Middlemarch / George Eliot

Middlemarch, published in 1871, is considered by many to be among the top English novels of all time. Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, the novel covers the events taking place during the time period of 1829 to 1832. It features a large cast of characters, enough so that it is advised to have a list on hand to keep track of them all. The primary issue that Eliot addresses in this novel is the status of women in society, and the relationship between husbands and wives. But numerous topics are also touched upon, including the political concerns of the time, religion, and the insular aspects of provincial life.

When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading Middlemarch, she referred to it as a forerunner of Peyton Place. And indeed, it does delve into the intrigues of small town life and the scandals that can often sweep through the community’s gossip network. Three couples serve as the book’s centerpiece. There is Dorothea Brooke, an intelligent and wealthy widow, and her growing relationship with Will Ladislaw, a younger relative of her deceased husband. Tertius Lydgate, an idealist physician, marries Rosamond Vincy, a beautiful but vain young woman intent on keeping her status in Middlemarch’s high society despite her husband’s growing debt. And there is Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother, who is struggling to find a suitable career, and Mary Garth, a woman from a lower class who has captured his heart. Plain and practical, she and her family rescue him from the excesses of his privileged life and help to set him on a path to a better life.

Diving into Middlemarch, at first I found the book’s density of detail to be overwhelming. It is not a story one can race through. And its length is daunting as well. I found that all I could read in one sitting was ten pages before reaching overload. Eliot’s description of life in a small town seems to leave no stone unturned, as a parade of characters pass in and out of the story. Patience is required on the part of the reader as the plot unfolds. The reward for wading through such thoroughness is to get a full understanding of the place and time she is describing.

I am not sure I myself would rank this novel as one of the top English novels of all time, but Eliot has certainly written a book that stands a good chance of being read for many generations still to come. Thanks to her writing skills, Middlemarch becomes a living entity to the “fly on the wall” reader. While the story’s wrap-up has a “happily ever after” feel, it remains a frank account of the difficulties of married life, small town life, and how dreams often come true in unexpected ways.

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