Surely most everyone who’s come in contact with the novels of George Eliot knows that the author’s real name was Mary Ann Evans. She was one of the most distinguished writers in a remarkable group of 19th century novelists. A lot of her high standing comes from “Middlemarch”, a long, comprehensive story set in a small city in early 19th century England.
I’m more than halfway through listening to an audiobook of this novel, read with warmth and countless nuances by Juliet Stevenson, who’s known for her work in films. I’ve not heard or read the novel in full before. Some authorities say it’s the greatest one in English. Since there are quite a number of good novels in English, I wouldn’t award top prize to any of them. But “Middlemarch” certainly deserves an honored place, in a class by itself.
It’s the work of a mature mind that investigates many aspects of middle class urban life.
I especially noticed and appreciated the balance between male and female characters, a feature in many 19th century novels. One gender isn’t more important to society than the other.
Eliot was a highly-skilled writer. The word-pictures she drew of Middlemarch seem true and lifelike. She didn’t mock her characters or look down on them from the height of a great artist. Her work is filled with a spirit of care and compassion.
A hallmark of the realistic novel is that decisions and actions have consequences. Dorothea Brooke marries an older man, a clergyman and scholar who works on a time-consuming project that’s surrounded by an aura of failure. Mr. Casaubon turns out to be a different sort of man from the generous-hearted thinker Dorothea, with her youthful trustingness, had imagined. Disappointed, she finds that marriage has become a duty that’s burdensome to carry out.
Eliot understood her people through and through. There are no one-dimensional souls amnog the dozen or so major characters in “Middlemarch”. She portrays weaknesses along with strengths.
“Middlemarch” is huge, well-paced and well-thought-out, thorough, and within the reach of most everyone who knows English.
I wondered what conditions are necessary to create a novel like this one. Eliot must have known that a few at least among her contemporaries would appreciate the results of her efforts. She must have had good work habits and a steady mind that could envision a big work and carry it through to completion. It’s a good bet that she was skilled at ignoring distractions.
If she’d lived today and had the same talents and ambitions, she would have found the strength to resist the blandishments of our materialistic way of life. She might say, “Go away, temptation. I have a picture in my mind of the kind of book I want to write. I’ll do whatever it takes to get it done. Thousands of readers will prefer the story I’m going to tell to the flashy works that temporarily attract attention.”
My present-day version of George Eliot isn’t as boastful as she sounds. Surveying the current scene, she realizes — most important of all — that modesty of mind, humility before the wonder of life is a creative person’s greatest asset. That’s where steadiness, persistence, fresh ideas, and clarity of mind come from.