Winter seems now to approach us as an honest season, arriving when expected, a little snow, not too much, a little cold, not too bad. There are people who pray for snow far more than I ever will, no doubt the owners of the ski slope about a mile farther along the ridge from where I live. During ski season the white swathes are clearly visible down the side of the mountain, and when I drive home from the grocery store, if I look hard enough, I can see tiny dark figures swooshing back and forth down the hill. But for me December is a time to be inside in a sweater, lost in good novels, books that both entertain and send sparks through the neural networks.
Here is a sentence from one of those sparkling novels: “Only those who know the supremacy of the intellectual life—the life which has a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it—can understand the grief of one who falls from that serene activity into the absorbing soul-wasting struggle with worldly annoyances.”
I feel a profound empathy with such a quote, and even more ennobling is the fact that it comes from Middlemarch, published in 1874 by George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans (though she later went by Marian Evans). There are many excited exclamations I could make about the book, but I’ll just take four points of admiration and expand on them.
(1) At the level of language a master is at work in this book. At times the style winds like a kudzu vine, a little thick for some modern readers, as we have grown accustomed to a far more stripped-down style. For readers willing to follow the curves, however, and peer beneath the leaves, there is a great potential pleasure, to experience the thoughtful ideas of an intelligent person in brilliant prose.
Here is one example, describing the feelings of Dorothea, contemplating the lack of connection to her from the emotionless monster she has mistakenly married: “That is a strong word [horrible], but not too strong: it is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are for ever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness—calling their denial knowledge.”
(2) Middlemarch displays a sense of humor. In this regard, it is superior to books by Tolstoy, who, if had a sense of humor, kept it well hidden. Real life has humor, even when life is bad. At times Eliot is a little sarcastic, as any thoughtful person must be when pondering the nature of the world. Here she introduces a scientific fact she wishes to expostulate on: “An eminent philosopher among my friends, who can dignify even your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has shown me this pregnant little fact.”
(3) Probably the single most notable quality of the book is the richness and diversity of characters. That diversity may also be cause for one of the criticisms of the book, that it lacks a clear narrative focus. (That’s not my idea—I read such a criticism. Personally, I don’t care.) Depending on how you might perceive the criteria for major status, there could be as many as 10 major characters, with quite a few minor ones. I’m in awe and envy at Eliot’s ability to make such a range of characters real, with their thoughts, their speech, their actions, and I bow to a master who I know I cannot equal. Several things are interesting in Eliot’s portrayal of this village crowd. No one is flawless. Eliot gives faults to every character, and at times we want to criticize them all. Nevertheless, even with the most whiningly intolerable or morally repugnant characters, the author is remarkably generous. She gives each of them a sympathetic point of view while the book is focused on them, and we are given ways to connect with and momentarily understand even the repellent persons.
(4) The book is dense with the life of the times, and not just the immediate lives of the characters. Eliot writes with a shifting third-person point of view, at times holding the narrative very close to the characters, one after another. She then gives herself space by pulling back, to be able to make comments on society, art, philosophy, and so on. Both in the author’s commentary as well as in the plot there is a surprising amount of information on contemporary politics as well as on current developments in medicine.
There is also a strong depiction of life at that time regarding social class and relations between men and women. One of the more prominent characters is Dorothea, who is very young throughout the novel, from 19 until her early 20s. She is very intelligent, with a nature that is strongly empathetic and kind, and she wishes to use both her intelligence and desire to help people.
At times it was a frustration to me as a reader to see the stupid social restrictions on women, the usual waste of human talent, and I would guess that a brilliant woman like Mary Ann Evans must have experienced frustration as well. She did, after all, publish under a man’s name. I was glad to learn that later in Eliot’s life, she had a long and very happy relationship with a man who she regarded as her husband, even though he could not legally get divorced from his previous wife. So he and Mary Ann Evans simply lived together and ignored the social rules. I admire her still more for that.
Even without knowing any of George Eliot’s biography, it’s clear from reading Middlemarch that here was a writer who had truly experienced life and thought about it, to be able to write such a book.