“Door stops don’t come anymore textual than this. At 900 pages of smallish type, George Elliot’s Middlemarch is for disciplined minds only. However, the reward for such endurance is getting to peer into a rich world of myriad interesting characters – all with their own personal problems to bear in an environment characterised by tradition, greed and hypocrisy. The book is set in early nineteenth century England amidst the urban wealth of Middlemarch, a town that Eliot is considered to have modelled around Coventry (the reason for using the name Middlemarch – how popular can a book be when it’s main selling point is… Coventry?).
In many way the book is structured like a soap opera. Each chapter starts and finishes with precision and tidiness. And just like a soap opera Elliot is constantly alluding to how the story will unravel before the event actually happens. Always knowing what is likely to happen thus takes away the surprise element from the book, but it does keep the reader in a tense state as many of the plots are of enough consequence to keep you flicking over the pages until the inevitable finally happens. Nevertheless, while some of the sub-plots are extremely intricate and an excellent slice of the human condition, Eliot fails to produce the kind of explosive turn one expects from a nine hundred page novel. Instead Eliot is more in the job of describing human relationships to which she attaches ever so quaintly – moralistic endings and lessons to be learned.
One of Eliot’s main themes is a critique of women’s position in society. It is easy to notice the simmering notions of feminism gently rippling through the first hundred pages. Mind, this is a feminism whose anger is tempered by the need to produce a best seller in a world rife with chauvinism and chivalry (don’t forget Eliot’s pen name was precisely chosen because sexuality was equated with credibility as a writer in those days). Nevertheless the gentle outlining of the pompous and rationalistic pretensions of men is enough to make you see the point. Nowhere was this aspect of Eliot’s book more prominent than in the life of the main character in the book: Dorothea, who lived on a large estate in the country just outside Middlemarch. Dorothea was introduced to the reader, in somewhat male terms, as a paradox in that while she was very beautiful in appearance she was austere and puritanical in her person. However, although her austerity frightened some, it was only as a means to an end – to please both God and to make plans to help those who were less fortunate than herself. It was the latter that Dorothea had most fervour for, but this dosage of fervour was constantly checked by an equal amount of opinion from those around her, that it was not appropriate for women to take on the role of men. There were various occasions where this was proved to be the case – any one of which could have informed a Harry Enfield sketch of ‘Women! No Your Place’. In this example, Dorothea’s husband Mr.Casaubon explains to Dorothea’s uncle and de facto father, Mr.Brooke how Dorothea had been helping her…
‘Dorothea is learning to read the characters simply,’ said Mr Casaubon, evading the question. ‘She had the very considerate thought of saving my eyes.’
‘Ah well without understanding, you know – that may not be so bad…’ [said Mr.Brooke]
Having married Mr.Casaubon – an ageing scholar and bookworm, Dorothea was the target of much concern from Mr. Brooke.
‘You have left Casaubon with his books I suppose. That’s right. We must not have you getting too learned for a woman you know.’
And as if not to let the reader have the luxury of negating the implications of such scenarios, Eliot frequently makes explicit allusion to male hypocrisy and double standards,
‘Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy.’
‘The betrothed bride must see her future home, and dictate any changes that she would like to have made there. A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards.’
However despite the social catacomb that Dorothea lived in, it was perversely a way of thinking which she largely subscribed to, and so it was with a resigned sense of frustration that she lived her life in this way right to the end.
The life of Dorothea was not the only focus for this book though, as while Dorothea’s life unfolded, so concurrently did the times and happenings of urban life in Middlemarch. You see, Middlemarch is actually a fusion of what were originally two different books. This can be inferred from the way Eliot alternates each chapter from life in the country with Dorothea to life in Middlemarch – without the two ever appearing to be connected until quite a way into the book.
Happenings in Middlemarch are largely focussed around two men: Fred Vincy and Dr.Lydgate. Dr.Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch as a relative stranger, and he is despised by the provincial doctors of Middlemarch for various reasons, not least because of his continental training in medical techniques. Lydgate also does himself no favours by doing business with the much despised Mr.Bulstrode, the Mr.Big or Rupert Murdoch of Middlemarch who owns just about everything and is equally detested for his unknown history. Fred Vincy meanwhile, is the son of a reasonably well off family, and a happy go lucky twenty four year old to boot, whose life had become a little less happy and lucky since he’d built up a gambling debt of some proportion. In fact debts were to eventually engross the lives of both men, as Lydgate who eventually married Fred’s sister Rosamond – a most irritatingly flirtatious and self-centred pleasure seeker – ran up a massive debt in covering his marriage costs.
The two communities are eventually bought together by two funerals. That or Mr.Casaubon, who is the cranky old husband of Dorothea and that of Pete Featherstone, a rich old man whose estate was expected by many to be left in the hands of Fred Vincy. Indeed, Fred Vincy was rather expecting this too, hoping that Featherstone’s money would pay for his gambling costs. However, as Featherstone’s funeral beckoned, and relatives were drawn to the Featherstone estate like vultures to a rotting carcass it appeared that there was going to be more than one contender to the throne. All along though it seemed as if Featherstone was going to favour Fred. After all, he despised his relatives and had specifically asked that Fred and his mother would look after him in his dying days. They of course obliged.
