Middlemarch characters: a firework display

Robert Pimm
Robert Pimm

George Eliot’s Middlemarch contains an army of elegantly-sketched characters the equal of anything in Dickens. Let’s take a look.

My post Middlemarch by George Eliot: 26 quotes on gender and relationships asked whether this might be one of the greatest novels in the English language.

George Eliot: 25 elegant epigrams from “Middlemarch” set out timeless wonders such as: Where women love each other, men learn to smother their mutual dislike.

Ouch!

The fabulous George Eliot

Let’s explore this extraordinary novel further by looking at the characters in Middlemarch.

Middlemarch characters

Eliot sketches out her small army of characters with elegance and economy. The novel contains countless examples; here are sixteen that caught my eye:

  • [Of Dorothea] Riding was an indulgence which she allowed herself in spite of conscientious qualms; she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it.
  • Mr. Cadwallader was a large man, with full lips and a sweet smile; very plain and rough in his exterior, but with that solid imperturbable ease and good-humor which is infectious, and like great grassy hills in the sunshine, quiets even an irritated egoism, and makes it rather ashamed of itself.
  • [Of the noxious Casaubon] “He has got no good red blood in his body,” said Sir James. “No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all semicolons and parentheses,” said Mrs. Cadwallader.
  • Mr. Lydgate had the medical accomplishment of looking perfectly grave whatever nonsense was talked to him, and his dark steady eyes gave him impressiveness as a listener.
  • To point out other people’s errors was a duty that Mr. Bulstrode rarely shrank from.
  • [Of Mr Featherstone] It was usual with him to season his pleasure in showing favor to one person by being especially disagreeable to another, and Mary was always at hand to furnish the condiment.
  • It was said of him, that Lydgate could do anything he liked, but he had certainly not yet liked to do anything remarkable.

“I do not like husbands”

  • [Laure] “You are a good young man,” she said. “But I do not like husbands. I will never have another.”
  • [Mrs Farebrother] The old lady was evidently accustomed to tell her company what they ought to think, and to regard no subject as quite safe without her steering.
  • 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;
  • Mrs. Plymdale, a round-eyed sharp little woman, like a tamed falcon.
  • Rosamond, examining some muslin-work, listened in silence, and at the end gave a certain turn of her graceful neck, of which only long experience could teach you that it meant perfect obstinacy.
  • Apart from his dinners and his coursing, Mr. Vincy, blustering as he was, had as little of his own way as if he had been a prime minister: the force of circumstances was easily too much for him, as it is for most pleasure-loving florid men; and the circumstance called Rosamond was particularly forcible by means of that mild persistence which, as we know, enables a white soft living substance to make its way in spite of opposing rock. [Comment: I love the throwaway humour of “had as little of his own way as if he had been a prime minister”, or the reference to “most pleasure-loving florid men”.]
  • “What care I about their objecting?” said Caleb, with a sturdiness which he was apt to show when he had an opinion.
  • The hour-hand of a clock was quick by comparison with Mr. Solomon
  • Dorothea, who had taken off her gloves, from an impulse which she could never resist when she wanted a sense of freedom…

Middlemarch just keeps giving

I never expected George Eliot to be this good. I shall write again soon on the humour, or humor, in Middlemarch; on descriptions of the countryside; and on existential questions.

But of course these categories cut across one another. Many of the quotations on gender illustrate character. Many of the epigrams are hilarious. A delicious sense of irony pervades the entire book. Yet it is filled also with grim truths – about life, and relationships.

Middlemarch may take a while to read. But it is worth every moment.

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