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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TBR Thursday 196…

Episode 196

Wow! I think this may be the biggest fall ever in my TBR – down 6 to 225!! Partly this is because I abandoned a couple that weren’t working for me and partly it’s to make room for a bunch of books I’m expecting to arrive in the next week or two. But still! I’m feeling like a winner…

Here are a few more that will be appearing on court soon…

History

In a couple of months, it will be the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles which ended the First World War and, it’s often said, paved the way towards the Second. In this highly regarded book originally titled Paris 1919, Margaret MacMillan tells the story of the negotiations and decisions of the peacemakers, and disputes some of the commonly held opinions on the outcomes of the treaty. Since I hold those commonly held opinions, she’s got her work cut out to change my mind…

The Blurb says: Between January and July 1919, after “the war to end all wars,” men and women from around the world converged on Paris to shape the peace. Centre stage, for the first time in history, was an American president, Woodrow Wilson, who with his Fourteen Points seemed to promise to so many people the fulfilment of their dreams. Stern, intransigent, impatient when it came to security concerns and wildly idealistic in his dream of a League of Nations that would resolve all future conflict peacefully, Wilson is only one of the larger-than-life characters who fill the pages of this extraordinary book. David Lloyd George, the gregarious and wily British prime minister, brought Winston Churchill and John Maynard Keynes. Lawrence of Arabia joined the Arab delegation. Ho Chi Minh, a kitchen assistant at the Ritz, submitted a petition for an independent Vietnam.

For six months, Paris was effectively the centre of the world as the peacemakers carved up bankrupt empires and created new countries. This book brings to life the personalities, ideals, and prejudices of the men who shaped the settlement. They pushed Russia to the sidelines, alienated China, and dismissed the Arabs. They struggled with the problems of Kosovo, of the Kurds, and of a homeland for the Jews.

The peacemakers, so it has been said, failed dismally; above all they failed to prevent another war. Margaret MacMillan argues that they have unfairly been made the scapegoats for the mistakes of those who came later. She refutes received ideas about the path from Versailles to World War II and debunks the widely accepted notion that reparations imposed on the Germans were in large part responsible for the Second World War.

A landmark work of narrative history, Paris 1919 is the first full-scale treatment of the Peace Conference in more than twenty-five years. It offers a scintillating view of those dramatic and fateful days when much of the modern world was sketched out, when countries were created–Iraq, Yugoslavia, Israel–whose troubles haunt us still.

Winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, the PEN Hessell Tiltman Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize.

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English Classic

Courtesy of Oxford World’s Classics. This is a new edition that OWC have published this month, so I slipped it onto my Classics Club list. I feel I may have read it before as a teen, but I’m not sure. So either it’ll all come flooding back to me when I start reading… or it won’t! It’s huge…

The Blurb says: The greatest ‘state of the nation’ novel in English, Middlemarch addresses ordinary life at a moment of great social change, in the years leading to the Reform Act of 1832. Through her portrait of a Midlands town, George Eliot addresses gender relations and class, self-knowledge and self-delusion, community and individualism.

Eliot follows the fortunes of the town’s central characters as they find, lose, and rediscover ideals and vocations in the world. Through its psychologically rich portraits, the novel contains some of the great characters of literature, including the idealistic but naive Dorothea Brooke, beautiful and egotistical Rosamund Vincy, the dry scholar Edward Casaubon, the wise and grounded Mary Garth, and the brilliant but proud Dr Lydgate. In its whole view of a society, the novel offers enduring insight into the pains and pleasures of life with others, and explores nearly every subject of concern to modern life: art, religion, science, politics, self, society, and, above all, human relationships.

This edition uses the definitive Clarendon text.

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Fiction

Courtesy of 4th Estate at HarperCollins via NetGalley. I chose this one purely based on the blurb and because of the Malaysian setting. It will be my introduction to Tash Aw so I don’t know what to expect, but it sounds good…

The Blurb says: A murderer’s confession – devastating, unblinking, poignant, unforgettable – which reveals a story of class, education and the inescapable workings of destiny.

Ah Hock is an ordinary, uneducated man born in a Malaysian fishing village and now trying to make his way in a country that promises riches and security to everyone, but delivers them only to a chosen few. With Asian society changing around him, like many he remains trapped in a world of poorly paid jobs that just about allow him to keep his head above water but ultimately lead him to murder a migrant worker from Bangladesh.

In the tradition of Camus and Houellebecq, Ah Hock’s vivid and compelling description of the years building up to this appalling act of violence – told over several days to a local journalist whose life has taken a different course – is a portrait of an outsider like no other, an anti-nostalgic view of human life and the ravages of hope. It is the work of a writer at the peak of his powers.

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Crime

Courtesy of Vintage Digital via NetGalley. Another debut which claims kinship with some of the greats of contemporary crime writing. The last time I read a book claiming to be “perfect for fans of Peter May” it provoked an extremely blunt review from me. I’m hoping this one will fare better…

The Blurb says: A stunning, atmospheric police procedural set against the grit of Inverness and the raw beauty of the Scottish Highlands, this is the first book in the DI Monica Kennedy series.

Sixteen-year-old Robert arrives home late. Without a word to his dad, he goes up to his bedroom. Robert is never seen alive again. A body is soon found on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. Detective Inspector Monica Kennedy stands by the victim in this starkly beautiful and remote landscape. Instinct tells her the case won’t begin and end with this one death.

Meanwhile, Inverness-based social worker Michael Bach is worried about one of his clients whose last correspondence was a single ambiguous text message; Nichol Morgan has been missing for seven days. As Monica is faced with catching a murderer who has been meticulously watching and waiting, Michael keeps searching for Nichol, desperate to find him before the killer claims another victim.

From the Shadows introduces DI Monica Kennedy, an unforgettable new series lead, perfect for fans of Ann Cleeves’ Vera, Susie Steiner and Peter May.

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Classic Club Spin #20

And the winner is…

Hurrah! For the first time in ages, the Classic Club gods picked one I’m actually looking forward to reading!

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?