It sells Middlemarch short to call it a novel of manners, although if viewed from just one angle it is. The novel describes the precisely ordered life of the eponymous village in feudal England, where every resident can be placed on a grid according to his annual income and the quality of his lineage. There are characters with small parts in Middlemarch, but no minor ones, so fully drawn are all of George Eliot’s creations. Principally the story concerns the life of Dorothea Brooke, a young and beautiful women of the upper class whose spiritual discontent leads her astray in marriage. There is also Tertius Lydgate, a cocky and ambitious doctor come lately to town, and Mr. Bulstrode, a new money banker with a mysterious past. Each chases love, money, and respectability in proportion to his needs and finds that the strictures of society, even more than the dictates of his conscience, shape the person he will become.
In the middle of all this stands Eliot, whose presence is unmistakable as the energy that makes this fictional world go round. Writing of one character who has just lost his temper, the narrator says, “Will was not without his intentions to be always generous, but our tongues are little triggers which have usually been pulled before general intentions can be brought to bear.” This is typical of the way Eliot annotates, observing wisely on the fraught behavior of men, like the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life who tells George Bailey all about his life. James Wood, in How Fiction Works, called this perspective “authorial omniscience,” and it has the tendency to feel antiquated to us, a relic of a simpler time when the whole world might be understood according to such strict and unvarying codes.
There are, in any story, always two competing forces, an individual’s will and social prerogative. When the two are held to be fixed and immovable, you get the best melodramas, like Romeo and Juliet. It’s a simpler class of story, one we respond to but no longer really believe to accurately describe things as they are. On the other end of the spectrum you have today’s conditions of storytelling, where neither individual identity nor the social order have any fixed anchors, resulting in all manner of existential confusion when the two mix together. Middlemarch, however, exists somewhere in between and the result is as pure and exacting as ballet.
About halfway through the book, as a husband and wife contemplate the suitability of a young man for their daughter, Eliot writes, “A human being in this aged nation of ours is a very wonderful whole, the slow creation of long interchanging influences.” It is just that interchange of influences that Eliot sketches in Middlemarch and she does so with a fluency for human behavior that is quite often breathtaking. Take for example this small scene, describing the Vicar Farebrother after a brief interview with the eligible Mary Garth:
As the Vicar walked to Lowick, any one watching him closely might have seen him twice shrug his shoulders… The Vicar was holding an inward dialogue in which he told himself that there was probably something more between Fred and Mary Garth than the regard of old playfellows, and replied with a question whether that bit of womanhood were not a great deal too choice for that crude young gentleman. The rejoinder to this was the first shrug. Then he laughed at himself for being likely to have felt jealous, as if he had been a man able to marry which, added he, it is as clear as any balance-sheet that I am not. Whereupon followed the second shrug.
Here, Eliot is able to slow the world down enough to capture not only that the Vicar would shrug twice, but exactly why he would do it. The resolution with which she is able to observe her characters reminds me of great baseball hitters who see in slow motion what appears to the rest of us to be impossibly fast. Such is Eliot’s ability to dip into the torrent of human experience and master it.
As commanding as Eliot’s view is, it is not static. Her central characters – Dorothea, Lydgate and Bulstrode – live contingently, always on the edge of transformation. Throughout the story they come to have a keener understanding of their own desires, a process of self-understanding that occurs through dialogue with other characters and the unerring rebound of the social order. Society itself is fixed (although Eliot does critique feudal landholdings and insincere religiosity) and in this, Middlemarch describes a world that is no longer ours. But the dialectic of her characters is timeless. Dorothea tests her spiritual longing against an unexpected passion. Lydgate wrestles with his professional ambitions matched against a wife who would seem to spoil him at every turn. Bulstrode struggles to reconcile his religiosity with more base urges, a desire for money and a fear of shame. As the characters try and evolve they arrive at inexact and unintended places. But that they do is not an indictment of the rigid social order. It is instead an exposition of human frailty, of our inability to know our own desires let alone to conquer them. Far from just a novel of manners, Middlemarch is a monument to the fraught lives of women and men. It is, quite undeniably, great.