by George Eliot
Penguin Classics; reprint edition, 1994
Rosemary Ashton, Editor
Middlemarch is, I think, the Great English Novel. It is an enormous book in every sense -- over 900 pages (in the Penguin edition at hand) of closely packed type, 87 chapters, dozens of prominent characters, a sweep of several decades. And its subject -- it is so large that one is tempted to describe it as life itself.
Specifically, this is the life of the principal inhabitants of the provincial town of Middlemarch -- somewhere in the middle of England, as its name implies -- in the 1830s. Dorothea Brooke, Dr Lydgate, Mr Casaubon, the Vincys, the Bulstrodes, the Garths: these are the direct subjects of the novel George Eliot subtitled A Study of Provincial Life. The events of the novel are the events of their relatively modest lives: courtships and marriages, ambitions, careers, deaths, bankruptcies, economies and thrifts, successes and failures. These men and women have their moral crises, their moments of quiet heroism and tragedy, but they are all 'unhistoric acts,' as Eliot puts it, of no great importance to the world outside. Yet from this seemingly humble scenario Eliot draws a monumental picture of the complexities and intricacies of human life.
But though her scope finally is epic, Eliot's immediate business in each paragraph is the minute examination of the workings of human personality. Her understanding of this is almost intimidating and her description is marvellously insightful. But her skill is not only in the analysis and depiction of individual characters and their motives, but in the demonstration of how the members of a community like Middlemarch are connected by a web of emotions, duties, circumstances and ironies far more intricate than they can understand.
Eliot's mastery is breathtaking. It drives one to an overuse of superlatives. The plot of the novel is terribly complicated; the number of characters enough for a dozen novels, but each is revealed in his or her full, breathing individuality; and yet the novel coheres, maintains its structure, remains readable. And in the end, the most important thing is that Middlemarch is a good read -- a nice, complicated, old-fashioned novel for those of us who enjoy such things.
Be warned, though -- Middlemarch is no small undertaking. It is a long novel, full of incident and surprise. But the story and characters are so involving that the long read is a pleasure -- and at the end comes the particular joy of the final chapter, which remains to my mind the model of what a final chapter should be. What is striking here is the ease with which Eliot approaches the task of tying up the loose ends of a novel already nearly 900 pages long. It seems impossibly huge, more than can be attempted in a mere seven-page finale -- but attempted it is, gracefully, without hurry, with humour and tact -- and achieved. Middlemarch sweeps triumphantly to its close, and in its final sentence, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, manages to recapitulate the entire theme of the monumental work:
'the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.'
The purpose of Middlemarch is to demonstrate the individuality, the importance, the humanness of every human life, no matter how insignificant it may seem. This is a great and noble purpose; it is the purpose of humanism itself. One could argue that it is the basic purpose of every novel. Middlemarch strives to achieve this on a scale both intimate and magnificently large, and succeeds. It is the magnitude of this success that makes George Eliot's great novel one of the greatest of all.
N.L., 22 December 1997
Order from Amazon, Penguin USA, Rosemary Ashton (editor), 852 pages. US$9.95 ($7.96 on Amazon at time of writing, 20% off)