Middlemarch by George Eliot

Unhappily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Set just before the Reform Act of 1832, Eliot uses the better off residents of the provincial town of Middlemarch to muse on the state of society at a point of change. It is basically a series of character studies, showing how the social interactions of life lead, in most people, to a permanent state of change: sometimes growth, sometimes diminution. There is no overarching plot to speak of, though several of the characters have their own stories which appear and disappear as the book roves over subjects as diverse as the building of the railroads, the state of medicine, the position of women in society, the conduct of politics.

By the time I got to page 150, I was beginning to think that dying of boredom would be a blessed release. The constant repetition and the impersonal telling of every detail rather than allowing the characters to reveal themselves through their own actions and interactions made it feel like sheer drudgery to get through. Gritting my teeth and struggling on, I found it slowly improved so that eventually I became reasonably immersed in the various lives that were slowly, oh, so slowly, being lived out on the pages. But having made it all the way to the final page, despite admiring the ambition and some of the execution, I will not be joining the legions of people who think this is the greatest novel in the English language.

There is no doubt about the depth of the characterisation nor the profound insight Eliot gives into the fallibilities and foibles of human nature. Clearly not a fan of the happy-ever-after of so many novels of the period, Eliot instead shows marriage as the beginning of the story for many of her characters and then follows them as they have to readjust their expectations when experience crashes brutally down on their hopes and dreams. It’s all very realistic, of course; hence, very depressing. I’ve always assumed that Darcy and Lizzie probably found that neither was quite as perfect as they seemed to each other on that day when they declared their mutual love, but I was always happy that Austen didn’t make me witness the inevitable disillusion. There’s such a thing as too much realism.

It’s hard to know who the major character is supposed to be. For the first section it appears it will be Dorothea, an idealistic young woman who wishes to find a way to be useful in a society that expects women of her class to be merely decorative. But then quite suddenly, just as one has become invested in her story, she disappears for hundreds of pages and idealistic young Dr Lydgate becomes the focus. The informative introduction in my Oxford World’s Classic edition, by David Russell, tells me that in fact the book started as two separate stories which Eliot later decided to merge, and I was quite glad to know that since it explained why the structure felt so out of synch until about halfway through. Both Dorothea and Lydgate find they have married people who don’t live up to their high ideals and so spend much of their time being miserable. (In an Austen novel, they’d have married each other and lived happily ever after. What’s so wrong with that?)

George Eliot

I enjoyed the portrayal of the society of the town considerably more. While Eliot deals mostly with her own class, she occasionally gives glimpses of the common people, showing how their way of life was being changed by the increasing industrialisation of the time. She doesn’t delve in depth into this nor into the major political changes that were happening, presumably assuming that her contemporary audience would be well aware of these aspects. But she does show that the landowning classes were conscious of the increasing mood of resentment among the lower orders, with the fear of social unrest rumbling in the background. Like Dickens, she gives an indication of how the classes may live apart but are inextricably connected and, also like him, she suggests clearly that those who have ignore those who have not at their own peril.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped. I suspect it’s simply a matter of outlook on life – I’m a glass-half-full kind of person and I got the distinct impression that Eliot’s glass was at least half empty. I missed Dickens’ anger and exuberance, and Austen’s wit. This felt flatter – more like reportage than storytelling. However, I did admire the subtlety of the characterisation and the intelligence of her observations of society. A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.

Book 45 of 90

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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68 thoughts on “Middlemarch by George Eliot

  1. Oh dear, I’m sorry you didn’t fall in love with this since it’s my absolute favourite novel – the one I would take to my desert island. But I didn’t always feel that way – my first reading brought the reaction ‘well that’s ok’ but nothing more. Now I find each subsequent reading brings something new to my attention. It has multiple themes; as you’ve indicated it deals with marriage and social change. it also deals with ambition (thwarted) seen through Dorothea, Lydgate, Casubon. One of the big ideas is how each individual is connected to others and how the actions of one person affect many others (hence why she talks about the web)….

