On re-reading “Middlemarch”

This is not intended to be a review.

Indeed, nothing on this blog is intended to be a review. Since I want to write on this blog about all the various things I love, I have found myself writing about some of the most exalted of literary creations – Hamlet, Don Quixote, The Brothers Karamazov and what not. For me to claim to review such works seems a trifle presumptuous. If I am reviewing anything at all, it is myself: I am merely recording how my own individual mind responds to these works – sometimes, I hope, with insight, but more frequently, I fear, with incomprehension.

It is with this in mind that I come to Middlemarch, a novel that has not really been very close to my heart. I first read it some twenty-five years ago, and I remember admiring it greatly. But, in contrast to many other novels I have admired, I have not in those intervening years felt the desire to revisit it. And furthermore, the memories I had of it were vague: nothing from it seemed have lodged very firmly in my mind. These facts in themselves I found intriguing. For, after all, there are a great many readers, highly intelligent and cultivated and with unimpeachable literary taste, who not only think very highly of this novel, they refer to it as the novel they love best. Even as the “greatest novel” they have read. Of course, we don’t need to go into tedious disquisitions on the redundancy of the concept of “best” or “greatest” in such matters, or of literature not being a competitive sport: when someone speaks of Middlemarch being the “greatest” novel they have read, I understand what they mean – that not only is it a novel of surpassing merit, but that it is also the novel that speaks to them most directly, most profoundly; that it is the novel that resonates most insistently in their minds and hearts, that provides most that unmistakable tingle in the spine that Nabokov speaks of as being the ultimate arbiter of literary greatness. That Middlemarch is a novel of surpassing greatness I have never doubted, but I was curious to see whether, after so long a gap, this novel would now resonate with me – whether I, as a reader, have developed sufficiently since my earlier reading to allow this novel to enter my consciousness in a way it had not done before. Whether, in short, it would now give that tingle in the spine.

And if not, why not.

That it is a magnificent creation, I already knew. Even at that first reading, I was struck by its breadth and depth of vision. But that may be a strange thing to say about a work that remains doggedly within a single location (the Warwickshire town of Middlemarch, a fictional version, it is believed, of Coventry), dealing with everyday people in this everyday setting, and not finding, nor even seeking for, any sense of transcendence. All that is solid remains solid: the light it is seen in is no visionary or ethereal light, but very much the clear light of day. Wider national politics enter into it, but only insofar as it affects local people going about their daily business: there is no overarching political vision, any more than there is an overarching religious or spiritual vision. Eliot gives us small people leading small lives, and refuses to look beyond this.

In a very fine essay of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (“The Noble Community of the Living and the Dead: Community in The Prelude”, included in The Cambridge Companion to Wordsworth) Lucy Newlyn draws a parallel between Eliot’s work and Wordsworth’s, quoting two surprisingly similar passages from each:

The morning was, a memorable pomp,
More glorious than I ever had beheld.
The sea was laughing at a distance; all
The solid mountains were as bright as clouds,
Grain-tinctured, drenched in empyrean light;
And in the meadows and the lower grounds
Was all the sweetness of a common dawn—
Dews, vapours, and the melody of birds,
And labourers going forth into the fields.
Ah, need I say, dear friend, that to the brim
My heart was full? I made no vows, but vows
Were then made for me; bond unknown to me
Was given, that I should be—else sinning greatly—
A dedicated spirit. On I walked
In blessedness, which even yet remains.
– From The Prelude (1805 text), iv, 330-45


She opened her curtains, and looked out towards the bit of road that lay in view, with fields beyond outside the entrance-gates. On the road there was a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying her baby; in the field she could see figures moving—perhaps the shepherd with his dog. Far off in the bending sky was the pearly light; and she felt the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was a part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 80

The parallels are apparent, quite apart from the similarity of what is described – human figures within a larger landscape. In Wordsworth, the landscape is perceived first, and only then the figures (the “labourers going forth into the field”), with the grandiloquent diction in the earlier part of the passage giving way to more everyday speech. In Eliot, the process is reversed: the people are seen first (“the man with the bundle on his back, and a woman carrying her baby”), and only afterwards the largeness of the landscape they are in, and the register of the diction moves this time from the everyday to the magnificent. But both the poet in the first excerpt, and Dorothea in the second, feel it to be a moment of revelation. Wordsworth tells us that although he did not himself make a vow, vows were nonetheless made on his behalf: what these vows were he does not spell out: he tells us that he must be a “dedicated spirit”, but dedicated precisely to what he does not tell us, because, given the context, he does not need to. Eliot is more explicit: Dorothea realises she is not detached from the life around her, that she could not merely look on with a disinterested eye. This is the “bond” Wordsworth speaks of – the bond with life, with one’s fellow beings, an awareness of being, ineluctably, a part of something larger than oneself.

