Middlemarch by George Eliot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Middlemarch was the May selection of Sisters Book Club. Follow the link to join the discussion about June’s book, The Sibling Effect by Jeffrey Kluger, or to join us in reading July’s book, The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown.
So, it took me two months to read this one start to finish, but I did it. And I must say, I enjoyed it. Although I think George Eliot could have told the story just as well in 700 pages as in 840, there weren’t any obvious spots I’d cut; no detailed accounts of politics at the time or how much things cost or nineteenth-century fishing practices.
I loved Dorothea most of any character, mostly because the mistakes she made—which were fairly big—were all made in a spirit of self-sacrifice and doing the right thing. The other characters in the novel run into trouble when they start acting in narrow self-interest. If you live in Middlemarch and lack self-reflection, Eliot has it in for you.
Of course, even with ample self-reflection, that doesn’t necessarily mean everything’s going to be coming up roses for you. This is a realistic book in the sense that the problems people face don’t have clear-cut solutions, and even the “happy” endings aren’t unequivocally happy.
But Dorothea is awesome because she’s unrelenting about following her convictions, no matter what kind of discomfort it leads her into. Even when she’s making really big errors in judgement, I still love her.
Dorothea is the agent of the only totally genuine conversation of the entire novel—and that doesn’t happen until Chapter 81, nearly 800 pages into the book. This is why I think this book took so long to read: Things couldn’t happen quickly because no one was being straight with anyone else. Everyone’s calculating what they should say based on how they think the other person will react or how they want to make the other person react, and in the meantime acting behind each others’ backs, and it’s enough to make me want to pull my hair out sometimes. Just say what you mean, Middlemarchers! Jeez, Louise!
Of course, now that I’ve said that, I have to admit that one of my two favorite parts of the novel was the relationship between sisters Dorothea and Celia in the beginning of the book, how they each danced around one another with too much knowledge about one another to prevaricate much but also enough that they have to be careful what they pull out to hurt one another. It rang true, at least based on my own familial interactions. I think in these kinds of interactions, I’m stubborn Dorothea, and my sister is more Celia, aware of all that’s going on around her and the way in which her actions and words influence everyone (without believing that she has complete power over them, as Rosamond does).
The other part I love is the juxtaposition of the different marital relationships, especially the Bulstrodes and the Lydgates. This is going to potentially get a teensy bit spoiler-y, so please skip on over this indented bit if you don’t want anything spoiled.
So, I was really struck how neither Mrs. Bulstrode nor Mrs. Lydgate had any idea if her husband was guilty of what the rumors claimed he was guilty of—and neither asked because neither is Dorothea, the only character who directly addresses anything—but Mrs. Bulstrode stuck by her husband and Mrs. Lydgate turned her back on him. I’m not sure who I’m more like in this situation, and I hope I never have a need to find out.
End of spoilery bit. That really wasn’t all that bad, I guess, but I live with a man who gets uptight whenever there’s a hint of of spoiler, so I’m extra sensitive to that and try to be extra careful not to reveal too much. That’s part of why I don’t include summaries of the books I review. That and that I’m too lazy to summarize the book when people can find summaries on Goodreads and Amazon and on the back cover of the book itself.
The thing I’m likely to carry with me about this book for quite some time, though, is the last sentence. And don’t worry, even though it’s the last line, it’s not a spoiler, even by my spouse’s strict definition.
But the effect on her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
As someone who prefers to fly under the radar (blog authorship notwithstanding), I find this sentiment hopeful. I also believe that it’s true. A million grains of sand can have the effect of one dramatic earthquake.
This sentiment is particularly poignant coming as it does from the pen of a woman writing under a man’s name.
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