Friday, February 8, 2008

Middlemarch by George Eliot

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?

This quote from Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of Middlemarch, gives a glimpse into her heart. It also gives a little twist to the more famous Austen quote, “For what do we live, but to make sport of our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?”

Middlemarch is 700 pages of uphill climbing. But having been trained by Trollope to keep digging till I find treasure, I kept on plowing through. I was rewarded over and over not by any amazing change of events, but by wonderfully pithy turns of phrases by George Eliot. Dorothea is first introduced to us as someone whose intensity and interest in helping those around her is regarded as “methodistical” (a non-complimentary reference to the zealous Methodists in England at that time).

“And why should Dorothea not marry? A girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes… A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles – who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such a fellowship...”

Developments in the book happened very slowly and the two main story lines seemed to be awkwardly woven together at first. I had very little sympathy for the second main character (Dr. Lydgate) and his unfortunate marriage. But any time that Mary Garth or Dorthea Brooke came on the scene things brightened up considerably. As the story went along I couldn’t help becoming very fond of Mary Garth’s parents, particularly her father, Caleb. Theirs was a marriage that had been through many tests, but genuine love and respect for each other had brought them through. This was in sharp contrast to all the other marriages in the book.

I must admit I kept reading this book more for the meaty quotes than for the story line. But, LO AND BEHOLD, after I’d reached the five hundredth page, the Bulstrode/Raffles conflict occurred and I could hardly put the book down. The action never let up after that and there were many satisfying conclusions to the story before the final chapter.

The characters in the book have varying levels of integrity. The ones who are the most virtuous suffer the most which doesn’t seem fair, but you can’t help seeing how their suffering makes them even better people than they were before. The main thrust of the book is that a life well-lived is one of honesty and selflessness (even at the risk of losing fortune and fame). I couldn’t agree more with Eliot’s conclusion that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and [the fact] that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”


Anonymous said...

I read this years ago. Amazing that books like this were once the trendy, popular novels, isn't it?

This is a great review. Thanks. It sounds like you were well rewarded for putting in the effort.

Carol in Oregon said...

I'm over from Semicolon.

Middlemarch includes some of my favorite quotes of all time. Caleb Garth (don't you love him?) has a potent quote about work.

Eliot writes about the expectation of the engaged that their future spouse will improve, how they see an endless sea of possibilites. Then, after getting married, they realize life is an enclosed basin and reality sets in.

I've read Middlemarch three times in my life: about once a decade. Those "pithy turns of phrase" never fail to delight me.

Thanks for the great review.

Anonymous said...

I followed you from over at Semicolon.

Middlemarch is one of my favorites as well.

I recently talked my husband into watching the BBC version and was quite satisfied with their rendition. Certainly not as good as reading it, but still, well done.

I also ordered Trollope’s The Small House at Allington based on your recommendation. Thanks for the reviews!

Spark and Madison said...

Your last quote was my favorite from the book. I've underlined it in my nice hardbound copy. Do you mark up your good books?
That quote has given me much encouragement. Middlemarch is one of those books that is better on the second reading.

hopeinbrazil said...

Yes, I underline my books. It's wonderful when re-reading to come upon a much-loved passage. I plan to read Middlemarch again someday. Thanks for your comments.