Middlemarch

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Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
Middlemarch 1.jpg
Title page, first ed., Vol. 1, William Blackwood and Sons, 1871
Author George Eliot
Country England
Series 1871–72
Genre Novel
Social criticism
Publication date
1874 (first one-vol. ed.)
Media type Print (serial, hardback, paperback)
Pages 904 (Oxford University Press, USA; 2008 reissue)

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is a 1874 novel by English author George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans. It is her seventh novel, begun in 1869 and then put aside during the final illness of Thornton Lewes, the son of her companion George Henry Lewes. During the following year Eliot resumed work, fusing together several separate stories into a coherent whole, and during 1871–72 the novel was serialized. A one-volume edition was published in 1874 and sold well.

Subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life", the novel is set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, which is thought to be based on Coventry, during the period 1830–32.[1] It has multiple plots with a large cast of characters and distinct, though interlocking narratives. The main themes, include the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism, self-interest, religion, hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic (with occasional authorial comment).

Although Middlemarch has some comical elements, it is a work of realism. Through the voices and opinions of different characters we become aware of various issues of the day: the Great Reform Bill, the beginnings of the railways, the death of King George IV, and the succession of his brother, the Duke of Clarence (who became King William IV). The novel also provides insight into the state of contemporary medical science and the deeply reactionary mindset found within a settled community facing the prospect unwelcome change.

Though none of the characters in Middlemarch are intentionally humorous in their diction, except Mary Garth who employs great wit, the narrator's tone is often wry and humorous. Labourers speaking in dialect also add humour, as they do in many of Shakespeare's plays.

The eight "books" of the novel reflect the form of the original serialisation. A short prelude introduces the idea of the latter-day St. Theresa, presaging the character Dorothea; a postscript, or "finale", after the eighth book gives details of the subsequent fate of the main characters.

Middlemarch has retained its popularity and status as one of the masterpieces of English fiction,[2] although some reviewers have expressed dissatisfaction at the destiny accorded to Dorothea. In separate centuries, Florence Nightingale and Kate Millett both remarked on the eventual subordination of Dorothea's own dreams to those of her admirer, Ladislaw.[3] However, in the epilogue George Eliot herself acknowledges the regrettable waste of Dorothea's potential, blaming social conditions. Virginia Woolf gave the book unstinting praise, describing Middlemarch as "the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people".[4] While the contemporary novelists Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have both described it as probably the greatest novel in the English language.[5][6]

Background[edit]

On 1 January 1869, George Eliot listed her tasks for the coming year in her journal. The list included "A Novel called Middlemarch", along with a number of poetry and other projects.[7] Her most recent novel, Felix Holt, had been published more than two years earlier and had not sold well.[8] Despite this, the projected new novel was to be set in the same pre-Reform Bill England as Felix Holt, and would again deal with the reform issue, although less centrally.

In its first conception, Middlemarch was a story involving Lydgate, an ambitious doctor, the Vincy family, and Mr. Featherstone. Progress on the novel was slow; by September, only three chapters of the story had been completed. The main reason for this lack of development was the distraction caused by the illness of Lewes's son Thornie, who was dying slowly of tuberculosis.[9] Following his death on 19 October 1869, all work on the novel stopped. At this point, it is uncertain whether or not Eliot intended to revive the original project; in November 1870, more than a year later, she began work on an entirely new story, "Miss Brooke", introducing Dorothea. Exactly when she started to combine this narrative with the earlier Lydgate-Vincy-Featherstone plot is unrecorded, but the process was certainly under way by March 1871.[10]

As the scope of the novel grew, a decision was taken as to the form of its publication. In May 1871, Lewes asked publisher John Blackwood to bring the novel out in eight parts, at two-monthly intervals from December 1871. Blackwood agreed, and the eight books duly appeared throughout 1872, the last instalments appearing in successive months, November and December 1872.[11]

Plot[edit]

