Quintessentially English: Middlemarch Between Bristol and Bath

July 15, 2011 | 6 7 min read

“It is painful to be told that anything is very fine and not be able to feel that is it fine — something like being blind, while people talk of the sky.”
— George Eliot, Middlemarch

With barely a week left in England after having studied there for nine months, I knew I needed to read something significant to last me through the difficulties of packing and the harsh reality of leaving. I went to the university library and browsed its stacks for the last time. I wanted a long book that was remarkably English, rural, certainly, and preferably a classic. As a reader, I get this type of urge sometimes, at once vague and specific.

coverI picked up Middlemarch, by George Eliot, which so often gets mentioned as an important book in English Letters. I knew very little about it, except that it was big and written by a woman who wrote under a man’s name. I’d also read somewhere that it was a Victorian pastoral novel in the tradition of realism. Julian Barnes once called it “the greatest English novel”, and if it’s good enough for Julian Barnes…

So, as I began to unmake my life in Bristol — decide which books to bring back with me and which to leave behind, pack my clothes, roll up my posters, throw away the food I hadn’t eaten — I simultaneously delved into my first Eliot and met her protagonist (or one them), Miss Dorothea Brooke. I was rapidly enthralled by the simple marriage plot with which the novel begins, and I hoped that the young, beautiful Miss Brooke would do as she wished and marry the old intellectual Mr. Casaubon. When she did, I realized with her that the match she had fiercely desired was not so great, after all. You often find yourself rooting for the characters to get what they want in these novels, and you are as bitterly disappointed as they are when you find out things did not turn out as you would have wanted them to — or maybe I just empathize too much.

In reading Middlemarch, what I was looking for — beyond the comfort of escapism — was a breath of English air. The England I wanted to see and feel one last time was the one you can glimpse from the window of a passing train, say between London and Bristol: rolling green hills and meandering rivers, pastures speckled with grazing cattle and sheep, and neat fields with ancient trees casting long shadows in the middle of them.

I soon discovered that Middlemarch does not have the descriptive beauty I was expecting. The setting is certainly rural, however: the most wealthy characters are landowners who have to deal with their tenants, the others do business in cattle and horse-trading, and the appeal of London as an urban center is almost non-existent. For instance, when two of the three principal couples go live in London at the end of the novel, it is because the prejudices of the Middlemarchers have become too much to bear. London appears not as a goal or even an escape, but as a kind of punishment. Yet, despite this apparent attraction toward the countryside, the rolling green hills and quiet pastures are merely mentioned in passing, or glimpsed at in the turn of a paragraph, without ever becoming the focus of the narrative. Eliot is more concerned with exploring the intellectual landscape of her characters, rather than the beauty of the changing, English landscape around them.

In Middlemarch, the characters she dwells on with the most interest are Dorothea and Dr Lydgate, who stand out from the other characters as researchers and thinkers. More importantly, they are also the characters in the novel who try to act on their convictions and be useful to society; Dorothea employs her husband’s money to ameliorate the difficult lives of her tenants, while Lydgate hopes to revolutionize the practice of medicine and works in a hospital for the poor. Ironically, it is these two who are forced to live in London, at the end, perhaps because they are too forward thinking for the quiet community of Middlemarch.

By the time I reached chapter 27 (of 86), I realized that my copy of Middlemarch was due back at the library, only two days after I had taken it out. I went back and tried to renew the book, only to learn that my status as a full-time student at the University of Bristol ended that day.

“You can always read it in here,” the librarian offered meekly.

I glanced at the 700-page hardcover on the counter. The prospect of spending my last three days in England reading Middlemarch in the dark, concrete block of the library was not enticing. I walked back down to the main street (Bristol, like Rome, is built on seven hills), and found a perfectly suitable Wordsworth Classics edition of Middlemarch, with an awful cover in The Last Bookshop (where everything is two pounds). I had just given a dozen books away to Oxfam that morning because I didn’t have enough room for them in my luggage. Despite the library having put an end to any real incentive to finish the book before I left, I was still resolved to the turn the last page before my feet were off British soil.