    • I’d say you deserve a well done for finishing the book. It was a long time ago but I don’t think I got past the first couple of chapters.

      • If it hadn’t been a review copy I’d probably have given up at an early stage too – those first 150 pages were pretty tortuous. It did improve, but honestly not enough for me to be pushing you to try again (you’ll be glad to hear… 😉 ). I guess it’s just a matter of whether you enjoy her style, and I’m afraid I didn’t much. I could admire it, but I couldn’t feel involved…

    • I really expected to love it – it sounds as though it should be my kind of thing. But I found her writing style flat and full of telling rather than showing. It was insightful for sure, but in fiction I also want an actual story and some characters I care about, either to love or hate, or else I always feel I might as well be reading a factual book, and these characters left me cold even although I thought they were very believably drawn. Just a matter of writer/reader mismatch, I’m afraid! I’m always baffled when people don’t like Dickens, but I guess we’re just all programmed differently… 🙂

        • Reading is so subjective, and I think we sometimes forget that. I try to stop myself saying in reviews “you must read this” because just because I loved a book doesn’t mean other people will. I still say it though! 😉

  2. I agree with BookerTalk – I’ve read it multiple times and usually say that as a 17 year old I thought it was about love and marriage, while in my 30s I knew it was about death duties and politics!! I love all her works but they are quite didactic and want to expose a social truth, and that can feel a little dry.

    • Didactic is an excellent word for it and I really don’t want that in fiction. I felt it was all tell and no show, and while I thought it was insightful, both about the characters and the society, I never grew to care about any of them. To be honest, I found it hard to get through once – I can’t imagine ever wanting to read it again! 😀

  3. Virginia Woolf famously said this was the only English novel written for grown-up people. That image of the web that Booker Talk mentions is apt: all the hopes and ambitions of the individual characters get tangled with those of others. This can come across as pessimistic, but for a woman in particular it’s probably just realistic. I’d recommend Canadian academic Rohan Maitzen’s blog on GE, especially this novel, written with book clubs in mind, so it’s not overly academic and avoids critical jargon, but instead sets out to enhance the average reader’s enjoyment/response: https://middlemarchforbookclubs.wordpress.com
    There’s a link there to the 2019 bicentenary readalong of the novel here:

    • Ha! Perhaps I’m not grown-up enough then! Admittedly I’m not a fan of Virginia Woolf either and for similar reasons – all tell and no show. Although I found Eliot’s characters far more credibly drawn than Woolf’s and she also has a much truer understanding of class in British society, I think. Yes, she was insightful about the interconnections within society, but I didn’t find that a particularly remarkable thought somehow – it seems self-evident, and at the root of almost all great fiction, especially of that era. I’m afraid I did find it a pessimistic view – I think it’s just a writer/reader mismatch. I’m always baffled when I meet someone who doesn’t love Dickens! Thanks for the links – I’ll take a look! 😀

  4. The book really did drag. But it is a novel about the society and small town life rather than the characters themselves. It is on this aspect (as you’ve mentioned as well) that the novel did well. 🙂 Great review by the way. 🙂

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I think it’s just a mismatch between writer and reader on this occasion – I really want a great story and some characters I can either love or hate in fiction. This almost had the feeling of factual writing – all observation, all telling and very little showing. And although I tried hard, I couldn’t work myself up to caring about what happened to any of them, since very little actually did…

  5. Sorry to hear this one didn’t really do it for you, FictionFan. I know what you mean about the novel dragging, though, and I can see how that would put you off a bit. Still, There is that look at life in that sort of place at that time, and I always think those looks at society are really interesting.

    • I did think she was insightful about the way society works, but I’m afraid for me there simply wasn’t enough actual story and I couldn’t get involved with the characters – although I tried! I’m glad to have read it, but really expected to enjoy it far more than I did – it sounds as if it *should* be my kind of thing…

    • In the end, it’s always subjective, isn’t it? I could admire it, but just didn’t find myself getting emotionally involved. However, I’m still glad to have read it!

