Tag: Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Posted December 17, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 4 Comments

Middlemarch by George EliotTitle: Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (Goodreads)
Author: George Eliot
Published: Penguin, 1872
Pages: 880
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Hardcover

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life was George Eliot’s seventh novel and was originally published in a serial from 1871-72. Set in a fictional town, this novel follows a wide range of characters in interlocking narratives that really do allow the reader to study the provincial life of Middlemarch. As this is broken into eight “books” it would be difficult to summarise the plot and even write a review that could do this book justice. Instead I am going to write down some thoughts and observations I found while reading Middlemarch.

First of all, I think it is beneficial to know a little about George Eliot; an understanding of her life helps put a lot of this novel into perspective. Most people know George Eliot is a pen name for Mary Ann Evans, she used the pseudonym to keep her private life from public scrutiny, as she was in a relationship with a married man, George Henry Lewes with whom she was living with. She picked a male nom de plume to escape the stereotypes placed on woman writers, this allowed her to offer a social critic without being judged on her gender. Raised as an Anglican, Mary Ann struggled with religious doubts and eventually became an atheist. As a young woman (before her relationship with George Henry Lewes), her father threatened to throw her out of the house due to her non-belief, but they seemed to come to a compromise. Mary Ann continued to attend church with her father until he passed away to keep him happy, even if she didn’t believe in a God anymore.

This is a very tiny glimpse at Mary Ann Evans but I wanted to share that information about her as it ties into common themes found throughout Middlemarch. The themes I am talking about here are gossip, marriage, femininity and religion. Living in Victorian England may not be too different to now (people like to gossip), Mary Ann would have been the subject of plenty of gossip and in a small town like Middlemarch it feels like the primary source of information. Throughout this novel, information is continuously being conveyed from an indirect party. George Eliot satirises the idea of gossip by continuously having other characters speak on someone else’s behalf to avoid direct communication. While others will avoid conversations believing that any relevant information will eventually make its way to them. These ideas of gossip feel like Eliot is poking fun at how gossip is used, however as a social commentary it is spot on.

I love what George Eliot has to say on the ideas of courtship and marriage and this is one of the most important parts of the novel. In Middlemarch marriage is never an end result, the happily ever after ending literary trope. While some people do end up being happy, there are plenty of unhappy marriages within the novel. Mary Ann’s lover George Henry Lewes was trapped in an unhappy marriage which he couldn’t get out of and this seems to be the basis of relationships within Middlemarch. There is this exploration of the idea of courtship, and it begs the reader to question these ideas. There are a lot of thoughts on how well we can really know someone before marriage; playing with ideas on being an outsider, deception and even intimacy. Each marriage within Middlemarch is different and it allows the reader to explore these unions as part of a social construct.

While there was a huge focus on marriage within Middlemarch there still were a few unwed woman within the novel. There are well educated women with the book that sometimes appear to be happier than the woman trapped in marriage. Eliot wanted to depict woman as strong individuals who have something to offer the world other than just being wives and mothers. The women in the book are often great and complex personalities but then Eliot plays with the ideas of suppressing themselves for men and the role they play in society. There is some social conditioning within the book but ultimately I kept seeing this idea of women having the ability to make social change.

Finally I want to talk about religion and spirituality; this is an interesting theme that steams from Mary Ann’s own life. I suspect sitting in a church listening to someone talk about a God she didn’t believe in made her think a lot about spirituality and organised religion. I haven’t used any examples but in this case I want to compare Dorothea with Mr Bulstrode. Dorothea has this internal and private spiritual life, the depiction of this is somewhat vague in the novel. This is because as an outsider she doesn’t come across as a spiritual person but internally it is an intimate part of her life. While Mr Bulstrode is portrayed as someone who is more public about his religious beliefs. While not always hypocritical he has a warped opinion; he believes his previous transgressions are part of the providential plan but will openly condemn others for their past misdeeds. Throughout Middlemarch, religion and spirituality is explored in different way and it is interesting to compare it with the ideas of morality within the novel.

There are so many different themes I can talk about, including money, education, vocations, social classes and even self-delusion but that would drag this on too much. I read Middlemarch with the aid of a reading guide called Eliot’s Middlemarch by Josie Billington and I did this because there is so much to offer within this novel I wanted to get as much as I could from the book. This is a smart and intelligent social commentary and I got the sense that there was no wasted moments within the book despite the fact it was 880 pages long. I dipped in and out of this novel for six months and I am glad I choose to read it in this way; it allowed me to ponder what I read before moving on. It is the type of book you need to spend a lot of time with and written in a way that allows you to dip in and out.

I haven’t even talked about the writing or style of Middlemarch and that is probably the most important part. There is a slight detachment within the style, this is probably because the novel is a form of social criticism; a study of provincial life. Having said that, I found Middlemarch very funny; the satirical irony and wit played a big part for me, but you could also say this is a morbid book. The style of the book is psychological, erudite and extremely elegant; I often felt myself being swept away with the writing but still fascinated by the insightfulness.

It is hard to explain how much I loved this book; this a realistic depiction of Victorian life and George Eliot displays a real mastery on human nature. However, even though it sounds like it is nothing but a psychological look at society, Eliot is able to make you feel like you are a part of the story. I am sure you can read this book as just a beautiful Victorian classic but I picked up this book for the social criticism. If you do want to get more out of this book then I recommend Josie Billington’s reading guide Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is the type of book I will need to frequently return to throughout my life and see what I get out of it with a re-read.