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« The Two Faulkners | Main | Writing "Middlemarch" »

What They Said About MIDDLEMARCH

Since its publication, MIDDLEMARCH has provoked debate among readers, writers, and literary critics. Early reviewers were befuddled by its scale and subject; Jazz Age sophisticates sneered at its priggish moralizing; Julian Barnes has called it "probably the greatest English novel." Blackwood's Magazine in 1883 declared that the novel made Eliot the heir of Shakespeare; modern feminist scholars like Lee R. Edwards have found the novel nothing more than a long-winded "cop-out"; and F. R. Leavis, the Cambridge intellectual who helped define the modern notion of the "great books," wrote in 1948 that MIDDLEMARCH showed Eliot was the long-sought English Tolstoy.

It's all a muddle. But I thought we might look at a few of the reviews and reactions to this sprawling masterpiece.

An early, anonymous assessment in "The Saturday Review" (1872) starts us out with a common comment about the novel having the unhappiest of happy endings:

If Middlemarch is melancholy, it is due perhaps to its religion being all duty, without sufficient admixture of hope.

You might want to think more about that in relation to Dorothea's and Lydgate's fates--and the way the novel seems to swerve for both just at its ending, particularly in the "Finale."

A year later, Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in "The Atlantic" was caught in a dilemma familiar to many who have read the novel: how to get a grip on so much material.

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. Out of the history of Dorothea's marriage and domestic life, Lydgate's marriage and domestic life, Bulstrode's crimes and hypocrisy, the love-affair of Mary and Fred, and the adventures of Ladislaw, a library of novels might be made; while on the humor, the observation, reflection, and suggestion contained in the book a regiment of writers of social articles might support themselves for a lifetime. It is an interesting question, whether this Study of Provincial Life is a success or a failure; whether it is a work which, judged by its own standard, reaches or falls short of that standard.

Sedgwick never answers that last bit. Instead, he bogs down in the question of whether Dorothea or Lydgate is the center of the novel--and laments that the novel may not have a true center. (I would disagree and claim the novel does have a moral but not a narrative center.) He ends his review with this curious obfuscation: "One cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed." (If you'd like to read Sedgwick's review in full, click here.)

Henry James reviewed the novel in "The Galaxy" that same year (1873). He was far less befuddled. He begins by claiming that "Middlemarch" is "one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels," a "treasure-house of details" but "an indifferent whole." James, too, seems to find too much muchness in the novel; he yearns for it to be, not about everything, but just about Dorothea:

George Eliot's men are generally so much better than the usual trousered offspring of the female fancy, that their merits have perhaps overshadowed those of her women. Yet her heroines have always been of an exquisite beauty, and Dorothea is only that perfect flower of conception of which her predecessors were the less unfolded blossoms. An indefinable moral elevation is the sign of these admirable creatures; and of the representation of this quality in its superior degrees the author seems to have in English fiction a monopoly. To render the expression of a soul requires a cunning hand; but we seem to look straight into the unfathomable eyes of the beautiful spirit of Dorothea Brooke. She exhales a sort of aroma of spiritual sweetness, and we believe in her as in a woman we might providentially meet some fine day when we should find ourselves doubting of the immortality of the soul.

Quite a lot to claim for one character! Still, James's ire seems to be saved for Will Ladislaw:

