In the Middle of `Middlemarch'

Article excerpt

I SPENT years avoiding "Middlemarch." It wasn't easy: The massive Victorian masterpiece by the revered novelist, moralist, protofeminist, and iconoclast Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name George Eliot, was on reading lists everywhere. No course in 19th-century fiction was complete without it. It was almost as impossible to graduate from college as an English major without having read "Middlemarch" as to get through high school without encountering Eliot's equally famed classic, "Silas Marner."

I hadn't read "Silas Marner" either. For some reason, this lengthy tale of a miser transformed by his love for a foundling child was deemed edifying material for pseudo-sophisticated teenagers like my then-self, who at that point in life would have preferred a story with at least a touch of romantic interest. I skimmed enough of "Silas Marner" to grasp the general idea. All the teacher wanted to know on the test was if you were able to see the "symbolic" connection between the miser's love of gold and the finer, nobler love for the golden-haired child that supplanted it.

The reason "Middlemarch" was on college reading lists had something to do with the fact that an eminent critic, F. R. Leavis, had pronounced it a central text of "The Great Tradition" in an influential 1948 book of that title. Fortunately, however, a mild reaction against Leavis's judgments had set in among the faculty, prompting them to substitute Dickens for Eliot as the chief exemplar of Victorian fiction in the survey course I happened to take. By the time I reached graduate school, it was assumed that any English major would have already read "Middlemarch," and so the graduate course on the 19th-century English novel focused on Eliot's "Adam Bede" instead.

I read "Adam Bede" - every word of it. To my well-concealed surprise, it was delightful. Here was a funny, touching, earnest, yet playful novel - witty, yet compassionate - with a great sympathy and understanding for the people whose lives it depicted: Adam Bede, the noble carpenter; Hetty Sorrel, the flighty milk-maid; Arthur Donnithorne, the thoughtless young squire; and Hetty's cousin, the wise preacher Dinah Morris. The author was a shrewd realist, but with a saving touch of romanticism; a moralist, but certainly not a bore. I realized I had misjudged George Eliot.

Still, for years I just never got around to "Middlemarch," which seemed rather a long book about life in a provincial English town.

Then one afternoon a few weeks ago, I took down a copy of "Middlemarch" from the shelf where it had been reposing for so long. My eye fell upon the opening paragraphs: What, they asked, would become of a young woman with the mind and temperament of a Saint Theresa, who happened to be born in 19th-century England into a social milieu that offered "no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; {but only perhaps} ... a life of mistakes." One needn't know much about Saint Theresa to be struck by the preposterousness of a 16th-century Spanish saint living in an English town, or to appreciate the fine blend of humor and gravity in Eliot's attitude toward her heroine, Dorothea Brooke.

Intelligent, warm-hearted, and filled with zealous intentions of improving the world, Dorothea is a charming but outspoken young lady who takes her religion seriously. A devout Protestant, she can hardly join a convent. In 1829, when the novel begins, a university education or a career were options that scarcely existed for young ladies like her. …