Just before Valentine’s Day, I finished reading Middlemarch by nineteenth century novelist George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans). This story of hers about the life within an English provincial town is not the easiest to follow because of the style of writing she employs but for those who can manage the vocabulary, we are drawn into the centre of a plot starring the intellectual and ardent Dorothea Brooke who is full of moral convictions. Fantasies of glorious achievement by transcending the limits of self are dreams possessed by many of us and the way she encompasses this longing into the narrative train of her novel demonstrates how contemporary the thoughts of the author were for her time. She uses Dorothea as the leading vehicle to invigorate the spirit of quest through a web of interconnected characters in Middlemarch.
Yet we learn even Dorothea, knowledgable as she is, can be prone to mistakes in judgement. This is what leads to her union with the much older Edward Casaubon because she feels by assisting in completing his seminal work (which is a useless research piece), it will be of benefit to the world. Despite her wealth and position, Dorothea is constrained by the liberty to do nothing which was the fortune of a gentlewoman in 1829. It is when she meets Will Ladislaw, the young cousin of her husband, Dorothea finds a companion within her wavelength but their association is subject to mean spirited speculation regarding inheritance.
In contrast to her, we have Dr. Tertius Lydgate who also desires to do good in the world but similarly ends up in an unhappy marriage through poor judgement with the frivolous Rosamond Vincy. In addition, his initial benefactor Nicholas Bulstrode struggles with demons of his own leaving him in the lurch. Other practitioners in the town are resentful of his progressive ideas and this leaves him alienated. While the paths of Dorothea and Dr. Lydgate collide at the end to the benefit of both, tales of many other characters and their individual preoccupations on using their gifts to help the self and their surrounding environment perpetuate the novel such as the romance between irresponsible Fred Vincy and pragmatic Mary Garth.
The pair of failed marriages and unrealised ambitions make up the trajectory of Middlemarch as well as its setting in the period just before the Reform Bill of 1832. The characters in the novel are all drawn together into a motley cast and we are given insight into the habits and idioms of the diverse groups as they pursue their goals of self fulfillment.
If you are interested in watching a television adaptation starring Juliet Aubrey as the regal Dorothea after reading the novel, you can find it here. The role of Fred Vincy, you might like to know, is played by Colin Firth’s younger brother, Jonathan, who has an impressive resume of his own.