Book Reviews

Middlemarch: a Study of the Best English Novel Ever Written

“..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.”

Middlemarch by George Eliot

This year I made it my mission to go through as many of my bucket list books as possible! Along with War & Peace, the top of my list was Middlemarch by George Eliot (sorry, I mean Mary Ann Evans). Nearly universally cited as “the best book in the English language” I wanted to pick it up for myself and see what the fuss was about.

First, a confession. This is most definitely a clickbait article. The truth is, I can’t say if it’s THE best novel in the English language because I haven’t read ALL novels written in the English language. However, it’s definitely very good and if I were to look back at all the English language novels I’ve read, this is definitely somewhere in the top 3 or 5. Okay, on to the review…

Who Was George Eliot?

Well, first thing you should know is that George Eliot’s real name was Mary Ann Evans. She was born in the Midlands of England in 1819 to a middle-class family. Her father was a steward (estate manager) which allowed Evans to reach levels of education and literacy above the confines of her sex and socioeconomic status. Though she received formal education at an early age, after the age of 16 she was mainly self-taught and would read from the libraries of these great estates to supplement her education. She was unconventional and way ahead of her time – she lived with a married man George Lewes (who was in an open marriage and whose wife had children with other men) and considered him her husband. Though this wasn’t a completely uncommon arrangement in Victorian society, it was typically concealed and Evans refused to conceal this. Later in life she had a short official marriage which was disastrous (the groom jumped off a window during their honeymoon).

Historical Context

To understand Middlemarch you must first understand its setting – the years in the early Victorian era leading up to the 1832 reform act (an era of huge progress). This act was a huge turning point in English history as it vastly expanded the right to vote not just to aristocrats and gentlemen but to also include small landowners, tenants and some merchants. Of course no women were included in this new group of voters, that’ll come much later. The book provides audiences with the various attitudes towards these new ideas through various lenses, many times in quite a comical manner.

So What Exactly is the Book About?

Everything. No, really.. the most accurate description of Middlemarch is that it’s a book about everything. To name a few, the book covers politics, agricultural management, history, art, religion, crime, money and science. However despite the numerous topics covered by the book it manages to cover all these topics incredibly well.

Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke in BBC’s Middlemarch Miniseries Adaptation

Middlemarch is set in a fictional midlands town in England and centers around two main characters: that of Dorothea Brooke, an orphaned heiress from a genteel family who is pious, beautiful, kind-hearted and intelligent but frustratingly idealistic and Dr. Tertius Lydgate, a well-educated, cosmopolitan doctor without an inheritance but with grand ambitions to change the medical landscape.

We are taken through a typical English small town through the lenses of these main characters. Through Dorothea we learn about the various landed families.

  • The Brookes: Her uncle, Mr. Brooke is a clueless wanna-be reformer who purchases a liberal newspaper but refuses to listen to Dorothea’s suggestions to improve the living conditions for his tenants. Her sister Celia is a practical young woman who often has to point out the obvious to her clueless older sister.
  • Her neighbor, Sir James Chettam, indulges her whims and ideals – allowing her to renovate tenant cottages in his property in hopes of winning her hand.
  • The Casaubons: Her love interest is Rev. Casaubon, a wealthy and stiff middle-aged scholar who doesn’t care for much else other than his scholarly pursuits who couldn’t be more different from his young cousin Will Ladislaw who is a passionate renaissance man with radically liberal views.

Through Dr. Lydgate we are introduced to the various townsfolk:

  • The Vincys are a merchant family with a spendthrift oldest son Fred and social climbing beautiful daughter Roselyn.
  • The Garths are a family without much money but a wealth of morals. The head of the family, Mr. Garth is based on Mary Ann Evans’s own father while Mary seems to be slightly inspired by herself.
  • The Bulstrodes are a wealthy new money family wishing to cement their status in society by bankrolling a new fever hospital for the town.

These seemingly unrelated storylines converge so well throughout the course of the novel, and in my opinion the genius of Middlemarch doesn’t come until the last quarter or so, at which point the book really becomes a page turner leading up to a very interesting finale. The characters mentioned above all play an equally important role in delivering the novel’s often humorous and often critical depiction of early Victorian-era England.

Without spoiling anything, I will say that throughout the novel Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate experience love, loss, hardship and scandal. Both of them make quite disastrous marriages and slowly find their grand (and noble) ambitions stifled as a consequence of their marriage. It doesn’t end how you would expect it to however and the plot is such a joy to read.

Why Should I Read It?

You should read this book if you are…

  • a fan of classic English novels: This is THE classic English novel. The one novel to beat them all.
  • a Victorian-era history buff
  • always rooting for the underdogs: you’ll know what I mean if you read the book.
  • a fan of love triangles
  • an British political science enthusiast
  • a fan of social satire: okay, but who isn’t?
Final Thoughts

I must admit, the novel left me unsatisfied on several regards. For example, why was Dorothea’s role only mentioned briefly towards the end? Despite Eliot’s liberal views, Dorothea who throughout the novel displayed (and acted upon) very forward-thinking views and does so much to positively change the lives of others isn’t given much of an afterthought and was only mentioned in terms of her role as a wife. However I realized that this was a reflection of Eliot’s bleak and cynical view of the role of women in English society at the time.

It’s hard to explain why I like Middlemarch, but it’s even harder trying to find fault with it. The book covers so many topics that nearly everyone will find at least part of the book interesting. I think anyone can read this book and take away a few things. For example, the book explores themes such as superficial impressions, ignorance, attitudes to change/progress, the role of women, integrity, love vs duty and the importance of a good reputation.

Further Reading
  2. Podcast
  3. The brilliant miniseries by BBC.

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