By Lisa Folkmire
I was a freshman in college in when I was first introduced to Middlemarch. Not as a reading assignment, but as a book recommendation after a long discussion in a visiting professor’s office, circulating around titles like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Little Women, Persuasion, House of Mirth, and Madame Bovary. I remember being awkward, attempting to field my way through a conversation with a professor without misspeaking, swinging my combat boots under the confines of the desk as I tried to sound impressive, and the professor (obviously not struggling at all in holding an adult conversation) ending with her recommendation, “Read Middlemarch. It’s the best piece of 1800s British literature.”
I picked it up at a used bookstore somewhere in the next three years, and at the end of my MFA studies, I opened it up, and became a silent citizen of the provincial town of Middlemarch for six months.
Mary Anne Evans (generally known by her male pen name, George Eliot) masterfully weaves together the thoughts, gossip, politics, economy, and class system of a small town in England. She uses a selection of town couples and their families as catalysts for town drama and advancements. The reader becomes a sort of eavesdropper in the conversations, as the townsfolk wander into each other lives for tea or a visit, discussing what they recently overheard.
Littered with points of narrative awareness, the reader is constantly reminded that the narrator is also watching events unfold as the book continues. At one point Evans writes: “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 illuminations, 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 a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent.”
The entire plot of Middlemarch rests in the scratches illuminated by the narrative candle. Each person brings to light an opinion or viewpoint of what’s occurring in the town, and each point brought into a conversation changes the readers’ understanding of what’s occurring. When a secret is brought into view, Evans writes of each character’s understanding of what’s going on through thought, discussion, and reaction. Not only in large happenings such as changes in politics or medical advancements, but in small issues as well: marital issues, gambling debts, or bribery in local elections. In this, Evans perfectly reflects group understanding in a village setting: every piece of information is subject to change with each person it travels through.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Evans’ writing is the timelessness of the issues raised through the townspeople. She echoes issues current in today’s politics: lack of communication between rich and poor, massive change in political environment, discussions on advancements in science, and constant discussion of a woman’s place outside of the conventional homestead.
It is most notable that Evans never once allows her female characters to remain submissive to their husbands or their male relatives. Even Dorothea Brookes, the character most beloved by the men in the novel and viewed by the women as the epitome of womanhood, strives to give women equal footing with men in Middlemarch, refuses to keep her opinions to herself. Her status in town, a landowning and wealthy widow, adds to the power she carries with her decisions and comments.
At one point, she gives her uncle, Mr. Brookes, her personal outlook on how to ease class strife as he plans to enter Parliament. She tells him, “I used to come from the village with all the dirt and coarse ugliness like a pain within me, like a wicked attempt to find delight in what is false, while we don’t mind how hard the truth is for the neighbors outside our walls. I think we have no right to come forward and urge wider changes for good, until we have tried to alter the evils which lie under our own hands.” Her words stand for the poor, for the hard truth in discrepancy between upper and lower class in their town, and for necessary awareness absent in Parliament. Dorothea often uses her knowledge, voice, and money to advance those with less than she has. By 24, she establishes herself as a politically and socially minded intellectual, often unwilling to listen to advice from the men around her.
All of the female characters–especially the young women–in the novel are independently minded: Mary Garth prolongs her engagement to Fred Vincy until he finds a sustainable way to pay off his gambling debts; Rosamond Lydgate pays little heed to her husband’s requests, doing whatever she wants without any regard to how it might affect her marriage; and Dorothea constantly refutes the unwarranted advice given to her by the many men drawn to her by the property and income left to her after the death of her husband, Mr. Casaubon. The women represent degrees of patience, of social awareness and of devoutness to the town; Evans relies on the women in the story to keep the plot growing through their raised concerns and quick decisions.
The men, in turn, act as representations of growing issues at the time. Tertius Lydgate represents advancements in the medical field whereas Mr. Brookes brings to the light the effects of a changing political climate during the reformation, and Mr. Casaubon and Will Ladislaw both represent the changing views of the academic, the writer and artist in an old and young tension. The men in the novel aren’t submissive as much as afraid to upset the women around them. Often the characters to get themselves or their families into trouble or public embarrassment, the men all attempt to fix what they did with the women in their lives first. As Lydgate thinks to himself after especially upsetting his wife, “’Would she kill me because I wearied her?’ and then, ‘It is the way with all women.’”
