George Eliot's Middlemarch
A contribution by FELIX M LARKIN to the “Members’ Musings” feature in the Kildare Street & University Club’s special weekly online newsletter during the COVID-19 lockdown, 19 June 2020.
At a public lecture in Dublin in February, held under the auspices of Studies, the Jesuit journal, I heard Chris Patten (Lord Patten of Barnes), former British Conservative MP and last Governor of Hong Kong, describe George Eliot’s Middlemarch as “the greatest English novel”. That was not the first time that I heard it so described, but I had never found time to read it. I decided that I should use the period of seclusion required by the government’s Covid-19 regulations to finally read this much admired work.
What constitutes a “great” novel? For me, greatness in literature is a function of its ability still to speak to us despite being the product of a different era and/or a different culture. By that standard, Middlemarch – first published in 1871-72 – is certainly “great”.
It is a novel about ordinary people – one is tempted to say “normal people”, making a genuflection to one of our currently popular novels and television adaptations. The characters live “faithfully a hidden life”, to quote from the famous final sentence of the novel. This focus on the ordinary is something that resonates with us today: there are no heroes, just people whose lives are spent “in channels which had no great name on the earth”.
There is, however, a villain – one whose villainy is familiar to us. Mr Bulstrode is a dodgy banker, with a dark secret of past malfeasance. He tries to compensate for his past with a stridently evangelical Christianity, leading one of the locals in the town of Middlemarch to say of him after he is eventually exposed: “what’s more against a man’s stomach than a man coming and making himself bad company with his religion, and giving out as the Ten Commandments are not good enough for him, and all the while he’s worse than half the men at the tread-mill?” This could well be said of some evangelical zealots in Trump’s entourage.
At the core of the novel are certain “love problems” – marriages and courtships – which are every bit as tortured as Connell and Marianne’s affair in Normal People. Unlike Normal People, there are no sex scenes in Middlemarch – but a definite frisson is evident when Dorothy and Ladislaw overcome their reticence and admit their love for one another at the end of the novel.
One of the problematic marriages involves a young doctor, Lydgate, who has ambitious plans for a new hospital in Middlemarch and is, at one point, concerned with “preparing a new ward in case of the cholera coming to us”. This adds a contemporary dimension to the novel, with the threat of Covid-19 hanging over us. There was a cholera epidemic in Britain in 1831-32 – and Middlemarch is set over the period of a few years ending in 1832.
And how could a curmudgeonly old bachelor like me not respond sympathetically to Mr Brooke’s pronouncement on marriage: “I never loved any one well enough to put myself into a noose for them. It is a noose, you know.”
It had been many years since I read a Victorian novel, and I will confess that I found Middlemarch challenging. It is long and moves at a stately pace, and the language is very formal – though beautiful. I am happy to acknowledge it as “great” and am glad to have read it, but I have not changed my view that the greatest English novel – pace Chris Patten – is Dickens’ Bleak House.
Trollope aficionados in the Kildare Street & University Club may, of course, have other ideas about what is the greatest English novel. Please discuss!