I HATED IT.
It's a peculiar sort of hate, though. For one thing, I did finish it - while books I liked better intially, like Vanity Fair and Cecelia and anything by Anthony Trollope, languish on shelves with hopeful bookmarks stuck halfway through. I put this down to a renewed academic vigour that coincides with my beginning USMLE studies. The beginning of any period of study is an energetic one, which gradually dwindles into a suffusing hatred for the material. While I'm yet in the honeymoon phase, I'm making the most of my short-lived abilities of endurance.
Books like these I consider to be 'painful' reading. I read every day; I could no sooner not read than not eat. But mostly, I re-read books that are easy and make me happy, by LM Montgomery or Meg Cabot. I don't have much taste for books that require more effort of attachment. That makes it all the more strange that I stuck with Middlemarch, because I never at any point liked or enjoyed it. But I'll leave aside the self-analysis because it's going nowhere.
In no particular order, my issues were as follows.
First off: Middlemarch. The name suggests that it's going to be about a town or village or townland, as we call them here. I expected the interplay of families of all sorts and that was obviously the intention, but it sort of flounders. We're left with the Bulstrodes, the Vincys, the Brookes, the Garths and a number of single clergymen (okay, Cadawaller has a wife). Four families and sundry bachelors do not a town make. It could be argued that the random horse dealers and people like Mrs Dollop count, but I don't think they do really - mainly because they represent another issue, to be dealt with presently. I can understand that it would be difficult to deal with more people, but on the other hand - 688 pages of small print! There was plenty of room. Room that wasn't actually used for anything else, which brings me to:
OH GOD, HOW DOES NOTHING HAPPEN IN 688 PAGES?
Because it doesn't. As I said to my parents at various intervals: 'wow, I read another fifty-seven pages and what happened was ... someone got married.' Again, a list (of what happens): Dorothea's marriage, Celia's marriage (a by note), Lydgate's vote, Lydgate's marriage, the will, Fred's job, Casaubon’s death, the Bulstrode affair and the end two marriages. That's a pretty paltry showing for 688 pages. AGAIN, I could forgive this if we were given more bang for our buck in terms of emotional development or mental ingenuity, but instead there's endless tracts of tell-not-show. I was utterly surprised that Dorothea loved Will - I did have to be told - because what was shown was simply her pity for his lowly monetary status and her weird moral urging to like, give him a bunch of cash.
The morals in this piece are all over the place. I wanted to slap Mary Garth over the issue of the will. I have very little patience for the idea of love in a hovel. The best thing about Pride and Prejudice was the way Lizzie started falling for Darcy when she saw the size of his package (of land). High-flown principles are all very well if you have lots of money to cushion the landing. Dorothea was fucking delusional, the end. Touched in the head - constantly referred to as 'childlike' and 'inexperienced in the world' - yet she was supposed to have an 'incalculably diffusive good' effect on everyone. I guess because they realised how much worse off they could be after seeing her? The closing line of the book is rather touching, but it bears absolutely no resemblance to the content of the story. Dorothea and Lydgate were shown to have achieved nothing, not even a small but important effect on small things. Dorothea was always whining that the cottages in Casaubon's village were too nice (OH NO, POOR VILLAGERS WHO GET TO HAVE NICE COTTAGES AND NOT CRAP ONES TO MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER) - what was stopping her getting in a carriage with some pies and handing them out back in Tipton?
The names were impossibly stupid. How do you even pronounce Casaubon? For the love of Christ, why wasn't she just called Dorothy? And Tipton and Freshitt sound like brands of toothpaste.
TERTIUS, NO REALLY.
The whole tenor of the story reminded me of a bad driver - jerky, slow, with sudden rushes of dangerous speed where you miss the stop signs for going too fast. I missed essential details - like what the HELL was Casaubon actually doing with his life work? - because she skimmed over them. Why I was subjected to rambling pointless conversations between auctioneers and lawyers when the love stories - the driving force of the narrative - were brushed aside.