Through this combination of reaction and issues, of women and men, this constant discussion between characters, Middlemarch gathers its plot. The tension points build as gossip spreads, and continue to build as outlying issues enter the town. The building of a new railroad through tenant land, the Reform Act of 1832, the death of King George IV, advancements in medicine and a spread of cholera, all enter town and town discussion, and all take tolls on the characters’ lives.
In an extremely active and progressive time in England’s history, Evans writes through a passive approach, adding more tension to the plot’s development.
In this, the reader also begins to understand the structure of the town: the relation of the Mayor’s family (the Vincys) to the banker’s family (the Mayor’s sister’s husband, the Bulstrodes) to the Garths (Mary Garth, daughter of businessman Caleb Garth, and betrothed to Fred Vincy), to the new doctor in town, Tertius Lydgate (married to Rosamond Vincy, the Mayor’s daughter and Fred’s sister), to Dorothea Brookes (friend to Tertius Lydgate, who also tended to her first husband, Edward Casaubon), to Will Ladislaw (cousin to Edward Casaubon, friend to Rosamund and Tertius Lydgate), to Mr. Brooke (Uncle and caretaker to Dorothea Brookes and boss of Will Ladislaw). The relationships shift and change as the book continues, as secrets are revealed, and as characters continue to share information with one another.
There are certain points when Evans uses the villagers from the “far side” of Middlemarch as a new viewpoint of goings on in the village. When the “railroad people” begin to look at Lowick Parish, a portion of Middlemarch, as land for new train tracks, Mr. Solomon, the overseer of the roads, tells waggoner Hariam Ford, “some say the country’s seen its best days, and the sign is, as it’s being overrun with these fellows trampling right and left, wanting to cut it up into railways; and all for the big traffic to swallow up the little, so as there shan’t be a team left on the land, nor a whip to crack.”
The villagers from the far side of Middlemarch have limited communication with the characters most prominent in the book. They watch as their land becomes partitioned off to “greater causes,” affecting their farms and livelihood without so much as a note of warning. Dorothea’s earlier warnings to her uncle ring true, unbeknownst to the far side villagers.
This awareness of class system and the distance between rich and poor, between the controlling and the controlled, serves as the novel’s thesis.
The constant references to London further support this. In the discussions held in Middlemarch, by rich and poor, London remains distant, a place to disappear to. To the Lydgates, it becomes a place of escape after word spreads about their debt. For Ladislaw, it’s a place of escape from Middlemarch once word about his possible relations with Dorothea Casaubon (Brookes) spreads through town. For the villagers on the outskirts of town, the workers, it’s referred to as “a centre of hostility to the country.”
London eventually represents all that the characters cannot control; London is, in fact, what controls the characters. It’s a silent force, the center of government and of advancement, a sort of panopticon distantly controlling the town. Everything that happens in the town politically trickles down from London. It’s a reminder to all of the characters that no matter what their own trials bring, they’re still subject to something much larger than their provincial town.
In 2017, a year of political turmoil, of constant reminders of the effects of global warming, superbugs, growing racial tension, and a swarm to social media, we all demonstrate the effects of a Middlemarch-like society. With the world leaders as London and a constant need to read stories about our own versions of Dorothea Brookes, we see an echo between fiction and reality.
Middlemarch existed as a fictional society without Twitter and Facebook feeds, without Instagram filters and private emails. It wasn’t a simpler time, it wasn’t without its fears and protests. But Middlemarch remains as a reminder: as some characters overcome debt and loveless marriages, and others grapple with what little good they come across in life, that what cannot be controlled will pan out regardless of local discussion, and that what can be controlled may still end with dismal results.
What remains important is belief in the remaining good in the world. As our heroine, Dorothea, remarks at the end of the novel, “If we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for. Some can be happy. I seemed to see that more clearly than ever, when I was most wretched.” Perhaps, in this small yet illuminating belief, we might end up with something unexpected, something new, a hope worth posting about.
Lisa Folkmire is an MFA graduate from Vermont College of Fine Arts’ program in writing, with an emphasis in poetry. Her work has appeared in Heron Tree Literary Arts Journal, Yellow Chair Review’s Rock the Chair Challenge, Erstwhile Magazine, Atlas & Alice, and one poem will be published in ThoughtCrime Press’s forthcoming Not My President anthology. She resides in Warren, Michigan.