It’s described as a classic and I have had it said to me (when I’ve said that I’m reading it) “Oh, now that’s a good book” – and I won’t deny that at points I’ve felt tempted to answer “is it?”. I suppose, as always, that depends on your definition of a good book. With hindsight and careful consideration I think I would go so far as to say that Middlemarch is a good book, but I would not say that it is without fault. Perhaps the style it is written in might have been more easily interpreted in its day, however, I won’t deny that I found Eliot’s style of writing rather ‘exclusive’ and superior – it’s prose for intellectuals. Some might consider this a good thing, but I can’t understand how any mode of writing which prohibits its being understood by all who could be cheered and affected by it can be good. It reminds me in many ways of academic texts which I pored over while at uni, and they too seemed to be written to deliberately exclude the understanding of all.
But, I have been very critical, and Middlemarch does have a great deal to recommend it. The story, or should that be stories, are real moral tales which show a great understanding of human nature and the motives that drive and restrain us. It also provides a very complete and real picture of life in 19th century England – although only, it must be said, for a certain rank of people. Despite touching upon the same sort of society as Austen, Eliot’s novel is – in my opinion – barely comparable. To see what two different female authors can create of a similar setting and period (Middlemarch is set just a little over fifteen years later than Pride and Prejudice’s publication) has interested me whilst reading Middlemarch. It can’t be denied that Middlemarch does directly address and comment upon the politics of the age in which its story is set, something which Austen has been greatly criticised for ignoring; however, I have to question what exactly this reference to the politics of the time does to enhance Middlemarch. The lives of the characters seem to pass untouched and unaffected by them because of their rank and means. Eliot does provide us with snapshots of the harder lives of Mr Brooke’s tenants and the farm labourers of Lowick, but they are not the characters which her novel is mainly concerned with. Dorothea is imbued with an innate and Christian desire to improve the lives of those around her, however, in Middlemarch‘s ‘Finale’ we are not informed of the conditions of Mr Brooke’s tenants, merely of the futures of the novel’s more wealthy characters. But I have rambled away from my point, which is that though Eliot’s novel is widely held up as being less trivial and introverted than Austen’s (and, therefore, a more serious novel), I can’t say that its referring to politics and the wider world does anything to make the story being told more important or valuable.
The real value of Middlemarch lies, just as in Austen, in its characters and the way they choose to live their lives. Their moral compasses and how they meet the challenges that life throws at them. Middlemarch is a story that teaches you; I’ve heard it said that it’s a ‘book to live your life by’ – and I concede that through seeing the faults and vices of Middlemarch’s inhabitants you are forced to see your own weaknesses rendered ugly in another. A sobering lesson for anyone; and Middlemarch does have so very many characters who have so very many faults that I think it would be a rare reader who did not see something of their own flaws in one of them.
Will I be reading Middlemarch again? No, I don’t think so. Am I glad that I have read it? Yes, undoubtedly. Would I recommend it? Not to everyone, it’s an acquired taste. Middlemarch is a book for those who have an appreciation of moralistic writing, an understanding of high-brow prose, and who find people’s flaws intriguing. You can learn a lot from this book, but you pay for this knowledge with time and much effort.
As for me? Well, I don’t intend to take on quite such a long book this time. I move on to Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.