Life is the Thing

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Recently I decided to reread George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2). Half a lifetime had passed since my first reading. I remembered how satisfying I had found the book then; now I wondered how I would find it thirty-five years later. Rereading a favourite book can be perilous. Whatever the poet says, one can never quite recapture that ‘first fine, careless rapture’. And of course I am not the same person today as I was then.

When I first read Middlemarch I was 30, living in a basement flat in King’s Cross and pursuing a career in publishing. I thought of myself as mature, though this notion amuses me now. I had been married for five years – indeed, I think it was my late wife who urged me to read it, along with Anna Karenina, Our Mutual Friend and a number of other masterpieces that had somehow eluded me during my ill-spent youth. I remember feeling glad I had not discovered the book before, because (so I believed) it would not have meant so much to me at an earlier stage in life. Middlemarch, I decided, was a novel about the challenges of adulthood: work and marriage. Though I did not realize it then, the very title of the novel alludes to the middle of life’s journey. This is surely what Virginia Woolf meant when she described Middlemarch as ‘one of the very few English novels written for grown-up people’.

Middlemarch is also the name of a place, the town in the English Midlands (and its surrounding countryside) where the novel is set, during the years leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832. The novel is subtitled ‘A Study in Provincial Life’, and in its pages Eliot shows us the whole of Middlemarch society, from farmer to squire, maid to mayor, banker to barmaid. This is a society both responding to and (more often) resisting pressure for change – not only from the campaign for political reform, but also from the burgeoning evangelical movement, the inexorable progress of

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Recently I decided to reread George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–2). Half a lifetime had passed since my first reading. I remembered how satisfying I had found the book then; now I wondered how I would find it thirty-five years later. Rereading a favourite book can be perilous. Whatever the poet says, one can never quite recapture that ‘first fine, careless rapture’. And of course I am not the same person today as I was then.

When I first read Middlemarch I was 30, living in a basement flat in King’s Cross and pursuing a career in publishing. I thought of myself as mature, though this notion amuses me now. I had been married for five years – indeed, I think it was my late wife who urged me to read it, along with Anna Karenina, Our Mutual Friend and a number of other masterpieces that had somehow eluded me during my ill-spent youth. I remember feeling glad I had not discovered the book before, because (so I believed) it would not have meant so much to me at an earlier stage in life. Middlemarch, I decided, was a novel about the challenges of adulthood: work and marriage. Though I did not realize it then, the very title of the novel alludes to the middle of life’s journey. This is surely what Virginia Woolf meant when she described Middlemarch as ‘one of the very few English novels written for grown-up people’.

Middlemarch is also the name of a place, the town in the English Midlands (and its surrounding countryside) where the novel is set, during the years leading up to the Great Reform Act of 1832. The novel is subtitled ‘A Study in Provincial Life’, and in its pages Eliot shows us the whole of Middlemarch society, from farmer to squire, maid to mayor, banker to barmaid. This is a society both responding to and (more often) resisting pressure for change – not only from the campaign for political reform, but also from the burgeoning evangelical movement, the inexorable progress of scientific inquiry and the coming of the railways. Sometimes Eliot tells us what Middlemarch thinks, as if the town itself were a character in her story. ‘Nobody had anything to say against Mr Tyke, except that they could not bear him, and suspected him of cant.’ And as narrator Eliot too is an omnipresent companion, her pithy and often ironic commentary enlivening the narrative throughout. ‘When a man has seen the woman whom he would have chosen if he had intended to marry speedily,’ she observes at one point, ‘his remaining a bachelor will usually depend on her resolution rather than on his.’

Though charged with feeling, Middlemarch is almost the antithesis of a romantic novel. George Eliot herself poked fun at what she called ‘Silly Novels by Lady Novelists’: what she dubbed the ‘mind-and-millinery’ genre, in which the role of men is largely confined to admiring the ‘noble, lovely, and gifted heroine’, and in which the affairs of the world, being of little intrinsic interest, take place elsewhere. Such novels usually end happily in a wedding, when the heroine makes a splendid marriage to a handsome, wealthy and (most important) aristocratic man who adores her. By contrast, Middlemarch begins with a wedding, followed soon afterwards by another, both of which turn out badly. At the outset we are introduced to Dorothea Brooke, a serious young woman of independent means, whose plain dress serves only to emphasize her beauty. She and her sister are orphans, in the unreliable care of a bachelor uncle, a man ‘of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote’. Though intelligent and passionate, Dorothea is unworldly. ‘She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.’ Dorothea burns with a desire to do something worthwhile: ‘something she yearned for by which her life might be filled with action at once rational and ardent’.

Dorothea Brooke is a vividly drawn character – as well she might be, because (as I now appreciate) in her puritanical, priggish zeal she resembles Eliot herself as a young woman; so there is an element of self-mockery in the way in which the novelist portrays her heroine’s earnest naïveté. ‘The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it.’ Dorothea makes a disastrous choice of husband in the dried-up scholar Casaubon, who is indeed old enough to be her father. Everything about him is funereal. ‘I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with the dead,’ he tells her at their first meeting. When he outlines how he envisages their life together, his ‘frigid rhetoric’ is ‘as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook’. But Dorothea is blind to the warning signs.

