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Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) Paperback – March 25, 2003
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"One of the few English novels written for grown-up people" -- Virginia Woolf
"The most profound, wise and absorbing of English novels...and, above all, truthful and forgiving about human behavior." -- Hermione Lee
About the Author
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans Cross) was born on November 22, 1819 at Arbury Farm, Warwickshire, England. She received an ordinary education and, upon leaving school at the age of sixteen, embarked on a program of independent study to further her intellectual growth. In 1841 she moved with her father to Coventry, where the influences of “skeptics and rationalists” swayed her from an intense religious devoutness to an eventual break with the church. The death of her father in 1849 left her with a small legacy and the freedom to pursue her literary inclinations. In 1851 she became the assistant editor of the Westminster Review, a position she held for three years. In 1854 came the fated meeting with George Henry Lewes, the gifted editor of The Leader, who was to become her adviser and companion for the next twenty-four years. Her first book, Scenes of a Clerical Life (1858), was followed by Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860),Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1872). The death of Lewes, in 1878, left her stricken and lonely. On May 6, 1880, she married John Cross, a friend of long standing, and after a brief illness she died on December 22 of that year, in London.
Rosemary Ashton, Professor of English Literature at University College, London, is the editor of the Penguin Classics edition of Middlemarch.
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I loved Middlemarch, but I didn’t devour it. I chewed it slowly - the writing too beautiful to swallow whole. It grabbed me right from the start and I knew I was in for a sublime reading experience.
In many of the reviews I have read people have mentioned that Eliot’s narrative voice was not to their liking, finding it too didactic or distracting. I found her narrative to be one of the things I liked best. It was through this technique that most of the wisdom and life lessons were imparted. The narrative became another character for me, seamlessly blended with the rest of the characters.
“We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, "Oh, nothing!" Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts--not to hurt others."
Her ability to sum up a character in one beautifully written paragraph is remarkable.
In describing Mr. Casaubon, one of the main characters, Eliot writes. “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 ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.”
In talking about another character, Dr. Lydgate, she says. “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.”
Her dry wit and humor are scattered throughout the book like sparkling gems.
“Miserliness is a capital quality to run in families; it's the safe side for madness to dip on”.
"He has got no good red blood in his body," said Sir James. "No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass and it was all semicolons and parentheses," said Mrs. Cadwallader.
"Oh, tallish, dark, clever--talks well--rather a prig, I think." "I never can make out what you mean by a prig," said Rosamond. "A fellow who wants to show that he has opinions." "Why, my dear, doctors must have opinions," said Mrs. Vincy. "What are they there for else?" "Yes, mother, the opinions they are paid for. But a prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions."
“But Duty has a trick of behaving unexpectedly--something like a heavy friend whom we have amiably asked to visit us, and who breaks his leg within our gates.”
Eliot is sympathetic to her characters, showing the good and bad in all, even the characters who would be despised if written by most authors. There is no black and white here, and yet the story is still compelling without the devise of writing purely lovable or despicable characters. We are shown what motivates the most hateful figures as well as those we are drawn to, and as a result there is no one in this book with whom you cannot empathize in some way. Her writing is infused with penetrating insights into human nature without ever losing compassion and understanding for their frailties. This empathy for her characters, perhaps more than anything else, differentiates her writing from Dickens and Austen.
I now look forward to reading all her other novels, starting with her first one, Adam Bede. It should be interesting to see her progression from first novel to last. I had very few preconceived notions about Middlemarch before I read it and maybe that helped me to enjoy it all the more, but enjoy it I certainly did!
Treat yourself to a better edition of the work than this one.
Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch during 1829–32, and widely considered the greatest of Victorian novels, this mighty work
has often been compared to Tolstoy's War and Peace due to it's immense cast, and it's historical precision. Additionally, however, it reminds me of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady (1880) due to it's depth of psychological analysis of human nature in all its rhythms and shades. Some have called Middlemarch a novel without a hero, but in the end it is the town of Middlemarch itself, with all its dizzying array of foibles and follies, loves and slanders, gossip and redemption, tragedy and laughter, wealth and poverty, that fills the role. The author never ridicules, never mocks, but simply loves her people, every one, and after spending six months with them I will miss every one, even the monsters, but especially the disappointed.
Halfway through I discovered that Edward VII (1841-1910), Queen Victoria's eldest son, read Middlemarch annually from it's publication until his death, thirty-six years later. I can see why. Spanning eight books, and nearly a thousand ages, the author never falters.
“Men outlive their love, but they don’t outlive the consequences of their recklessness.
"Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending. Who can quit young lives after being long in company with them, and not desire to know what befell them in their after-years? For the fragment of a life, however typical, is not the sample of an even web: promises may not be kept, and an ardent outset may be followed by declension; latent powers may find their long-waited opportunity; a past error may urge a grand retrieval. Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic--the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common. Some set out, like Crusaders of old, with a glorious equipment of hope and enthusiasm and get broken by the way, wanting patience with each other and the world."
And, finally, the last and most famous line in the book, “...for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on un-historic acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in un-visited tombs.”