The figure of Will Ladislaw is a beautiful attempt, with many finely-completed points; but on the whole it seems to us a failure. It is the only eminent failure in the book, and its defects are therefore the more striking. It lacks sharpness of outline and depth of color; we have not found ourselves believing in Ladislaw as we believe in Dorothea, in Mary Garth, in Rosamond, in Lydgate, in Mr. Brooke and Mr. Cauaubon. He is meant, indeed, to be a light creature (with a large capacity for gravity, for he finally gets into Parliament), and a light creature certainly should not be heavily drawn. The author, who is evidently very fond of him, has found for him here and there some charming and eloquent touches; but in spite of these he remains vague and impalpable to the end. He is, we may say, the one figure which a masculine intellect of the same power as George Eliot's would not have conceived with the same complacency; he is, in short, roughly speaking, a woman's man. It strikes us as an oddity in the author's scheme that she would have chosen just this figure of Ladislaw as the creature in whom Dorothea was to find her spiritual compensations. He is really, after all, not the ideal foil to Mr. Casaubon, which her soul must have imperiously demanded, and if the author of the "Key to all Mythologies" sinned by lack of order, Ladislaw too has not the concentrated fervor essential in the man chosen by so nobly strenuous a heroine. The impression once given that he is a dilettante is never properly removed, and there is slender poetic justice in Dorothea's marrying a dilettante.

James ends his essay with a curious, half-hearted praise: Middlemarch "sets a limit . . . to the development of the old-fashioned English novel." You can hear in that a young writer's goosing one of the literary lions of the previous generation. But you can also hear a certain ring of melancholy: an ideal passing away, a realist fiction project that is simply not possible in the ever-modernizing world. (To read the full text of James's review, click here.)

As to that modernizing world, it, too, has been obsessed with Eliot's masterpiece. You've heard me say that Virginia Woolf called MIDDLEMARCH one of the few novels written in English for adults. Fair enough, but the quote is often stated a bit out of context. It's not quite the full-on endorsement you might think. Here's the complete thought from Woolf's assessment of George Eliot's achievement in "The Times Literary Supplement" in November, 1919:

Her humour has shown itself broad enough to cover a wide range of fools and failures, mothers and children, dogs and flourishing midland fields, farmers, sagacious or fuddled over their ale, horse-dealers, inn-keepers, curates, and carpenters. Over them all broods a certain romance, the only romance that George Eliot allowed herself--the romance of the past. The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view, it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature "Middlemarch," the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. In "Adam Bede" there is a hint of her in Dinah. She shows herself far more openly and completely in Maggie in "The Mill on the Floss." She is Janet in "Janet's Repentance" [one of the three novellas in "Scenes of Clerical Life"], and Romola, and Dorothea seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what in marriage with Ladislaw. Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason, for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar. Yet if you could delete the whole sisterhood, you would leave a much smaller and a much inferior world, albeit a world of greater artistic perfection and far superior jollity and comfort.

If you'd like to read the whole assessment by Woolf--and it is itself quite a piece of writing--click here.

More recently, A. S. Byatt has followed in a path well worn by contemporary English novelists. In "The Guardian" (2007), she argued that "Middlemarch" is simply the greatest English novel. Byatt's assessment is largely about the strength of the characters--not the strength of their actions, but rather their strength as characterizations, as portraits of individuals caught in a web.

[The novel is] held together by one of the most complicated and brilliantly worked metaphors anywhere in fiction. It is a metaphor of a web. . . . It is both a field of force, a trap like a spiderweb, and a pattern of invisible connecting links between humans meeting each other's eye. We meet it in Mrs Cadwallader, the vicar's wife, who sees Middlemarch itself as a spiderweb of gossip, which connects to the idea that Lydgate is doomed by the common consciousness of the society he is in: "Middlemarch, in fact, counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably."

Byatt does get her facts wrong--she claims Eliot started writing about Dorothea and then switched to a plot about Lydgate (in fact, the opposite is the truth)--but she also points out something that was very true at the time of the book's serialization and that we may have lost today: most Victorian readers expected Lydgate and Dorothea to end up together. That these two didn't may account for some of the discomfort among nineteenth-century reviewers. (To read Byatt's entire essay from "The Guardian," click here.)

As I said, it's a muddle. In fact, when I was a graduate student, I used to refer to the novel as "Muddlemarch." Perhaps we're best to leave the assessment to one of the most original voices in all Anglo-American literature, to Emily Dickinson. She called MIDDLEMARCH "a little book of granite for you to lean on." And she wrote this about it to one of her confidants:

What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’? What do I think of glory--except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the mysteries of redemption, for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.

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