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Middlemarch (Penguin Classics) Paperback – March 25, 2003
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From Library Journal
Though not out of print, this popular title is being added to the venerable "Modern Library" line to coincide with a PBS Masterpiece Theatre miniseries. Along with the full text, this edition includes an introduction by A.S. Byatt. All that for $15 makes this a bargain.
Copyright 1994 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
"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
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Top customer reviews
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!
This is not to say, however, that it is not thought-provoking, challenging, and exciting at times, but it certainly has its fair share of lulls, and I can only agree with the prevailing view that it would be a much better book were it half - or at the most, two-thirds - the length. It must be said that the wit and vivacity of the prose saves the story from being deadly dull at times. Eliot's descriptive powers produce occasional zingers, such as saying that the crusty old scholar Mr. Casaubon is "as genuine a character as any ruminant animal" (George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, Hertfordshire, 1994, p. 163).
The story begins with several marriages involving young people who take no time to think twice before entering into holy matrimony. The first of these matches is between Dorothea Brooke and the much older Mr. Casaubon. The story centers on Dorothea and what becomes a complicated, though always honorable, love triangle involving Dorothea, Mr. Casaubon, and the passionate, artistic soul that is Will Ladislaw. However, the 'web' ensnares other young lovers, whose experiences of disenchantment and, in contrast, lazy, contented fecundity, we are allowed to view, for a time, as backgrounds to Dorothea's plight. Eliot treats each character's complicated life with respect, and it is clear that she understands the allure of young love:
"Young love-making - that gossamer web! ... The web itself is made of spontaneous beliefs and indescribable joys, yearnings of one life towards another, visions of completeness, indefinite trust" (George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, Hertfordshire, 1994, pp. 284-5).
Only one of Eliot's young characters, Mary Garth, has the sense to look at marriage with her head as well as her heart, and it is interesting that she, the most practical of the young women, comes from the servant class, whereas all the others are from the pampered upper classes. Will Mary's insistence on a long courtship and a sound financial base upon which to build a marriage pay dividends in the end?
MIDDLEMARCH has a wealth of peripheral themes and older characters (my personal favorite being the comically well-meaning but vague Mr Brooke) that offer rich diversions from the central theme. Politics, intrigue, blackmail, and even manslaughter can be found within these pages. But Eliot always returns to the central theme, the hope and despair of young love, epitomized by Dorothea and Will. Even as Will laments his hopeless, forbidden love, Eliot whispers in the narrative background, "... what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope" (George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH, Wordsworth Editions, Ware, Hertfordshire, 1994, p. 411). Certainly the most passionate of the young lovers, Will draws us into his cogitations and agitations. We take the tumultuous ride of young love with him right to the end, only hoping for him that it will not be a bitter end but something much sweeter.
Dorothea Brooke is a young woman about to take a much older husband, determined to find purpose in her life by assisting him with his life's work, a book which is to a definitive guide to all the mythologies of the world. When she begins to suspect her husband's work is little more than empty piffle, how will she find her way?
Mr. Lydgate is a hotshot young physician determined to do great works from the small town of Middlemarch. Thwarted by small town suspicion and politics, and increasingly saddled by debt incurred by a pretty young wife, how will he cope as his life's dream slips away?
Fred Vincy is the son of a town merchant determined to see him made a gentleman. He's paid for Fred to recieve a gentleman's education at Oxford with the intention that Fred will join the Church. Fred knows the Church isn't for him, but isn't sure what else to do, nor how to tell his father his education was for naught.
These are just three of a huge cast of characters, all of them fascinating in their own way as their lives intersect. The book feels more like a documentary than a novel, and you grow to feel as if the characters could be your own friends and neighbors. Highly recommended, I know this is going to be one of my favorite books.