From the vault: 'Middlemarch' blooms with modern sensibilities

By Sharon Jacobs, Managing Arts Editor
Published October 5, 2011

When asked to name 19th-century female writers, the one most likely to come to mind is Jane Austen, whose detached wit and social commentary have made her a fixture of high school English courses. Sensitivity and passion hidden under her lesser-known prose, George Eliot (pen name of Mary Anne Evans) is treated more like Jane Austen’s less attractive and more introverted sister, albeit 44 years younger.

Eliot’s a bit harder to get into and her most famous novel, “Middlemarch,” has more slow-blooming pithiness than quick-wittedness. Compared to Austen and her rampant popularity, Eliot’s the writer who none of the cool kids liked but was totally “in” with the geeks at lunchtime for her deeper humor and darker psyche.

A hefty read, “Middlemarch” is really two stories in one — the tale of Dorothea Brooke, a “later-born (Saint) Theresa” trying to find her do-gooder way in the world, and a portrait of an English town struggling with 19th-century modernity. Maybe at times the two sub-stories’ melding is less-than-seamless, and we long for Austen’s effortless flow, but “Middlemarch” has a certain relatability — a humanness — that other writers of Eliot’s time can only idly grasp at. It’s a novel that, despite its sometimes stilted language, meshes with the zeitgeist of today as well if not better than the late 1800s when it was published.

The people of “Middlemarch” are instantly recognizable, not as character tropes but as anyone’s friends and family. There’s Fred Vincy, the university-grad drifter whose only certainty is his love for a childhood sweetheart. There’s Tertius Lydgate, the idealistic, ambitious young doctor and his wife Rosamond, whose 1800s me-generation entitlement foils his plans and all hope for a happy marriage. And of course there’s Dorothea Brooke, at the novel’s start a naïve 18-year-old who makes a very bad decision and is forever changed by its consequences.

These people are fully-fledged, their characteristics derived from basic human wonts, and they could just as easily exist in a 21st-century college town as in the English village Middlemarch in the rollicking 1830s.

What hits even harder at the modern sensibilities of “Middlemarch” is its unsettled ending, which ties together the plot threads but leaves their ends frayed. Few characters emerge with a succinct “happily ever after” — Eliot instead grapples with a more real “content most of the time” mentality.

Relationships in “Middlemarch” can dull and fade. In the epilogue, even protagonist Dorothea is left “feeling that there was always something better which she might have done, if she had only been better and known better.” Marriage, the end goal for any self-respecting female Austen character, doesn’t quite do it in “Middlemarch” — Dorothea’s personal happiness is always tempered by an inkling of what might have been.

The ultimate boundedness suggested by “Middlemarch” — particularly its epilogue — is closer to “April is the cruelest month” than “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This is not to suggest that “Middlemarch” even nears the modernist structure of one later Eliot, but it’s certainly a departure from what came before.

Granted, Mary Anne Evans herself was rather ahead of her time. The writer lived with a married man for more than 20 years, then after his death married a man 20 years younger than herself. She wrote deeper and darker than her female authorial predecessors — one of the reasons why even though it was acceptable at that time for women to write, she took on a male pseudonym.

It’s easy to push off anything written before 1900 that’s not an English class staple as too old or inaccessible for our generation to really “get.” But the realism and relatability of “Middlemarch” allow it to apply just as much to 2011 as to 1874.