  6. Hmm I know what you mean when you say some books have ‘too much realism’. I definitely feel this way about books that aren’t written about my own person time. However, I do like realistic books that are contemporary, because then I can identify with the characters better which increases my enjoyment. I sound like a bit of a narcissist here don’t I?

    • Ha! I think we all like to recognise our lives in books! I must admit I quite often have the same reaction to excessive realism in contemporary fiction – I get enough realism from the news! I like fiction to have the hope of hope, for some of the characters at least…

  7. I’ve always intended to read this and, despite your disenchantment (or perhaps because of it!), am still determined to do so — almost a challenge now! I understand your caveats and criticisms, however, and I’ll definitely bear them in mind when I get round to it.

    • The number of people with excellent taste who rate it so highly shows that my reaction is purely subjective. I regularly find this kind of observational writing and concentration on the interior life dull, unless it’s married to a great story, and I fear the story in this one was minimal. But hopefully you’ll fall into the “I love it” camp when you get to it… 😀

  8. I haven’t read this one, but now that you’ve described it so well, I don’t feel any compunction to. I, too, am a half-full kind of person (AKA Little Debbie Sunshine) and reading something this realistic would depress me to no end. I’d also be bothered about what would seem to be a lead character who vanishes for hundreds of pages. Well, pat yourself on the back, FF — you at least tried to like it!!

    • Yes, I’m glad at least I can say I’ve read it now. I wouldn’t try to put anyone off who fancied it, but at the same time I certainly wouldn’t be encouraging people to read it who don’t want 800 pages of depressing realism! Sometimes even chocolate isn’t enough… 😉

  9. Sorry you didn’t enjoy this as much as you’d hoped to! I started to read it twice and gave up after a few chapters because I was finding it so dry and slow-paced, but then I had another attempt as part of a readalong and ended up finishing and loving it. I remember being surprised when Dorothea disappeared and the focus switched to Tertius Lydgate, but it makes sense if they had originally been written as two separate stories.

    • I am glad I struggled on past that so slow beginning since I certainly enjoyed it more as it went on. But I was most peeved by Dorothea disappearing just when I’d finally got interested in her, and I never properly reconnected with her by the time she came back. Oh well, I enjoyed it enough to be glad I’ve read it anyway… 🙂

  10. Given (i) I haven’t read Middlemarch, (II) I absolutely LOVE Silas Marner, and (iii) I found Scenes of Clerical Life a bit slow and dreary, I will approach Middlemarch with a mixture of caution and hope. Thanks for the heads up review.

    • I’m sure I read The Mill on the Floss at school, but don’t remember it at all – don’t know if that’s a good or a bad sign! But otherwise I haven’t read any of her other stuff, so don’t know how this compares to the likes of Silas Marner. However, hopefully you’ll fall into the “love it” camp when you get to it… 😀

    • I just found with this one that too often she was telling me about the characters rather than letting them tell me about themselves, if you know what I mean. But so many people love it that my reaction is clearly purely subjective – maybe you’ll feel like it one day… 😀

  11. When I see this book lauded as the greatest book in the English language… I think that people can’t have read many other books?! It was a great struggle to get through this unnecessarily long and gloomy book. I haven’t got on with Eliot too well anyway, although I do like Silas Marner.

    • Haha! I’m often baffled by why people think some books are great too, but clearly reading is such a subjective experience! I think I read The Mill on the Floss when I was at school, but I don’t remember anything about it and haven’t read any of her other stuff. One day I might tackle Silas Marner… but not for a while… 😉

  12. I’m gutted that you didn’t love this – one of my very favourite novels. For me, the characters really came off the page, especially Dorothea, but you are definitely right that it’s cynical – that just didn’t bother me much. Then again, I don’t really like Dickens – thank goodness there are so many books so that we can all have favourites that suit us 😊

    • It’s interesting that Dickens fans seem to struggle with Eliot and Eliot fans don’t much like Dickens! That’s a generalisation, of course, based purely on the comments here, but I do think Dickens is so exuberant and Eliot is so restrained that it’s maybe not surprising that people who enjoy one style don’t enjoy the other. Give me Dickens’ drama and overblown characters any day! 😉

  13. There’s so many amazing Victorian writers, and so diverse, that it’s normal, I guess, to have different likes and favorites. I love this one, but I listened to the audio. A bit each day. I look at it with nostalgia.

