Saturday, March 29, 2014

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I recently reviewed My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and she inspired me to return – for the third time – to one of my all-time favorite novels: Middlemarch by George Eliot.  Fortunately, on my first two reads, I used two different pencils, so I was able to compare my readings as I went along.

First page of the manuscript of Middlemarch
According to the BBC History Website, George Eliot was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, one of the leading English novelists of the 19th century.  She was born on November 22, 1819 in rural Warwickshire. When her mother died in 1836, Eliot left school to help run her father's household. In 1841, she moved with her father to Coventry and lived with him until his death in 1849. Eliot then travelled in Europe, eventually settling in London.  In 1850, Eliot began contributing to the Westminster Review, a leading journal for philosophical radicals and later became its editor.  She was now at the centre of a literary circle through which she met George Henry Lewes, with whom she lived until his death in 1878.  Lewes was married and their relationship caused a scandal.  Eliot was shunned by friends and family.  Lewes encouraged Eliot to write. In 1856, she began a series of novels, which proved to be great successes.  She used a male pen name to ensure her works were taken seriously in an era when female authors were usually associated with romantic novels.  The popularity of Eliot's novels brought social acceptance, and Lewes and Eliot's home became a meeting place for writers and intellectuals.  After Lewes' death Eliot married a friend, John Cross, who was 20 years her junior. She died on December 22 1880 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery in North London.

Eliot underscored the importance of teaching reading and the humanities when she wrote in a letter to Frederic Harrison the following:  “aesthetic teaching is the highest of all teaching because it deals with life in its highest complexity” (593).  This quintessential novel of the nineteenth century conveys, in a wonderfully entertaining fashion, the complex tangled web of love, marriage, and relationships.

My worn Norton Edition has hundreds of passages underlined and annotated.  The attempt to encapsulate this novel in a single passage proves almost impossible.  So, I decided to quote the opening passage, which describes the main character:

“Miss Brooks had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.  Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible, -- or from one of our elder poets, -- in a paragraph of today’s newspaper.  She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common sense” (1).

Middlemarch by George Eliot is one of the great novels of British Literature.  Rather than simply read, it should be experienced.  Do not be deterred by its 578 pages.  You will visit Middlemarch and soon return after what will seem like the briefest of vacations.  5 stars

--Chiron, 3/22/14

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