What can I say about this great novel, that hasn’t been said before? This is a rich, subtle, timeless masterpiece that has delighted many, including me. On re-reading this recently, I wondered whether any sub-text was intended in Virginia Woolf’s famous description of Middlemarch as “one of the few English novels written for grown-ups”.
For me, “grown-ups” is the word children use to describe adults. So Woolf makes me think of Eliot’s famous opus major as a novel that is written for adults, who describe children thinking about adults – are you following me? Which kind of works for Middlemarch. Because a lot of it is about the passions, ambitions and doubts you may have a young person and how these all play out in a world where older adults hold sway and essentially, here, hold you back.
And of course Middlemarch itself, the time, place and social mores it embraces, plays a fundamental role in the story. Gossip – that particular form of communication which contains a potentially lethal mix of prejudice and malice brings at least two main characters down in the novel. They are evaluated against Middlemarch standards, found wanting by Middlemarch folk and are effectively exiled from Middlemarch. Dorotea, probably the main heroine (and let us then consider Lydgate to be the main hero) finds her home town mentally and socially oppressive for much of the novel. Other characters find happiness there, notably in the form of a good wife and a good job.
And the mass of Midllemarchers, drawn against the background of electoral reform, social change (evidenced for instance by the new hospital) are the key dramatis personae. They live in Middlemarch and they are Middlemarch. Even if a relatively small number of them are described in any detail, you can certainly put a face on Mr Trumball the auctioneer and Mrs Dollop of the Tankard and all the others. They stand for a mixture of convention, tradition, bigotry, resistance to change and also pragmatism, commerce, “respectability”.
Feeling stifled in one’s home town is a theme that can certainly resonate with many of us. Leaving home, going to university, on a trip or for a new job, these are surely momentous events for anyone. And the description of the impatience and sheer boredom that precedes these life changing moves can surely be found in Middlemarch. I loved it for that, for the way Eliot describes her main protagonists’ journey in Middlemarch, because journey it is, even if some never stir beyond its boundaries.