Why, friends, have I never before so deeply appreciated George Eliot? She is deeply profound, highly introspective and radically challenging. Prior to reading Middlemarch (my Christmas reading this year), I’d read Adam Bede and Silas Marner. Both of which I felt were nice stories touching on important, even deep, issues. And yet I felt I could be happy never picking up another novel by her again.
Middlemarch, however, has entirely reconstructed my thoughts regarding Miss Mary Anne Evans (better known as the author George Eliot, her nom de plume). The novel interweaves the stories of three couples: Miss Dorothea Brooke and Mr. Edward Casaubon, Miss Rosamond Vincy and Mr. Tertius Lydgate, and Miss Mary Garth and Mr. Fred Vincy. The setting is a small English country town of Middlemarch.
Lest you think for one moment this is polite, Victorian fiction holding up all women as angels, denigrating all men as heathens, and setting marriage up as an idyllic state of pure bliss – allow me to dispel that thought at once. Eliot is no fool – she has a keen insight into the general flaws of both genders and effects that our flawed humanity has on our relationships with others, particularly in marriage. She not only recognized the flaws of profligacy and carelessness, but also of idealistic (and ultimately unrealistic) moral compasses.
While in some ways stunningly modern in her interpretation of cross-gender relationships, not all of her ideas fit well in the modern world. In general, Eliot seems to be propounding the necessity for masculine oversight, particularly of stubborn and willful women, who otherwise would lead themselves into heartache and trouble. And yet, there is just this underlying theme of questioning this traditional ideal – I won’t give away the ending, but I can’t help feeling that one stubborn woman in particular made the correct decision in the end, against her male advisor’s wishes and in spite of experience to the contrary.
There are three women in the novel, two on opposite extremes and the third comfortably nestled in the median, where she is often unnoticed. Dorothea Brooke would be what I would consider the archetypal Victorian female: idealistic, beautiful, moral, philanthropic and doggedly loyal. She is a reformer and highly religious. Rosamond Vincy is the embodiment of skin-deep beauty – spoiled, stubborn, willful, manipulative, and dedicated to self. She longs to be of the highest social class and strives to keep up the appearance of a great lady. Between these two extremes is plain, overlooked Mary Garth. She doesn’t come from a fine family, or have much fortune to speak of. She has a sharp, often painful, wit, a gentle spirit, patience and a dedicated love for her family. She is strong-willed, but not to the point it puts her or her loved ones in danger.
While most will argue that the remarkable Miss Brooke is the heroine of this novel, I must stoutly disagree. It is Mary Garth who has captured my attention. She didn’t rush headlong into marriage (like both Miss Brooke and Miss Vincy), she loves her man in spite of his deficiencies, and yet refuses his proposal until he works to overcome those deficiencies. She cares little for material goods, and yet recognizes their value.
Eliot is not Dickens, and one should never confuse the two – perhaps my fatal flaw in reading other works by Eliot. Eliot has a gentle, yet powerful, pull to her works, like an undertow you don’t recognize until you’re far out to sea. She is thoughtful, and profoundly convicting. She doesn’t dally in the crafting of caricatures, but delves deeply into the heartfelt motivations of her characters. When picking up Eliot, be prepared to be convicted, challenged, frustrated and delighted. Reading Middlemarch was like taking a two week vacation to rural, Victorian England and being set in the middle of the most intriguing of small-town scandal.
This book receives my highest recommendations!
Over the break I also had the opportunity to read Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens and A Man for All Seasons by Robert Bolt. I will not launch into full reviews after this rather lengthy post, but I will say that Little Dorrit was touching and yet not quite to the level of perfection I have found in other novels by the master wordsmith. As for Robert Bolt’s play, I recommend saving yourself a couple of hours and watching the movie staring Paul Scofield. Not that the writing is bad, just that plays were meant to be seen – and Scofield is the undoubted master of Sir Thomas More (with my sincerest apologies to Charlton Heston).
Until next time, wishing you great reads!