I decided it was time for me to read Middlemarch, because I want to work my way through the classics and I was feeling very patient. I didn't expect to enjoy it. I usually don't like books with a lot of plot (I prefer endless digressions or simplicity) and I was sure this sprawling Victorian novel would be chock full of plot. Lots of characters, all doing things.
To my own surprise, I absolutely loved Middlemarch. I thought Eliot's writing was glorious, rich but clean. There was a huge cast of characters, but their stories were simpler than I expected them to be. It had weight, it was satisfying, it clarified thoughts I'd already had and made me rethink others. It was also complete, fully evolved. The book was more contemplative than I expected it to be, and incredibly insightful.
Not surprisingly, Middlemarch was a slow starter. It took a while to set the scene, introduce the dozen or so principal characters, and convince me to invest in their fates. But I think it was a slow starter for another reason as well: the book wasn't about how characters arrived at turning points, but, rather, what happened to them afterwards. Events that often mark the end of a novel - a marriage, a death - take place fairly early on here. It's not about courtship, it's about marriage. Not about committing a crime, but how a crime buried in the past continues to haunt the present.
It was very much a book about what happens after the happily ever after, and the picture Eliot paints is pretty ugly. In some ways, Eliot struck me as a more mature, much much subtler version of Dickens - because I think both authors have acquired a fairly anodyne reputation, which neither deserves.
Middlemarch didn't have the high drama or pandering that you find in Dickens, and Eliot's assessment of human nature is nuanced and sometimes brutal. Yet there is a grace and generosity about the way she writes that prevents the novel from being cynical. Eliot is also pretty quotable - here's one germane to the current subject: "Some gentlemen have made an amazing figure in literature by general discontent with the universe as a trap of dulness into which their great souls have fallen by mistake; but the sense of a stupendous self and an insignificant world may have it's consolations."
I recommend Middlemarch wholeheartedly, with the proviso that it requires a committed reader. It's pretty long. It's also the best book that I've ever read that was written by a woman. To my shame - if shame is the right word - up until now the constellation of authors that had most deeply impressed and moved me were all male. It feels pretty good to see that change.
More favorite little snippets:
A woman speaking: "Sorrow comes in so many ways. Two years ago I had no notion of that - I mean of the unexpected way in which trouble comes, and ties our hands, and makes us silent when we long to speak. I used to despise women a little bit for not shaping their lives more, and doing better things. I was very fond of doing as I liked, but I have almost given it up."
"He was at present too ill acquainted with disaster to enter into the pathos of a lot where everything is below the level of tragedy except the passionate egoism of the sufferer."
"It is very difficult to be learned; it seems as if people were worn out on the way to great thoughts, and can never enjoy them because they are too tired."
"We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps us, and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts - not to hurt others."
"it seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain. We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into inspid misdoing and shabby achievement."