Dorothea Brooke is an idealistic, young middle class woman who seeks to help those around her, including the local poor. She is seems set for a comfortable and idle life as the wife of neighbouring landowner Sir James Chettam, but to the dismay and bewilderment of her sister Celia and her uncle Mr Brooke, she marries Edward Casaubon. He a dry, pedantic scholar much older than Dorothea who, she believes, is writing a great work, The Key to All Mythologies. She hopes to find fulfilment by sharing in Casaubon's intellectual life, but during an unhappy honeymoon in Rome she experiences his coldness towards her ambitions. Slowly she realises that his great project is doomed to failure and her feelings change to to pity. Dorothea forms a warm friendship with a young cousin of Casaubon's, Will Ladislaw, but her husband's antipathy towards him is clear and he is forbidden to visit. This hostility is partly based on Casaubon's belief that Ladislaw is trying to seduce Dorothea, so as to gain access to Casaubon's fortune). In poor health, Casaubon attempts to extract from Dorothea a promise that, should he die, she will "avoid doing what I should deprecate and apply yourself to do what I desire". Dorothea believes that this means that she should complete The Key to All Mythologies. But before Dorothea replies, Casaubon dies, and she later she learns that he has added a provision to his will that, if she marries Ladislaw, she will lose her inheritance.

George Eliot

Meanwhile, Tertius Lydgate, an idealistic young doctor with advanced ideas about medical research and reform, has arrived in Middlemarch. His voluntary hospital work brings him into contact with the town's financier, Mr. Bulstrode, who has philanthropic leanings; he is also a religious zealot with a secret past. Bulstrode's niece is Rosamond Vincy, the mayor's daughter and the town's recognised beauty, and she sets her sights on Lydgate, attracted by what she believes to be his aristocratic connections and his novelty as a newcomer to the town. She wins him, but the disjunction between her self-centred narcissism and his idealistic notions of helping others ensures that their marriage is unhappy. Lydgate overspends in order to please Rosamond, and he is soon deeply in debt and has to seek help from Bulstrode. He is partly sustained emotionally in his marital and financial woes by his friendship with Camden Farebrother, a generous-spirited and engaging parson from a local parish.

At the same time, readers have become acquainted with Rosamond's university-educated, restless and irresponsible brother, Fred, who is reluctantly destined for the Church. He is in love with his childhood sweetheart, Mary Garth, a plain, sensible, and forthright young woman who will not accept him until he abandons the Church (in which she knows he has no interest) and settles in a more suitable career. Mary's honesty contributes to Fred's losing a considerable fortune, which was bequeathed to him by the aged and irascible Mr Featherstone, then rescinded by a later will which Featherstone, on his deathbed, begs Mary to destroy. Mary refuses to engage in such an illegal act and begs Featherstone to wait until the morning, when a legal will superseding the other will can be legally drawn up. But Featherstone dies before the morning. Fred, in debt after some injudicious horse-dealing, is forced to take out a loan that is guaranteed by Mary's father, Caleb Garth, to meet his commitments. When Fred cannot pay the loan, Caleb Garth's finances become compromised, since he must pay back the loan himself. This humiliation shocks Fred into reassessing his life, and he resolves to train as a land agent under the forgiving Caleb.

These three interwoven narratives, with side-plots such as the disastrous though comedic attempt by Mr Brooke to enter Parliament as a sponsor of Reform, are the basis of the novel until well into its final third. Then a new thread emerges, with the appearance of John Raffles, who knows about Bulstrode's shady past and is determined to exploit this knowledge by blackmail. In his youth, the now fire-and-brimstone church-going Bulstrode engaged in some questionable financial dealings; he also owes the foundation of his fortune to a marriage to a much older, wealthy widow. Bulstrode's terror of public exposure as a hypocrite leads him to hasten the death of the mortally sick Raffles by giving him access to forbidden alcohol and excessive amounts of opium. But he is too late: Raffles had already spread the word. Bulstrode's disgrace engulfs the luckless Lydgate, as knowledge of the financier's loan to the doctor becomes public, and he is assumed to be complicit with Bulstrode. Only Dorothea and Farebrother maintain faith in Lydgate, but Lydgate and Rosamond are encouraged by the general opprobrium to leave Middlemarch. The disgraced and reviled Bulstrode's only consolation is that his wife stands by him as he, too, faces exile.

