Bert Hornback looks at what Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have both described as 'probably the greatest novel in the English language'

        Charles Dickens prided himself on knowing that “George Eliot,” the author of Middlemarch, was a woman.  He had written half of Bleak House as a woman in 1850-51, and had made Esther Summerson’s voice significantly different from the omniscient narrator’s voice.  Esther, after all, is a young woman –his omniscient narrator in her late twenties when in the third chapter she begins, somewhat shyly, to write what she calls her “portion” of the novel:

I have a great deal of difficulty in beginning to write my portion of these pages, for I know that I am not clever.

         Dickens was thirty-nine when he wrote his first “portion of these pages,” beginning the novel with the most rhetorically powerful eight hundred words in the history of English fiction:

London.  Michelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in

Lincoln’s Inn Hall.  Implacable November weather.  As much mud in the streets as

if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be

wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine

lizard up Holborn Hill..  Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

. . .

This is the Court of Chancery; which has its decaying houses and its blighted lands in every shire; which has its worn-out lunatic in every madhouse, and its dead in every churchyard; which has its ruined suitor, with his slipshod heels and threadbare dress, borrowing and begging through the round of every man’s acquaintance; which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearing out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘Suffer any wrong that can be done you, rather than come here!’ 

When Esther’s turn as narrator comes beginning in chapter three, her voice is much, much different from Dickens’s.  (From, not than, as American illiteracy says.)

But though Esther’s rhetoric is radically different from her creator’s, their attitudes and understandings are quite similar, and on at least two occasions they treat material in somewhat the same way, with similar imagery.  I mention this because I want to suggest that, as readers, we not think of Esther’s narrative—in its manner or in its understanding—as in any way inferior or simply “secondary” to the omniscient narrator’s part of the novel.  Esther knows that she is writing only a “portion” of the story, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t know—or isn’t always learning—the world that the omniscient narrator knows.  And by its final chapter, which she writes, she is a wise woman, and Dickens lets the novel be her novel. 

George Eliot’s narrator, in Middlemarch, knows the world as well as Dickens does, though as a narrator she is more like Esther than she is like Esther’s creator.   Maybe Esther, at Dickens’s age, would have written her part of Bleak House more like George Eliot. When Esther concludes the final chapter of Bleak House with a dash, an incomplete sentence, it means that she isn’t finished—with her life, with her work, with her writing.  Maybe twenty or so years on, she will write her own version of Middlemarch.

When you finish reading Bleak House, you should read Middlemarch—or read it again.  It is one of the three or four best novels ever written, one of the most moving and inspiring.  And when you have finished Middlemarch, you might read another book almost as wonderful as it is:  a recent book by Rebecca Mead called My Life in Middlemarch.

“Middlemarch” is the world of Eliot’s novel, though it extends to other parts of England, even including London, and to Paris and Rome.  Middlemarch itself is a small but representative human place in the Southeast of England, and the penultimate chapter takes place “just after the Lords have thrown out the Reform Bill” in 1832.  Dorothea Brooke’s honeymoon in Rome doesn’t signify “the large” world” or “the great world.”  Still, though the House of Lords had rejected the Reform Bill—“the Rinform,” to tenant-farmer Dagley on one of Mr. Brook’s farms——by the end of the novel England was changing.  And Dorothea, with her husband Will Ladislaw, live in London, not in Middlemarch.  Will is a Member of Parliament.  Eliot’s first readers would have understood the significance of this: the Second Reform Bill had become law two years before Eliot began writing Middlemarch in 1869. 

There are three—maybe four—main parts to the large web which Eliot weaves as Middlemarch.  Dorothea Brooke in the main character in the first; she and her uncle and her sister bring in the Chettams, the Cadwalladers, and the Rev. Mr. Casaubon.  Casaubon will introduce Will Ladislaw. The Vincy and Garth families together bring in the Bulstrodes, old Peter Feartherstone, and most of the rest of Middlemarch.  Tertius Lydgate-- the new doctor in town (who has studied in Paris)--is introduced at a party at the Vincys’ house; he intends to be independent—but that’s hard, in Middlemarch 

