George Eliot, Middlemarch
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1962
Like so many other novels in the Victorian Age, “Middlemarch” is published serially, i.e. not as one book but in 8 volumes, between December 1871 and December 1872. The novel proves an immediate success. As early as May 1874 there is a new one-volume edition, revised by the author, which sells 10,000 copies until the end of the same year – an impressive number for the time. By the way: If you thought George Eliot was a man, you are quite mistaken. Writing under the pseudonym George Eliot is Mary Ann Evans, born in 1819. The inspiration for the name comes from George Lewes, with whom she lives together in an unlawful union, since he is already married and a divorce not possible. To protect her privacy and, at the same time, ensure that her literary works will be judged and not her gender, she chooses a male pen name.
The subtitle of “Middlemarch”, “A Study of Provincial Life”, says much about the novel. Middlemarch is a fictional town in the real English Midlands, an important region during the industrialisation of the 18th and 19th century. The multiple narrative strands are brought together by a thematic and geographical unity: the province in the geographical sense and the provincial in the cultural. The socio-psychological study traces developments in the English society at the time of the early industrialisation, describes how the lives and characters of people unfold in a specific political and economic system, how people and their values are influenced by the village, the state, the times in which they live.
Eliot’s strength is, like Henry James said, her “rare psychological penetration”, moral sincerity, and admirable intellect. When Mary Ann decides to share her life with a man who is not her husband, she is alienated from her family and begins to reconsider her values, which have been strongly influenced by Christian thought until then. The conflict between strict morals and worldly temptations is also manifest in “Middlemarch”, especially in its protagonist Dorothea Brooke, a young, pretty woman, driven by intellectual curiosity as much as by deep faith. The author masterfully relates the big questions of life to the very small things that make up our everyday existence. So the discovery of several seemingly unimportant pieces of jewellery in the Brooke household, a few necklaces, rings, and broaches, leads to a profound meditation on inner and outer beauty, spiritual or secular happiness.
“Middlemarch” is the climax of Eliot’s artistic creation, the novel in which she brings her talents of observation and literary crafts(wo)manship to the fullest fruition. It was even ranked the best English novel of all time, and not even by British judges, but by 81 literary critics from around the world. Even though such lists are always somewhat arbitrary and certainly not the manifestation of some absolute truth, it seems like so many critics cannot be entirely wrong. Years ago, the German writer Wolfgang Hildesheimer reportedly said about the novel that it had one of the most beautiful last sentences in all of literary history. Usually it’s the first sentence of a novel that make it immortal, like Melville’s “Call me Ishmael” immediately calls up Moby Dick in readers’ minds; in this case, it’s the last. I won’t give it away here though – you will have to read the book yourself!
by Teresa Teklić