The final thread in the complex weave concerns Ladislaw. The peculiar nature of Casaubon's will has meant that suspicion has fallen upon Dorothea and Ladislaw as possible lovers, creating an awkwardness between the two. But Casaubon's paranoia is well-founded, because Ladislaw is secretly in love with Dorothea. But he keeps that to himself, having no desire to involve her in scandal or to cause her disinheritance. He has remained in Middlemarch, working as a newspaper editor for Mr Brooke; he has also become a focus for Rosamond's treacherous attentions. After Brooke's election campaign collapses, there is nothing to keep Ladislaw in Middlemarch, so he visits Dorothea to make his farewell. But Dorothea, released from life with Casaubon but still the prisoner of his will, has come to fall in love with Ladislaw. She had previously seen him as her husband's unfortunate relative, but the peculiar nature of Casaubon's will led her to begin to see him in a new light, as well as to open herself and Ladislaw up to public gossip. Renouncing Casaubon's fortune, she shocks her family again by announcing that she will marry Ladislaw. At the same time, Fred, who has proven an apt pupil of Caleb's profession, finally wins the approval and hand of Mary.

Beyond the principal stories we are given constant glimpses into other scenes. We observe Featherstone's avaricious relatives gathering for the spoils, visit Farebrother's strange ménage, and become aware of enormous social and economic divides. But these are backdrops for the main stories which, true to life, are left largely suspended, leaving a short finale to summarise the fortunes of our protagonists over the next 30 years or so. The book ends as it began, with Dorothea: "Her full nature...spent itself in channels which had no great name on the Earth. 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..."

Characters[edit]

Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw
Mary Garth and Fred Vincy
Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate
  • Dorothea Brooke — intelligent and wealthy woman with great aspirations. Brooke spurns signs of wealth and embarks upon projects such as redesigning cottages for the tenants of her uncle. She can seldom get anyone to take her ideas seriously and she decides to marry the Reverend Edward Casaubon, many decades her senior, to help him with the writing of his great research project, The Key to All Mythologies. The marriage is quickly revealed to be a mistake, as Casaubon does not take her seriously and resents her youth, enthusiasm, and energy. Her requests to assist him merely serve to make it more difficult for him to conceal that his research is years out of date and his work is very lackluster. His research on pagan parallels with Christian theology serves only to entice those who know nothing about the field; those who are familiar with the area of research know that his work is derivative and has been explored thoroughly by earlier researchers. When her husband shunts her aside during their honeymoon, she finds a kindred spirit in the Reverend's first cousin once removed, Will Ladislaw, and the two become friends. After Casaubon's death, when their mutual attraction might blossom, it is almost renounced because of various complications, including the provision in Casaubon's will that, if Dorothea were to marry Ladislaw, she would be disinherited. Such a provision leads people to wonder if Dorothea and Ladislaw had been engaging in anything improper during Dorothea's marriage, which is a great insult on the part of Casaubon. Eventually, however, they do marry and move to London, but Eliot denies her a straightforwardly happy ending since Dorothea, like Lydgate, fails to reach her potential and sacrifices her dreams to support her husband in his political career.
  • Tertius Lydgate — An idealistic, proud, passionate, and talented-but-naïve young doctor of good birth but small financial means, he hopes to make great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. He ends up entangled with Rosamond Vincy and they marry unhappily. His pride and attempts to show that he is not answerable to any man end up backfiring and he eventually leaves town. He quickly falls out of love with his wife and ends up sacrificing all of his high ideals to make a living that will please Rosamond.
  • Rev. Edward Casaubon — A pedantic, selfish clergyman of late middle age who is obsessed with finishing his scholarly research, to the exclusion of other people and things. He marries Dorothea Brooke, leading to a loveless marriage. His unfinished book The Key to All Mythologies is intended as a monument to the tradition of Christian syncretism. However, we later learn that his life's work is useless as he does not read German and is therefore behind on current studies. We also learn he is aware of this but has put too much time into his research to admit it to anyone else.
  • Mary Garth — The practical, plain, and kind daughter of Caleb and Susan Garth, she works as Mr. Featherstone's nurse. She and Fred Vincy were childhood sweethearts, but she refuses to allow him to woo her until he shows himself willing and able to live seriously, practically, and sincerely.
  • Arthur Brooke — The often befuddled and none-too-clever uncle of Dorothea and Celia Brooke. He has a reputation as the worst landlord in the county, but tries to stand for parliament on a Reform platform.
  • Celia Brooke — Dorothea's younger sister is also a great beauty, but attractive in a far more sensual way. She does not share Dorothea's idealism and asceticism, and is only too happy to marry the rejected Sir James Chettam.
  • Sir James Chettam — A neighbouring landowner, Sir James is in love with Dorothea and tries to ingratiate himself to her by helping her with her plans to improve conditions for the tenants. When she marries Casaubon, he marries Celia Brooke instead.
  • Rosamond Vincy — Vain, beautiful, and shallow, Rosamond has a high opinion of her own charms and a low opinion of Middlemarch society. She marries Tertius Lydgate because she believes that he will raise her social standing and keep her comfortable and carefree. When her husband encounters financial difficulties, she thwarts his efforts to economise, seeing such sacrifices as beneath her and insulting to her on the part of her husband. She is unable to bear the idea of losing status in Middlemarch society.
  • Fred Vincy — Rosamond's brother. He has loved Mary Garth since they were children. His family is hoping that he will find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman, but he knows that Mary will not marry him if he does so. Brought up with expectations from his uncle Mr Featherstone, he is spendthrift and irresponsible. He later finds, by studying under Mary's father, a profession at which he can be successful and which Mary will respect.
  • Will Ladislaw — A young cousin of Mr Casaubon, he has no property because his grandmother married a poor Polish musician and was disinherited. He is a man of great verve, idealism and talent but of no fixed profession. He comes to love Dorothea, but cannot marry her without her losing Mr Casaubon's property.
  • Mr. Humphrey Cadwallader and Mrs. Eleanor Cadwallader — Neighbours of the Brookes. Mr. Cadwallader is a Rector. Mrs. Cadwallader is a pragmatic and talkative woman who comments on local affairs with wry cynicism. She disapproves of Dorothea's marriage and Mr. Brooke's parliamentary endeavours.
  • Mr. Walter Vincy and Mrs. Lucy Vincy — A respectable manufacturing family. They wish their children to advance socially, and are disappointed by both Rosamond's and Fred's marriages. Mr. Vincy's sister is married to Nicholas Bulstrode. Mrs. Vincy was an innkeeper's daughter and her sister was the second wife of Mr. Featherstone.
  • Mr. Caleb Garth — Mary Garth's father. He is a kind, honest, and generous businessman who is a surveyor and land agent involved in farm management. He is fond of Fred and eventually takes him under his wing.
  • Mr. Camden Farebrother — A poor but clever vicar and amateur naturalist. He is a friend of Lydgate and Fred Vincy, and loves Mary Garth. His position improves when Dorothea appoints him to the living of Lowick after Casaubon's death.
  • Nicholas Bulstrode — Wealthy banker married to Mr. Vincy's sister, Harriet. He is a pious Methodist who tries to impose his beliefs in Middlemarch society; however, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide. His religion, consisting of "broken metaphor and bad logic," consistently favours his personal desires, but is devoid of sympathy for others. He is an unhappy man who has longed for years to be better than he is, and has clad his selfish passions in severe robes.
  • Mr. Peter Featherstone — Old landlord of Stone Court, a self-made man who married Caleb Garth's sister and later took Mrs. Vincy's sister as his second wife when his first wife died.
  • Mrs. Jane Waule - A widow and Peter Featherstone's sister, has a son, John.
  • Mr. Hawley — Foul-mouthed businessman and enemy of Bulstrode.
  • Mr. Mawmsey — Grocer.
  • Dr. Sprague — Middlemarch doctor.
  • Mr. Tyke — Clergyman favoured by Bulstrode.
  • Rigg Featherstone — Featherstone's illegitimate son who appears at the reading of Featherstone's will and is given his fortune instead of Fred. He is also related to John Raffles, who comes into town to visit Rigg but instead reveals Bulstrode's past. His appearance in the novel is crucial to the plot.
  • John Raffles — Raffles is a braggart and a bully, a humorous scoundrel in the tradition of Sir John Falstaff, and an alcoholic. But unlike Shakespeare's fat knight, Raffles is a genuinely evil man with a jolly exterior. He holds the key to Bulstrode's dark past and Lydgate's future. Bulstrode believes his secret will be safe with Raffles' demise.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

Virginia Woolf described Middlemarch as "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people".[12] In addition, V. S. Pritchett, in The Living Novel, wrote, "No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative...I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot...No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully".[13] Critic Jerome Beaty argues that one could read Middlemarch as George Eliot's Reform novel, although political history is represented only "indirectly".[14]

Popular since its first publication,[15] the novel remains a favourite with readers today. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 27 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.[16] In January 2007, a book entitled The Top Ten (edited by J. Peder Zane) listed Middlemarch as number ten in its list "The 10 Greatest Books of All Time", based on the ballots of 125 selected writers.[17]

In 1873, the poet Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to her cousins Louise and Fannie Norcross:[18]

"What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?" What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the "mysteries of redemption," for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite....

