I finally finished Middlemarch a little over a week ago. I started it around the same time I finished Lolita, which was…over a month ago? I think so. After the vulgarity and intimacy of Lolita, I wanted something to clean my palate. The rigorous civility and propriety of George Eliot’s nineteenth century provincial English society was perfect.
Mary Ann Evans, the woman behind the pseudonym “George Eliot,” actually ignored the propriety by which most of her characters abide– she was an object of scandal. In 1854, she and George Henry Lewes, a philosopher and critic, decided to live together, having met three years earlier. The catch was that Lewes was already married. According to Wikipedia (which I admit that I used to find the particulars of Evans’ affair), extramarital affairs weren’t at all uncommon in the Victorian era, unsurprisingly. What was uncommon was that Evans and Lewes publicly acknowledged the quality of their relationship.
A while ago I was reading a Brontë biography that discussed the sisters’ decision to use pseudonyms. All three were attached to their anonymity, and Charlotte didn’t come out to her public until Anne and Emily had both already died and could no longer be affected by exposure. Generally, when women use a male pseudonym, the modern reading public assumes that they needed to assume a male identity to be published. For both Eliot and the Brontës, this is only partly true. By the Victorian era, women were being published under their own names. The Brontë sisters chose anonymity for the sake of public reputation. They were the conservative daughters of a clergyman, and any variety of publicity would have been indecent.
In discussing the Brontës’ identities as Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell, the biographer (I’m sorry I don’t remember what the book was. I was browsing at the library) brought up George Eliot, particularly because her pseudonym did not act as a buffer against publicity, or more accurately, notoriety. Mary Ann Evans became a scandalous figure, and she experienced the ostracisation that the Brontës wanted to avoid.
Why the pseudonym, then? Because Mary Ann Evans didn’t want to be trapped into the box of light fiction that women had carved out for themselves by the time she was writing. She wanted to write and to be read seriously.
Middlemarch is beautiful in that it perfectly walks the line between the serious and lighthearted. It’s sheer scope is incredible; if a picture paints only a thousand words, this novel is equal to a gallery.
Now, I would never call Jane Austen “light fiction.” She can be read as such, solely for the entertainment value, and I’m sure that experience is very pleasurable. As an academic, though, I would never constrain any of her writing to mere entertainment. In comparison with Middlemarch, however, Pride and Prejudice does seem very limited. There are fewer characters and fewer settings, and the plot doesn’t require nearly so much effort to keep in line. Please bear in mind that P & P is one of my favourite novels. Middlemarch is astonishing in a completely different way. Eliot runs the gamut of classes, introducing her reader to the landlords, the knighted gentlemen, the discontent tenant farmers and the merchants’ daughters. There are doctors and bankers and horse salesmen. The picture painted is so complete and so detailed that at some point in the novel, it was as if the gossip had become my own.
My mother was initially under the impression that I didn’t enjoy Middlemarch, because every couple hundred pages I would celebrate how much closer I was to the end. I suppose from an outsider’s point of view, it did look like I wanted to be through with it. With a novel of that size, though, it just felt like such a feat to get through a chunk of it. It’s impossible to read Middlemarch only ten pages at a time, in my opinion. Besides the fact that you’d never finish, the story is so interwoven and complex, the ideas discussed are so expansive and intricate, that it would be impossible to feel the full effect reading it piecemeal.
I realise this is turning into a ramble. I’m going to press on, though, and explain how, contrary to the impression I gave my mother, I slowly but surely fell in love with the world that George Eliot conjures.
One aspect of literature that has often confounded me is that of quotations. I generally don’t understand where they come from– how does someone take a work and find those nuggets that can stand alone and still contain a world of thought behind them? I can sometimes pick out passages to love, like the luncheon scene in A Room of One’s Own, but never before have I managed to find a single quotation that popped out at me as I read.
In Middlemarch, I found them. I found those instances of pure wit and wisdom that made me pause and read them aloud, regardless of whether or not anyone else was in the room. What struck me was the incredible relevance of characters and situations placed 150 years ago. There’s this wonderful moment when Eliot is describing Rosamond’s budding infatuation with Lydgate, the new doctor come to town. Lydgate had already become a standard guest in the Vincys’ household when he stays away for ten days, and Rosamond descends into the depths of despair. I would have accepted this as totally plausible, but then Eliot pauses, and remarks on it. She informs her reader that if they think it’s ridiculous for Rosamond to react so violently in so short a time, they should be aware that in cases of young love ten days is an eternity.
I laughed out loud when I read that, because it rang so true. Currently, I’m sitting in bed and chatting with a friend as I type this, and she hasn’t heard from her guy in a couple hours. We’re considering lesbianism as a potential solution to the inability of the other sex to do better.
It’s those moments of such genuine angst and emotion that make me love Middlemarch. It’s the moments where Will Ladislaw worries that a simple instance of awkwardness ruins his relationship with Dorothea irreparably, or the million times that Mr. Brooke tells us that “it’s possible to go too far in these things.” George Eliot captures not only the social and economic breadth of nineteenth century provincial England, but also the depth and variety of human emotion and character. Middlemarch is astounding because in the wide cast of characters Eliot makes use of, she offers every one of us a looking glass in which we can find our own reflections.