Middlemarch by George Eliot (completed today)

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I must admit that Middlemarch didn’t interest me much until the last hundred pages. I forced myself to continue with it, due to my promise to Arti and Gretchen, and quite possibly it would have been more enjoyable if we three were together discussing it over a cup of tea with lemon. As it was, I sat this Memorial Day Weekend with this tome, in unbearable humidity, bound and determined to finish it so that I can get on to Cult X and Testament of Youth. I am not very patient with English literature, which always seems to need a better editor than it had. (Not one page of Anna Karenina, similar in length, tired me.)

And now for the interesting bits. Tertius Lydgate, who unfortunately married Rosamond Vincy, has become so far behind in debt that he beseeches his wife to give up her purple amythests, sell the silver plate, and even move to a less expensive home. Her pride, and her attachment to her belongings, forbid such actions, and she turns the situation to being his fault alone. She is completely unwilling to support him and turns her graceful neck away at an angle that makes me want to strike it.

So, Lydgate appeals to the banker, Mr. Bulstrode, who gives him one thousand pounds. Yet, almost simultaneously, a patient of Lydgate’s dies, and the townspeople believe that the money given by Bulstrode, and accepted by Lydgate, is a bribe.

”It has come to my knowledge since,” he (Lydgate) added, “that Hawley sent someone to examine the housekeeper at Stone Court, and she said that she gave the patient all the opium in the phial I left, as well as a good deal of brandy. But that would not have been opposed to ordinary prescriptions, even of first-rate men. The suspicions against me had no hold there; they are grounded on the knowledge that I took money, that Bulstrode had strong motives for wishing the man to die, and that he gave me the money as a bribe to concur in some malpractices or other against the patient-that in any case I accepted a bribe to hold my tongue. They are just the suspicions that cling the most obstinately because they lie in people’s inclination and can never be disproved.” (p. 811)

That last line is perhaps the briefest summary of Middlemarch, a novel in which George Eliot examines the defamation of character, and the consequential ruin of one’s trust in oneself; the bond of marriage which can suffocate when it is an unhappy one; the superficiality of the masses when assembled together in the same small town.

Dorothea Casaubon calls Lydgate to her home, and comforts him with her gentle and true spirit which insists on seeing the good in others. When she writes a checque for one thousands pounds for Rosamond, and delivers it to her home, she unexpectedly comes upon Rosamond and Will Ladislaw sitting altogether too closely on the sofa. He his clasping her hands in his, and the situation looks compromising. But this doesn’t bother Rosamond half as much as it does both Will and Dorothea.

”Shallow natures dream of an easy sway over the emotions of others, trusting implicitly in their own petty magic to turn the deepest streams, and confident, by pretty gestures and remarks, of making the thing that is not as though it were. She (Rosamond) knew that Will had received a severe blow, but she had been little used to imagining other people’s states of mind except as a material cut into shape by her own wishes; and she believed in her own power to soothe or subdue.”

Yet, as we read on it is Dorothea’s character to seek the good in people, to believe in the triumph of good over evil, and to know that money cannot possibly bring the happiness so desired by many. Her first husband, Mr. Casaubon, had meanly forbidden her to marry again, specifically the one she truly loved, or else she should lose the property he had left to her. But this sword will not cut through her armor, one which chooses truth over prosperity. I love how she ends with the one she loves.

As I close the last pages, I am pleased with the outcome of this book, happy that I have read a classic I had not read before. It would be a perfect story for Masterpiece Theater, as there is so much wisdom inherent to its tale told through the foolishness of so many of its characters.

”Yes, dear, a great many things have happened,” said Dodo in her full tones.

“I wonder what,” said Celia, folding her arms cozily and leaning forward upon them.

“Oh, all the troubles of all the people on the face of the earth,” said Dorothea, lifting her arms to the back of her head.

29 thoughts on “Middlemarch by George Eliot (completed today)”

    1. Perhaps you will not find the time to revisit it some day, as there is so much compelling literature out there for us to devour, but you are right: it is very moving. I suspect I will be dwelling on it for quite some time, and I am most pleased with the ending (which pleased the people of Middlemarch not at all). It is surprisingly parallel with today’s society in many, but certainly not all, ways. I like the gentle mockery of the masses, and the uplifting of Dorothea’s courage and goodness best of all.

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  1. Bellezza, I’m glad you were able to finish reading the book, and that you were pleased with the last part of the book and the ending. Thank you for a thoughtful review of this classic!

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  2. Congratulations, Bellezza. There’s an old item from the New Yorker magazine, one of those little blurbs they used to have at the bottom of a page relating scenes from the city, in which a woman on a bus reading the final pages of Middlemarch is approached by another passenger who looks down at the book and angrily exclaims something like, “Dammit, you’re going to finish it, aren’t you?!”

