For this year's "Mission Impossible" book club the Evanston Public Library has selected George Eliot's Middlemarch. "Mission Impossible" books are read over the course of an entire year, with book club meetings occuring every other month. This approach allows people to read substantial works at a steady but not breakneck pace. I am grateful for this year's selection, as it finally spurred me to read Middlemarch.
Eliot published Middlemarch in 1872. As Arthur Sedgwick observed in his contemporary review, "It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch. The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated." This year Rebecca Mead published a book about the effect of Middlemarch on her life, titled My Life in Middlemarch. That's another testament to the scope of the novel, which in the final analysis is about the wonder and disappointments of life itself.
I'll follow Sedgwick's lead and not recount the plot, which is available elsewhere anyway. (And at this point I am only 1/3 of the way finished!) Suffice it to say that the fictional town of Middlemarch, circa 1830, represents small town England on the cusp of major change. In 1832 the Reform Act passed, which changed England's electoral process to reduce the influence of towns like Middlemarch. Medicine, politics and the relations between the sexes were all in flux. Against this social backdrop she creates numerous indelible characters: Dorothea Burke, Tertius Lydgate, Edward Casaubon, Celia Brooke, Fred Vincy, Mary Garth, Will Ladislaw. That's just getting started.
All of these people are particular and universal at the same time. Of course the daily life in 1830 Middlemarch is much different than a typical day in 2014 Evanston. Middlemarch upholds customs and concerns that seem puzzling from this remove. But all of the characters are like people we meet today, and like our very selves. Some are too careless with other people's money, others are too cavalier with their own. Some have more talent than ambition, others more ambition than talent. Religion is a salve but also a vice.
This is us, even though this is them.
The satirist has it easy--it's not hard to skewer human follies without any compassion. Eliot is more than a satirist, she is a perceptive and kind observer of the human comedy. As Rebecca Mead observed in a New Yorker piece about Middlemarch, "She is inveterately magnanimous, even when it comes to her most flawed characters; her default authorial position is one of pity."
This is as it should be. We all deserve, and should offer, sympathetic understanding.
And since Eliot achieved that understanding what more need be said but thank you? Here's Arthur Sedgwick with the close: "In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers. An author whose novels it has really been a liberal education to read, one is more tempted to admire silently than to criticise at all."