The one thing she succeeded at was the Lydgate/Rosamond relationship - and only by making both of them teeth-grittingly awful. I'm angry at Lydgate for his assumption about the supporting role his wife was supposed to play in his life - although granted, most people on entering the married state assume that role belongs to their partners. But I'm MORE angry at Eliot for always taking that stance. Like this line: 'nature having intended greatness for men ... but nature sometimes makes oversights.' OH CHARMING, FELLOW WOMAN, TO SAY OUR GREATNESS IS AN OVERSIGHT. I know she wrote as a man, and I assume that even if some people knew the truth it still wasn't widely disseminated. I also know this self-deprecation of femalekind could be interpreted as satiric or sarcastic (dear god I hope it WAS), but for one thing: if everyone thought she was a man, it wouldn't be taken as sarcastic but merely the propagation of faulty mindsets. Dudes reading it would be like, "Yup, I totally agree - this Eliot knows his stuff.' BAD GEORGE, NO COOKIE.
I wanted to whip her for constantly referring to Rosamond as 'poor', too. No, you don't get to set up an entirely unsympathetic character with no concept of compassion or fellowship and then expect us to feel sorry for her. Just - no, Georgie!
But I do love to hate characters - that's the same reason some of Patricia Scanlan's stuff works well, and the secret behind Maeve Binchy's genius. (I should probably mention to anyone reading this - is anyone reading this? - that the reason I can happily refer to Maeve Binchy as a genius, besides my smug belief in my own opinions, is that I'm not an English graduate. My level of literary education is high school. Most medical students don't read, they can hardly spell, and they certainly can't use the shift key. I'm definitely winning in that particular arena, if nowhere else.) So I was happy with the L/R chapters towards the end. More of that and less of everything else, is my decree.
There's a thing called 'showing your homework' in writing, where the research is pushed on the reader so that the author can triumph over having done it. There was a lot of visible homework in this. The whole issue with the reform bill and, to an extent, the fever hospital, was homework. It didn't advance the plot (even though the hospital SHOULD HAVE, for Lydgate, but most of his screentime was spent blowing about how awesome he was compared to, oh, everybody). It could easily have been edited out - all; in one fell swoop. There were also minor blobs of homework in the name-dropping indulged in by Brooke mostly, but everyone sometimes. I don't particularly enjoy having to look up the index every two pages. It's one thing not to know whether or not Britney Spears will still be a household name in fifty years, but it's quite another to set your book in the past and then refer to stuff about which I'm sure even her contemporary readers were in the dark. Showing off is all it is.
The minor characters varied from annoying to interesting. Well, okay, they were mostly annoying. In fact the only non-annoying minor character was Henrietta Noble, and she was just a whatdoyoucallem, a plot stratagem to get Dorothea to recognise her Twu Luv. (Always a good plan: I knew I loved you because you gave an old lady a nut-box, whee.) (Or whatever that thing was.) I suffer again for not knowing Eliot's background - it shouldn't be necessary to enjoyment of a story, but with her every little helps. I didn't know whether her attitude towards the working classes was patronising or not. The writing seemed to go beyond patronising into a shoulder-rubbing, 'let's mingle with the plebs but not invite them to dinner' kind of thing. It would nearly have been better if she was patronising, like in Emma, because at least then she wouldn't be hypocritical. Eliot strikes me as incredibly uncomfortable with her writing. It veers from outright parodic mocking to attempts at deep-seated philosophy - and (while I might be missing the mark) it seemed to meander around many possible points without ever finding one. All those shitty anecdotes that started every chapter and were completely unrelated to everything in the chapter - guh. Cut, cut, cut. Was she getting paid by the word, like DICKens? (And is my attitude towards DICKens clear enough?)
It needed to be shorter, that's what. It would have been snappier thus and hid the multiple defects in her reasoning, descriptions of mental processes and character evolutions. The pity of it is that she is a good writer - just not, unfortunately, as good as she thought she was.
(On the other hand - three weeks! And I've been fermenting these comments all that time. Interesting mental exercise, if nothing else.)