Middlemarch kept popping up in different places for me recently. A few people in an online book group I’m in praised it to no end. Then I read Jo Walton’s book on rereading. It was mostly about science fiction and fantasy novels, but she included this. Then I found out it was my sister’s favorite novel (I knew it was Eliot, but I thought it was Silas Marner). So finally I broke down and read it. I don’t claim a book as a favorite until I’ve read it at least twice, but I’d be shocked if this didn’t join my yearly reread list. It’s a masterpiece that deserves its reputation.
Walton said that Middlemarch proved that George Eliot could have invented science fiction. Having now read the book I take her meaning to be that Eliot gradually builds the reader’s understanding of the fictional town of Middlemarch bit by bit without clumsily placed details. You know what you need to know as you need to know it. Eventually the town lives in in your mind, like Vandermeer’s Ambergris. While I would gladly read an Eliot scifi book, I’m hard pressed to think that she could improve on the world building here.
My sister said that Eliot understood people. I agree fully. In Middlemarch the gap between self and perception of self is rendered as well as anyone I’ve read outside of Nabokov. And she does it without the unreliable narrator device! She goes back and forth between omniscient and limited third person. Each person’s self deception is revealed, oftentimes to hilarious effect. But never cruelly. Eliot manges to be savage (and savagely funny) in her critique of human behavior, while still being kind and forgiving of her characters’ faults. This is an amazing trick to pull off. She never loses sight of human failure and deception. Yet she seems to really believe, in the words of Dorothea towards the end of the book, that “people are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” This double vision seems the perfect antithesis to current online discourse wherein, to paraphrase Hitchens, when you see your opponent’s worst possible motive, you’re sure you found the only one.
Every page is quotable. The prose is consistent, as is her aforementioned understanding of people. She understood the futility of the prediction game long before Nassim Taleb: "Let him start for the continent then without our pronouncing on his future. Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous." She understood people’s need to hear what they want to hear: "Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid. What believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime." She understood the all too human impulse to be right all the time: "There was occasionally a little fierceness in his demeanor, but it was directed chiefly against false opinion, of which there is so much to correct in the world that a man of some reading and experience necessarily has his patience tried.” She understood the need to blame outside forces for our own faults: "No more was said: Dorothea was too much jarred to recover her temper and to behave so as to show that she admitted any error in herself. She was disposed rather to accuse the intolerable narrowness and the purblind conscience of the society around her." (This is not to say that she doesn’t understand the pressures that society places on the individual. She illustrates well people caught up by events they can’t control. This understanding extended to the effect of class on people’s lives.) She understood the complexities of human motivation: "Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers; but dressed in their small wardrobe of notions bring their provisions to a common table and mess together feeding out of the common store according to their appetite." Yet the book is no mere parade of aphorisms. It is a well knit whole rendered in perfect prose.
Eliot’s dialog is top-notch; hilarious and revealing. Consider this early exchange between Fred and Rosamond Vincy and their mother:
"...rather a prig, I think."
"I can never make out what you mean by a prig," said Rosumund.
"A fellow who wants to show that he has opinions."
"Why, my dear, doctors must have opinions," said Mrs. Vincy, "What are they there for else?"
"Yes, mother their opinions are paid for, but a prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions."
Later when Fred accuses them of slang:
"There is correct English, that is not slang"
"I beg your pardon, correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”
This is a great character introduction. It’s also hilarious. I was expecting a very good book, but not a book as funny as it is.
Middlemarch is an all around delight, the best book I’ve read for the first time this year (eclipsing The Goldfinch, Generation Loss and (to my surprise) even Wise Children). I will be returning to this often. I don’t make books canon until I’ve read them at least twice; I’m tempted to reread it immediately so that I can go ahead and make it official (though I’ll probably wait until next year).
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