George Eliot’s heroine, Dorothea Brooke, is an orphan, her parents having died when she was twelve.  She has been raised and educated first in an English family and then with a Swiss family.  As the novel opens, she and her sister have come to live in mostly rural Middlemarch with their wealthy uncle, “a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote.”  Like Jane Austen’s Emma, Dorothea is “handsome, clever, and rich”—but unlike Emma, a “strain of Puritan energy . . . glowed” through Dorothea, complicating her beauty and her quick intelligence, and making her uncomfortable with her wealth—which, of course, seems perverse to her neighbors.  Dorothea is like Dickens’s Esther in her desire to be good and to do good, but her situation in life is more like Emma’s.  (Dorothea would not have approved of Emma, but she would have admired Esther very much.)

Dorothea is one of the most complex and complete characters in English fiction.  Eliot’s heroine is very beautiful, highly observant, thoroughly intelligent, determinedly good, often self-critical, sometimes willful, independent, idealistic, and figuratively myopic.  At the beginning of the novel, she lives in “the prosaic neighborhood of Middlemarch,” which is both rural England in the mid-nineteenth century and the large, richly complicated world.

Tertius Lydgate, the young physician who comes to Middlemarch, is—like Dorothea—an idealist.  He is a scientist as well as a medical doctor, and his “plan for his future” is “to do good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for the world.”  He is thwarted—thwarts himself—and does neither.  Edward Casaubon has a great (and greatly absurd) project: “The Key to All Mythologies.”  Almost all the other characters have ambitions as well.  Dorothea’s stands out:  she has a desire for greatness, but not for herself.

Middlemarch is long and large, leisurely but at times intensely dramatic.  It is both panoramic in its view and microscopically penetrating.  Near the middle of the third of its six books, Eliot writes: 

            An eminent philosopher among my friends. . . has shown me this pregnant little fact.  Your pier-glass or extensive surface of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round that little sun.  It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere impartially, and it is only your candle which produces the flattering illusion of concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection.  These things are a parable.

Immediately—in this chapter—“these things are a parable,” as Eliot introduces first Rosamond Vincy’s interest in Tertius Lydgate, and then Lydgate’s interest in her.  Eliot frequently refers to webs in Middlemarch; the whole novel is her intricately assembled narrative web.  This particular web, however, is Rosamond’s, woven to catch Lydgate, who is often in the Vincy house .and carelessly available to be caught.

            Fred Vincy sees himself as caught in a web of debt, but it is of course a web of his own making.  A web of suspicion surrounds the death of Raffles.  Casaubon, at work always on his “Key to All Mythology,” organizes his notes “in pigeon-holes”—but that is not really organization, and he can never make anything coherent of his work:  there is no “Key.”  Mr. Brooke has a collection of various paper, but they are unarranged—and will remain so:  his life is not web-like, but scattered and scattering. 

George Eliot organizes the large and various world of this immense novel coherently.  Her “parable” of the polished pier-glass perfectly describes Middlemarch itself, which Eliot brings into focus for us, chapter by chapter.

Eliot’s opens Middlemarch with “Miss Brook”—the chapter title, and the novel’s first words.  Eliot focuses on Dorothea; but when Dorothea shows her “plans” for Middlemarch to her sister, Eliot reminds us that Celia too has “opinions” and a point of view.  And Celia’s pet name for her older sister is “Dodo.”  The second chapter introduces Mr, Brooke, the girls’ uncle and guardian, who is incapable of focusing on anything; and Mr. Casaubon whose focus is pretentiously immense—but his eyes are weak:  he is nearly blind.  In chapter ten, Eliot pauses to lecture us on “focus,” proposing that as focus is a matter of choice, it must be understood as at least in part a matter of self-centeredness.  In chapter fifteen, Eliot writes that her own work—her focus—is “unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they are woven and interwoven into a web.”

  Chapter twenty-nine takes place not long after Dorothea’s and Casaubon’s return from their honeymoon to Rome. 

One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick , Dorothea—but why always Dorothea?  Was her point of view the only possible one . . . ? 

 Of course it isn’t.  But Dorothea’s sympathetic understanding of this world is the most important for this world, and “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive.”  And with that assertion, at the end of the novel, Eliot changes the image of the web into one of radiance.

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