|Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke in BBC Adaptation of Middlemarch|
by George Eliot
Oxford World's Classics
OK so I've literally been reading Middlemarch for three months. Originally published in seven separate "numbers" the one volume Middlemarch clocks in at a cool 780 pages. The subject matter is life in a small town in England in the early 19th century. George Eliot has four novels in the 1001 Books list- Adam Bede, Mill On The Floss, and Silas Marner. Middlemarch was published eight years after Silas Marner and has been a huge, monster hit/classic upon publication. (1)
|Rufus Sewell as William Laidslaw in BBC adaptation of Middlemarch|
Eliot is, by critical consensus, the first "modern" novelist. (2) Unfortunately the early period of modernism is characterized by "realism" i.e. lots and lots of boring detail about small town life. Welcome to the modern era of the novel!
The heroine of Middlemarch is Dorothea Brooke- a young woman who marries a "dry-as-dust" scholar Edward Casaubon. The first 3/7 books mostly deal with her unhappy marriage- then the husband dies and the story shifts largely to the marraige of Rosamund Vincy to Tertius Lydgate. The plot concerns subjects standard to the Victorian novel: Marriage! Inheritance! Family Secrets! Small Town Scandal! What is different between Eliot's writing and the writing of contemporaries like Anthony Trollope is her mastery of the inner life of her characters. Eliot's Middlemarch is what we would call "fully realized" and it's that realization that led to her instant acclaim as a master of the art form.
It's also why people still read George Eliot- again- compare her present popularity to the (lesser) popularity of Anthony Trollope- who was also hugely popular during the 1860s-1870s
Finally, I find it significant that Eliot's success as a novelist was proceeded by 20 some odd years writing as a critic and her long term relationship with another successful, well regarded critic. In other words, Eliot laid the ground work for her success by setting up a network of people who were ready to acclaim her novels.
(1) From my review of Adam Bede:
I would argue that George Eliot had four 'hits,' all of which appear on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die (2006 ed.) list: Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss(1860), Silas Mariner (1863) & Middlemarch(1871). Today, Middlemarch is the most popular of the four. Silas Mariner is arguably the title to be dropped from the 1001 Books Before You Die update, if you look at it in terms of popularity. Middlemarch's status as the most popular is undoubtedly due to the popularity of Middlemarch as a proto-Modernist text from the mid-late 19th century. Middlemarch has been in vogue since the late 1950s and early 1960s, which is a key sign that popularity of a specific text relates to its appreciation among the academic market.
(2) "It is one of her principal claims to fame that she is the first modern novelist. That first period of the English novel that begins with Henry Fielding ends with Anthony Trollope; the second: the period of Henry James...begins with George Eliot." Early Victorian Novelists by David Cecil, pg. 213 (1934).