The (Belated) 1Q2015 Big Fat Book Review: Middlemarch by George Eliot

NOTE: I’m reading a BIG FAT BOOK each quarter in 2015. I kinda sorta forgot to write a review of my first one because I was still wallowing in it weeks afterward.

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If you don’t like MIDDLEMARCH, I don’t think we can be friends anymore.

Middlemarch - Original Serial CoverAlso, you are wrong. Wrong, wrong, WRONGITY WRONG. Everyone who knows anything about books agrees that MIDDLEMARCH is brilliant.

I am capitalizing and bolding MIDDLEMARCH to make sure it gets your attention so you will remember to READ THIS FREE BOOK THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE. Did I mention that MIDDLEMARCH is brilliant?

Yes, it’s eleventy thousand pages long. Yes, it’s 35+ hours on audio. Get over it. Suck it up and read it, buttercup.

My Bullet List of Reasons Why Everyone Should Read MIDDLEMARCH:

  • Because it’s BLOODY BRILLIANT.
  • Because the audio narration by Juliet Stevenson is BLOODY BRILLIANT.

So, that’s my belated, yet dramatic and insightful, 1Q2015 Big Fat Book Review of MIDDLEMARCH. You’re welcome.

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I’d never scrolled down far enough on the Wikipedia page to notice these glorious illustrations from The Works of George Eliot, published by The Jenson Society, NY, 1910.

Dorothea and Will

We start out loving these two idealists and aching for their star-crossed HEA. She’s the Self-Martyring Bleeding Heart and he’s the Brooding Artistic Poor Relation. What could be more romantic?

Then Eliot slowly, masterfully, shows us Idealism vs. Reality. And we’re always shown and never just told. Eliot somehow manages to uses every single bit of description and dialogue in her 300,000+-words to build these characters and then deconstruct them in such a way that we’re mired in their pity party and we’re LOVING EVERY MINUTE OF IT.

The illustration is perfect — Dorothea is heaving a big ol’ sigh and Will glares at us with all his brooding intensity.

 Rosamond and Tertius

We all love to hate Rosamund. She’s insufferable. And yet, she’s got a hell of a lot more gumption than Dodo. Instead of swanning about moaning about her lot in life, Mrs. Lydgate just goes out and does whatever the hell she wants.

Again with the subversive character deconstruction — Rosamund never turns the corner from loathsome to loveable, but we learn to empathize as she fulfills her destiny as arm-candy for her ambitious husband. And along the way, those ambitions reveal Tertius the Noble Physician’s own self-centeredness. His unsuccessful turnaround is kind of heartbreaking in a “we knew that would happen” sort of way.

I love how blithely pompous and patronizing Tertius looks in this illustration.

Mary and Fred

Mary is pretty much a non-entity in the book, but who the hell cares? She waits patiently for Fred to get his head of his arse and we love her unreservedly for it.

And oh, Fred. Our dear, dear Fuck-Up Fred. He’s the clueless but well-meaning frat boy who just cannot seem to get his shit together. If anything demonstrates Eliot’s storytelling genius, it’s the Redemption of Fred.  I just CAN’T EVEN with him.

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Discussion topics

  1. I want Rev. Farebrother to have his HEA. Who can we ‘ship him with? He needs something wildly passionate because I’m pretty sure he secretly reads naughty books. He’s a very open-minded kind of reverend.
  2. Is there anything in the book more painful than the Featherstone Death Watch?
  3. I still do not understand the Bulstrode ↔ Ladislaw connection. Could someone please succinctly explain what Bulstrode knew about Will’s family? If that’s important in revealing Will’s — or Bulstrode’s — character, why does it come so late in the book?
  4. The BBC miniseries. I think the casting was close to perfect. I heard rumors of a new adaptation (there’s an IMDB page for it, I think Sam Mendes was the producer)— help me fan-cast a new version. Let’s re-gender Bulstrode so we can have Helen Mirren.
  5. The concept of re-gendering just made me think of this…. Could/should an adaptation of Middlemarch be modernized, or set in the mid 20th century instead of the 19th? Or is it too quintessentially capitol-V Victorian?

Make yourself useful in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “The (Belated) 1Q2015 Big Fat Book Review: Middlemarch by George Eliot

  1. I can’t be very useful ’cause I haven’t read this since grad school … now, there’s a pity party if there ever was one. But I will chime in to say IT IS BRILLIANT. & I have it on audio, yes Stevenson’s, and can’t wait to listen to it. As soon as I finish her brilliant EMMA.

  2. Okay, remember in Bulstrode’s backstory, how when he was young, he worked in a pawnshop? And when the pawnbroker died Bulstrode eventually married his widow (significantly older) and then took over the business?

    Well, the pawnbroker and his wife had a daughter who’d run off from the family long ago, when she was old enough to understand the shameful nature of their business. And Bulstrode’s wife/pawnbroker’s widow started thinking she’d really like to reconcile with her daughter before she died, and she asked Bulstrode to try to find the daughter.

    Bulstrode did find the daughter, now widowed with a little boy, but he didn’t tell his wife! He had all kinds of rationalizations, but basically he knew he’d inherit everything if the daughter wasn’t found. And so he did.

    The daughter’s little boy was Will Ladislaw. So Bulstrode cheated Ladislaw out of what should have been his inheritance (as well as any chance to know his grandmother). That’s the connection between them.

    As to why Bulstrode’s story doesn’t start up until later in the book, I wonder if it had something to do with the serial-publication format. Or, since so much of the book is about the exercise of sympathy, Eliot set herself the task of trying to win our sympathy for a character we were already comfortable dismissing as a sanctimonious hypocrite.

    It works for me. I’ve been revisiting Middlemarch for 30 years now, and Bulstrode’s is the story that most seems to stick with me.

    • Kelly says:

      THANK YOU! The serial format makes a lot of sense, and you’re right, we really don’t known enough about Bulstrode until Raffles shows up.

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