    I’m about half way through – my first time reading the novel – so I’ve read your commentary out of the corner of my eye so as not to have too much of what’s to come revealed. But I confess that I’ have not been in the least bit bored. It is so funny, with so many perfectly expressed observations and complexly-drawn characters, and so historically and sociologically interesting as well. I’m in awe of Eliot’s language, down to the many chapter epigraphs she invents herself. I only have time to read the book on my morning commute, so it’s become a cherished and transformative fixture of my workday.

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    1. I always smile when you leave me an anecdote or cartoon blurb on my posts, Scott. (Remember when you said that your niece’s favorite part of her visit was Dorito’s Ranch chips, narrowly beating out some architectural glory which I cannot recall?) And now, I call it among my great accomplishments of the weekend that, dammit! I completed all 870+ pages of Middlemarch.

      Trust you to find the funny parts, the perfectly expressed observations and carefully drawn characters, which I admit is absolutely accurate. I’m not sure why Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot are not favorite authors of mine, as certainly they write with great skill. But, I find myself not as moved as I am when I read Leo Tolstoy or Boris Pasternak.

      I look forward to your thoughts when you do complete it, and please remember that I found the last hundred pages quite remarkable. They made up for what I found somewhat tedious in the seven hundred which came before. 😉

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      1. I can well understand a tendency towards literature a bit removed from one’s own cultural and linguistic references.

        And I’ll be thrilled to get to those last couple hundred pages!

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  3. This is my favourite book of all time – the one I would want with me should I have the misfortune to be shipwrecked and stuck on an island waiting rescue. I’ve read it about 8 times now and still find something new each time. I do understand why people think its very slow – I thought that the first time too. But a module on Middlemarch helped unlock the book for me and I came to hugely admire Eliot for the complexity of what she was doing. This is a book about so many things: thwarted ambitions and lofty ideals; marriage; political and social change and science. I’m glad you enjoyed it in the end…..

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    1. I can see how rereading it would bring a wealth of more information and insight. What you described is how I feel about Anna Karenina. I feel badly that I was harsh about Middlemarch because as I think on it, it is quite powerful. I am wrong to look for Story first with these British authors from the 1800s. Story is clearly not as important as cbaracter development and insight about lifestyles.
      Thank you to you and Scott for helping me see past my viewpoint.

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  4. There was a Masterpiece Theatre production of it many years ago. Wouldn’t you know the only episode I missed was the one when Casaubon dies. I was out of town on a visit, and the PBS broadcast schedule was different from the one at home. I know it was the best one, it just had to be… Over the years I have never got around to seeing it, but alas…

    Now Dodo is a rich widow with the perfect excuse not to remarry. She doesn’t even have the older-than-her stepchildren scheming to get the money away from her. Methinks the Rev Obadiah Slope would be a good second husband for her. She just doesn’t know how to appreciate what she has.

    Congratulations on finishing the book!

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    1. I wouldn’t mind seeing Casaubon die. 😳

      I didn’t feel as negatively toward Dorothea, though. I was happy she got whom she wanted, and opted for love instead of fortune. I thought she displayed an admirable character throughout, always looking for the good (even in Casaubon!).

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      1. Casaubon would never have understood that the terms of his will allowed her to pick and choose her next husband, if she even chose to remarry.

        Only an already wealthy man who neither needed or cared about her money could marry Dorothea. This would be someone who needed children or companionship more than money or estate. Love was not an acceptable reason for marriage, except in novels. The conveying of money and property to the next generation was. By restricting his widow, Casaubon set her up for what has to be either a better marriage or a genteel widowhood.The widowhood in itself would offer her the most freedom she could ever expect for the times.

        I am speaking in terms of contemporary Victorian values, not those of today.

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        1. I took Casaubon’s will to be a punitive thing to Dorothea. It seemed if he couldn’t have her, he thought no one else should either. I was glad she shook off the shackles and married whom she loved. And, it was good that she never was unfaithful to Casaubon as he died and therefore “set her free”.

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      2. Casaubon seems to be in a sort of living death all along anyway, so he might as well finalize it! (I can say these unchristian things because he is not real 🙂 ) He could not even be revived or energized by Dorothea’s love and youthfulness!

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        1. I should not have said I wouldn’t mind seeing him die, what an awful thing. I meant that I wouldn’t mind seeing him out of Dorothea’s life permanently. The fact that Dorothea’s love had no power for good over him is a very interesting concept…

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          1. I don’t think it’s awful in the case of a novel, where we can’t help trying to come up with solutions to “problems,” and to turn the plot in what seems a satisfying direction. In real life, we often think, “Why doesn’t God take him?” etc., when someone is terminally ill and suffering, but then we try to trust in the wisdom of God and His timing. So I guess we must do the same when we have entered the imaginary world that the author has made so “real” to us. Still, I’m not going to confession over my feelings about Casaubon. 😉

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  5. I’ve just read passed the midpoint and I admit I’m a bit stuck now at this point. Nevertheless, I’ll press on as I’ve committed to you and others, maybe a ripple effect from Dorothea, persevering. 🙂 Having said that, I greatly admire Eliot’s knowledge and wide interests, and much impressed by her descriptions and insights into life, not ‘lifestyles’. I’m much impressed by BookerTalk’s comment that she’d read Middlemarch eight times. Actually that just may be the key to appreciate the book, that is, I need to reread again and again to discover the intricately crafted world of Eliot’s Middlemarch, ‘a study of provincial life’ (what an irony). I’m just at the arrival gate, haven’t even gone in to explore.