And for Eliot, what was larger than one’s individual self was humanity – other individual selves, collectively forming a greater unit. And this greater unit is not restricted merely to those now living. Wordsworth had written in the eleventh book of The Prelude:

                        There is
One great society alone on earth:
The noble Living and the noble Dead.

To which Eliot would probably have added “and the noble Unborn”. For the bond that Wordsworth speaks of links us not only to generations past, but also to generations yet to come. The famous last lines of Middlemarch make this clear:

… for 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.

However seemingly mundane and quotidian our lives may be, however seemingly insignificant, we are part of a living bond both with generations past, who have prepared the ground for us, and for generations yet to come, for whose sake, whether we realise it or not, we are living now. To recognise our part in this noble community of the Living and the Dead and the Unborn is to be part of the “involuntary, palpitating life”; it is to “feel the largeness of this world”.

So far, so Wordsworthian. But Eliot’s view is nonetheless, it seems to me, somewhat different from Wordsworth’s. For Wordsworth was concerned also with intimations of immortality, with that sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, that sense of a presence that is both immanent in humanity, but which also transcends it: but these concerns weren’t Eliot’s. There are no “spots of time” in Eliot’s fictional world; or, rather, if there are, they do not look beyond humanity. The sense that Dorothea gets of an attachment to, and an active involvement with, something larger than her individual self, is not so large as to transcend humanity or to point towards eternity. This is not to say that Eliot’s vision is smaller than Wordsworth’s – merely that, for all its apparent similarities, it is differently directed. For, to Eliot, there was nothing larger than humanity; and this “involuntary, palpitating life”, this great human chain of generations succeeding each other, not only leaves no time to contemplate eternity, it makes such contemplation redundant.

We often speak of nineteenth century fiction as “realistic”, but this is mere lazy generalisation. It is not merely that so many giants of nineteenth century fiction had little or no interest in photographic verisimilitude – Gogol, Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, etc. – it is also that there are many different shades of what we lazily term “realism”. Tolstoy and Eliot, for instance, may both be described as “realist” writers: they both depicted the solidity of this world, the chains of cause following effect; they tried both to come to at least some sort of understanding of the endlessly complex rules that govern our lives, our minds. And yet, in Tolstoy, there are times when these rules, however fascinatingly complex they may be, seem to be suspended: when, for instance, Andrei, wounded on the battlefield of Austerlitz, sees that vast overarching sky above him, and wonders why he hadn’t seen it before; or when Anna is close to death, and she, Karenin, and Vronsky, all seem to enter some strange heightened plane of consciousness. There is absolutely nothing like this in Middlemarch. Andrei’s moment of epiphany in seeing that sky seemed to make all human affairs appear small. Similarly, much later in the novel, when the dying Andrei resigns himself to death, all of human life, even that of his own sister and son, or of Natasha whom he loves, appears insignificant. Such a sense of human insignificnce is very alien to the world of Middlemarch: here, Dorothea’s moment of epiphany connects her to the rest of humanity, which is the highest truth there is, or can be. And as for the heightened state of consciousness that Anna, Karenin and Vronsky find themselves in, there is no room for that in Eliot’s world; here, our everyday state of consciousness, with all its “involuntary, palpitating life”, is rich enough.

Once again, none of this is to say that Eliot’s artistic vision is necessarily narrower or smaller than that of Tolstoy, or of Wordsworth: it is merely, once again, differently directed. Tolstoy too had depicted this involuntary, palpitating life in all its dizzying variety, but had searched for some underlying and unifying principle, that Wordsworthian “sense sublime … that rolls through all things”. He had possibly not succeeded in that search, but the sense of questing seems to me unmistakable. In Eliot, even that questing is absent. If Tolstoy had missed that sense sublime, Eliot does not even think to look for it.

