Middlemarch, written in 1871 by author Mary Anne Evans under the male nom de plume George Eliot, concerns the people and events in a British provincial town at the birth of the Victorian era. Although written in the form of a typical nineteenth century novel, the book is really a collection of social criticisms, bound up in story form.
The tale itself is very complicated, à la Desperate Housewives, with an ensemble cast of characters that are regularly intruding into each other’s lives. Unlike works by other popular British authors such as Jane Austen, class distinctions do not play a significant role in Eliot’s book. Instead, local rumormongering and the impact of national politics in a local town, medical advances, and the role of money in families set the stage for several of the book’s conflicts.
The problem with the book is that Ms. Eliot regularly interrupts the story with scholarly articles on the ills of British culture. As a woman forced to publish under a male pseudonym, it makes sense that she would include in the book her own views on the role of women. While she does insert some of those ideas into the narrative, she finds this unsatisfying, and repeatedly makes room for three-page essays on whatever happened to be bothering her about society on any given day. Even in the main storyline, the text is thick and plodding, due to her constant harkening back to how every character is impacted by the world around them. She explains everything in intricate detail instead of letting the lives of the characters tell their own stories.
Her statements and opinions on current events are interesting and satisfying. She isn’t simply a crank; she has valid and well-reasoned things to say about the injustices she sees around her. So why doesn’t she just say them instead of cutting and pasting them into some story she decided to write? Instead of pondering the merits of her arguments, I found myself dismissing those blocks of thick commentary, wondering when she was going to get back to the story.
Despite these stylistic flaws, Middlemarch is a great book, mostly because it says great things. The core story could have been massaged into a shorter Harlequin Romance. But with the political observations embedded into the text, the book becomes a useful treatise on society and its norms during the Victorian era, some of which are still hotly debated today.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.