I’ve got a confession to make. It isn’t an easy one for an avid reader and writer with a degree in English from a fine liberal arts college. I’ve always prided myself on my broadness of view and quality of thought–but here goes…
I hated Middlemarch the first time I read it.
There, I’ve said it. Now I can move on–thank goodness.
The first time I read Middlemarch, I was very young. Still all aglow from reading the complete Jane Austen, I had dabbled in Dickens without much enjoyment (excepting A Christmas Carol) when a wise professor recommended Middlemarch.
I dove in…and immediately fell in love with the high-minded Dorothea Brooke. She was a kindred spirit! I, too, felt myself “a cygnet among ducklings”–don’t we all, at some point in our lives? I read the beginnings of Dorothea’s story with a kind of rushed rapture. She was so passionate and thoughtful–a girl/woman breaking the bonds and conventions of her time–wait!
Why is George Eliot writing about all of these other people? Writing a lot about them, too. Smells like Dickens! I want Dorothea…turn the pages…okay, okay, I’ll read about Lydgate…and Rosamund…and Mary and Fred…but what’s all this about politics? Yuck! And pages and pages about boring peripherals: theology, drunks, farmers, clergymen!
I hurried my way to the end of the book, judiciously skipping some long-winded poo-poo, and prepared to be satisfied by Dorothea’s ultimate decision concerning Will Lladislaw. Instead, I found myself extremely disgruntled by the final passages detailing her future life. In fact, the happiness in the story seemed to have been the prize of the characters I had found most uninteresting!
For some time after my initial reading, I found myself agreeing with others who professed a dislike of the book, sagely nodding my head, offering high-sounding comments about the didactic tone, etc. So haughty and über-intelligent, wasn’t I?
Then, recently, I watched the BBC dramatization of Middlemarch. When the portrayal of Dorothea in that mini-series seemed to not quite match up with what I remembered from the novel, I recalled how differently I now felt about Dickens and how much more I now knew about the Victorian Era and its literature. Had I misjudged Eliot, as well? Semi-reluctantly I pulled up a free online copy of Middlemarch and began to read–carefully.
I still found it wildly complex and exceedingly long, but now the peripheral characters and stories seemed tantalizingly layered and important. I could see the irony and the sweet-and-sour poignancy of the myriad episodes that had once seemed banal, but now seemed to combine unusual psychological depth and realism. I found Lydgate to be (almost) as important to the story as Miss Brooke. And Dorothea herself? Not so perfect in my minds-eye, but somehow an infinitely more interesting character. Eliot’s work seemed a fusion of Austen’s sassy and/or ridiculous women and men and Dickens’s scope of vision (and word count!) elevated into a more truthful, less Disney-fied, and thought-provoking medium.
I could go on and on, you know. I could begin channeling George Eliot…
Just kidding! Here’s the “sum up”:
Middlemarch: an extremely long but worthwhile Victorian literary mash-up/masterpiece. Don’t be a hater!