Since I've been told bigger is better, and long reviews are better than short ones, I've decided to update my short Middlemarch review with a long one:
Although Eliot started working on the serialised chapters of Middlemarch around about 1868 (they were published three years later), it is set in roughly 1829-1832, (so writing it took place roughly 40 years after the setting) which gave her the advantage of hindsight.
It is partly this, and the fact that Eliot did a lot of conscientious research, that enabled her to render the period with such historical accuracy.
Aristophanes, Plato, and Goethe, Feuerbach, Spinoza, and Auguste Comte all had an influence on Eliot's thought; -though she seems to illustrate in Middlemarch a kind of social determinism
. It seems to me that she is saying that your class will to a large extent determine how you live (which was largely true still in the era that the novel is set in).
Individual character and 'moral fiber' is important to Eliot, but in her novel personal ideals easily become shipwrecked on the rocks of what the forces of society has pre-ordained for you. 19th Century determinism
was to a large extent due to Darwinism: The question to be considered in this regard is, do people lack all free will
- are their actions predetermined by their genetic make-up, and/or their psychological background, or do people have a real opportunity to make an impact on the world, and to be responsible for their actions? Eliot seems to lean towards the idea that good intentions don't necessarily spell success, and not only character plays a role: choices and environment do too.
However, the choices of Eliot's characters are subjugated by the forces of society. The characters play out what seems to be pre-set "roles" for them; no matter how they struggle, like flies in a web, they eventually have to conform to the role society has laid out for them.
The portrayal of marriages play a large role in Middlemarch, in illustrating various things.
In the marriages that Eliot portrays, we see mainly personal character coming into play with the strictures of society, and the ways in which the latter confines these people decides on the final happiness or not of the characters. The good outcome of the marriages don't depend on divine providence anymore, as it tended to in novels written before the realist/humanist/rationalist style that Eliot to a large extent pioneered, came into being; it is now the forces and expectations of society.Material wealth and affluence
play a large part, too, in how one manages to handle the forces society exerts upon the individual in the novel: at least four of the marriages are "made or broken" in part by how the protagonists manage to attain their wealth, but here we see a very complex interplay between how the characters manage or attain their wealth.
An important early influence in Eliot's life was religion. She was brought up within a Low Church Anglican family, but she soon rejected religion in favor of the aforementioned schools of thought. The importance of morals and 'duty' still remained deeply ingrained in her belief system, though.
The possession of knowledge
, and the use of that knowledge is highly praised by Elliot. She makes a distinction between the dead and irrelevant knowledge that her character Casaubon displays, and the living and useful knowledge that her characters Lydgate, Farebrother and Mrs Garth posses. The 19th century saw a great move towards more "practical" thought. Scientific thought was starting to revolutionize every sphere of human life.
It is probably of use to take cognizance of the industrial sociopolitical background to the period that the novel covers :
The 19th century was the age of machine tools - tools that made tools - machines that made parts for other machines, including interchangeable parts. The assembly line was invented during the 19th century, speeding up the factory production of consumer goods. There was a lot of resistance towards automation from the lower classes, since many people were displaced from their work by machines, especially in the textile industry.
In rural areas the remains of the feudal system could still be seen in that land tenants gave labour for the right of tenancy, but didn't receive much as payment, and often lived in very poor conditions. The industrial revolution saw a sharp rise in population, and resulting increase in a poverty-stricken lower class.
There were groups agitating for reform, but most of them confined themselves to lawful, non-violent means of supporting reform, such as petitioning and public oratory, and they achieved a great level of public support .
The many social injustices
such as young children working exceedingly long hours in mines and factories, and being made to do very dangerous work;
industrialists preferring to employ women and children because they could get away with paying them less, etc,
as well as the aftermath and influences of the French Revolution and humanism on general thought, was stirring winds and thoughts of political revolution throughout English society.
The upper classes, as quite humoristically portrayed by Mr Brooke in Middlemarch, would, according to Eliot's portrayal, albeit reluctantly, prefer to "go with the times" than to be "caught up in, or going against an avalanche" ..and lose their heads as had so many of the French aristocracy.
The period also saw the rise of wealthy capitalists - all of these are represented in the novel, there is a family from each walk of life represented in Eliot's cast of characters.
Middlemarch also illuminates many aspects of scientific thought at the time. The novel exhibits an extraordinary interest in medical politics
General influences here, were Bichat, Lyley, Claude Bernard, Auguste Comte T.H. Huxley, John Stuart Mill, William Whewell, Herbert Spencer,and G.H. Lewes, Eliot's companion.
The 19th century gave birth to the professional scientist; interesting to note, is that the word 'scientist' was first used in 1833 by William Whewell.
