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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Middlemarch

by
George Eliot


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Middlemarch



Title: Middlemarch
Author: George Eliot
Genre: Novel
Written: 1872
Length: 811 pages
Availability: Middlemarch - Penguin Classics, US
Middlemarch - Everyman's Library, US
Middlemarch - Oxford World's Classics, US
Middlemarch - Penguin Classics, UK
Middlemarch - Oxford World's Classics, UK
Middlemarch - Canada
Middlemarch - India
Middlemarch - France
Middlemarch - Deutschland
Middlemarch - Italia
Middlemarch - España
  • A Study of Provincial Life
  • The Penguin Classics edition is edited by Rosemary Ashton
  • The Modern Library edition has an introduction by A.S.Byatt
  • The Oxford World's Classics edition is edited by David Carroll and has an introduction by Felicia Bonaparte
  • The text of Middlemarch can also be found online

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Our Assessment:

A : muddled but grand panoramic novel

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Academy . 1/1/1873 Edith Simcox
Athenaeum . 7/12/1872 .
The Atlantic Monthly . 4/1873 Arthur George Sedgwick
Blackwood's . 12/1872 Wilneas Collins
British Q. Rev. . 4/1873 .
Fortnightly Review . 1/1/1873 Sidney Colvin
Galaxy A 3/1873 Henry James
The Guardian . 21/12/1871 .
The Guardian . 4/8/2007 A.S.Byatt
Saturday Review . 7/12/1872 .
The Spectator . 1/6/1872 .
The Times . 7/3/1873 .


  From the Reviews:
  • "It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch. The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated. (...) An author whose novels it has really been a liberal education to read, one is more tempted to admire silently than to criticise at all." - Arthur George Sedgwick, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "Middlemarch is extraordinarily full and strong" - Sidney Colvin, Fortnightly Review

  • "Middlemarch is at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels. (...) Middlemarch is a treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole. (...) All these people, solid and vivid in their varying degrees, are members of a deeply human little world, the full reflection of whose antique image is the great merit of these volumes." - Henry James, Galaxy

  • "She not only used images drawn from the natural sciences, but saw the world of her novel as a microcosm in which all the parts related to the whole. (...) All are held together by one of the most complicated and brilliantly worked metaphors anywhere in fiction. It is a metaphor of a web, or a tissue like those Bichat worked on. It is both a field of force, a trap like a spiderweb, and a pattern of invisible connecting links between humans meeting each other's eye." - A.S.Byatt, The Guardian

  • "If Middlemarch is melancholy, it is due perhaps to its religion being all duty, without sufficient admixture of hope. (...) The book is like a portrait gallery." - Saturday Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Middlemarch is an odd novel. This "study of provincial life" begins with a short prelude, focussed on Saint Theresa -- whose "passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life". Eliot speaks of "later-born Theresas", and the book proper then begins with young Dorothea Brooke -- the Theresa-like figure whose epic life is, one imagines, surely to dominate the narrative. But Middlemarch takes some twists and turns, and though Dorothea's story figures prominently Eliot isn't satisfied with it alone. Other fates are also explored, in any number of storylines and with a huge cast of characters. It makes for an odd mix.
       Dorothea's story is, at least in the beginning, the central one. She and her sister, Celia, are orphans, now living with their uncle, Mr. Brooke. Dodo (as Celia calls her sister) is the unfortunate family intellectual -- she is not yet twenty when the book opens but she already "knew many passages of Pascal's Pensées and of Jeremy Taylor". This isn't entirely as bad as it sounds -- she could also be "regarded as an heiress", and so she had good prospects for making a fine marriage. Still, it is Celia that is the sensible (if much simpler) sister.
       Mr. Brooke is also quite the character, but saw the dangers of the intellectual life for himself:

The fact is, human reason may carry you a little too far -- over the hedge in fact. It carried me a good way at one time, but I saw it would not do. I pulled up; I pulled up in time. But not too hard.
       Unfortunately, his good (if often confused) sense doesn't influence Dorothea. She does set out to marry, but turns down the sensible possibility, Sir James Chettam (who naturally then meets his match in Celia). Instead, Dorothea opts for the ridiculous but scholarly Casaubon.
       Casaubon is the caricature of the amateur scholar, working on a mammoth Key to all Mythologies. The man seems good enough, in some Christian way, but he is as dry and dusty as the books he consults. One of the reasons he marries Dorothea is the expectation that this "would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary". He is also the sort of man who -- as Eliot notes in a rare parenthetical observation -- "always said 'my love' when his manner was coldest". Dodo tries her best, but it is clear from the beginning that this isn't going to work out well.
       Matters are complicated by Casaubon's relative, Will Ladislaw. Will comes from the (mysteriously) disgraced part of the family. Dorothea is friendly towards him, but Casaubon can barely stand him and only does what is apparently his duty. Eventually, Casaubon becomes very jealous of Will as well, as there is an obvious mutual attraction between Will and his wife. It leads also to Casaubon adding a nasty codicil to his will, to prevent Dorothea and Will marrying.
       Even Eliot apparently couldn't stand Casaubon much, and she does away with him soon enough. Dorothea finds herself widowed -- and wealthy -- at age twenty-one. But Casaubon's shadow still hangs over her for a while. She does good works, but it takes a while for her heart and spirit to find complete fulfillment.
       Dorothea is a good soul, using her money to help others, conceiving grand projects for the betterment of humanity (or at least Middlemarch). She says: "I should like to make life beautiful -- I mean everybody's life." Still, she is too good for her own good, and takes most things quite too seriously. Near the end, when things look fairly bleak, Celia wonders what all has happened:
       "Oh, all the troubles of all people on the face of the earth," said Dorothea, lifting her arms to the back of her head.
       "Dear me, Dodo, are you going to have a scheme for them ?" said Celia
       Which pretty well sums up the two sisters.
       Everyone -- except Dorothea -- recognizes that she shouldn't marry Casaubon. The poor man seems her ideal -- scholarly, devoted to doing greater things -- making her blind to what a boring, mediocre figure he actually is. Returning to their residence, Lowick Manor, after their pseudo-honeymoon in Rome (most of which Casaubon spends pursuing his "work"), Dorothea sees that "the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase looked more like immovable imitations of books", and indeed in this house all passion, all imagination is paralyzed. But, at least, her pain (i.e. Casaubon) is short-lived.
       Ladislaw is a different beast altogether -- a free spirit, interested in the arts. Art troubles Dorothea; she doesn't believe she understands it. And she thinks also that it "seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world." (In a sense the lesson Dorothea needs to -- and, to some extent, does -- learn is that art is all and that it is art, of all things, that makes life better for the world.)
       Ladislaw is a flighty character. Eliot noticeably describes him often, perhaps never quite sure herself of who she means him to be. Casaubon speaks of his "desultory vivacity", Mrs. Cadwallader sees him as "a sort of Byronic hero", Lydgate finds him "rather miscellaneous and bric-à-brac", and so on. He acts unusually -- playing with the local children, stretching out on the floor if it so pleases him, etc. And he is, of course, attracted to Dorothea -- and he knows her better than she knows herself (at least at the beginning), pinning her down exactly:
I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery and want to make your life into a martyrdom.
       Ladislaw is very open, generally speaking his mind (in this he -- like Celia and the delightful Mary Garth -- is among the more sympathetic characters). Still, he stands out oddly in this decorous (i.e. close-mouthed) society. And he can be a whiner too: "I suppose one gets a habit of doing without happiness or hope", he tells Dorothea, playing the sympathy card much too hard.
       Will they or won't they is, of course, one of the novel's big questions, though Eliot seems to get a bit bored with it after a while.