Flaubert had also missed this sense sublime that rolls through all things. He missed it not because he could not find it, but because he was convinced it did not exist. And this saddened him. All language could do, he famously lamented in Madame Bovary, was to batter away at an old, broken kettle, when all the time he longed to “move the stars with pity”. But Eliot had no thought of moving the stars with pity, or any such nonsense. This involuntary, palpitating life, far from being a battered and broken old kettle, was the thing itself: one need not search for anything beyond, as Tolstoy did, nor even lament, as Flaubert did, the absence of anything beyond. Taken for what it is, it is enough in itself: the everyday little events, taken just for what they are, are enough to fill out a novel of epic proportions. That a thousand-page novel, each page engrossing, could be created out of what Flaubert regarded as a battered and broken old kettle, is in itself a powerful statement of Eliot’s artistic and moral vision. Eliot presented this world, neither searching for any other, nor lamenting its absence. In this sense, Eliot was, perhaps, the most realist of all the realists.

Eliot is often judged, correctly, to be a writer of profound moral sensibility, but is also often judged, this time incorrectly, of being finger-wagging and judgemental. After all, if we are to take our part in this involuntary and palpitating life, then we must extend our imaginative sympathies to understand those who form that greater humanity of which we, as individuals, are a part. To understand is not necessarily to forgive or even to excuse, but it is something to be aimed towards for its own sake. Take Bulstrode, for instance. A man who has made a fortune by questionable means, who has deprived others of what is rightfully theirs to enhance his own wealth and standing, and who now parades his apparent respectability, and indulges in all sorts of religious humbug: it is hard to imagine any author extending to so despicable a person any sympathy. But even Bulstrode Eliot tries to understand, insisting that he is not really a hypocrite:

There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs.
– from Middlemarch, Chapter 61

I suppose it can be said that Eliot was harsh on Rosamond (Eliot never did care for self-centred airheads, especially if they were also pretty and blonde), but even here, there is an attempt to see things from her perspective: she too, after all, is someone who has entered into a marriage with unrealistic expectations, and has found herself disappointed; and, unlike Dorothea, she doesn’t even have the consolations of contemplation and of introspection, being by nature incapable of either.


I said at the start of this post that I was not going to “review” Middlemarch. I think I have kept my promise: after some two and a half thousand words, I find I have barely mentioned Dorothea Brooke, and haven’t mentioned at all Tertius Lydgate – the two principal characters whose two parallel lives form the backbone of this novel.

Fortunately, Middlemarch is possibly the most blogged about of all classic novels, and there is no shortage either of plot synopses, or of analysis. (And if it is detailed analysis you are looking for, may I recommend this by Rohan Maitzen: it is excellent.) I started this post merely trying to understand, by talking to myself here, why it is that, despite admiring this novel immensely, and thinking it a majestic achievement, it did not make my spine tingle in the way Nabokov thought a good novel should. Even in this my second reading, that spine resolutely refused to tingle. It’s not because George Eliot’s vision is too small, or too narrow: far from it. And it’s not because of her moral sensibilities. I suppose it’s because George Eliot is way too sensible and level-headed; and because I, personally, prefer those writers who have about them that touch of madness. But if I do not place Middlemarch amongst my own favourite novels, I can at least understand why so many do. And with that, I am more than satisfied.

21 responses to this post.

  1. Thank you for your very apt comments (not a review). Middlemarch did make my spine tingle when I read it and it still does when I think about it. I think my reaction is sexist. Eliot knows what it is to be a woman with a woman’s hopes felt within a woman’s world and its limitations. In Dorothea I see myself — intelligent, idealistic and prone to make decisions at a time when she is not mature enough to know what she is doing. Also over confident and overlooking the effect on others when she tries to do right, as when she refuses to take seriously the division of her mother’s jewels. And she lives with the consequences of her mistakes. Even Rosamond I get, irritating as she is. She demonstrates the harm people do, not from evil intent, but from the pettiness of their aspirations.


    • Hello Nancy, I don’t think your reaction is sexist at all! But what is so wonderful about novels such as this is that not only does the author leap over the boundaries of gender or of age – Lydgate or Fred Vinci are every bit as vividly imagined as Dorothea – but that the reader is allowed to do so as well: I now think I can understand what it feels like to be Dorothea, or Mary Garth.


  2. I was given a copy of Middlemarch 20 years ago, and have only recently read it. I was one of those shaken by the experience. I hadn’t realised it was possible for any author to have such command over their universe (which cleverly is a “middling” every place) – descriptions, personalities, psychology, love, pettiness, ambition, greed, corruption, snobbery, economic and social history, philosophy. I don’t think I’d ever before been in awe of an author whilst reading, it seems George Eliot could do anything she wanted. She even takes time to note this power and questions it!

    It is strange how on my book blog I haven’t reviewed any of the books that have made most impression on me. Too scary a prospect perhaps, I fear I may not do them justice. I must be braver. Thank you for your interesting post (I’ve avoided calling it a “review”).