Casaubon has long been planning a masterwork, a ‘Key to all Mythologies’. For Dorothea, the prospect of becoming his amanuensis in his grand design is alluring. Modern readers may not realize how urgent such a work would have seemed in the intellectual ferment of the mid-Victorian period, when heroic attempts were made to reconcile religion with science, and with discovery more generally. (Those who want to explore this further can read Colin Kidd’s fascinating monograph The World of Mr Casaubon.) But soon it becomes clear to Dorothea that Casaubon’s project is doomed. He does not read German, the language in which Biblical studies and the lost discipline of ‘mythography’ are most advanced. And Casaubon’s thinking has become stale. ‘What was fresh to her mind was worn out to his; and such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a kind of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.’

In parallel with Dorothea’s story is that of the idealistic young Dr Lydgate, who comes to Middlemarch with ambitions to make real advances in medical science and practice. Though not rich, he is well-born, and perhaps overconfident. ‘About his ordinary bearing there was a certain fling, a fearless expectation of success, a confidence in his own powers and integrity much fortified by contempt for petty obstacles or seductions of which he had had no experience.’

Middlemarch is suspicious of Lydgate’s innovations; and he finds his independence compromised by his association with the dissenting banker Bulstrode, who funds his hospital. At a critical moment, when Lydgate is facing ruin, he is saved by Dorothea’s intervention. She is the only person who believes in him. ‘What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?’ she asks at one point. Riding home afterwards, Lydgate reflects wonderingly on her qual-ities: ‘She seems to have what I never saw in any woman before – a fountain of friendship towards men – a man can make a friend of her.’

By this point Dorothea is a widow. She and Lydgate are well matched: there cannot be many readers of Middlemarch who have not wondered whether they are not destined for each other. Earlier Eliot has hinted at the possibility, when she refers to them as ‘kindred spirits in the same embroiled medium’. But it is not to be. Like Dorothea, Lydgate has made a bad marriage, to the pretty but shallow Rosamond Vincy, the mayor’s daughter, the subject of some of Eliot’s most satirical asides. ‘She was admitted to be the flower of Mrs Lemon’s school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female – even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage.’

Lydgate soon finds that she has mastered him. ‘There was gathering within him an amazed sense of his powerlessness over Rosamond. His superior knowledge and mental force, instead of being, as he had imagined, a shrine to consult on all occasions, was simply set aside on every practical question.’ She is extravagant and wilful. He finds himself trapped, with no time or energy to pursue the studies in which he had once felt such ‘a triumphant delight . . . and something like pity for those less lucky men who were not of his profession’. As Caleb Garth, one of the book’s most admirable characters, remarks, ‘marriage is a taming thing’. Lydgate’s dreams fade into bitterness and disappointment.

Perhaps he should have listened more attentively to his friend, the Reverend Farebrother, who reflects on the importance of choosing the right partner. ‘A good wife – a good unworldly woman – may really help a man, and keep him more independent.’ Farebrother knows just such a woman, Caleb Garth’s daughter Mary, and loves her; but she is in love with Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother, a careless spendthrift, in danger of wasting his prospects. It is Mary’s love for Fred that pulls him through, and makes a man of him. After they are married Mary writes a children’s book, which everyone in Middlemarch credits to Fred, since he, unlike her, has been to university: ‘In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.’ Here George Eliot is sharing a little joke with the reader, who will be aware that she is a woman writing books under a male pseudonym.

On my second reading of Middlemarch I was more conscious of (or perhaps I had not remembered) a feminist undertone running through the book. ‘Women were expected to have weak opinions,’ we are told early on, ‘but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on.’ And again: ‘a man’s mind – what there is of it – has always the advantage of being masculine . . . even his ignorance is of a sounder quality’. Dorothea is said to have ‘a great deal of nonsense in her – a flighty sort of Methodistical stuff. But these things wear out of girls.’

Unlike Lydgate, Dorothea finds happiness in a second marriage, to Casaubon’s nephew, Will Ladislaw, though it is not the heroic destiny of which she once dreamed. ‘Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother.’ Yet Eliot’s famous conclusion to the book is a form of vindication.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

I finished reading Middlemarch in 2019 feeling much as I had done when I read it in the mid-1980s. It seems to me now, as it seemed to me then, a great novel, one that addresses the practical and fundamental questions that we all have to face.

‘People say that life is the thing,’ Logan Pearsall Smith once remarked, ‘but I prefer reading.’ Of course the remark is a quip, meant to make us smile; but perhaps it is worth pausing over. Reading and living are often contrasted; it might plausibly be argued that a life immersed in books is a life not lived. Yet Middlemarch is a novel that resolves this apparent antithesis; it is a book that can teach us how to lead richer, fuller lives.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 68 © Adam Sisman 2020


About the contributor

Adam Sisman is a writer, specializing in biography. His most recent book is The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking (2019).

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