by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Middlemarch began publication on this day in 1871 — the first volume of eight issued, the other volumes appearing at regular intervals over the following year. Eliot's "Study of Provincial Life" was immediately popular, on both sides of the Atlantic. It is among my favorite novels ever since I first read it more than thirty years ago. I have reread it several times since then and my enjoyment has always increased. I find the intelligence of Eliot shines through on every page, from her heroine, Dorothea Brooke, to the epigraphs for each chapter.
Dorothea is introduced in Chapter One as a beauty in a plain dress, the dress the product of "well-bred economy," of knowing "frippery as the ambition of a huckster's daughter," and of her aspirations for some higher perspective:
She could not reconcile the anxieties of a spiritual life involving eternal consequences, with a keen interest in gimp and artificial protrusions of drapery. Her mind was theoretic, and yearned by its nature after some lofty conception of the world which might frankly include the parish of Tipton and her own rule of conduct there; she was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it. Certainly such elements in the character of a marriageable girl tended to interfere with her lot, and hinder it from being decided according to custom, by good looks, vanity, and merely canine affection.
Perhaps my enjoyment of the novel is because, as Virginia Woolf famously commented: "Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people." It certainly is that and much more. It is a "A Study of Provincial Life," pursued by Eliot with a very broad canvas that includes multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic in the best way possible from the perspective of this reader. Another earlier reader, Emily Dickinson, offered biblical praise as can be seen in the following excerpt from an 1873 letter:
""What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?" What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot is one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the "mysteries of redemption," for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite…."
Middlemarch by George Eliot. Penguin Classics, New York. 2003 (1871)