I SPENT years avoiding "Middlemarch." It wasn't easy: The massive Victorian masterpiece by the revered novelist, moralist, protofeminist, and iconoclast Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pen name George Eliot, was on reading lists everywhere. No course in 19th-century fiction was complete without it. It was almost as impossible to graduate from college as an English major without having read "Middlemarch" as to get through high school without encountering Eliot's equally famed classic, "Silas Marner."
I hadn't read "Silas Marner" either. For some reason, this lengthy tale of a miser transformed by his love for a foundling child was deemed edifying material for pseudo-sophisticated teenagers like my then-self, who at that point in life would have preferred a story with at least a touch of romantic interest. I skimmed enough of "Silas Marner" to grasp the general idea. All the teacher wanted to know on the test was if you were able to see the "symbolic" connection between the miser's love of gold and th e finer, nobler love for the golden-haired child that supplanted it.
The reason "Middlemarch" was on college reading lists had something to do with the fact that an eminent critic, F. R. Leavis, had pronounced it a central text of "The Great Tradition" in an influential 1948 book of that title. Fortunately, however, a mild reaction against Leavis's judgments had set in among the faculty, prompting them to substitute Dickens for Eliot as the chief exemplar of Victorian fiction in the survey course I happened to take. By the time I reached graduate school, it was assumed th at any English major would have already read "Middlemarch," and so the graduate course on the 19th-century English novel focused on Eliot's "Adam Bede" instead.
I read "Adam Bede" - every word of it. To my well-concealed surprise, it was delightful. Here was a funny, touching, earnest, yet playful novel - witty, yet compassionate - with a great sympathy and understanding for the people whose lives it depicted: Adam Bede, the noble carpenter; Hetty Sorrel, the flighty milk-maid; Arthur Donnithorne, the thoughtless young squire; and Hetty's cousin, the wise preacher Dinah Morris. The author was a shrewd realist, but with a saving touch of romanticism; a moralist, but certainly not a bore. I realized I had misjudged George Eliot.
Still, for years I just never got around to "Middlemarch," which seemed rather a long book about life in a provincial English town.
Then one afternoon a few weeks ago, I took down a copy of "Middlemarch" from the shelf where it had been reposing for so long. My eye fell upon the opening paragraphs: What, they asked, would become of a young woman with the mind and temperament of a Saint Theresa, who happened to be born in 19th-century England into a social milieu that offered "no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; [but only perhaps] ... a life of mistakes." One needn't know much about Saint Theres a to be struck by the preposterousness of a 16th-century Spanish saint living in an English town, or to appreciate the fine blend of humor and gravity in Eliot's attitude toward her heroine, Dorothea Brooke.
Intelligent, warm-hearted, and filled with zealous intentions of improving the world, Dorothea is a charming but outspoken young lady who takes her religion seriously. A devout Protestant, she can hardly join a convent. In 1829, when the novel begins, a university education or a career were options that scarcely existed for young ladies like her. Romantic as well as intellectual, Dorothea dreams of marriage but has no interest in the handsome, shallow sons of the local gentry.
Her imagination is fired instead by Edward Casaubon, a grim-looking scholar and clergyman some 30 years her senior. She sees in his severe, judicious manner the markings of a latter-day John Locke or John Milton, and she believes he is a good and brilliant man who will guide her toward greater knowledge and whom she, in turn, will assist in his high-minded endeavors.
But Casaubon has neither a great mind nor a great heart. Scrupulous, correct, but cold and narrow, he is no fit mate for Dorothea. Their mismatch, too awkward to be called a tragedy, is too sad to be a comedy. Yet in Eliot's capable hands, it partakes of both. Dorothea's story is interwoven with the fates of several other townspeople in a richly worked fabric of politics, romance, gossip, scandal, and conflict. The tale combines something like the comic flair of a Jane Austen and the emotional intensity of a Charlotte Bronte but is tempered with a resolute fair-mindedness, a determination to examine all sides of any question, that is pure George Eliot.
It says something about the cultural and intellectual sophistication of our time that a novel as long, detailed, and complex as "Middlemarch" would likely not be published today, even though it contains much that would appeal to modern-day readers. For feminists, there's a spirited heroine stifled by lack of opportunity and betrayed by her own idealism. For connoisseurs of literary ambiguity, there's a spectrum of divergent viewpoints, deftly orchestrated by a narrator who constantly warns against the da nger of taking appearances at face value: "For surely all must admit that a man may be ... envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown - known merely as a cluster of signs for his neighbors' false suppositions," she reflects.
When "Middlemarch" first appeared serially in Blackwood's Magazine in 1871-72, it not only won critical acclaim but also became an instant bestseller. Comparing the bestseller lists of our time with those of Victorian times might not be flattering to us.
We have plenty of excuses for our mental laziness. We claim we're too busy to read long novels, our attention spans are shorter, the pace of life has quickened. Ironically enough, the narrator of "Middlemarch" makes exactly the same observation at one point, comparing the busy, rush-rush industrial society of the Victorians with the leisurely, rural world of the 18th-century novelist Henry Fielding. "... Fielding," remarks Eliot, "lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evenings." This, she explains, is why she does not digress as widely and ramblingly as the author of "Tom Jones."
"Middlemarch" is, however, a long book. I'm still, happily, in the middle of it. And this, in a way, is another of its attractions. It is a pleasure to read a novel without feeling the pressure to discover its final outcome, a novel that immerses you in another time, place, and way of life. You find yourself so fascinated by your new surroundings that you are glad to delay your eventual departure from them.