In Middlemarch, Eliot pays a lot of attention to what is happening to the medical profession at the time.
According to her various biographies, she did quite a bit of research into what was happening on the front of medical science.
For instance, one of the historically true incidents reflected in Middlemarch, is that in 1932 a worldwide Cholera pandemic reached Britain. Lydgate, one of the protagonists of the novel, is involved in and very much interested in studying and treating fevers, such as Typhoid and Cholera.
A note of interest: In 1819 René Laënnec invented the stethoscope, one of the instruments mentioned in the novel; - at that point in time, this was something quite cutting edge and new .
Before the advent of the 18th century, the medical profession had not progressed much since classical times. In fact, people were probably even worse off in places like Christian hospitals, where the main cure given to patients was prayer.
There had been, throughout the middle Ages, a belief that the human body should remain intact after death, since it would rise up to heaven in a glorified state. In Middlemarch, we see this sentiment to some extent still prevalent, something which Eliot seems to deplore.
Incidentally, it was a common theme in Victorian literature to paint doctors and students of science who wanted to dissect human bodies as "evil" . Of course, one needs to dissect the human body before you can research what it looks like inside, and how it works, so of course beliefs like these held back the progression of medical science.
In the novel, Eliot also focuses on the aspect of gender inequality that existed at the time. Women didn't receive the same education as men, and especially upper class and aristocratic ladies were expected to be merely ornamental; this is highlighted in especially the marriages of Dorothea with first Casaubon and later Will, as well as the marriage of Rosamond with Lydgate.
Time and time again, Eliot illustrates the frustration that an intelligent woman had to endure in Victorian England: "...there was the stifling oppression of that gentlewoman's world, where everything was done for her and none asked for her aid – where the sense of connection with a manifold pregnant existence had to be kept up painfully as an inward vision, instead of coming from without in claims that would have shaped her energies. "
I noted Eliot's strong interest in Saint Theresa of Avila
, whom she introduces in her prologue, and found it rather representative of Eliot's idealistic bent.
Dorothea, one of the protagonists, is compared throughout the novel to her. Saint Theresa was an idealistic religious mystic, who fought for reform in the church; Dorothea is similarly an idealistic dreamer, bent on reform, but totally out of touch with the practical realities of life. I think Saint Theresa probably mainly represents reform
to Eliot, but also someone who led a dramatic, even heroic "epic" life, as the conclusion to the novel suggests. In the latter, Dorothea fails, she never does anything large or heroic, but Eliot suggest that change can also be wrought in smaller, multitudinous pervasive acts.
As far as Eliot's illustration in the novel of the institution of marriage is concerned, her different portraits of marriage is various and complex, so the message she seems to bring across is that a marriage can be beneficial to the partners only under a certain set of circumstances: if the marriage fits in with society, but above all, that the two partners be suited to one another.
Eliot herself knew only too well the sting of social disapproval
, since she was forced to live with a still married man (Henry Lewes could not divorce due to religious reasons), and society in general, even her own family, cut her off because of this.
Eliot is known for attempting to establish realism in her novels, and I think she does that well, but for one little niggle I have - that loud very visible intrusion that she as author makes into the narrative.
This might be a thoughtful and thought-provoking work, but the best in English Literature? Not in my book.
For me there is too much boring waffling going on (meaning to say: much too much narration and "interference" by the author's voice...)- I know this is part and parcel of Victorian writing, but really, when it's pages and pages apiece, it just becomes unbearable. Victor Hugo, one of my favorite authors, was also guilty of this, but somehow he does it more interestingly, and in less of a schoolmarmish tone.
The novel would be more bearable if culled by about a quarter of all the pages of narration,(some events and scenes are really carried on in too much detail, like for instance the comments and reactions of the townspeople regarding Lydgate - a lot of it gets repetitive) and the tedious didactic commentary. It's like Eliot hits you over the head with the same hammer a few times, to make sure that what she's trying to get across sinks in properly.
Surely part of the art of writing is to make the author a bit less visible. Eliot as author/narrator just glares at you from every page.
Well, I salute all of you who actually read every unabridged word and still had the mental and emotional energy at the end, to give this book 4 or 5 stars. I subtracted 1 star for my gripes as mentioned above. :)
No doubt MS Eliot AKA Evans/Cross was a very intelligent and learned lady, delightful to those who knew her personally, I'm sure, but her tone is simply too didactic for for my tastes. However, given the scope she achieves, this novel is certainly a huge achievement.
Bottom line - I reckon that all the work and erudition that went into this novel deserves a 4 at least. I also laud Elliot's reformist attitudes, so I suppose one should try and look past a less than pleasing style.