George Eliot, 1871-72
~800 pp. (varies by publisher)
For starters there is the plot, rich and highly complex. Its multiple strands weave together some 20 or so characters, all of whom live in the fictional town of Middlemarch. Their separate lives impinge on one another in unforeseen ways. They fall in love, marry, and fall out of love; pursue dreams, fail and succeed.
Some aspire to improve the lot of human life, others only their own lots. Eliot places their struggles on a large canvas (oops...my weaving metaphor just unraveled), taking on countless societal issues—from marriage and politics to farming, medicine, religion, and art, even budding feminism.
Then there are the characters, so vibrant and finely wrought they refuse to settle back into their pages, even after you've closed the cover and returned the book to its shelf. Although Eliot draws them lovingly, she keeps her eye on their frailties and hypocrisy.
Young, wealthy Dorothea Brooke (one of the truly great English heroines) lives the life of a religious ascetic—who exhibits a bent toward martyrdom. But she indulges in horseback riding with near pagan abandon because—this is good—she looks forward to renouncing it! And Dorothea's guardian-uncle stands as one of literature's most deliciously comic characters.
Everything is held together by the controlling voice of an intrusive, satiric and, at times, very funny narrator.
Middlemarch may be long, wordy, and sometimes difficult to cut through, but it is an incredibly rich, compelling read. Book clubs might want to break it up into two-month segments. However you approach it, take your time, keep plugging away (especially in some of the early chapters) and savor its majesty.
And do check out the wonderful film adaptation, a 1994 BBC TV mini-series. It's gorgeous although missing the funny, biting sarcasm of the narrative voice.
See our Reading Guide for Middlemarch.
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