Will it amuse you if I admit that I somehow did not know that this book is famously long? I’m over here trying to do these reading challenges and had finished my last audiobook, and so saw that this was available on Overdrive and thought “Neat! I’ll just slot that one right in there.”
When I saw that the audiobook was over thirty hours long, I realized my mistake.
Anyway, man. What an undertaking to read, and now, an undertaking to review. I always struggle reviewing classics (unless I hate them and can rail against them in a fit of iconoclastic pique,) and a classic of this scale presents a more difficult challenge than most. To break down the characters and storylines in this book seems elementary and does a fundamental disservice to the tapestry that George Eliot wove, so intentionally forming the connections between them all and elaborating on the roles that everyone plays in securing their neighbors’ fates.
But hey, I’m going to try to make it easy on myself. I’m not going to talk about everyone, because this review will not be 700 pages, but here’s the starting point. From my reading, Middlemarch is loosely centered around two young women/families and their challenging marriages. Their familial connections, and those of their husbands, comprise the more genteel members of Middlemarch society. Events within the marriages sometimes have surprising consequences radiating outward, and in turn, happenings in the town square or behind seemingly unrelated closed doors affect these personal relationships in previously unknowable ways.
Dorothea Brooks: young, pious, and searching for an intellectual and philanthropic challenge. She finds herself seduced by the promise of becoming learned through a partnership with Mr. Casaubon, an academic type of a relatively advanced age. Everyone around her knows it’s a mistake, but Dorothea is steadfast in her assurance that from a husband she doesn’t require more more than companionship and the chance to improve her mind. Unfortunately for her, Casaubon doesn’t really see her as a potential equal: she may be promising “for a woman,” but that’s hardly important. Even more unfortunately, his view of her is not merely condescending, but adversarial in its patriarchal standpoint: any interest in forming an intellectual or academic partnership with his wife is outweighed by the appeal of her as young, and therefore pliable and submissive. Though Dorothea does engage in early hero-worship of Casaubon, it’s because she believes he can be a mentor. When that turns out not to be true, she becomes frustrated and emotional, and rather than recognizing this as the logical outcome of his forbidding treatment of her, he attributes it to her feminine weakness (naturally.)
Rosamund Vincy: beautiful and popular, she seeks an aspirational marriage and is self-absorbed in that way that privileged young people are. (Her brother, Fred, suffers from a similar condition.) She marries a newcomer to Middlemarch, a doctor named Lydgate, who impresses Rosamund with his upper-class background and aspirations for a successful career. Seemingly a love match, their marriage sours over time, as Lydgate’s shocking new techniques — he attempts to diagnose based on symptoms, instead of just prescribing the same rote tonics and nonsense — earns him the mistrust of Middlemarch’s traditional residents. Once the shine of attraction has worn off, they also find that their personalities have a few fundamental incompatibilities. Lydgate is arrogant and stubborn, and when confronted with an (admittedly) ignorant population, he doesn’t stoop to educate and try to relate to them, but rather digs his heels in and falls back on his contempt. On the other side, Rosamund is narcissistic and, in her way, equally stubborn. She’s unable to provide Lydgate with support at home that is a respite for his frustration in the world, because she hardly cares for anyone’s feelings other than her own. This results in a dynamic where Lydgate attempts to control Rosamund, needing to feel like he’s in charge somewhere, and Rosamund doing as she likes regardless of whether or not it’s actually a good idea, and then turning the fallout back around to Lydgate as she’s the eternal victim.
As I said up top, there is so much more to this book, but these complicated relationships are just a taste of George Eliot’s stunning dissection of genteel 19th-century British society. Despite being shell-shocked at the length, Middlemarch held my attention from beginning to end.