the way Eliot writes about what characters think and feel, and how they act when they don’t even understand their own feelings. I need to think more about the overall structure and how she achieves all that she does. It’s so easy to get lost in the story and not notice the art, which is why we become so immersed in the story, of course. Ahh, my heart broke for Lydgate. I cried at the end.
Why I read it: I promised myself to read it before I die and I did not want to be regretting it on my deathbed. 🙂 But seriously, I knew how revered it is and knew that I should read it. But it IS hard to get around to the long, long novels.
I, too, had avoided reading ABOUT Middlemarch. The only George Eliot novel I’d previously read is Silas Marner — in 8th grade!! I majored in English and also received an MA in English without encountering Eliot again. 🙁
I love the portrait that you posted.
Now we must read Rebecca Mead’s book soon! My life in Middlemarch!
We were so on the same wave-length about this novel, Toni. I’m all in for reading My Life In Middlemarch. How about this winter??
I recently started reading My Life in Middlemarch. I think I will take my time with it. I am in the middle of two other books!
I look forward to hearing what you think!
Welcome to the fan club for Middlemarch. I’m ecstatic when I find someone who loves this book as much as I do. I know it’s hard to fit in a long novel but this is one that really deserves more than one read. I’ve read it about 6 times now and find something new in it each time. She packs so many ideas in – the idea of every individual being connected to others; ambition, new versus old science just to mention a few. My favourite section is where she suddenly turns on her readers and appeals to them to think of Casubon in a more favourable light.
Thank you for the warm welcome! I’m so happy to be a newly minted member of the Middlemarch fan club. I am not sure how long I’ll wait to re-read it, but I know there’s at least one in my future. The idea of ambition was a fascinating thread. I could tell Lydgate’s ambitions would face some hurdles, but I really felt for the guy. And Dorothea! Its maddening to think of how many women were and still are stifled by gender BS.
I feel sorry for Dorothea because despite all those ambitions she has to do good things and her projects, in the end she settles for marriage
I must reread after your post. I read this about 12 years ago and loved it so much that I purchased a beautiful trade paperback a few years ago. Maybe I should declare this the year of the long read. I finished War and Peace and a few Trollope’s, so Middlemarch sounds perfect for fall ( and maybe I will reread Buddenbrooks to keep with the theme)!
Wow, you really are on a big book kick! I haven’t read any Trollope yet. Is there one you’d recommend? I’ve also been thinking about rereading Buddenbrooks. I read it when I was in my 20s and have often thought about rereading it. I don’t remember much about it other than that I enjoyed it.
I would like to suggest The Way We Live Now. Its not part of a series (as are the Pallisers and Barsetshires), and its a wonderful stand-alone, with really well-drawn characters and a good plot, it moves along well. (Andrew Davies’ adaptation for the BBC is especially good too). I loved Mrs. Hurtle and Lady Carbery.
Thanks, Gina! I’ll start with The Way We Live Now. I enjoy Andrew Davies’ adaptations. A movie-thon (or adapta-thon?) of his work would be enjoyable.
Gina, I just accessed “What Should I Read Next” for the fun of it and The Way We Live Now was one of the recommendations for what to read after Middlemarch! It came up 4th after these three, listed in order: The Ambassadors by James, The Forsyte Saga by Galsworthy, and Measure for Measure by Shakespeare. 😁
A great post! And it’s such a great book. I remember when I first read it (in my late 20s) I thought why didn’t somebody sit me down and make me read this earlier? Well, I might not have enjoyed in high school. But there’s never a wrong time to read Middlemarch. Or reread it, I figure!
Thanks! I agree, there’s never a wrong time to read it, but what a treat it would be to reread every 10 years or so throughout one’s life starting in your teens. How differently we’d see and related to the characters when we’re 20 vs 50, etc.
So true! The first time I read it I identified with Dorothea, but the second time with Lydgate. I think maybe I should aspire to identify with Mary Garth…
Mary Garth! Loved her. I did wish there was more of Mary Garth in the novel. She definitely has a good head on her shoulders.
Really enjoyed your post! I was an English major too, and took a class on the 19th century English novel as an undergrad. That was my first introduction to Middlemarch. I could only manage to read half of it – we were on the quarter system so that’s my excuse. I was daunted by the reading list which included Middlemarch, Great Expectations, Jude the Obscure, Heart of Darkness, and Wuthering Heights. The pull of Middlemarch stayed with me and I finally returned to it last year. And I’m so glad I returned to it! I’m definitely going to read more George Eliot in the years to come.
I also want to read more Eliot. The quarter system is a challenge for sure, and that’s a huge reading load you had! What a tough (cruel? ) teacher. What did you think of Wuthering Heights? I didn’t read it until I was in my 40s and I was surprised by how dysfunctional everyone was. I’d always heard it was this great love story.
Wuthering Heights had the least impact on me as a reader and student at that time. I think I was more enamored with the 1939 film adaptation staring Merle Oberon and Laurence Oliver, lol. It would be interesting to re-read it now that I’m in my 50s.
From that particular class Jude the Obscure was my favorite and still haunts me. I think I need to read more Hardy along with Eliot. Actually when I think about it Jude the Obscure has many of the same themes: class, education, religion, and marriage! I see more Eliot and Hardy in my future.
This especially I have always remembered as a reminder of Hardy:
“She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog.” (chapter 80).
I was reading/listening to a lot of Hardy at the time and this just reminded me so much of the beginning of the Mayor of Casterbridge, with Henchard and his wife and Elizabeth Jane going to the fair, and also the shepherd reminded me of Gabriel Oak (from Crowd).
Yes, that is such a beautiful passage! More Eliot, more Hardy, please.
I just looked over a list of Hardy’s novels and it looks like the only one I’ve read is Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I recall it as a good, but exhausting read. I see more Eliot in my future, but I’m not so sure about Hardy! lol
I got to this novel late, too. I loved it, and could not believe I’d avoided it, and have now reread it, several times! Nice review.
Thanks, Cath! I’m amazed by how so many people who have read and love Middlemarch have also reread it several times. It speaks volumes to how brilliant it is.
I was surprised after reading this that I don’t remember a lot of it. I read it 6 years ago and I remember it being beautiful, but even as I went back and looked at my review I apparently struggled to remember the stories or anything other than the beauty of the writing and the variety of the characters. I’m glad you enjoyed it though!
I just read your review, Geoff, and your likening Middlemarch to Love Actually had me nodding in agreement. I’ll post your review here for folks who might be reading the comments: https://geoffwhaley.com/2013/04/24/middlemarch-george-eliot/
I will keep in mind that the audiobook is good, I do have it in my wish list as well as a physical copy so one day!
I can’t wait to read this one. I’ve been saying that for like TWO YEARS, so maybe this year I need to make it happen. I’m a bit intimidated…
Hi Jillian! I hope you get to it at just the right time for you. When I’ve tried to force myself to read a big, intimidating classic because it was next on my list, it usually doesn’t work out well. I’ll either not finish it or feel like I’m just slogging through it like it’s a duty. Sometimes mood and timing are everything. I hope you enjoy it when you do get to it!