    • Yes, I think it would be surprising if we all liked the same thing given how different our own personalities and experiences are – thank goodness the great writers have left us such a variety to choose from! I tried listening to the audio for parts of this but I struggle to concentrate properly with audiobooks and soon found I was getting on better with this one in paper form.

      • There were parts I don’t think I paid proper attention to, I admit. I not always like audios for the same reason. I have not done an audio in a while (I also have to be in the mood for it!)

  14. I actually love that you didn’t love this, because your criticisms are so valid. Although I did love this book, some of the reasons being exactly the opposite as yours (!), I enjoy other points of view. I read this two years ago as a readalong and maybe having dialog with others as I went along added to the experience.

    “I enjoyed the portrayal of the society of the town considerably more.” Me, too! I think she did a good job portraying the different classes of society.

    • That’s why I love reading other people’s reviews of classics too – it’s so interesting to hear why the reviewer loved it more, or less, or hated it! With this one I felt that it was a mismatch between the author and the reader, rather than there being specific flaws with the book. I know many people love these quiet rather introspective looks at characters but sadly they never work as well for me. But I thought her portrayal of all the different layers in the society was very insightful.

  15. I adore Middlemarch but I think I should re-read it, it’s been ages and maybe I’d feel differently now. But I’m interested in the comments about Dickens and Eliot because I really don’t like Dickens at all (please don’t ban me from your blog for this! We can always agree on GA detectives 😉 )

    • I hope you don’t feel differently about it now – that’s one of the reasons I’m often put off revisiting a book I loved years ago! What??? Well, that’s simply not good enough! I shall have to work harder at brainwashing you… I never give up on my mission to make everyone love Dickens as much as I do! 😉

  16. Oh, how I miss reading your reviews on a regular basis. I have Middlemarch on my shelf, and now I know I don’t need to read it. Perhaps I will donate it to the library book sale and some other poor creature can grit their teeth and struggle through it. Not me. And they will only have lost a dollar if they decide the struggle isn’t worth it. Thank you!!

  17. FictionFan,
    Having read Middlemarch last summer, I can sympathize with your frustrations over the glacial pace of the plot. If I hadn’t been reading it in chunks as I traveled (sitting in an airport is, no matter the pace of the book involved, always makes reading seem like an exciting alternative), I might have been too frustrated to finish.

    That said, as I read bit after bit standing in bus lines and on trains, I began to respect the sympathy with which Eliot treats her characters. I was less impressed with Dorthea – although I did grow to think she was an interesting character, eventually – as I was with Casabaun and Bulstrode. There were so many moments where I was poised to hate, and then Eliot would humanize them in a way that made me feel compassion. There is not a single character in the book, other than perhaps Mary and Caleb, that can be described as good or bad. They are all a blend, and this sort of realistic psychological treatment was what ultimately made me enjoy and respect the novel, even if I think it could have lost a few hundred pages without too much grief :).

    Thanks for your excellent and enjoyable review!

    • Yes, I preferred Casaubon and Bulstrode as characters too – they were more complex, while the women were a bit insipid, I felt, on the whole. I suppose that accurately reflects their restrcited lives, and certainly insipid women are not unique to Eliot in this period, but I was a bit disappointed in Dorothea. Trying to avoid spoilers, but the bit I enjoyed most was the death that Bulstrode was involved in – I thought she did that very well, with convincing psychology. I also liked Lydgate’s fall for the same reason – I found his behaviour very credible even if it all left him as a rather unattractive hero. And I thought poor Rosamond was pretty badly treated – I felt she never gave Lydgate a fasle impression of herself so it was his fault if he was too self-absorbed to actually get to know her properly before marrying her!