       Another story-line is also very prominent: that of the "very intellectual and clever" doctor, Lydgate, new to town and also with grand ambitions. Intellectualism is, of course, a curse, especially in provincial Middlemarch, and Lydgate promptly lives up to type. He also marries incorrectly, wedding Rosamond who is, unfortunately, also clever in her own way. Rosamond's fancy tastes and expectations and Lydgate's sense of honour and limited means are a recipe for disaster. By the end poor Rosamond finds: "her married life had fulfilled none of her hopes and had been quite spoiled for her imagination." Ah, yes, life's a bitch -- though it's always helped along if you're one too.
       (Interestingly, Lydgate -- like Dorothea -- expresses an inability to enjoy (or even just deal with) the artistic experience: "Oh, I read not literature now" Eliot has him say; "I read so much when I was a lad that I suppose it will last me all my life." How very wrong he is; arguably all his troubles -- and his whole misguided outlook on life (at least the life of those times and that place) -- can be attributed with his unwillingness to consider art.)
       Lydgate and Rosamond's marriage is best summed up by how they react to their troubles: "He did not speak to her on the subject, and of course she could not speak to him." Which is, of course, an ideal way to make everyone's life miserable.
       These silences and a general unwillingness to share information and speak one's mind are far too prevalent in the novel. (Tellingly, the honest, open-mouthed folk -- Ladislaw, Celia, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, and some others -- fare far and away better than all the secretive, buttoned-up souls. And when one of them -- Mary -- is burdened with a big secret, it conveniently turns out to be completely inconsequential.) There are a few big secrets, including some around banker Bulstrode that eventually touch nearly everyone in the book. This dreadfully annoying literary device was, of course, in full flower when Eliot wrote Middlemarch, but it is still no excuse. Matters aren't helped by the fact that she doesn't use the secrets to ideal purpose, unfolding them somewhat clumsily (and, we repeat, dreadfully annoyingly). It is the most artificial aspect of an otherwise very realistic novel.

       There are other plot lines as well: rich man Featherstone and the terms of his will(s), the wooing of Mary Garth, local politics (including the coming of the railroad), and other events. The novel does provide a fair "study of provincial life" at the time -- though Eliot doesn't manage to keep the focus on many of the matters. In fact, the book seems often to drift literally out of focus.
       Still, there is a great deal here, including many engaging characters and stories. The book is fully populated, and several of the minor characters are particular successes (while a few others are simply too simply presented). Mary Garth is a nice presence, and the scene in which Farebrother speaks to her on behalf of Fred (with the realization only slowly dawning on her that he too is a suitor) is among the most touching in the book.
       Eliot has some strange lapses in the book. Her priorities are odd: marriage, that meeting of minds and melding of souls, is a major concern throughout, but some of its consequences only remarked upon in the most offhanded manner. So, for example, she writes of troubled Dorothea
Books were of no use. Thinking was of no use. It was Sunday, and she could not have the carriage to go to Celia, who had lately had a baby.
       That is the first mention of Celia's child -- an event surely worthy of greater attention. But children, babies especially, don't fare well in this book: they are hardly worth mentioning, and most arrive only incidentally (or in fact after the story itself is largely over, in the summing up of the finale-chapter). There are a few fairly happy families (the Garths, in particular), but for the most part "family" isn't an ideal Eliot much cares for: Dodo and Celia are orphans -- and Dorothea manages to get herself widowed before she can really start a family of her own, Ladislaw's (and Casaubon's) family is hardly exemplary, Rosamond and Lydgate fail miserably at starting a family, and so on.
       The airy idealism of Dorothea and Lydgate is also annoying. They both mean to do good for the world -- and they do, applying themselves to many commendable endeavours -- but they are also apart from this world, too locked in their high and mighty intellectual spheres. Writing of Lydgate Eliot allows:
Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life -- the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it -- can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing, soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances.
       By which point readers of course think this guy fully deserves whatever comeuppance he has coming.

       Middlemarch is a grand book -- albeit one with many faults. There are several stories here that could be at the center of a novel -- and Eliot seems unable to choose between them, presenting instead a sometimes uncomfortable mix of foci. She also wants to present a broader canvas, of Middlemarch-provincial life as a whole, but fails here too because she isn't willing to commit to that the focus of her book either. Still, most of her characters and their stories are very strong, and there are almost no lulls over the 800 pages of the book. There is also a considerable amount of often sly humour, which adds to the enjoyment of the text.
       Middlemarch is a classic, and still well worth reading. Henry James was perhaps correct in his diagnosis when he wrote:
It sets a limit, we think, to the development of the old-fashioned English novel.

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Links:

Middlemarch: Reviews: Middlemarch - the TV series: George Eliot: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans Cross) was born 22 November 1819 and died 22 December 1880. She was an assistant editor for the Westminster Review and wrote several classic novels.

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