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By Nick Turnbull on 22.2.2024

Middlemarch – Nick Turnbull

Middlemarch is a delightful novel. There are hundreds of students who might read this; about three quarters of them will probably have stopped reading this by now , or Middlemarch itself, in fact, you can’t escape the problem, the first time you pick it up: it’s a hefty bugger. Middlemarch is also a Nineteenth Century novel, Jesus; It’s over seven-hundred pages long, written by George Eliot. Isn’t she a bit like Jane Austen? I’m not reading that.

Well, you ought to, because, as above, it really IS a delight. The skewed perspective of the life of the wealthy, turns out, no one has fun in a loveless marriage, even if your pockets are vomiting money, spread across the clergy, the youthful intelligentsia and corrupt town councilors contrasts perfectly with the lives and times of the plain-faced Garth family, with a daughter revered by a debt-hounded poor little rich boy.

Thematically, Middlemarch is nigh-on untouchable. The corrupt town councilor, murdering and stealing fits perfectly into Eliot’s ‘web’, debated nigh-on a thousand times in teaching rooms across the land, with the relationships between the core characters. The novel is so long because it has so many different strands weaving in and out of each other throughout the narrative, however, these threads, in their variation, render the novel exciting and fresh each time we come back to it. The dilemma of Will Ladislaw and Dorothea Brooke’s hidden love, the mounting debts of the reserved, enigmatic Tertius Lydgate, Fred Vincy’s quest for honour and respectability in the eyes of the woman he loves, even Eliot’s convoluted gestation of her own ideas about the mooted Reform Bill; all of these branches are examined in perfect detail, moments only remain ambiguous when they ought to, Eliot’s omniscient narrator giving us additional material as required, bringing us in and out of the scene, occasionally letting us up for air.

So far, it might well sound like a Jane Austen novel; I’ve mentioned love a bit, and there are a few weddings. The difference between Austen and Eliot is in the pacing of the novel, something that it may sound bizarre to claim considering Middlemarch is longer than any of Austen’s novels. Could you expect a wedding at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice? Or a real evaluation of those who live in poverty and what we can do to help them, in Sense and Sensibility? – “How can we live and think that anyone has trouble – piercing trouble- and we could help them, and never try?” Eliot examines the nature of the poetic, the rural, the community, the human psyche in all its vicious facets and still surfaces with happy endings and without. Middlemarch deals with the issues Austen explored, sees the boundaries set and smashes them all down anyway.

Middlemarch isn’t obvious, it isn’t easy, it IS long, but it is worth its weight in stolen gold. It is one of the supreme achievements of the English language; only Moby-Dick can match it, in terms of scope, but the characters of Middlemarch lift it above Herman Melville’s brutal maritime epic.


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