Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Middlemarch: Review

First off...please pardon me a moment while I do my customary "I just finished this really long [No, I mean REALLY long] classic novel celebration dance" all around the blog. Please click on the little bear for full dancing around the blog effect.

There. Done. But seriously. Over 800 pages. I've been reading Middlemarch for over a month. I can't remember the last time it took me a month to read anything. George Eliot, honey, you're one wordy lady. Can't possibly just say something like, "Dorothea walked out into the garden." Oh, no. We must know exactly why she went there and every little thing she thought on her way there and every little flower that she looked at along the way. If there were multiple reasons for going to the garden, then we must examine them each in turn from every which way until there isn't the least little doubt that Dorothea was meant to go there no matter what. Enough already.

Okay. Got that out my system. And I have a little confession to make. For quite some time (oh, for say 25 years or so--ever since college), I've considered myself a Victorianist. I was drawn to the era. But as I waded into Middlemarch, I was beginning to doubt myself. Or at least begin to reconsider what kind of Victorianist I am. I honestly think I am more your Oscar Wilde and Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle kind of Victorianist. More a Collins' The Moonstone rather than a Collins' The Woman in White kind of Victorianist. And I suspect (although this is based purely on an experience with Great Expectations) that I'm not really a Charles Dickens kind of Victorianist. Because I'm not all that into long, involved, let's describe things to death narrative. But, then, I liked Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds and that's one long, wordy book....must keep considering.

But, forget all this True Confessions business--what we really want to know is did you like it? Was it an awesome novel like the interwebs says it is? Is it the finest thing that Eliot ever did? Well, I don't know about that last one. Because, you see this is the first work by Eliot that I've ever read. But, yes, it's a wonderful novel. She sketches out an intricate look at British village life. She gives us pitch-perfect character studies. She knows her characters inside and out and understands them. Even though they don't understand each other and mostly don't seem to understand themselves. Who would have thought there could be so much melodrama in the British countryside? And all the interweavings of relationships.

Dorothea and Casaubon. We have the idealistic Dorothea who wants to do good and become educated to increase her capacity for good. Dorothea who somehow thinks that to wed Casaubon and be "lamp unto his feet" and support his scholarly pursuits (and maybe pick up some Latin and other languages along the way) will fulfill her ideals and allow them (D & C) to live happily ever after. Not so much.

Rosamond and Lydgate. Lydgate who is every bit as idealistic as Dorothea. He wants to do great things in medicine and revolutionize the field and then he falls in love with Rosamond and thinks somehow the love of this fine little woman will support him while he succeeds. Rosamond has said all along that she could never marry a Middlemarch man--she's known them all too well and they would never do. And she has stars in her eyes thinking that any outsider (say, Lydgate) must be way better and, hey, doesn't he have relatives who are somebody? So, by golly, they'll live happily ever after too. Well, sort of, depending on your definition of the phrase--and only after much tribulation and gnashing of teeth.

Celia and Sir James. Sir James originally longs for Dorothea--and, in fact, many in Middlemarch expected Sir James and Dorothea to wed. But after watching Dorothea marry that dried up scholar, Casaubon, Sir James sets his sights on sister Celia. Celia, who really has always had an eye for James but thought he was so much better suited to Dorothea. But, hey, if her sister is going to throw away a chance to marry James, Celia won't say no. After all. "Celia confessed it was nicer to be 'Lady' than 'Mrs." and it did allow her to have her pretty jewelry and her precious little Arthur. Who, of course, is the most darling of boys. They certainly will live happily ever after. Most likely.

Mary Garth and Fred Vincy. Fred is a seemingly ne'er-do-well. He means well, but can't seem to settle to anything--and things just don't seem to go right. He goes for schooling to go into the church, but can't quite stick it. He has expectations of a small inheritance that doesn't come through. He finds himself in debt and can only get out through an obligation to Mary's father. Mary and Fred have loved each other since they were small. But Mary won't commit to him until proves himself steady. Will they live happily ever after? Oh, you can count on it. But don't try to count the twists and turns that Eliot will take you through before they get there.

And, oh, I could go on. There's the Bulstrodes and his secret and the man who comes along to spill the beans. And the good vicar Mr. Farebrother who also loves Mary, but who does his best to help love's young dream. And Mr. Featherstone (of the possible inheritance) who keeps everyone guessing about who's going to get the goodies.

In all of these relationships, no one really understands anyone else. I was really struck by the amount of heartache and trouble that could have been averted if these people would have just talked to each other. They all assume what the other person thinks or feels or means, but they rarely get it right. I suppose, on a much smaller scale, that's true of all human relations. Assumptions make for a great deal of trouble. I also absolutely loved the depiction of the village grape vine and social judiciary committee. Who needs facts when you can spread conjectures? The word in Middlemarch "was spreading fast, gathering around it conjectures and comments which gave it new body and impetus....Everybody liked better to conjecture how a thing was, than simply to know it; for conjecture soon became more confident than knowledge, and had a more liberal allowance for the incompatible." The poor folk who are being conjectured about never stand a chance. And isn't that always the way?

So, again, yes, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. I have to say, it was absolutely worth it to make my way through 770 pages or so to get to the end. The tying up of all the story lines is masterful. The ending is marvelous. It probably deserves another reading--but, honestly, unless I take up the call of the scholarly life, I don't think I'll be devoting another month to rereading it. I highly recommend it for those who want a very thorough look at British provincial life in the Victorian era. Just make sure to carve out plenty of time for reading it. Four stars.


Sophia said...

Oh I LOVE that review! So true. I do adore George Eliot, but all her novels take a bit of settling into, you have to sort of recalibrate your brain and make it run a bit slower first. I've read her four best-known novels, but Adam Bede was my favourite - do give it a try as you enjoyed Middlemarch so much.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much!! I'm right there with you!

Terrific review!

Carol said...

Loved your analysis of the type of Victorianist you are. I am right there with you, although I waded through quite a bit of Trollope many years ago. I'm afraid my attention span is too short for him now. Good review.

Jenners said...

Congrats on finishing!! That is an accomplishment! I've read long books but never CLASSIC long books! That counts for double!

Debbie Rodgers said...

What a great review! I've wanted to read Middlemarch since I was a teenager (these many decades ago) but haven't yet....maybe some day still.

Laurel-Rain Snow said...

Oh, thanks so much for the wonderful review. I remember how I once savored long novels like this...the ones that described every little thing.

My own writing has a lot of descriptions, and a couple of reviewers said...too much. I've cut down on that, but not cut it out. I like visualizing the scenes in a book.

Maybe I'll give this one a whirl!

RAnn said...

Congrats on finishing it; your review has completely convinced me that I'm never picking it up, which I guess means it gave enough info.