How Middlemarch helps us face reality, 150 years on

Virginia Woolf has been called “one of the few English novels written for adults.”

George Eliot Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life it was published in 1871 and 1872. And 150 years later, it is one of the most read – and re-read – English novels of all time.

As AS Byatt first noted, it is a book in which writers learn how to make stories: how “to create a world connected by a multitude of people, almost mental process, mental development, life anxiety, the concept of their Past and future can be provided to the readers, can work with each other in others, can lead to failure, or partial, or successful growth.”

Arrange a marriage for failure

Growth and Failure: George Eliot Departed from the Other.

As in life, his characters are at the mercy of the situation and their decisions, often terrible. It would be a spoiler (but how do you spoil a beloved 150-year-old book?) to say that there is no happy ending – not really – in Middlemarch.

Jane Austen’s books often end with a wedding or, in the case of Pride and Prejudice, two weddings. But Rebecca Mead, writer for The New Yorker and author of My life in Middlemarch said THOUGHTS“What George Eliot has done is give us a bad marriage from the beginning of the book.”

The marriage between the young Dorothea Brooke and the older (as in, over 40!) Edward Casaubon. Dorothea lives with her uncle in the English town of Middlemarch (an independent of the West Midlands city of Coventry, where the author grew up) and her sister Celia; the girls left their parents and their uncles were their guardians.

Dorothea Brooke with Will Ladislaw from George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Ladislaw was the brother of Edward Casaubon who had no heir. (Wikimedia)

Mr. Casaubon was a vicar and a student who worked, without stopping and without success, in studying the stories of the Bible called “The Key To All Mythologies.” Dorothea, who wants to improve herself and the lives of the peasants in the village, believes that knowledge and wisdom will lift all boats, and Casaubon accepts the surprise marriage proposal with the hope that she can help him finish his important project.

But it is not a serious project.

“This book [The Key To All Mythologies] died in the water,” said Nicholas Dames, Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York. “And he knew enough, he wanted to repress that knowledge. But he’s looking for a woman, he’s looking for someone who will foolishly think that she is the most important part of this project, and prevent him from seeing that this thing is a failure. “

What follows, in about 800 pages, is the story of the marriage, and the hopeless project that brought it together – and how Dorothea learns to live with her foolish choices.

A Victorian musical soap opera

But it’s about the stories of other men and women in it Middlemarch emerging in Dorothea’s orbit: the young doctor Lydgate, who, like Dorothea, is ambitious to set the world on its right axis by reforming the medical system near- medieval; but who, like Dorothea, begins a controversial marriage with private climber Rosamund Vincy, daughter of the mayor of Middlemarch. Rosamund likes to be out of town.

The story of Mr. Bulstrode, the banker, is an evangelical and true believer whose plans are to make Middlemarch a Christian-fearing community.

Dr. Tertius Lydgate, a new doctor in Middlemarch, marries Rosamond Vincy, a woman who spends his money and drives him into debt. (Wikimedia)

But with a dark background from his past, Mr. Raffles, who appears in the later chapters, threatens Bulstrode and threatens to reveal the truth behind his unearned success, if it is revealed his good name and position in the city will be destroyed.

There is the story of the brother of Mr. Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, is an artist or love match for Dorothea who has been searching for her… for 60 chapters.

There is the story of Fred Vincy, Rosamund’s brother, and his inability to lose coins in get-rich-quick deals, often involving dubious horse-trading. He loves Mary Garth. Maybe Mary loves him. But he needs to grow up if he accepts it.

In the first red (or first read), it all adds up to a Victorian soap opera. But George Eliot was after a great dig.

“George Eliot grew up a Christian,” says Mead. “But he lost his faith later in life, when he came to look and think hard about what was required of him, to believe in the miracles of Christianity.”

For Eliot, who was born Mary Anne Evans but created a pen name to help her in the commercial side of the publishing business, there are practical lessons in religion that can inform life, but every attempt to explain life through Christianity has. as the fruit of the story as explained with mr. Casaubon Key to All Mythologies.

But according to Ruth Livesey, Head of the Department of English at Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK, the “thinking is down.[s] Middlemarch it was done by [Eliot’s] decades of studying the latest works, reading Darwin exploring natural history and science, reading the emerging science of psychology and philosophy, all things related Middlemarch.”

At the age of 31, Mary Anne Evans left the small town of England for London where she met Herbert Spencer, Ralph Waldo Emerson and her future husband, the novelist George Henry Lewes (whose first name he borrows).

“And, you know,” said Nicholas Dames, “I think it’s very interesting, to me, the strength that it takes not only to leave a community, but to leave as a young woman. , without being able to live independently, and with proper knowledge, that [her] “The problems are not long-term solutions.”

In many ways, his own experience, with its uncertain challenges and unfulfilled promises, informs the stories of Dorothea Brooke, Dr. Lydgate and Will Ladislaw, and all of Middlemarchhis next masterpiece.

Visitors to this section:

Nicholas Dames Theodore Kahan Professor of Humanities at Columbia University in New York.

Rebecca Mead a columnist for The New Yorker and author of My life in Middlemarch.

Ruth Livesey He is the head of the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK

Ronjaunee Chatterjee Associate Professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal.

Laura Gehrke a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of Washington.

Fionnuala Dillane in the School of English, Drama and Film at the University of Dublin, Ireland.

Rebecca Shoptaw a writer and chairman of Middlemarch: The Series on Youtube.

MiddlemarchThe BBC Series, 1994, starring Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke, written by Andrew Davies based on the novel by George Eliot.


*Nah Tom Jokinen.

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