    On another note, I think there are lots of Story in many English novels, just think of James’s Portrait of a Lady; BTW, that’s a ripple effect from Eliot. Or Dickens, or Hardy, and I thought you like Austen. Surely Tolstoy may have more characters and glamour due to the broader historical context and scope, with settings being in the grander, old country of Russia, while these English novels focus on smaller, parochial locales, often around lives of the ‘common folks’. As a matter of fact, after Middlemarch, I just might move on to David Copperfield, as there’s a new movie adaptation being developed now. Again, it’s my pleasure reading with you, Bellezza. When you have time, stop by the Pond and do an inkblot test. 🙂

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    1. I am also past the midpoint, so I have hope! It’s interesting that you are considering David Copperfield next — that is another big book that my husband and I read aloud together, in an “era” that I don’t seem to have the will to reclaim even for myself, now that there are so many less concentrated activities easy to “fall into” at the computer. In the evenings after the children were in bed, we must have enjoyed that ancient kind of leisure that now requires more intentional effort to claim. And we were young — so there wasn’t the awareness that I sometimes feel, of the lesser number of days of leisure remaining.

      Reading Middlemarch the first time, with my husband, was sort of a quick pass through, because we didn’t stop to think and discuss, and that’s why at the time I knew that I wanted to go back and read it again on my own. But I probably never would have, if you hadn’t proposed this read-along, Arti. So many years and experiences have intervened between my first and second readings, it’s as though I only read a synopsis before. I am so glad to be reading it!! At the same time, a bit ambivalent, because my feeling of hurry doesn’t jive with the leisure that I crave.

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    2. Arti, it is always a pleaure to read with you. You bring insight into many novels as yet unknown to me, Middlemarch being one of them (Remembrance of Things Lost another). It would be very interersting to try this more than once; it is jam packed with details that are say to miss. Whereas no detail seems to small for George Eliot.

      It isn’t that I dislike Jane Austen as much as the fact that I like other authors of her time period so much more. And, I am terribly fond of Dickens. Bleak House and Great Expectations are two of my favorite, but I haven’t explored too much of Pip in David Copperfield. I may join you for that one, too. You are so knowledgeable about film and putting the books together with it. What enrichment you bring to my reading life.

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      1. Bellezza,

        I just checked my old posts, add two more books to our read-along experience: We read Midnight’s Children in March, 2012 , and as if we hadn’t had enough, we read Anna Karenina in August of that same year! We sure have come a long way in our read-along! Do check out those posts. There were others in our reading group whom you might want to re-connect.

        And then of course there’s Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and John Banville’s Mrs. Osmond. If not for the camaraderie, I don’t think I could start and finish Midnight’s Children, or even Anna K. for that matter.

        So now, I’m going to make haste to finish Middlemarch, why, I just might want to start David Copperfield for the summer (July-Aug). Would you like to hop on for the ride? I know this sounds impulsive, a spur of the moment idea, but then again, I need those spurs or else nothing gets done. 🙂

        BTW, know who’s going to play David Copperfield in the new adaptation? Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame. Cast includes Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw. The movie is called “The Personal History of David Copperfield”. Interested?

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        1. Midnight’s Children! Anna Karenina, of course! (That’s quite possibly my favorite novel ever; I have read it as many times as BookerTalk read Middlemarch.) Needless to say we’ve been reading, and blogging, a long time together.

          Today was the day I retired, and I am grasping for my new place in this world. David Copperfield interests me, we’ll see if I can focus on it this summer. I am trying to remain largely uncommitted, though, as I have forced a tight schedule on myself for … a long time.

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          1. Congrats to you, Bellezza! Of course you should enjoy some ‘unrestrained’ time and not pressed for any deadlines. You deserve the autonomy and freedom after devoting your life in nurturing and education our young. Sure, enjoy your summer and all the best in the days and years ahead. 🙂

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  6. Dorothea doesn’t like Casaubon, either, when she gets to know the real Casaubon, but she meets the challenge of being married to such a hurtful person by putting all her resources to the task of loving him anyway, i.e. trying to understand his weaknesses and continuing to be as kind and helpful as she can. She shows the meaning of “Love is a verb.”

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    1. Dorothea has a lot to teach us about love. She is fits Corinthians 13 almost perfectly, as she endures and believes all things good. How refreshing to read of a true heroine, especially after the garbage that Virginie Despenres put forth in Vernon Subutex 1, which actually made the Man Booker International Prize long list. There was no redeeming quality in any of the characters. Madeleine L’Engle is another author who taught me much about love when I needed it quote from Shakespeare that “love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.”

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