The Short Version: Subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, Middlemarch dives into a fictional English country town in the first half of the 19th Century. Politics, culture, science, romance, finance, religion, and all other aspects of life spin about the characters as they live out their relatively ordinary lives – but the ordinary nature makes them all the more interesting.
The Review: There is something wonderful about the ordinary. We celebrate and cheer the lives that are great successes, we boo and hiss at those that are full of great evil, and we mourn those full of promise who are gone too soon. But – as my father is so fond of quoting – the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. They go about their ordinary lives and do ordinary things and yet in being quote-unquote “ordinary” they are, in fact, magnificent. To put a nerdier spin on it, it’s the Doctor Who thing: there is no one who isn’t extraordinary in their own way, no matter how quiet and simple and, again, “ordinary” it might be.
And Middlemarch is, as you’ve no doubt been told, the ultimate testament to ordinary lives and how extraordinary they can be to the people living them. George Eliot writes a detailed and focused examination of ordinary individuals and, by the end of the monstrously long tome, she’s made them into something extraordinary by virtue of our following them to the end of this particular tale. Even though nothing really terribly exciting happens, in the sense of traditional novels. I mean, even in Austen novels, you were kind of at least guaranteed a ball and some sassy wit – and as such, those women were immediately extraordinary. They were living lives that readers were not, even if the difference was slight. Whereas Middlemarch takes pains to be realistic and present country life in the 1830s as it was.
And guess what? Life in the English country in the 1830s was kind of boring. Oh, sure, there are interesting moments – and, indeed, the novel does magically wrap you up by the time you’re about halfway through – but good lord it takes some time to get going. And even as it winds down, with the sudden introduction of Raffles (throwing a little bit of pizzazz into the lives of our townsfolk) and a whole lot of plot resolution, there is still a sense in the back of a reader’s mind that “wow, this is… there’s just… we’re just… okay, this is just life.” And that’s okay! It is, I realized, in fact okay to experience a novel like this where it is just a marvelous examination of life in that particular corner of planet Earth at that particular moment in history.
But sue me: I wanted a little more. I wanted the satire of Dickens. I wanted the saucy wit of Austen. This is not to say that Eliot isn’t funny – she can actually be VERY funny – or that she wasn’t taking aim at some serious issues of the day. She certainly was, considering she was a woman writing under a man’s name and writing a novel that takes some pretty direct aim at the role of women in society at a time when that just wasn’t a thing that was discussed. She’s also unstinting in her examinations of the clergy, of the legal system, and of politics. It’s just that, from the remove of 2014, there is a disconnect. I mean, I studied British politics in college and I was still scratching my head a few times – because it’s a crazy, byzantine system on the best of days and this was a time of tumult.
So how, then, to address a novel such as this? On the one hand, it became a chore to read far more often than it was a joy. I almost don’t understand the overwhelming praise for the novel – and yet, at the same time, I do. That chore is exemplary of… well, of life. It’s life, this novel. I also understand J.K. Rowling’s desire to write A Casual Vacancy now – for that novel is most certainly a sort of modern version of this story, albeit with more plot and more modern excitements. This novel stands somewhat over everyone who has come after, not ostentatiously but just there. An implacable, immovable part of the English literary tradition. And even while I wasn’t terribly thrilled by the stories of marriage, of wills & bequests, of politics, and so on… I did, a little bit, enjoy them.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5.