Middlemarch, by George Eliot, is a sprawling portrait of a number of persons of varying degrees of wealthiness, set in a fictional 1830s British town not very far outside of London. It’s a wonderful book of rich characters, broadly concerned with what it is to do good, and how to do it, and the ways people accidentally tie their own fates in knots in miscalculated attempts to follow their bliss. It’s written with a devastatingly precise eye for character, and a gentle but uncompromising view of human foibles. It’s also very funny, primarily in the first and last hundred pages or so. Which amounts to about a quarter of the book – sprawling, indeed.
My main complaint about it is that it has, in some ways, aged poorly. There are various casually antisemitic remarks sprinkled through, and some events that are portrayed as tragic or actions that everyone in the book immediately assumes are evil are hard to take seriously – the impact on the reader of some of the characters’ missteps is weakened by the changing of times. Things that a contemporary reader would understand as reputation-destroying incidents parse to the modern reader as, at worst, minor mistakes that would be easily forgiven. She also uses commas weirdly – I’m not sure if that’s a change over time in grammar or a stylistic choice.
If no one has yet, someone should publish a paper about how Caleb Garth is neuroatypical.
Some choice quotes follow. They are in the order they appear in the book, may contain spoilers, and may be lightly edited to remove or normalize references to names that would be meaningless to anyone who hasn’t read the book. I have taken the liberty of allowing a few characters names when they appear in multiple quotes that are better when you can connect the subjects.
Mr. Brooke was a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote.
“You have your own opinion about everything, and it is always a good opinion.”
What answer was possible to such stupid complimenting?
“Mr. Brooke is a very good fellow, but pulpy; he will run into any mould, but he won’t keep shape.”
“Ay, to be sure, there should be a little devil in a woman,” said the man, whose study of the fair sex seemed to have been detrimental to his theology.
“What have you been doing lately?”
“I? Oh, minding the house — pouring out syrup — pretending to be amiable and contented — learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”
Will was not at all deep himself in German writers; but very little achievement is required in order to pity another man’s shortcomings.
“I regretted it especially,” he resumed, taking the usual course from detraction to insincere eulogy.
“I suppose I am dull about many things,” she said, simply. “I should like to make life beautiful — I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from int.”
“I call that the fanaticism of sympathy,” said Will, impetuously. “You might say the same of landscape, of poetry, of all refinement. If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy — when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is of no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight — in art or in anything else. Would you turn all the youth of the world into a tragic chorus, wailing and moralizing over misery? I suspect that you have some false belief in the virtues of misery, and want to make your life a martyrdom.”
“How rude you look, pushing and frowning, as if you wanted to conquer with your elbows! Cincinnatus, I am sure, would have been sorry to see his daughter behave so.” (Her mother delivered this awful sentence with much majesty of enunciation, and she felt that between repressed volubility and general disesteem, that of the Romans inclusive, life was already a painful affair.)
Whether Providence had taken equal care of his wife in presenting her with him was an idea which could hardly occur to him. Society never made the preposterous demand that a man should think as much about his own qualifications for making a charming girl happy as he thinks of hers for making himself happy. As if a man could choose not only his wife but his wife’s husband!
“I can’t wear my solemnity too often, else it will go to rags.”
(Solemnity here refers, I am pretty sure, to mourning clothes, although the double meaning is clearly intended)
In the meanwhile the hours were each leaving their little deposit and gradually forming the final reason for inaction, namely, that action was too late.
There was no denying that she was as virtuous and lovely a young lady as he could have obtained for a wife; but a young lady turned out to be something more troublesome than he had conceived.
What is the use of being exquisite if you are not seen by the best judges?
“I am perhaps talking rather superfluously; but a man likes to assume superiority over himself, by holding up his bad example and sermonizing on it.”
