Middlemarch – George Eliot
To many critics Middlemarch is the greatest novel George Eliot ever wrote. Its scope, its variety, its maturity and insight, are indubitable. Yet to others it lacks something of the charm and spontaneity of the author’s earlier works, and its very inclusiveness and scope lead to a certain confusion of plan- and blurring of outline that mark it as artistically imperfect. Whichever view is correct, the novel is admittedly great. Written late in George Eliot’s career, it is at once weighty with her considered evaluation of the essential factors in life and rich in her observation and experience of human nature. The plot is the most involved of any that the author has presented, and the characters are numerous even for a Victorian „three-decker.” In general there are two main groups of characters, not, it must be confessed, as closely inter-related as artistically they should be. Dorothea Brooke may be regarded as the centre of one group, and Dr. Lydgate of the other. Both represent the tragedy of high aims that fail to take fully into account the actualities of life. Dorothea sentimentally pines to be the helpmate of a genius; but as the wife of the Rev. Edward Casaubon, who is writing a ‚Key to All Mythologies,‘ she is disillusioned, and her misery is ended only by the death of her husband. Dr. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch with excellent training, determined to push forward in biological research. However, he marries the attractive but unpractical Rosamond Vincy, is overwhelmed in debts and his possible career fades into nothingness. But George Eliot’s view of life is not distortedly pessimistic. Over against the sombre recognition of the inadequacies and weaknesses of humanity must be placed her portrayal of the fine and strong elements. Dorothea herself is genuine and charming fundamentally; the Garths are sterling, and full of vitality. For all its wavering and crowded plot, ‚Middlemarch‘ is permanently valuable because it represents a realism that endeavors to reflect in just proportions the good and bad in life; a realism, moreover, that does not content itself merely with presenting life, but shrinks not from the task of interpretation and evaluation.
Available at amazon.com and other venues.
Plot summary of Middlemarch (from Wikipedia):
Middlemarch is centred on the lives of the residents of Middlemarch, a fictitious Midlands town, from 1829 onwards—the years preceding the 1832 Reform Act. The narrative is variably considered to consist of three or four plots of unequal emphasis: the life of Dorothea Brooke; the career of Tertius Lydgate; the courtship of Mary Garth by Fred Vincy; and the disgrace of Nicholas Bulstrode. The two main plots are those of Dorothea and Lydgate. Each plot happens concurrently, although Bulstrode’s is centred in the later chapters.
Dorothea Brooke is a 17-year-old orphan, living with her younger sister, Celia, under the guardianship of her uncle, Mr Brooke. Dorothea is an especially pious young woman, whose hobby involves the renovation of buildings belonging to the tenant farmers, though her uncle discourages her. Dorothea is courted by Sir James Chettam, a young man close to her own age, but she remains oblivious to him. She is instead attracted to The Reverend Edward Casaubon, who is 45, and Dorothea accepts his offer of marriage, despite her sister’s misgivings. Chettam is meanwhile encouraged to turn his attention to Celia, who has developed an interest in him.
Fred and Rosamond Vincy are the eldest children of Middlemarch’s town mayor. Having never finished university, Fred is widely considered a failure and a layabout, but he allows himself to coast because he is the presumed heir of his childless uncle Mr. Featherstone, an unpleasant, though rich, man. Featherstone keeps a niece of his through marriage, Mary Garth, as a companion, and, though she is considered plain, Fred is in love with her and wants to marry her.
On their honeymoon in Rome, Dorothea and Casaubon experience the first tensions in their marriage when Dorothea finds that her husband has no interest in involving her with his intellectual pursuits, which was her chief reason for marrying him. She meets Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s much younger cousin whom he supports financially. Ladislaw begins to feel attracted to Dorothea, though she remains oblivious, and the two become friendly.
Fred develops a deep debt and finds himself unable to repay the money. Having asked Mr. Garth, Mary’s father, to co-sign the debt, he now tells Garth he must forfeit it. As a result, Mrs. Garth’s savings, which represent 4 years worth of income she held in reserve for the education of her youngest son, and Mary’s savings are completely wiped out. Consequently, Mr. Garth warns Mary against ever marrying Fred.
