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
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