The Featherstone funeral was probably the most nerve jangling part of the book. It was the one point where you really didn’t know which way it was going to sway. As Featherstone’s inevitable death grew nearer and nearer and as the bright and greedy eyes of more and more people grew bigger and bigger – so the tension of the book grew. This was only exacerbated when the night before he died Featherstone instructed his servant Mary Garth to rip up a codicil that he made to his original will. Mary refused, thus altering the destination of much of the wealth of Featherstone.
Thus when the reading of the will occurred, it was tense and nervous for so many reasons. Not least because there was a will and then a codicil, but because Mary Garth could have quite easily changed the direction of the outcomes of so many people’s lives by ripping up the codicil. As it turned out the estate of Featherstone went to a little known son of his, Joshua Rigg – and Fred Vincy was denied what so many people had begrudgingly or not, expected to be his.
However the piece de resistance of Middlemarch comes later on in the book when, Mr.Big or Mr. Bulstrode to you, having just acquired Featherstone’s old estate from his son Joshua Rigg – and enjoying a moment of serenity as the sun sets is approached by his nemesis: Mr.Raffles. Mr.Bulstrode’s immediate reaction to Mr.Raffles was one of fear. At this point in the book, after five hundred pages of sub-plots which served to present a well defined sense of order and position in Middlemarch you got the sense that Raffles was in some way or other going to take a hammer to it all. However, rather than revolution Mr.Raffles appearance merely gave way to ripples of discontent. Up until this point Mr.Bulstrode had long been the subject for prejudiced gossip – the inevitable consequence of a stranger arriving in a provincial town with no known history. However, it was soon to transpire that all this careless gossip had in his case, rather fortuitously hit the mark. It transpired that Bulstrode had begun life as an orphan and was taken into a family at a young age. Showing a keen head for business, he was given a position of some responsibility in the family business – a porn shop – considered to be a despised trade as it profited from others misfortune. As time ran it’s course, the family suffered two blows in succession. Firstly, the daughter of the family ran off, in disgust at the way the family made money. Then the father of the family died. Bulstrode seemed the natural choice to take over the family business, especially as his de facto mother wished to marry him, but before anything happened she had declared her intention to find her renegade daughter in order that the family’s inheritance should be passed on to her. Bulstrode eventually found out the daughters whereabouts, but sinisterly, decided to withhold this information. And thus it came to pass that Bulstrode married and inherited the business and the obscene wealth of the family, five years later when his wife died. That he had been so underhand was one thing. That he was now a Bible thumping Middlemarch fascist who had an opinion and a seat to go with it on every committee in Middlemarch was another. And that his wife in Middlemarch had been under the illusion for the past twenty years that she was his one and only was quite another. And that the daughter of the family had had a child who turned out to be one of the main characters of the book was yet another. And that Mr.Raffles knew all this and was willing to ruin the reputation of Mr.Bulstrode was a problem.
Raffles, as cunning and despicable chap as you’ll find, teased and tormented Bulstrode with threats that never amounted to more than innuendo. Bulstrode was more than happy to buy Raffles off, but he could only do it partially. However the solution for Bulstrode seemed close at hand when Raffles was one day found intoxicated to the point of death approaching Bulstrode’s estate. Bulstrode decided to take him into his malevolent care and called Lydgate for instruction. Lydgate instructed Bulstrode that anymore alcohol would kill Raffles. The fireworks went off in Bulstrode’s head, and taking advantage of the situation he decided to give Lydgate a thousand pound loan that the Doctor had previously been denied in order to pay off his debts. Whether doing it consciously or not, Bulstrode was ensuring that Lydgate would not be blowing any whistles. And so it transpired that a little misplaced advice to the night nurse, regarding alcohol intake and Mr.Raffles, resulted in the death of the curmudgeon the day after.
This greatly relieved Bulstrode, but to his dismay, the following week bore witness to the fact that Raffles had already spilled the beans on Bulstrode and like wildfire the message flew round Middlemarch. With his reputation ruined and with it being only a matter of time before his wife found out about the great twenty year lie, Bulstrode turned into a mental wreck. In addition to this, Lydgate’s career was knocked senseless as it was widely suspected that he had taken the thousand pound loan as payment for his part in Raffles death.
All in all, the only conclusion I can come to is that it is almost impossible to criticise a book that is nine hundred pages long – because of the painful implications it has for the reader’s ability to make good use of his/her time. The book didn’t go kaboomb, just kapoomph, but it was incredibly ornate in its description of human nature and must have inspired Simone de Beauvoir to have written the Second Sex. I shall leave you with one last clip from the book, hopefully summing up all these points. As you may have already inferred, Dorothea’s marriage to the fucked up Mr.Casaubon was a complete disaster. Casaubon had been disappointed about the fact that Dorothea had not bought him the spontaneous happiness he had expected from marriage. And Dorothea, who had got married with the precise intention of being able to do something with her life, found that marriage had left her more frustrated than ever. There were many harsh moments in their marriage as there were in most marriages in the book, and it was one of Eliot’s strong points to capture the fine nuances of married life. Here is one such:
His glance in reply to hers was so chill that she felt timidity increased; yet she turned and passed her hand through his arm. Mr Casaubon kept his hands behind him and allowed her pliant arm to cling with difficulty against his rigid arm. There was something horrible to Dorothea in the sensation which this unresponsive hardness inflicted on her. That is a strong word, but not too strong: it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are for ever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bares no harvest of sweetness – calling their denial knowledge. “