When I tell people I have a love for British literature, everyone assumes I’m talking about Pride & Prejudice.
There are a lot of books that count as British literature. It’s not just Jane Austen and Charles Dickens.
Recently, I finished reading Middlemarch, a rather large novel by George Eliot. The book looks like a daunting read, with a thick spine, thin pages, and a tiny-ass font. But I knew Eliot. I had read Daniel Deronda a few years ago, so I was super excited to spend time with her writing style once again.
You have to like a certain kind of writing style to like Middlemarch. Eliot spends a lot of time diving into the minds of her characters. Entire chapters are devoted to the conflict in a person’s head when they have to make a decision. Perhaps the best example is when Mr. Bulstrode has to decide on how to treat an ill man resting in his house. (For those of you who have read the book, you know exactly which moment I’m talking about.)
These deep dives into a person’s mentality are simultaneously Middlemarch’s greatest strength and weakness. I’ll admit, reading paragraphs describing a person’s hesitancy before giving a speech can be a bit…much. But, in my opinion, it’s worth it in the long run.
Those chapters you spend learning about a person’s every inclination, motivation, and inspiration set you up for bombshell chapters when these characters come into conflict with each other. You understand where everyone is coming from. So even if there is a misunderstanding between the characters, who do not have the windows into the minds of others the way we do, we as readers know all.
You feel like a god looking down into the lives of these people. Knowing their fears, their flaws, their hopes.
Something I’ve noticed with British literature (though I hate to make generalizations) is a massive attention to detail. It often feels like there is an inordinate amount of focus given to descriptions, descriptions of thoughts, emotions, and material objects.
When I was younger, reading giant paragraphs describing a person’s obsession with their furniture would have irritated me.
Now, I’m hella riveted.
Side note: Pardon the teenage parlance.
The plot of Middlemarch can be boiled down to the story of two people: Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate. Both Dorothea and Tertius have high-minded goals for themselves. Dorothea, bound by restrictions determined by her sex, decides she wants to marry someone of like mind who wants to do good in the world, for humanity and all that. As his wife, she plans to assist her future husband in all his endeavors. Tertius, a doctor, wants to initiate medical reforms and advances that will create a lasting impact in his field.
Unfortunately, both Dorothea and Tertius are thwarted in their goals (temporarily in one of their cases) by imprudent marriages. Middlemarch is about their respective struggles in maintaining their ideals while adjusting to reality.
This is a very poor attempt at laying out the premise of Middlemarch. Reading it over, I feel like I’m doing the novel a disservice. I’m making it sound boring.
But that’s seriously part of Middlemarch’s charm. It doesn’t have an exotic story with drastic twists and turns. Rather, it showcases the extraordinary in the ordinary. Dorothea and Tertius are like you and me. They make poor choices, good choices, and in-between choices. They as characters resonate with you because of that.
And who hasn’t had their ideals dampened because of the onward rush of life?
The book is best described by its final sentence, which I will include here:
“…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric 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 unvisited tombs.”George Eliot (Middlemarch)
I rate Middlemarch a best-book-I’ve-read-in-a-while-and-even-though-I-know-its-style-is-not-for-everyone-I’m-going-to-recommend-it-nevertheless-because-I-had-a-great-time-reading-it-and-I’m-selfish-that-way.