Book Review: Middlemarch

I had heard many horror stories about Middlemarch before I finally read it, largely from uni classmates who took the module that included it. "Oh it's really boring." "It goes on for ever!" "Nothing much happens." "The characters are a bit dull and sanctimonious." "I wish we didn't have to read it." But, all that said, I've never been much of a one for letting other people's influence determine my decision to read a book. This, coupled with my stubborn refusal to not finish a book once I've started - even if, in some cases, that means several attempts - means that I downloaded Middlemarch to my Kindle whilst travelling, and eventually finished it a few days ago.

For those of you who haven't read it, Middlemarch focuses on three love stories set in the eponymous fictional Midlands town: the triangle between Dorothea Brook, her husband Edward Causabon, and Causabon's cousin Will Ladislaw; idealistic new doctor in town Tertius Lydgate and local beauty Rosamond Vincy, who also flirts with Ladislaw; and Rosamond's brother Fred, recently home from university saddled with debts and reluctantly entering the clergy, and his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth, who is also being pursued by local clergyman Camden Farebrother (the names are one of the things I love most about Middlemarch). The book follows their relationships and the various bumps they hit on the road of marriage and courtship, played out against a backdrop of Dorothea's uncle running for Parliament as a Reform candidate, the building of a new hospital as Lydgate's treatment methods compete with those of the more established local doctors, and the snippy village gossip which has echoes of Cranford about it.

It's a hard book to read in the sense that it can throw an uncomfortable perspective on previous relationship experiences (or maybe that was just my mindset at the time) but even those torturous aspects are beautifully realised, particularly Lydgate's realisation that Rosamond has fallen out of love with him as life's hardships take their toll and the sense of crushing devastation when wills thwart both Fred and Mary and Dorothea and Will out of their relationships. In fact, wills and money drive a considerable amount of the plot in Middlemarch, particularly in the last quarter or so of the book. I can't really say too much other than that as it will spoil it but suffice to say an awful lot of the ending turns on this and, in my opinion, it felt a bit rushed - I'd have liked to see the 'deus ex machina' character appear earlier as it might have made him seem less shoehorned in.

Of the three central couples, I think Fred and Mary were my favourites. Yes Mary could be almost irritatingly good at times (although not as much as Dorothea; at least with Mary it felt like she was genuinely humble, whereas Dorothea seemed to be holding it over others' heads, particularly her sister Celia) and it's hard not to blame Fred for getting himself into the mess that he does, but they felt infinitely more realistic than Dorothea and Will's Romeo and Juliet-type story and that made the ending to their story all the sweeter. I will say this for George Eliot - as well as she writes tragedy, she's able to extend that to the happier moments, such as the dramatic conclusion to Dorothea and Will's plotline, but you can see that one coming a mile off. With Mary, though you're pretty sure she'll eventually choose Fred, there's also a tense patch with Mr Farebrother, particularly when Fred gets him to find out if Mary's interested - the nineteenth-century version of your mate telling you she wants you to ask the bloke you've secretly fancied for years out for her.

Overall, I think I quite liked it. It's not something I'd necessarily read for pleasure again, and it has to be said that some of my uni friends were right - it is long, and there are places where it sags under its own weight and you feel like saying "GET ON WITH IT!" in a Monty Python-esque voice - but it is definitely a book that stays with you, in a number of ways, and I can see why it's considered one of the greatest works of literature. It's a great book for whiling away a long train journey or for curling up with on the sofa on a rainy day with a cup of tea, and if you like a decent love story I'd say it's worth giving it a go.

You can download Middlemarch for Kindle for free from Amazon (which is surely another excuse to try it), or the cheapest paperback is the Wordsworth Classics edition at £1.99.

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