What Is It About Middlemarch?

The most scathing piece of literary criticism I’ve ever read is an essay, published in 1856, called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” It begins like this:
Silly Novels by Lady Novelists are a genus with many species, determined by the particular quality of silliness that predominates in them—the frothy, the prosy, the pious, or the pedantic. But it is a mixture of all these—a composite order of feminine fatuity—that produces the largest class.
The author then describes the many literary offenses these fatuous females commit. They are incompetent at verisimilitude: “Their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.” They are as unoriginal, stylewise, as teenage girls cozily wearing one another’s clothes: “The lover has a manly breast; minds are redolent of various things; hearts are hollow.” They have the audacity to pronounce on important matters, as if “an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions.” Such allegations continue apace, until, eventually, the author provides a Silly Lady Novel recipe: “Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.”

Ladies, lady novelists, all of you: Put down your hackles. This formidable piece of criticism, which makes modern arguments about women and fiction sound like pillow talk; which BuzzFeed and its positive-reviews-only policy would not touch with a 27,000-foot pole; which, placed on one side of a seesaw, would send its opposite number Smarm into the stratosphere—this essay on Silly Novels by Lady Novelists was written by one Mary Ann Evans, better known to the world by her Serious Gentleman Novelist name, George Eliot.

Like much of Eliot’s work, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” does a remarkable number of things deftly and all at once. Although she is an uncommonly compassionate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvious thing she does here is chiffonade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while castigating some women, she manages to champion women as a whole. Her chief objection to silly novels is that they misrepresent women’s real intellectual capacity; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the ­culture that produced them—through inadequate education, low expectations, patronizing critics, and fear of the real deal. In hindsight, however, perhaps the most interesting thing Eliot does here is trace out, in negative space, the contours of a truly great novel. Such a novel would represent human beings, in their inner and outer worlds, with nuance and fidelity. Its prose would be bespoke and cleansed of cliché. It would approach life’s knotty moral questions with knowledge, intelligence, and experience. It could not be fatuous, frothy, prosy, pious, or pedantic. It would have to be rich and filling when served hot; it would also have to keep. Fifteen years later, Eliot sat down and wrote it. As a rule, I am allergic to the adjective “best,” which asserts only the inferiority of all other things—not a useful or appealing function, for those of us who are promiscuous thing-lovers. But here is one benchmark of a book, and a very difficult one to achieve: whether, while you are immersed in it, it mutes all other claims upon your taste and convinces you it’s the greatest thing ever written. That’s how I felt last month, when, for the third time in my life but the first in more than a decade, I read Middlemarch.

Now that it’s back on the shelf, I won’t stake any claims here about the exact degree of Middlemarch’s greatness. Instead, I want to talk about its goodness. I don’t subscribe to the moral argument for fiction—the idea that great books make us better people. (For one thing, I’m reluctant to defend literature by appeals to its putative ends. For another, the data doesn’t look good. Plenty of reprehensible people love books.) Similarly, fiction that is a moral argument makes me wary, not for any prima facie reason but because it tends to be terrible.

And yet, on both fronts, Eliot hushes me. Middlemarch is forever waxing on about how to be good, and it was written with the explicit goal of making us a little better. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings,” Eliot wrote in an 1859 letter, “is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves.”

Harold Bloom, speaking of people who differ from ourselves, was right to note the weirdness of this part of Eliot’s ­project—or rather, the weirdness of it working. She was, he wrote, the only “major novelist, before or since, whose overt ­moralizings constitute an aesthetic virtue rather than a disaster.” Which raises a question: How does she get away with it? And, beyond the basic exhortation to be good, what exactly is it that she wants us to do?

I owe a debt of gratitude to Rebecca Mead, whose new book, My Life in ­Middlemarch, inspired me to revisit Eliot’s masterpiece. Mead first read ­Middlemarch when she was 17 and found a foothold in it. Eventually, she would climb it through college and coming to New York, through love and its loss, ­thorough parenting and stepparenting, through all the life-stuff that sloshes outside of and into those stages: ambition, frustration, ­loneliness, desire, arguments, intellectual life, aging. Virginia Woolf famously said of Middlemarch that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up ­people.” For Mead, it also turned out to be a book to grow up with. In My Life in Middlemarch, she weaves the story of that private relationship together with biography and literary criticism; the whole, gracefully executed, makes a pleasing aperitif or digestif to Eliot.

As to the main course: The soul of ­Middlemarch belongs to Dorothea Brooke, the intellectually eager, spiritually sincere young woman who marries the much older Edward Casaubon, a vicar forever at work on his unfinished anthropological-theological omnibus, The Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea believes his mind to be similarly omnibus-y, only to learn too late that she has committed her life to a scholar manqué—to, in fact, an everything manqué. “Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame,” Eliot writes, “and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: … it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” Along with Madame Bovary and Medea, Dorothea suffers one of the greatest dreadful marriages in literature.



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