Middlemarch by George Eliot

May 8, 2015

Book review of Middlemarch by George EliotI had no intention of reading Middlemarch.

Several years ago, I remember Mike telling me that I should read it. Apparently, it was a casual acquaintance's favorite book. That wasn't much of a trusted recommendation, but I briefly considered it. However, when I saw the length, I tucked it away indefinitely. I love to read, but long books are still daunting because I know I'm going to give up weeks, maybe even months, when I could be reading something else.

So really, I had no plans to read Middlemarch.

But then at the beginning of the year, I made the goal to "Read two classics by female authors." I was thinking of Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf or Anne Brontë, but then one of my friends reminded me that George Eliot was actually a pen name for Mary Ann Evans. This same friend also said that if I read Middlemarch, then she would read it too, and then we could discuss it afterwards.

I just can't resist checking off a goal and having someone to discuss a book with. So without quite realizing what I was getting myself into, I checked out the audio from the library.

That was three and a half months ago. This book consumed nearly a third of this year. And was it worth it? Well, read on and decide for yourself.

The story is set in Middlemarch, a fictional town in central England. Although the cast of characters is quite large, the plot mainly focuses on two people: Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. Interestingly, the two of them actually have very little interaction with each other until the end of the novel. Dorothea is intelligent, pious, and even a little self-righteous (provoking Will Ladislaw to say at one point, "I believe that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery"). All she really wants is to make a little bit of a difference in the world. So when Reverend Edward Casaubon (who is something like 20 years older than she is) asks her to marry him, she accepts (even though at the age of 18, she is not even close to desperate, plus she already has another offer from the dashing Sir James Chettam). Her younger sister, Celia, can't imagine what would drive her to such a decision, which leads to one of my favorite conversations in the whole book (between Celia and Mrs. Cadwallader):
"I am so sorry for Dorothea."
"Sorry! It is her doing, I suppose."
"Yes. She says Mr. Casaubon has a great soul."
"With all my heart!"
"Oh, Mrs. Cadwallader. I don't think it can be nice to marry a man with a great soul."
"Well, my dear, take warning. You know the look of one now. When the next comes and wants to marry you, don't you accept him."
"I'm sure I never should."
"No. One such in a family is enough."
Anyway, true to Celia's fears, that marriage proves to be a disaster from the start, but meanwhile, Dr. Tertius Lydgate moves to Middlemarch. He is a young doctor and just getting started in his practice. He is similar to Dorothea in that he has high ambitions for his life, feels a strong loyalty to his profession, and intends to improve the world, even if it means rocking Middlemarch's hierarchy and politics just a little bit.

A wrench is thrown into his plans, however, when local beauty, Rosamond Vincy, falls for him. Before long, they are married, but Rosamond is unprepared to accept the meager salary of a young, struggling doctor, and their marriage is soon on shaky ground as well.

That little summary introduces you to the main characters, but it does not even begin to scratch the surface of what this novel is about (nor does it introduce you to my favorite couple, Fred Vincy and Mary Garth). I don't think it's possible for me to condense an epic novel into a few paragraphs, and I don't think that's what you came here for anyway.

If you've read Middlemarch, first of all, congrats, and second, let's go out for lunch and discuss it.

And if you haven't read it, well then, you're probably wondering if you should read it. Is this a classic that should be required reading for every single person on the planet?

Hmmmm . . . I'm going to say, no.

That's not because I didn't like it, and it's not because I didn't find a great deal of value in it. It's just that it took three and a half months to finish, and I'm not sure it was worth the sacrifice. A few weeks ago, I was at book club with the same friend who had agreed to read it with me. I told her I was on disc 18, and "it was finally picking up." And then I thought, Did you hear what you just said?! You've listened to over twenty hours, and it's just now becoming interesting?! There's something wrong with that.

That assessment wasn't entirely true. I hadn't found the whole thing up to that point uninteresting, but enough that it was feeling like a bit of a slog to get through. The question that I kept asking myself was, "If the ending is amazing, will the rest of the book have been worth it?"

George Eliot was a contemporary to Charles Dickens (the first installment of Middlemarch was published just a year after his death), and their novels follow similar structures. I've learned from the Dickens' novels I've read that the set up is worth it. You invest the time to get to know the characters and their secrets and then the ending brings everything together in a miraculous sort of way.

So that's what I was expecting to have happen in Middlemarch. And to a certain extent, that's what did happen. It was easy for me to finish the book. The tension between Rosamond and Lydgate was palpable. Their arguments were so real, I felt like someone could lift them straight out of the story and drop them into a modern novel and no one would guess they were written in 1870. And then there were Bulstrode's secrets (the most Dickenish part of the story for sure--you can't convince me Raffles wasn't actually one of Dickens' creations). And of course, how could I not love Will Ladislaw's tumultuous, but yet tender, passion?

So I'm torn. It is brilliant. I can see why it is on so many people's favorite lists, but . . . I don't think it will go on mine. I loved the characters and the commentary on marriage (so insightful!). And I found many of the passages to be worthy of being written down and remembered. But the middle was unforgivably tedious for me, and I'm just realizing that if I ever wanted to reread this book (and I believe if a book is a "favorite,"then of course you will want to reread it), I'd have to go through that again, and I don't think it would be worth it. One time, yes. A second time, probably not.

My experience reminded me of something that was said about Ladislaw's and Dorothea's relationship: "But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope." Sometimes listening to this book felt like despair (usually when I was trying to listen to it when my kids were awake--always a big mistake), but really that despair was only the "painful eagerness of unfed hope." I hoped it was going to get interesting. I hoped the ending was going to be amazing. I hoped things were going to work out for the best for all of the characters.

And, for the most part, all my hopes were fulfilled.

Tell me: Have you read Middlemarch? Are you glad you did? Who is your favorite character(s)? And what was the hardest part for you to get through (mine was when Mr. Brooke was running for a position in Parliament)?


  1. Yep, I read Middlemarch back in high school (for fun, it was not assigned reading). I actually remember toting this behemoth around on a family vacation to New York, which probably says something about my level of antisocial nerdiness, but anyway, I think I had a reaction similar to yours, in that I'm glad I read it, though I would not recommend it as "essential" reading. It was a very rewarding experience, but yes, some of it was very hard to get through (I struggled with Casaubon, everything about him). I'd forgotten a lot about this book, so it was fun to read your review and remember things that I really loved about this book. It really is so good, even though I probably won't ever reread it. I also remember watching a movie version of this book that was pretty good (the movie cut out a lot of the unnecessary stuff), but totally messed up on the climatic scene between Ladislaw and Dorotea.

  2. I started Middlemarch several years ago but eventually gave up because I just couldn't get into it. Despite that experience and despite your less than stellar review, I'm still determined to read it...at some point. Like you, unless I'm super excited about a long book I'm always hesitant to dive into something too long because I know I'll have to put other things on hold.

  3. I've started having a short book time for books I want to think about. So when I first go to bed I read that book, but during the day and when I'm running about I can read fun stuff. So I get to read classics, but at a forced slow pace which means I have time to think about it. My current slow read is Dead Man Walking

    Oh, I have read Middlemarch, I liked it but I don't think I'll reread it because it took so long to grab me. (Much like War and Peace, which also really gets good after the first few hundred pages of set up.)


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