The next day, I packed a light lunch and brought Middlemarch with me to walk from Bristol to Bath (about 14 miles). They’ve paved the old railway that connected the two cities to make a walking and cycling path. Railway tracks get recycled into public pathways, now; in Middlemarch, they aren’t built yet, and exist only in the form of industrial agents who come to plan their route through the fields, to the dismay of the farmers who don’t understand what they want.

Bristol has sprawling suburbs, but eventually the path traverses open fields and even crosses the river Avon (of Shakespeare fame, although this is miles from Stratford), which has a track that runs along it for a few miles. I decided to leave the railway path and follow the river’s slow bends for a bit. It is here that I finally found the bucolic beauty I had been seeking: boat houses on the water, waves of wheat rippling in the wind with dozens of swallows skimming the field’s surface for insects, and crumbling country cottages peeping out from behind the hills. Eventually I spotted an old factory on the other side of the river, built in 1881 (the date was written on the building) — only a decade after Middlemarch was first published. This, all around me, was the England that Eliot had known (although she came from further north, in the Midlands).

It is important to remember that Middlemarch is a historical novel. Written around 1870, the story is set in the time leading up to the Reform Act of 1832, which reconfigured the fabric of English society by significantly enlarging the number of voters, and was also a precursor to other important social and economic changes. So the England I was seeing on my hike that day was also the one Eliot was writing against by focusing on a “simpler” time in her novel — a time when the railroad hadn’t yet come to Middlemarch, or connected Bath to Bristol (in fact, this was done in 1869, the very year Eliot started writing Middlemarch). Eliot was thus bending backward and peering with the powerful lens of her realism into a period of change, which would result in the making of Victorian society, in which she was now living herself.

The origin of the word text and textile is the same, from the Latin verb for “weaving”. I often find myself thinking about this commonality when I read books as long as Middlemarch, which in French are called romans fleuve — literally, “river novels” — because they are so long. Reading Middlemarch is like reading three or four novels, with their plots intricately interlocked in ways that are often unexpected. Its scope is so vast and it encompasses so much action and detail that it actually illustrates how narrative texts work on a mechanical level, how novels can be stripped down to strands of stories, like different colored threads woven together to make a larger pattern. It’s the only way to construct a world that is believable, as Eliot does by building her Middlemarch house by house, character by character, interweaving events to create a pattern that resembles life.

Eliot is also remarkable as a Victorian novelist because her characters are as round as they come. There are no slapstick comics or stock villains here; Eliot provides her characters with complex motives, and challenges them at every corner of their crooked paths, taking and giving freely in order to test their resilience. Even those characters that come closer to villainy only tread on the happiness of others because of their inability to empathize. Thus, Dorothea’s first husband Mr. Casaubon, Dr. Lydgate’s beautiful wife Rosamond, and the rich banker Mr. Bullstrode are all given attention and consideration in order for the reader to understand their motives and even sympathize with them. This attention demonstrates generosity and an acute psychological understanding on Eliot’s part, because it proves that she is able to place herself in the point of view of all her characters.

In my opinion, Eliot combines the best of all of the other major writers that I know of her century. She writes with the emotional acuity and depth of Jane Austen, the social scope and monetary awareness of Dickens, and even something of Thomas Hardy’s careful plot construction and moral ambiguity. While her novel remains a fine example of what Henry James described as the “loose, baggy monsters” of the 19th century, with a large cast of characters and lots of filler between the juicy bits, it is surprisingly even throughout and, at times, gripping. Besides, James probably owes something to Eliot’s seamless psychological descriptions for his own novels, as well as a prototype for the strong and virtuous Isabel Archer in Dorothea Brookes. Well-rooted in the literary ethos of the Victorian era, Eliot’s writing, at least in Middlemarch, stands well above the rest and provides the reader with the best of what that literature has to offer.

Despite my good intentions, and the fact that I was enjoying reading Middlemarch, I simply didn’t have the time to finish it before I left England. I read the last hundred pages back home, in Quebec, on a warm, sunny afternoon at my family cottage. The setting was altogether different from when I had started the novel in grey, drizzly Bristol, but I was happy to have a little piece of Englishness with me to help ease the transition back into my life on this side of the pond.

Previously: Middlemarch: The Fraught Lives of Women and Men, Holden and Middlemarch in Windhoek

(Image courtesy the author.)

comes from Montreal, Canada and completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. He currently teaches English and French in the San Francisco Bay Area.