During January, I re-read another classic novel from my English literature university courses (30+ years ago): Middlemarch by George Eliot. It’s one of my favourite classics, and I have reread it a few times. It’s a long one: My old Penguin paperback has around 900 pages. This time I listened to it as audio book from Audible, read by Juliet Stevenson: 35 hours 40 minutes.’'
Subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, the novel was first published in eight instalments (volumes) during 1871–2. It is set in the fictitious town of Middlemarch during 1829–32 (there are references in it to some real historical events), and weaves together several intersecting stories and quite a large cast of characters. Important themes include the status of women and the nature of marriage; but also for example religion, politics, science and education.
The main character Dorothea Brooke is 17 when the story begins, and is living with her sister Celia under the guardianship of their uncle, Mr Brooke. Dorothea is a very pious young woman; interested both in literature, and in welfare projects like the renovation of housing for tenant farmers. She is courted by Sir James Chettam, a young man close to her own age, but is instead (to everyone else’s consternation) attracted to the Reverend Edward Casaubon, much older than herself. Dorothea accepts his proposal of marriage, in the hope of being able to help to him in his research and writing of a book on spiritual matters. Chettam instead turns his attention to her younger sister Celia.
On Casaubon’s and Dorothea’s honeymoon in Italy, they encounter Casaubon’s younger cousin Will Ladislaw, an artist. Dorothea and Will come to spend quite a lot of time together, as Casaubon is busy with his research project. Will is attracted to Dorothea, but they remain just friends. Later on, with Casaubon’s health declining, and Will coming to stay in Middlemarch and renewing the acquaintance there, Casaubon gets jealous – which causes problems…
One of the other main characters is a young doctor, Tertius Lydgate, new in Middlemarch and trying to make a career for himself. At the same time he is more idealistic than prosperous. He gets married to a young girl of good education but no money (but with high expectations of her husband’s career); and manages to get himself into serious financial trouble.
Several more characters and minor story lines are involved too.
As I already said, it is one of my favourite English classics. I think it probably gives a good idea of small town life in England in that period of time; and not least, perhaps, for young women like the character Dorothea, who wanted something more out of life than just a conventional marriage and family life.
George Eliot’s real name was Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). (I have to confess I keep forgetting her real name…) Better known by her pen name, she was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She used a male pen name, she said, to ensure that her works would be taken seriously. Female authors were published under their own names during Eliot's life, but she wanted to escape the stereotype of women writing only lighthearted romances.
She did not have much formal education as a young girl, but as her father was the manager of a big estate, she was allowed access to the library there; and obviously made good use of that. Her frequent visits to the estate also allowed her to compare the wealth of the local landowner with the lives of much poorer people. Her mother died when Mary Ann was 16, and when she was 21 she and her father moved to a place near Coventry, where she kept house for him until he died (when she was 30); but also made new friends who became important for her later writing career.
After her father’s death she went abroad for a while, and then moved to London and became assistant manager of a literary magazine, The Westminster Review. She met the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes. They lived together from 1854 until his death in 1878. (He was already married when they met and unable to get a divorce.) In May 1880, she legally married John Cross, a man twenty years her junior. Seven months later, she died from a kidney disease, at age 61.
(For more details, follow the links to the Wikipedia articles.)