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24 june 2023

About thirty years ago, I published an article on George Eliot's Middlemarch. I can't say I've been dining out on this achievement ever since. But as a department chair of mine once told me about another of my articles, "That's one more than the rest of us have published" on whatever topic it was. So I will always be the local Middlemarch scholar.

I can't remember much about my article, and might not agree now with what I said then. My basic theme was how Eliot tries to represent dialects and discourses in Middlemarch, weaving them together with her own narrating voice. She does this, of course, to effect a "condition of England" treatment of the social edifice. Naturally, they are the "Middle" tiers. We hear from two baronets and from a handful of working-class characters. The former are not bad people, though a bit insouciant; the latter are not bad people, but they are brutalized. The rest of the characters range from the higher gentry to the tradespeople of a middling middle-of-England community in the middle of the 19th century.

None of them turn out to be bad people either. George Eliot didn't go in much for melodrama and stock types. She loved psychological and moral complications. There isn't a character so chilling in Middlemarch that the narrator doesn't try to understand them and get us to do so, too. Perhaps that's a flaw. Not everyone demands to have good seen in them. But it's simply Eliot's premise for this novel, and one has to accept it. She could create a thoroughly bad character: Grandcourt in Daniel Deronda would qualify. But the villains of Middlemarch – Bulstrode, Casaubon, maybe even the drunken Raffles – are humans with something sympathetic about them.

Omniscient narrators – and Middlemarch's is one of the most all-knowing in English literature – may work best when they are theatrical and self-conscious. Eliot in Middlemarch is not showy or melodramatic, as a narrator by Victor Hugo or Anthony Trollope might be. By Victorian-novel standards, she underplays her hand. But she is rhetorical, at times philosophical. She's archly funny when setting her erudition and insight against the limitations of her characters. She's sanguine about human nature, about desire, about families and relationships. Yet she also realizes, as she puts it in the tremendous "Finale" to the novel, that in life

Some set out, like Crusaders of old, with a glorious equipment of hope and enthusiasm and get broken by the way, wanting patience with each other and the world.

I once posited, at least provisionally, that a great novel needs four things: plot, empathy, humor, and verbal brilliance. Eliot didn't always hit on all four, but in Middlemarch she does so, consistently. The plot is very complicated – it's a huge main plot without any real subordination of its components to one another – and depends on the coincidences that Victorian novels thrive on, though they're not blatant. Middlemarch's plot is elaborate without becoming confusing, and engaging without being melodramatic. Empathy and humor, I've touched on; and the verbal texture of the novel is positively coruscating. Everything comes together – even a dose of wry humor that tempers the possible pathos of the scene – in Chapter 20, which starts with heroine Dorothea Brooke, neglected on her Roman honeymoon, and "sobbing bitterly" in "a handsome apartment in the Via Sistina." The whole chapter is one of the greatest achievements of English prose.

The empathy that Eliot exhibits is also unusually frank, at times, for the Victorian novel. Even the passion in a late-Romantic novel like one of the Brontës' can seem oddly asexual; there's no sense in Dickens that sex exists; Thackeray smirked his way past actual sexuality. Trollope was franker, perhaps counting on the reader being lulled to sleep and not registering some of his bolder allusions.

Though it's hardly like there's a sex scene in Middlemarch either. In fact, Dorothea is sobbing in Rome, we infer, in part because there haven't been any sex scenes involving her and her new husband, the Reverend Casaubon. But another of the book's central relationships, that of the medical man Tertius Lydgate and his highly presentable wife Rosamond Vincy, gets continually inflected through their sexual contact. Eliot doesn't use graphic terms; everything is petting and caressing; but the implications are unavoidable. Lydgate and Rosamond do not share a common language or common values. But they are highly compatible sexually, and they clearly use sex as a way of interacting that locks them together while leaving them less able to communicate all the time. The idea that Rosamond might stop finding him attractive is one of Lydgate's driving motivators as he stumbles through his sector of the story.

If there's a true flaw in Middlemarch, it's Eliot's attitude toward the workers she portrays. As I said above, there are few of them, and they don't do or say much in the novel. And they are not cast as racially inferior to her characters of "quality." But though Eliot presents their backwardness as a combination of neglected education and low information, the fact remains that her workers are brutally ignorant, strung out on substances, violent instead of rational, and cowards even when it comes to violence, capable of being daunted by any gentleman who realizes they need a good rap on the snout with a rolled newspaper.

In Chapter 39, the most fully-drawn of these workers, Mr. Dagley, confronts Mr. Brooke, who is both Dorothea's uncle and Dagley's landlord. Dagley, in his cups, starts to berate Brooke for being an exploitative slumlord. Dagley waves a pitchfork, trying to contend against both Brooke's breezy dismissals and George Eliot's droll narrative voice. Eliot also endows Dagley with a broad stage-peasant eye-dialect, so that he calls the Reform Bill "the Rinform," and the like.

"An' you may do as you like now, for I'm none afeard on you. … Look to yoursen, afore the Rinform has got upo' your back. That's what I'n got to say," concluded Mr. Dagley, striking his fork into the ground with a firmness which proved inconvenient as he tried to draw it up again.
So much for the consciousness of labor. Here Dickens, for all his glurge, would be far preferable. He would have given Dagley his dialect, but he would also have given Dagley his dignity.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. 1872. iBooks Edition.