Fred comes down with an illness and is cured by Mr. Tertius Lydgate, the newest doctor in Middlemarch. Lydgate has new ideas about medicine and sanitation, and believes that doctors should prescribe but not themselves dispense medicines, drawing the ire and criticism of many in the town. Rosamond Vincy, who is well-educated and seeks to make a good match, decides to marry Lydgate and uses Fred’s sickness as an opportunity to get close to the doctor. Though he initially views their relationship as pure flirtation, Lydgate backs away from Rosamond after discovering that the town considers them practically engaged. However, after seeing her a final time, he breaks his resolution to abandon his relationship with Rosamond and the two become engaged.
At roughly the same time, Casaubon, returned from Rome, suffers a heart attack. Lydgate is brought in to attend to him and informs Dorothea that Casaubon only has around fifteen years left if he takes it easy and ceases his studies. Meanwhile, as Fred recovers, Mr. Featherstone becomes ill. On his deathbed, he reveals that he has two wills and tries to get Mary to help him destroy one. Unwilling to be mixed up in the business of his will, she refuses, and Featherstone dies with the two wills still intact. Featherstone’s plan had been for £10,000 to go to Fred Vincy, but his estate and fortune instead goes to an illegitimate son of his, Joshua Rigg.
In poor health, Casaubon attempts to extract from Dorothea a promise that, should he die, she will „avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire“. He dies before she can reply, and she later learns of a provision in his will that, if she marries Ladislaw, she will lose her inheritance. The peculiar nature of Casaubon’s will leads to general suspicion that Ladislaw and Dorothea are lovers, creating awkwardness between the two. Ladislaw is secretly in love with Dorothea but keeps this to himself, having no desire to involve her in scandal or to cause her disinheritance. He remains in Middlemarch, working as a newspaper editor for Mr Brooke, who is mounting a campaign to run for Parliament under a Reform platform.
Lydgate’s efforts to please Rosamond soon leave him deeply in debt, and he is forced to seek help from Bulstrode. He is partly sustained through this by his friendship with Camden Farebrother. Meanwhile Fred Vincy’s humiliation at being responsible for Caleb Garth’s financial setbacks shocks him into reassessing his life. He resolves to train as a land agent under the forgiving Caleb.
John Raffles, a mysterious man who knows of Bulstrode’s shady past, appears in Middlemarch, intending to blackmail him. In his youth, the church-going Bulstrode engaged in questionable financial dealings, and his fortune is founded on his marriage to a much older, wealthy widow. Bulstrode’s terror of public exposure as a hypocrite leads him to hasten the death of the mortally sick Raffles, while lending a large sum to Lydgate to allay his suspicions. However, the story of his past has already spread. Bulstrode’s disgrace engulfs Lydgate, as knowledge of the loan becomes known, and he is assumed to be complicit with Bulstrode. Only Dorothea and Farebrother maintain faith in him, but Lydgate and Rosamond are nevertheless encouraged by the general opprobrium to leave Middlemarch. The disgraced and reviled Bulstrode’s only consolation is that his wife stands by him as he too faces exile.
When Mr Brooke’s election campaign collapses, Ladislaw decides to leave the town and visits Dorothea to say his farewell. But Dorothea has also fallen in love with him, whom she had previously seen only as her husband’s unfortunate relative. She renounces Casaubon’s fortune and shocks her family by announcing that she will marry Ladislaw. At the same time, Fred, who has been successful in his new career, marries Mary.
The „Finale“ details the eventual fortunes of the main characters. Fred and Mary marry and live contentedly with their three sons. Lydgate operates a practice outside of Middlemarch but never finds fulfilment and dies at the age of 50, leaving Rosamond and four children. After he dies, Rosamond marries a wealthy physician. Ladislaw engages in public reform, and Dorothea is content as a wife and mother to their two children. Their son eventually inherits Arthur Brooke’s estate.
(The text of the last section was taken from a Wikipedia entry and is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)
Publisher’s Note: This book is printed and distributed by Createspace a DBA of On-Demand Publishing LLC and is typically not available anywhere else than in stores owned and operated by Amazon or Createspace.