Mary Anne Evans (Marian Evans), writing as George Eliot, deserves the praise that has been echoing since she started speaking her mind through written words. Middlemarch came out in 1871-2, and if I read it before I remembered nothing of it, convincing me that it’s a necessity to read and re-read the classic works throughout your life, as they make different and stronger impressions as your own well of experience has grown.

Dorothea Brooke/Casaubon/Ladislaw is the shining angel of the story and is compared to the Virgin Mary multiple times throughout. We first meet her as an unmarried lass, strictly determined to focus on the important things in life and if possible marry a great man (someone of Milton’s stature) to help with his life’s work. Unfortunately, she chooses the dry and crumbly Casaubon, 30 years her senior, who at least has the good graces to be rich as well as pious. More fortunately, he’s only on the scene for a few years before kicking the bucket from ill-health. But the jealous old man puts a kicker in his will, that Dorothea is to lose his property should she marry his cousin Will Ladislaw, with whom she has only the barest of friendships. At this point, I screamed at the book that she should give her money to Ladislaw first, and then marry him, to get around this ridiculous clause. Instead, they strain at their innocent and budding relationship until Dorothea realizes she’s in love because of her jealous reaction to seeing Rosamund tête-à-tête and mistakes his intentions. Eventually, she throws away her fortune and joins forces with Will.

There are other couples as well, including the foolish Rosamond, married to Lydgate the doctor. And foolish Rosamond’s foolish brother Fred, who gets into debt and seems to be one of the usual layabout gents without a fortune, redeems himself to capture Mary Garth. There’s scandal aplenty, with Bulstrode the banker covering up his disreputable past, slightly murdering Raffles the wag who could spread the truth about him, and involving Lydgate in the scent of bribery.

Eliot was brutal in her description of Casaubon, making it no problem for the reader to hate this small-souled man. The description post-honeymoon captures this perfectly:

Mr and Mrs Casaubon, returning from their wedding journey, arrived at Lowick Manor in the middle of January. A light snow was falling as they descended at the door, and in the morning, when Dorothea passed from her dressing-room into the blue-green boudoir that we know of, she saw the long avenue of limes lifting their trunks from a white earth, and spreading white branches against the dun and motionless sky. The distant flat shrank in uniform whiteness and low-hanging uniformity of cloud. The very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before: the stag in the tapestry looked more like a ghost in his ghostly blue-green world; the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase looked more like immovable imitations of books. The bright fire of dry oakboughs burning on the dogs seemed an incongruous renewal of life and glow – like the figure of Dorothea herself as she entered carrying the red-leather cases containing the cameos for Celia.

As for the man himself:

And when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded: she might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary, an aid which Mr Casaubon had never yet employed and had a suspicious dread of. (Mr Casaubon was nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.)… For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self—never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.

Her thoughts on politics mesh well with today’s:

It was a time, according to a noticeable article in the ‘Pioneer,’ when the crying needs of the country might well counteract a reluctance to public action on the part of men whose minds had from long experience acquired a breadth as well as concentration, decision of judgement as well as tolerance, dispassionateness as well as energy—in fact, all those qualities which in the melancholy experience of mankind have been least disposed to share lodgings.

Some other odds & ends I enjoyed:

  • “Has any one eve pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?”
  • “But Fielding lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clocks ticked slowly in the winter evenings.”