What Middlemarch means to me

'A novel without weaknesses, it renews itself for every generation'
Martin Amis

It is interesting that during her life Middlemarch wasn't George Eliot's greatest achievement. Daniel Deronda, which came after, was an enormous worldwide success, but it is very hard going and is hardly read at all now. Meanwhile, I don't think there is much argument about Middlemarchbeing the novel of the 19th century. I would say that it is the central English novel. It's a novel without weaknesses, except perhaps Will Ladislaw is a little too light and romantic – he's a bit underweight for a novel so ample and deep.
I first read it in my late teens and both my sons have read it recently. Neither read English at university and both thought it was amazing. So another proof of greatness is that it renews itself for every generation. I reread it in my 30s with completely undiminished admiration. Dorothea's sexuality is very interesting, as her marriage to Casaubon is clearly unconsummated. When she goes to the art gallery in Italy and someone asks her about it she says she finds the paintings frightening. It is clear that it is the sensuality of the paintings that alarms her – she is about to experience some fulfilment with Ladislaw. Eliot's book came at the time that writers were trying to suggest something about sexuality with a very limited vocabulary. In Hard Times, when Gradgrind is fixing up for Louisa to marry the middle-aged Mr Bounderby, she looks out at the industrial landscape – "see those chimneys father, at night fire comes out of them" – an attempt to imply the very obvious image of sexuality. Mr Gradgrind says he does not understand the relevance of the remark. So that is the Dickens way of implying sex. Eliot is, of course, much more subtle.

'Now when I reread it I want to urge Dorothea to stay exactly as she is at the start' Kathryn Hughes

When I first read Middlemarch as a teenager, I was consumed by what deconstructionist critics call "the marriage plot" and the rest of us call the love story. I identified with Dorothea, naturally, and cringed at the idea of having Casaubon's hands all over me. (I was not a sufficiently subtle reader to pick up the clues that Casaubon is impotent, so his hands didn't go anywhere at all.) Like many of Eliot's contemporary readers I longed for Dorothea to get together with Lydgate, whose ardour to do "good small work for Middlemarch, and great work for mankind" seemed the perfect match for her own intense if inchoate desire to make the world a better place. Still, if she couldn't have him, at least she had Ladislaw for her second and forever husband. Although underwritten as a character (he is nothing but a lovely shimmering empty space), the Byronic young man is definitely on the side of angels, too.

Now, in middle age, and still identifying with Dorothea, I find that I couldn't care less about the love stuff. What interests me is the money. Unusually for the heroine of a Victorian novel, Dorothea does not have the threat of governessing hanging over her. Her dead parents have left her a fortune and, again unusually, there don't seem to be any complicated conditions attached to her inheritance. She is free to do as she pleases.
Above all, Dorothea isn't obliged to marry anyone and, increasingly, I think she's mad to have done it not once but twice. Casaubon, of course, is conveniently lost to a coronary. And she certainly dodged a bullet with Lydgate: Eliot tells us at the end of the novel that he soon gives up his high ideals in order to become a society doctor. But the marriage Dorothea actually makes, to Ladislaw, now strikes me as risky, too. He'll rise into the cabinet but something – dodgy expenses, a flirty secretary – will bring him down.
These days when I reread the novel I want to urge Dorothea to stay exactly as she is at the start of the novel, a supremely lucky creature with the resources to do exactly as she pleases (in her case, designing model cottages). Once she attains the age of 21 she can move out of Tipton Grange and buy an equally lovely, but better run, estate of her own.
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