Thursday, 29 March 2018

A Classic I Actually Enjoyed (Middlemarch by George Eliot)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/271276.Middlemarch
5 Stars

"Where women love each other, men learn to smother their mutual dislike." - George Eliot, Middlemarch, page 837

At first I wasn't sure whether to give this four or five stars, but then I realised that if I was having that dilemma after 838 pages it probably deserved five.

I think part of the reason I enjoyed Middlemarch so much is because it reads like a modern novel. Usually in Victorian novels, the women are flawless angels or dead by the end. The men have a little more leeway, but a flawed man who is not supposed to be the villain is usually redeemed through marriage to a good woman.

Middlemarch does things differently.

The characters feel like real people with dreams, and flaws, and aspirations. They change and grow over time too. Sometimes (like in Dorothea's case) the things they want out of life change with them. 

This is a difficult novel to condense down because there's so much in it - it effectively follows the entire town of Middlemarch - but it does have three major romance plotlines which take up a great deal of space and which the finale goes out of its way to follow up on: Fred and Mary, Lydgate and Rosamond, and Dorothea, Casaubon, and Will. This is the first classic I've read where the romance has pulled me in and made me root for the characters to get together. I found the novel as a whole extremely romantic, even though it as focused on the practicalities of marriage at the time as it is on attraction. Let's take a look at the romance plotlines in a bit more detail.

Fred Vincy and Mary Garth

I mentioned above that men in Victorian novels are usually redeemed through marriage to good women. It's the reformed rake trope. Usually, they're redeemed from being shameless flirts. Fred Vincy is not a flirt, in fact he never shows interest in another woman, but he is an idle rich gambler. Mary Garth, on the other hand, is a sensible girl with a good work ethic. I love Mary. I did from the start, because I've never read another female character like her in Victorian literature. She's cutting, she's sarcastic, she's opinionated, and she's still presented as an extremely attractive marriage prospect. Fred and Mary have been friends since childhood, but Mary will not marry him so long as he's aimless and idle. Rather than the act of marriage being the moment of redemption (magically, with no effort on the man's part), Fred has to actively work to redeem himself. 

I'm not going to tell you if he succeeds or not.

Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy

These two are perfect for each other. I mean, they're not, that's the entire point of their plotline, but they're both horrible people so they deserve each other. 

Okay, horrible might be pushing it. Lydgate is arrogant, but he's a doctor interested in medical reform. He's actively trying to help people. Rosamond is prone to fantasising (which is how she gets into this mess of a relationship in the first place), and the narrative makes a point of informing us that she was top of her class in finishing school. On both sides, there entire relationship is formed through them falling in love with an idea. Lydgate thinks Rosamond is docile, and refined, and naive. She's actually extremely stubborn (I love that about her) and she always finds a way to get her way. Rosamond, meanwhile, is interested in Lydgate because he's not from Middlemarch, and his cousins are gentry. 

Towards the end, I got the feeling that Lydgate would have been better off with Dorothea because they have similar aspirations and attitudes to the world.

Dorothea, Casaubon, and Will

It's not a spoiler that Dorothea marries Casaubon. It's literally in the blurb. Dorothea is a fascinating character because she wants to do so much good, but she's limited in part by the fact that she's a woman. By marrying Casaubon, she thinks she can help him bring his knowledge to fruition and send it off into the world. Unfortunately, Casaubon is a terrible human being. He's a lot older than Dorothea, so they have different worldviews. Will Ladislaw is his nephew. The attraction between Will and Dorothea is both the most interesting and the most romantic part of the novel.

Outside of romance, there are plotlines about inheritence, religious hypocrisy, work, finance, medical reform, and politics. There are a lot of politics in this novel, ranging from Lydgate siding with Bulstrode to keep his favour to Mr Brooke running for election. It really struck me when I realised, halfway through the novel, that George Eliot wouldn't have been allowed to vote. 

This is a long novel, but it's definitely worth the read. 


Which classics have you actually enjoyed?