Will would probably have been rambling in Italy sketching plans for several dramas, trying prose and finding it too jejune, trying verse and finding it too artificial, beginning to copy “bits” from old pictures, leaving off because they were “no good,” and observing that, after all, self-culture was the principal point; while in politics he would have been sympathizing warmly with liberty and progress in general.
But most of us are apt to settle within ourselves that the man who blocks our way is odious, and not to mind causing him a little of the disgust which his personality excites in ourselves.
When a tender affection has been storing itself in us through many of our years, the idea that we could accept any exchange for it seems to be a cheapening of our lives.
But to most mortals there is a stupidity which is unendurable and a stupidity which is altogether acceptable — else, indeed, what would become of social bonds?
“It is the way with all women,” he said inwardly. But this power of generalizing which gives men so much the superiority in mistake over the dumb animals, was immediately thwarted.
But still — it could not be fairly called wooing a woman to tell her that he would never woo her. It must be admitted to be a ghostly kind of wooing.
The real wife had not only her claims, she had still a hold on his heart, and it was his intense desire that the hold should remain strong. In marriage, the certainty, “She shall never love me much,” is easier to bear than the fear, “I shall love her no more.”
“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”
“Character is not cut in marble — it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”
“Then it may be rescued and healed. […] People glorify all sorts of bravery except the bravery they might show on behalf of their nearest neighbors.”
In Middlemarch a wife could not long remain ignorant that the town held a bad opinion of her husband. No feminine intimate might carry her friendship so far as to make a plain statement to the wife of the unpleasant fact known or believed about her husband; but when a woman with her thoughts much at leisure got them suddenly employed on something grievously disadvantageous to her neighbors, various moral impulses were called into play which tended to stimulate utterance. Candor was one. To be candid, in Middlemarch phraseology, meant, to use an early opportunity of letting your friends know that you did not take a cheerful view of their capacity, their conduct, or their position: and a robust candor never waited to be asked for its opinion. Then, again, there was the love of truth — a wide phrase, but meaning in this relation, a lively objection to seeing a wife look happier than her husband’s character warranted, or manifest too much satisfaction in her lot: the poor thing should have some hint given her that if she knew the truth she would have less complacency in her bonnet, and in light dishes for a supper-party. Stronger than all, there was the regard for a friend’s moral improvement, sometimes called her soul, which was likely to be benefited by remarks tending to gloom, uttered with the accompaniment of pensive staring at the furniture and a manner implying that the speaker would not tell what was on her mind, from regard to the feelings of her hearer. On the whole, one might say that an ardent charity was at work setting the virtuous mind to make a neighbor unhappy for her good.
It seemed to him as if he were beholding in a magic panorama a future where he himself was sliding into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain.
We are on a perilous margin when we begin to look passively at our future selves, and see our own figures led with dull consent into insipid misdoing and shabby achievement. Poor Lydgate was inwardly groaning on that margin, and Will was arriving at it. It seemed to him this evening as if the cruelty of his outburst to Lydgate’s wife had made an obligation for him, and Will dreaded the obligation: he dreaded Lydgate’s unsuspecting goodwill: he dreaded his own distaste for his spoiled life, which would leave him in motiveless levity.
(Compare this quote for more on Will’s “motiveless levity.”)
“She may be acting imprudently; she is giving up a fortune for the sake of a man, and we men have so poor an opinion of each other that we can hardly call a woman wise who does that.”
“It is quite true that I might be a wiser person, and that I might have done something better, if I had been better. But this is what I am going to do. I have promised to marry him; and I am going to marry him.”
“Ay, ay; you want to coax me into thinking him a fine match.”
“No indeed, father. I don’t love him because he is a fine match.”
“What for, then?”
“Oh, dear, because I have always loved him. I should never like scolding any one else so well; and that is a point to be thought of in a husband.”
“I wonder if any other girl thinks her father the best man in the world.”
“Nonsense, child; you’ll think your husband better.”
“Impossible,” she said, relapsing into her usual tone; “husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order.”
That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.