I finally finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch after reading it off and on over the last two years. It’s a very long novel and some parts go more slowly than others but overall I found it worthwhile, so I thought I’d write down some notes on it. Of course, Middlemarch has been thoroughly discussed for ages, so I’m sure my own reactions are not particularly unique or unprecedented; hopefully they’re at least enjoyable. The Toast has some great discussion on Middlemarch too (thanks Kateri!). 

Middlemarch is a big book about a great many subjects, but you could say it’s primarily the intertwined story of three young couples as they navigate marriage and society: Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, and Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate.

In typical Victorian morality style, Rosamond is the prettiest of the three but is vain and self-centered and unable to see past her own petty desires. Her husband Tertius goes into ruinous debt to live above his means because he feels he must keep up appearances and keep Rosamond happy. Then, when the collectors start coming, pride obstructs them both and they begin arguing and working at cross purposes to each other. They never solve their problems and never love each other, not even in the book’s cozy “where are they now?” epilogue. To me, it is pretty clear that this couple is doomed because they have taken society’s expectations for them at face value and can’t imagine defying those expectations.

In contrast, happiness comes easily enough for Mary Garth, who holds out and waits for her childhood friend, Fred, to sort out his life, then picks him over a much “better” suitor who falls in love with her and proposes to her. The choice is hardly fraught with high drama (even the suitor’s disappointment seems muted). You probably won’t be surprised to find out that in contrast to Rosamond, Mary is not a great beauty at all; she is homely but free-spirited and doesn’t harbor any desire to climb. Pressures from society and pressures from within don’t seem to affect her as strongly as they do the others.

Dorothea Brooke, later Dorothea Casaubon and finally Dorothea Ladislaw, is the real main character of the book. She must suffer greatly before achieving happiness by breaking free of society’s strictures, both because she is higher-born and because her innocence– really, a kind of guilelessness– leads her into an awful first marriage that is mercifully cut short when the much older man she falls for finally keels over and dies (as we, the readers, hope he will for many pages).

I want to talk about that first marriage of Dorothea’s some more, because I found it absolutely excruciating, as well as the best, most memorable part of the book. From the very start of it, you know it’s going to be a complete disaster, yet all you can do is watch from behind your hands as the mistakes get made. Edward Casaubon is a fusty, boring, and unlikable middle-aged man who has been slowly plodding away at his life’s work, a massive scholarly tome entitled (wait for it) The Key to All Mythologies. The title alone makes me laugh; its ridiculousness gives you an idea of what kind of man it is who takes that as a deadly serious enterprise.

At the beginning of the book Dorothea sees this and thinks he is just wonderful. She doesn’t perceive that he is actually rather dim, and also doesn’t know that his work has already been completely obsoleted by other works that have come out since he began writing. Of course, what Dorothea sees in him– a great man about to complete a monumental achievement– doesn’t really exist. She imagined it, just as she imagined that by marrying him she would share in his boundless intellectual world. It’s only after the wedding bells have rung and they are on their joyless, airless honeymoon that she begins to realize that his “intellectual world” is comprised of the mental equivalent of a cobweb-riddled cellar.

Dorothea’s mistake is somewhat forgivable, however, because we see how young and naive and given to strange ideas and flights of fancy she is. This is in contrast to her straight-laced sister Celia who, even though she is the younger of the two, clearly understands what is expected from her and is only too happy to fulfill her proper role in English society. She, in modern terms, Gets It: she does the “right” thing by marrying the only eligible Sir in town, Sir James Chettam, and immediately sets about producing a baby.

Much worse than Dorothea’s bad conceptions of what marriage to Casaubon will be like are the cringe-inducing, darkly funny passages that explore Casaubon’s own ideas and expectations for Dorothea:

“Providence, in its kindness, had supplied him with the wife he needed. A wife, a modest young lady, with the purely appreciative, unambitious abilities of her sex, is sure to think her husband's mind powerful…”

Tertius Lydgate, too, is shown to have certain ideas about the ideal place of a woman as he courts Rosamond:

“...he had found perfect womanhood— felt as if already breathed upon by exquisite wedded affection such as would be bestowed by an accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair's-breadth beyond— docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from that limit...”

So is Middlemarch, you know… feminist? It’s certainly true that Edward Casaubon and Tertius Lydgate are served unhappy circumstances, partially on the basis of these ideas, whereas the men who don’t harbor these expectations (or at least aren’t described as having them)– Fred Vincy and Will Ladislaw– do end up happy. The main arc of the story is still fairly typical, however: after many difficulties and obstacles and mistaken communications, Dorothea finally decides to leave behind both her station and her fortune for the love of young Will Ladislaw, in spite of the protests of her family. Will is described as smart and honorable, but he’s also hotheaded and has not made much of himself. In fact, throughout the long novel he never really accomplishes anything that proves he is worth the queenly Dorothea. He basically just stands around being frustrated. So you could say that it’s bold and strong of Dorothea to defy society to step down to him because she wants to, but you could also say it’s yet another case of a young man “getting the girl” for not much other than showing up and liking her.

There’s a lot of other stuff in Middlemarch: a whole central section where Dorothea’s hapless uncle naively tries to go into politics and gets pelted with eggs (it’s quite funny), a boring side story about the town banker who hides a scandalous secret (scandalous for the time period, at any rate), and an interminable number of pages spent with a miserable raffish fellow named Raffles (oh, Victorian novel character names!) whose “low” speech is written out, as common style dictated then. I really hate that type of character, who shows up shufflin’ ‘round wiv ‘is dialeck, and it’s often a struggle for me to stick with them, especially when they’re forced to come to the fore with lots of exposition.

Middlemarch made up for its uninteresting or annoying parts for me, though, by being drolly funny in many places. (I wish it were easier to quote those parts, but so many of the book’s pithiest jabs are caught up inside prepositional phrases or clauses within clauses– that languid, meandering, nineteenth-century sentence style.) The novel is keenly attuned not only to the society it was describing but the more universal truths of human desire and action. Its relationship situations still ring true today– I feel like I know a Dorothea who’s found her Casaubon, as well as a Rosamond who resents her Tertius. It’s because of those qualities that I found Middlemarch well worth reading, even though the going was slow at times and getting through it took me two years.