    • Hello,
      It’s interesting that you mention a George Eliot questioning her own powers. The author referring to herself as the author, and drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that what they are reading is but the author’s invention, are features we normally associate with postmodernism; and yet, we find it here in the works of a writer widely regarded as conservative.

      I doubt any of us could ever do justice to these literary masterpieces: the point, I think, is simply to share our personal reactions. Since each reader is different, each reading too is, inevitably, different from any other; and I find it fascinating to see how these various readings differ.


  3. Very interesting post, and I know what you mean – to call some of my pieces on substantial books like Dostoevsky a review seems to me often a bit presumptious. And I do get what you mean about those authors with a bit of madness in them – I’m getting drawn that way more and more myself nowadays.


    • Oh, goodness! – When I made that comment about reviewing, I was referring only to how I feel about my own posts! I certainly didn’t mean to have a go at anyone else’s … You’ve got me all worried now in case I now offend anyone!

      Oh dear … isn’t there a short novel by Saul Bellow called “Him With his Foot in his Mouth”? That’s me, that is! 🙂


      • No, no I didn’t mean that at all!! :))) What I meant was that I identified with what you say because I don’t always feel that I can do a Great Book justice in a blog post when it probably deserves a thesis! I know you didn’t mean to offend and I can’t imagine anyone would be offended – I’m certainly not! :))))

  4. Posted by Janet on October 29, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    While Eliot may seem level-headed and reasonable in our time, she was a freakish anomaly, bucking and leaping, in hers–with more than a touch of madness. The world has in many ways caught up with her, but I still find her extraordinary and wild.

    Romola, though, man, that book goes down like cold lead.


    • Oh yes – she must have seemed very odd indeed in her times! As a novelist, though, she seems very level-headed indeed.
      “Romola” I haven’t yet read. “Felix Holt” is also on the to-be-read list.


  5. Me too, Kaggsy, I always feel doubtful when writing about great books, (and I cringe when I re-read some of my blunders years later) – but I plead a redefinition of the word ‘review’. I think that in the Age of the Internet, the word has come to mean something new: while the traditional pseudo-objective and theoretically-expert paid review persists in print newspapers (read by fewer and fewer people as newsprint sales collapse), increasingly the word has come to mean the personal response of readers such as ourselves, who go well beyond ‘gee-whiz I loved it’ but steer clear of academic angles. The pedant in me says that ‘review’ is not literally the right word, but with TripAdvisor, Amazon, Goodreads, Foodie blogs et al, the word has just had to adapt to the C21st…


    • Amen to your remarks. When my blog was active, I disliked having my posts called “reviews.” I myself called them comments, as I usually wrote about some specific aspect of a book or my reactions to it. A review should be broader, more comprehensive than anything I had the time to attempt. As you say, the language adapts to changes in practice.


    • Oh well, if we’re going to re-define the word … 🙂

      Recently, after a routine appointment at the surgery, I was sent a text by the Health Board asking me to “review” the service I got. I replied that I was a patient, not a customer, but i couldn’t help wondering what they’d use this review for. A website with “reviews” of surgeries and hospitals? Drip Advisor, perhaps?


  6. I loved reading Middlemarch but, untypically, loved The Mill on the Floss as much. Rosamond Vincy and Caleb Garth are so convincing.

    I’m halfway through The Lifted Veil, 1859, which is so so different.


  7. Let me suggest something slightly gender-related that is surely unoriginal, that WW was a frankly presaging Transcendentalist (some prolepsis for attempted humor there), rather more man-oriented, in his case also maternal-oriented, than what we get even in say section I of the echoing Mont Blanc.
    Whereas Evans is writing a half-century later after (even) worse and more gruesome wars, and from a female perspective (assuming there is such a thing, with all the sexism and cold warmth that that implies), including mankind in quite a closer take.
    So … sort of a guy thing, and more important its opposite, that you are writing about? (For overarching sky also see the last pages of Lord Jim.)


    • I don’t know – I tend not to think about works in terms of the author’s gender identity (or any other form of identity, for that matter!) The individual temperament of the author I fond far more interesting than group identity: the author’s individual perspective I find of interest, whereas I am not even sure I understand what is meant by “male perspective” or “female perspective”,


  8. Quite like this: “If I am reviewing anything at all, it is myself.” I know exactly what you mean about feeling a bit presumptuous when writing about literature. Middlemarch was one of the most meaningful reading experiences of my life; perhaps not a spine-tingler but definitely a mind and heart-opener. That last paragraph…..


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