“I have made up my mind to take Middlemarch as it comes, and shall be much obliged if the town will take me in the same way” – (the all too fallible) Dr Lydgate
I tried to read Middlemarch in January, but my poor addled brain refused to decipher the text or concentrate on the storyline. Have I spent so much time scrolling through Instagram that I can no longer focus on huge, dry Victorian tomes?
Finally, determined to see this through, I switched to the audio book. It was nearly 40 hours long and it took me three months to get through. My kids would wander into the kitchen (listening was usually an accompaniment to domestic tasks) and marvel: “are you STILL really listening to that?”.
It’s odd that I was quite so compelled to persist with Middlemarch, given my longstanding aversion to Eliot’s Silas Marner, not the most thrilling book to be forced to plough through for GCSE English. I remember Silas used to tie (his?) (adopted?) infant to his weaving machine so he could get on with his work. After having children, this image used to pop unbidden into my mind as I failed to impose some kind of order on my days, surrounded as I was by wailing infants. I felt Silas Marner’s child-rearing methods would have been unhelpful.
There are some rewards to be had in tackling this sprawling epic of Victorian provincial English life, which is set in a fictional version of Coventry (fetchingly pictured at the top of the post). Middlemarch appeared in instalments in the early 1870s, and looked back on a period about 40 years prior to that. Eliot has a satisfyingly caustic but accepting view of her creations and their flaws, even while the construction of the first railways, though no doubt a hot topic in the 1800s, is now, well, tedious.
There are some great characters, not least the quietly monstrous banker Bulstrode, and narcissistic hottie Rosamund. Dorothea is the book’s heroine, in that do-gooding, earnest way that the Victorians had a thing for. She makes a terrible mistake in marrying pompous professional pedant Casaubon. (Apparently Susan Sontag cried when she read Middlemarch at the age of just 18, realising that she had accidentally married a Casaubon too.)
We can see Dorothea’s mistake coming, just as we can predict her subsequent inconvenient attraction to Casaubon’s nephew (or was it cousin?) Will Ladislaw, who is no Harry Styles, but who when compared with dusty old Casaubon (setting the bar perilously low) is virtually a Greek god.
There are worse ways to spend three months.