I've come to a realization: Charles Dickens is not
my favorite Victorian. I'm 50/50 on Anthony Trollope so far, and this was only my first George Eliot, but the two of them are just so much better than Dickens when it comes to describing fully-realized human beings of both sexes. Not that Dickens isn't good at what he does, which is comic, poignant melodrama with a social edge, but his characters are just not real
. Not like the inhabitants of Middlemarch.
On the other hand, there was none of Dickens' epic scope in Middlemarch
. This is an English country drama, all centered around the town of Middlemarch. There are no high stakes or ultimate questions of human morality, just a bunch of characters struggling to get by and navigate the consequences of their ideals, their pasts, their prejudices, and their bad choices.
Our cast includes Dorothea Brooke, an idealistic, pious young lady who was born to be a sainted martyr. Full of charity and self-sacrifice, she manages to find a way to martyr herself — by marrying a dour, much older clergyman named Edward Casaubon. She dreams of devoting herself to his studies, being the selfless angel at his side.
"Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful?" said Dorothea to him, one morning, early in the time of courtship; "could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton's daughters did to their father, without understanding what they read?"
She practically throws herself at the bemused Casaubon, not because she feels anything like romantic passion, but because living a life of the mind devoted to waiting on her husband's every need seems like the closest thing to Godliness to her. You might think this makes Dorothea an aggravating character, yet Eliot portrays her as honest, willful, altruistic, and intelligent, her only flaw being that she lives in a world that's missing a few of the shades and colors that everyone else can see.
Meanwhile, a bright young surgeon named Tertius Lydgate comes to Middlemarch, full of the latest medical knowledge. Unfortunately, Middlemarchers are a hidebound lot with their own way of doing things and they don't need no "foreign" (i.e., anyone from any place more than ten miles away) physicians coming here with their newfangled ways. Lydgate makes a few friends, but he also steps on a few toes and soon is enmeshed in the politics of an English country town whether he likes it or not. Is it this or his marriage to Rosamund Vincy which is his real downfall? Eliot lays the groundwork for this good man to screw himself over in a multitude of ways while never really doing anything wrong other than being a bit lacking in foresight.
But once again, she creates complex characters who could just be caricatures (and if written by Dickens, would be) yet manage to come to life as people you can sympathize with. Rosamund, for example, is shallow, self-centered, and materialistic. She pretty much manipulates Lydgate into proposing to her, and from then on the poor man is trapped. When his career doesn't take off, their finances go south, and Rosamund experiences buyer's remorse, I really, really felt sorry for Lydgate. But amazingly enough, even though Rosamund made me gnash my teeth, I didn't hate her. Because Eliot takes pains to make her understandable.
But Rosamond was not one of those helpless girls who betray themselves unawares, and whose behavior is awkwardly driven by their impulses, instead of being steered by wary grace and propriety. Do you imagine that her rapid forecast and rumination concerning house-furniture and society were ever discernible in her conversation, even with her mamma? On the contrary, she would have expressed the prettiest surprise and disapprobation if she had heard that another young lady had been detected in that immodest prematureness—indeed, would probably have disbelieved in its possibility. For Rosamond never showed any unbecoming knowledge, and was always that combination of correct sentiments, music, dancing, drawing, elegant note-writing, private album for extracted verse, and perfect blond loveliness, which made the irresistible woman for the doomed man of that date. Think no unfair evil of her, pray: she had no wicked plots, nothing sordid or mercenary; in fact, she never thought of money except as something necessary which other people would always provide. She was not in the habit of devising falsehoods, and if her statements were no direct clew to fact, why, they were not intended in that light—they were among her elegant accomplishments, intended to please. Nature had inspired many arts in finishing Mrs. Lemon's favorite pupil, who by general consent (Fred's excepted) was a rare compound of beauty, cleverness, and amiability.
She's not mercenary, she's not mean, she's not evil. She's just making the best bargain she can, with a realistic assessment of her own worth, given the options available to a Victorian woman of her class. Love, like money, is something that's just supposed to happen when you follow the rules.
This thirty-two-hour audiobook got me involved in the lives of the Brookes and the Vincys and the Garths and the Bulstrodes and the Casaubons and all the other families of Middlemarch. It's a great big multi-family melodrama, with marriages and deaths and money scandals, and each character impacts all the others in some way. There is no villain here and nobody is really evil, though some characters are selfish or foolish or obnoxious, so all the conflict results from mundane things - bad marriages, jealousy, misunderstandings, fecklessness, and other human foibles.
It's something of a Victorian soap opera, but an elegant and intricate one. If you like Victorian writing and character dramas, Middlemarch
is a masterpiece. Maybe it doesn't have quite the profundity of Dostoevsky or the poignancy of Dickens, but will I read George Eliot again? Heck yeah! 4.5 stars, rounded up.