Last night, I put down my well-thumbed copy of that classic, that almost archetypal Victorian novel, Middlemarch by George Eliot. Though some may have others as their favourite Victorian novelist, and Dickens, Trollope and even Henry James must run her close, Eliot has a quality of writing that sets her apart. Going even further, I believe Middlemarch is the best of her novels. And yet it was only twenty years ago I first read this story of English provincial life at a time when Reform was the political battlefield, rival theories of evolution divided the people and the railways were cutting swathes through the countryside (and the cities): a period Eliot knew from personal experiences she could draw on as she wrote her book in the early 1870s.
Society then was a set of rules where there was a place for everyone and everyone was put in their place by those even one step up the hierarchical ladder. Money, then as now, could buy you one or two steps up the ladder but those higher up never forgot where anyone lower down had started off. The sins of the fathers or the mothers incurred a penalty of being relegated one or two steps down. These truths found a set of characters who work out their relationships and their overlapping destinies over 785 pages, almost as many as the Man Booker Prize winner this year. Eliot writes with wit, irony and erudition and unveils her story and unravels its three plot strands at the pace that suited the taste of the readership of the 1870s and its fondness for three-volume ‘baggy monsters’.
Who’s who in Middlemarch
Saintly but naïve Dorothea [BBC photo] and her sister live with their well-to-do, well-read but little-remembered, uncle Mr Brooke. They are among the novel’s representatives of the landed classes. Dorothea aspires to do good for others and to learn, while her sister Celia just wants a rich husband. While the local baronet, Sir James Cheetham trails his coat in front of her and builds better farm cottages to prove his ability to do good, Dorothea allows herself to become convinced that the dry stick and Rector of Lowick, Mr Casaubon; decades her senior, who has spent his life researching the more obscure byways of myths, seeking to track them to a common origin; is someone she could look up to, learn from and assist in his great work. Reader, she married him!
It turns out Casaubon has a much younger cousin, grandson of a Casaubon who married beneath her and that the Rector has been supporting him financially in his studies. Dorothea encounters him first in Lowick as she walks with her fiancé then later in Rome on her wedding journey where Casaubon [BBC photo] takes his taper into the Vatican’s libraries rather than taking his candle up to the marriage bed. Cousin Will Ladislaw is certainly captivated by Dorothea, and she forms an innocent liking for her lively cousin-in-law, but Casaubon takes a dim view and eventually inserts a codicil in his will that will disinherit Dorothea if she ever marries Will. He then dies, Dorothea inherits and, over the rest of the book we watch and wonder if she and Will can ever get together, despite society’s disapproval and the will’s financial penalty. Don’t peek but the answer is on page 762.
A village incomer, full of new, scientific ideas and a great ambition to do well by his fellow men is Dr Tertius Lydgate, representing the middle classes. He buys a practice in Middlemarch and plans to continue his medical and scientific researches funded by his income from treating patients but not from selling them their medicines which other doctors do. Marriage is certainly on his agenda but not much higher than Any Other Business, until he is noted and coveted by Rosamond Vincy, a pretty, empty-headed noodle who cannot conceive that others would not want to do things her way and is so convinced of her rightness that, many a time and oft, she simply does the opposite of what she has promised. Reader, he married her!
However, Lydgate’s patients are often slow to pay and he is shunned by other local practitioners, not least when Bible-punching, wealthy banker Bulstrode appoints him, but with no salary, as medical superintendent of the hospital he has financed. It wouldn’t be a Victorian novel if there were no skeletons in most characters’ cupboards and Bulstrode has his share. By becoming obliged and later indebted to Bulstrode while trying to please and placate Rosamond, Tertius is drawn inexorably into the banker’s problems. Rosamond, quite deliberately yet without telling Lydgate, thwarts her husband’s plans to move out of their expensive house into a more economical one, pushing him ever nearer financial and social ruin. How the doctor’s story ends is also not revealed until very near the end of the novel.
The real workers and hard grafters are the Garth family. Caleb Garth is a fairly representative businessman, a successful agricultural manager, surveyor and engineer, yet who cannot always manage his own finances well. He supports his family and is well liked in the community and loved by his wife and children including homely daughter Mary. Rosamond’s brother Fred Vincy is a young man who has never had to earn a living and who is destined by his mill-owning father for the church, since it seems he would be no use in the business. Fred doesn’t want to be a minister but doesn’t know what he really wants except that for as long as he can remember he has wanted to marry Mary. The Garths are fond of him and Caleb foolishly signs a bill for Fred. When Fred’s horse-dealing plan comes unstuck it is Caleb and his family who have to pay up. The story of Fred and Mary, its romantic ups and downs, is the third main strand of Middlemarch. Fred thought he was going to inherit an estate from a curmudgeonly relative until the relative died and left it elsewhere. The funeral and the will reading is one of the many great set pieces of the novel, full of wicked irony and shrewd observation of life. Thus, Fred has to struggle to find himself and make a respectable career sufficient to be able at last to propose to Mary. You will have to read the book to find out if she marries him!
Now go and see the plays
As I have mentioned in another blog, the actor-director Geoffrey Beevers has adapted the novel into a trilogy of plays – ‘Dorothea’s Story’, ‘The Doctor’s Story’ and ‘Fred and Mary’ – which are going into repertory at the renowned theatre-in-the-round, the Orange Tree in Richmond-upon-Thames. I have my tickets bought for all three. Click through here to the Orange Tree Theatre Box Office. My illustration of Fred and Mary above comes by courtesy of the Orange Tree Theatre.