Both author C.S. Lewis and Nobel Laureate Peter Medawar proclaimed 'Middlemarch' to be the best of all English Novels.[19]

Film, television, and theatrical adaptations[edit]

Middlemarch has been adapted for multiple television and film projects.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Carolyn Steedman, "Going to Middlemarch: History and the Novel", Michigan Quarterly Review XL, no. 3 (Summer 2001). Retrieved 13 April 2013
  2. ^ Leavis, The Great Tradition
  3. ^ Millet (1972), Sexual Politics, Nightingale quoted in George Eliot and Gender, Kate Flint 2001
  4. ^ Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader, 1925, p. 175.
  5. ^ Long, Camilla. Martin Amis and the sex war, The Times, 24 January 2010, p. 4: "They’ve [women] produced the greatest writer in the English language ever, George Eliot, and arguably the third greatest, Jane Austen, and certainly the greatest novel, Middlemarch..."
  6. ^ Guppy, Shusha (Winter 2000). "Julian Barnes, The Art of Fiction No. 165". The Paris Review (157). Retrieved 18 May 2011 .
  7. ^ Ashton, p. 295
  8. ^ Ashton, p. 287
  9. ^ Ashton, p. 300
  10. ^ Ashton, pp. 311–12
  11. ^ Donald Gray, p. 191
  12. ^ The Common Reader: George Eliot Virginia Woolf, The Times Literary Supplement, 20 November 1919
  13. ^ "Journal of the History of Medicine" (PDF). Oxford Journals. January 1981 .
  14. ^ Beaty, Jerome. "History by Indirection: The Era of Reform in Middlemarch." Victorian Studies. 1.2, 1957, p. 179
  15. ^ Dolin Tim. George Eliot. Oxford UP, 2005. 99.
  16. ^ "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 28 October 2012
  17. ^ Grossman, Lev (15 January 2007). "The 10 Greatest Books of All Time". Time. Retrieved 12 May 2010. 
  18. ^ Linscott, Robert N., 1959. Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson, Anchor Books, Random House, New York, p. 242
  19. ^ Memoir of a Thinking Radish, Peter Medawar, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 88
  20. ^ "What's On: Middlemarch: 'Dorothea's Story'". OrangeTreeTheater.co.uk. 

Bibliography[edit]

  • Ashton, Rosemary (1983). George Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-287627-9. 
  • Beaty, Jerome (1960). Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel: A Study of George Eliot's Creative Method. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 
  • Carroll, David, ed. (1971). George Eliot: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge & K Paul. ISBN 0-7100-6936-7. 
  • Daiches, David (1963). George Eliot: Middlemarch. London: Arnold. 
  • Dentith, Simon (1986). George Eliot. Brighton, Sussex: Harvester Press. ISBN 0-7108-0588-8. 
  • Garrett, Peter K (1980). The Victorian Multiplot Novel: Studies in Dialogical Form. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-02403-7. 
  • Graver, Suzanne (1984). George Eliot and Community: A Study in Social Theory and Fictional Form. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-04802-4. 
  • Harvey, WJ (1961). The Art of George Eliot. London: Chatto & Windus. 
  • Kettle, Arnold (1951). An Introduction to the English Novel, Volume I: To George Eliot. London: Hutchinson. 
  • Leavis, FR (1948). The Great Tradition: George Eliot, Henry James, Joseph Conrad. London: Chatto & Windus. 
  • Neale, Catherine (1989). George Eliot, Middlemarch. London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-077173-5. 
  • Swinden, Patrick, ed. (1972). George Eliot: Middlemarch: A Casebook. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-02119-3. 
  • Trainini, Marco, Vendetta, tienimi compagnia. Due vendicatori in «Middlemarch» di George Eliot e «Anna Karenina» di Lev Tolstoj, Milano, Arcipelago Edizioni, 2012, ISBN 8876954759.

Further reading[edit]

Scholarship[edit]

External links[edit]