I am listening to literary folk on the Queen Mary Literary Festival at Sea (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site). After a powerful Martini in the Commodore Club, a well-read pundit admits he has never read George Eliot’s classic 1872 novel Middlemarch.
I realise that I have never completed it either, despite several attempts.
This depiction of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw does not make “Middlemarch” look a fun, contemporary read
Like some other 19thC fiction, including one of my favourite authors, Anthony Trollope, Middlemarch has provoked negative responses or indifference over the years – yet critics now see it as one of the greatest novels in the English language.
I agree, and I don’t. On the one hand, Middlemarch is a daunting read – over 900 pages in most editions. Not much happens; there is an immense cast-list of characters; and some of the issues with which it deals, such as the 1832 Reform Act, have faded from memory.
Yet the way the novel examines relationships – in the same remarkably contemporary way as Trollope; the richness of the characterisation; and the epigram-packed wisdom and elegance of the writing make this a masterpiece.
My advice: if you like the sensation that you have read the classics, and are not in a hurry, you will relish Middlemarch. To paraphrase Marvin the Paranoid Android, the first 10,000 pages are a bit slow-moving; after that, the pace stays about the same. But as you adjust to the gentle rhythm of the story, extraordinary things begin to happen:
(i) George Eliot’s powerful commentary on gender and relationships begins to leap off the page;
(ii) you begin to realise that, far from being old-fashioned, the novel is addressing contemporary issues of importance;
(iii) you find yourself in the presence of a writer whose characterisation is outstanding, together with her descriptions of nature and wit;
(iv) you discover that her prose teems with outstanding, timeless epigrams (“A sense of contributing to form the world’s opinion makes conversation particularly cheerful”). Here is wisdom without end.
Given the scale of Middlemarch, I have decided to write a couple of linked blogs to lay out some of the wonderful quotations I noted down. This, the first, explores 26 quotes on gender and relationships. Comments welcome!
- A man’s mind – what there is of it – has always the advantage of being masculine,- as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm,- and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.
- Has any one ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship? [Comment: pilulous means very small, like a pill]
- “I should learn everything then,” she said to herself, still walking quickly along the bridle road through the wood. “It would be my duty to study that I might help him the better in his great works. There would be nothing trivial about our lives. Every-day things with us would mean the greatest things. It would be like marrying Pascal.”
- Mr. Brooke wondered, and felt that women were an inexhaustible subject of study, since even he at his age was not in a perfect state of scientific prediction about them.
- My lady’s tongue is like the meadow blades, That cut you stroking them with idle hand.
- Although Sir James was a sportsman, he had some other feelings towards women than towards grouse and foxes, and did not regard his future wife in the light of prey, valuable chiefly for the excitements of the chase.
- he determined to abandon himself to the stream of feeling, and perhaps was surprised to find what an exceedingly shallow rill it was.
- it was not entirely out of devotion to her future husband that she wished to know Latin and Greek. Those provinces of masculine knowledge seemed to her a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly.
- he was gradually discovering the delight there is in frank kindness and companionship between a man and a woman who have no passion to hide or confess.
- A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards. And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it.
- there are many blanks left in the weeks of courtship which a loving faith fills with happy assurance [Comment: a pretty grim outlook]
- as the day fixed for his marriage came nearer, Mr Casaubon did not find his spirits rising; nor did the contemplation of that matrimonial garden scene, where, as all experience showed, the path was to be bordered with flowers, prove persistently more enchanting to him than the accustomed vaults where he walked taper in hand.
- Poor Mr. Casaubon had imagined that his long studious bachelorhood had stored up for him a compound interest of enjoyment
- “Ay, to be sure, there should be a little devil in a woman,” said Mr. Chichely, whose study of the fair sex seemed to have been detrimental to his theology.
- Will did not know what to say, since it would not be useful for him to embrace her slippers, and tell her that he would die for her: it was clear that she required nothing of the sort
- “What is that, my love?” said Mr Casaubon (he always said “my love” when his manner was the coldest).
- A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband’s mind powerful.
- Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.
- “There was no denying that Dorothea was as virtuous and lovely a young lady as he could have obtained for a wife; but a young lady turned out to be something more troublesome than he had conceived.
- A woman’s choice usually means taking the only man she can get.
- It is a terrible moment in young lives when the closeness of love’s bond has turned to this power of galling. [Comment: the strife between Lydgate and Rosalind, and her obstinacy and confidence in disobeying him and then hating him, struck me as radical for 19thC literature]
- She spoke and wept with that gentleness which makes such words and tears omnipotent over a loving-hearted man.
- Rosamond being one of those women who live much in the idea that each man they meet would have preferred them if the preference had not been hopeless.
- Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui [Comment: wonderful concept: “The unreal better”, the potential partner who seems so much better than what one has]
- (Mary) “I wonder if any other girl thinks her father the best man in the world!” “Nonsense, child; you’ll think your husband better.” “Impossible,” said Mary, relapsing into her usual tone; “husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”
I would welcome thoughts on Middlemarch, including on your appetite for more on this subject!
If you are in or visiting Berlin soon, bear in mind my readings and Reichstag tour there on 21-22 February.
And next time I am on the Queen Mary, I shall at least be able to say why, on balance, I think Middlemarch is a great book.
P.S. If you would like to hear more about Blood Summit or if you enjoy fresh, original writing, feel free to friend me on Facebook or sign up for e-mail updates (top right – see the “click here” blue button). You can check out the range of writing on this site via my 5 pleasure paths.