      Thank you, and thanks for commenting! 😀

  18. Hmmmmm. I love Dickens (so far) so I shouldn’t like Middlemarch? But a focus on the interior life is right up my alley so maybe I might? Reading through the comments leaves me ina flummux of anxiety! 😟 😂 I do have this book sitting on the shelf and it was at one time on my classics club list. Thankfully it appears to have fallen off the list (though it’s still on the shelf). I think this means that I can at least avoid giving it a try for now. I’ll just stick my head back in the sand… 🙈 😉

    • Hahahaha! Well, you’ll be relieved to hear that a later commenter has admitted to loving both Dickens and Eliot, so maybe you’ll be lucky too! I’m very much out of synch with a lot of classic women authors, apart from my love for Austen which has always seemed odd to me. Mostly I prefer books that look out to politics and action, rather than in to the domestic and intimate, which is why I preferred the parts of this that were about society rather than about the individual lives of the characters. So don’t hide it too far back on the bookshelves… you may well love it! 😀

  19. Hello Fiction Fan,
    I’ve never commented on your blog before, so I hope you don’t mind me chipping in. I found Middlemarch to be a bit of a strange one. I actually don’t think it is quite as long as some of Dickens’s doorstoppers, but to me, it felt so much longer, probably because there were many of what I would call Blank Chapters, where nothing much really happens other than people analysing their situations. While I reckon this was partly deliberate, especially in the case of Dorothea, who was trapped in an unhappy marriage, and appeared to have lost any agency she might have possessed at the start, it became rather monotonous after a while, and I just wished the plot would move along a bit. While it gathered momentum in the last quarter or so, I don’t think the plot was really the point of this book. I agree with the commenter above, who states that Elliot was able to humanise characters, and to even make the most reprehensible seem vaguely relatable. Casauban was really awful, but in the end, I think he was the character for whom I felt the greatest amount of pity.
    As for Dickens versus Elliot, I share your love of Dickens, and think he is at once one of the most brilliant and problematic authors I have ever read. The thing is though, I also really like George Elliot. Her style is vastly different, and takes a bit of getting used to, but she was commenting on many of the same issues as Dickens, just in a different way.

    • Welcome – always delighted to “meet” new commenters! 😀

      Yes, I never find Dickens too long – I can read one of his 900-page doorstops and feel at a total loss when it comes to an end, casting me back out into the dull real world. I love his larger-than-life characters, and his contrasts between saccharine sweetness and gothic horror and all point in-between, and his humour. For me, although Eliot did what she was doing very well, it was all too quiet for me (except the Bulstrode story, which I loved, and Lydgate’s fall, both of which I felt had a mildly Dickensian feel to them). I agree about the Blank Chapters – that’s kind of what I meant about her constantly telling me things rather than allowing her characters to show me. When she meandered on for pages about the current state of the medical profession, in an essay I’d have found that fascinating, but in a novel it seemed strangely out of place. But I do feel that my criticisms are as much of my impatience as of her style – just a mismatch between reader and author. I also liked Casaubon best as a character (though not as a person) and had a lot of sympathy for him, though I wasn’t sure if Eliot had.

      Haha – I’m so glad you admit to loving both! I’m pretty sure a couple of people have been put off one or other by my outrageous assertion that fans of one can’t like the other… 😉

  20. Thank you for this review because now I feel no desire or need to read Middlemarch. Truthfully, it’s never been on my TBR I’ve just felt vaguely that I “should” read it. And looking over the comments, I think I fall into the category of Dickens fan instead!

    • Yes, I felt I “should” read it too, and on the whole I’m glad I did, just so I don’t have to keep feeling like I should! But Dickens is much more fun…

    • I certainly found the first couple of hundred pages a drag and although it improved it never fully won me over. But then, tastes differ, and loads of people love it… 😀

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