'Middlemarch', by George Eliot (Book Club, July '22)

Originally published from 1871 to 1872 in eight parts, at two-monthly intervals, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is considered to be George Eliot’s masterpiece. It is a work of realism, portraying life at all levels of society at a time of societal change. Recognising the moral ambiguity in themes such as thwarted idealism, unhappy marriage and the role of women, George Eliot (the male pen name of female author Mary Ann Evans) gives a detailed picture of a specific historic period between September 1829 and May 1832, in a fictional town that is thought to be based on Coventry.

Henry James apparently wrote that Middlemarch is “at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels”, while Virginia Woolf described it as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. What is your verdict?

You can download a copy of the e-book from Project Gutenberg or Standard Ebooks, and there are audiobook versions at LibriVox. But any unabridged edition (paper, digital or audiobook) is fine.

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This year is the 150th anniversary of George Eliot’s completion of Middlemarch, our July book choice.

I read somewhere that writing this book started as one of George Eliot’s New Year’s resolutions in 1869, and I think that Middlemarch must have featured in many a resolutions list since then. Once upon a time, I myself made a New Year’s resolution to read it, although I never actually got round to it that year. Indeed, I haven’t quite finished it now; it’s pretty long, and I’m still going. It’s good, though — all I need is more spare time for reading!

Not everyone agrees. When asked to name a book that he couldn’t finish, Salman Rushdie said: “The humiliating answer I’m always obliged to give to this question is Middlemarch. I know, I know. I’ll try again.”

And some people are such fans that they re-read it at intervals throughout their lives. Patrick Ness wrote: “Middlemarch should be read when you’re 14. And again when you’re 23. And again at 31. And 45. And 52. And 68. And 84. It will, astoundingly, be a different book every time.” This view seems to crop up often in online book reviews.

What do you think of Middlemarch? Is this your first acquaintance with it? Is it a book that you have always intended reading, but somehow never did? Or have you read it before, and (if so) do you find it different on re-reading it now? What is it about the book that leads people to see it differently at different life stages?

All the best,

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I’m not going to finish it, I’m afraid. I’m eight chapters in, and I’ve found a massive Victorian soap opera without the pathos of Dickens, the wit of Austen, nor the intensity of Emily Bronte. The way the omniscient narrator keeps breaking the fourth wall drives me nuts. Sorry.


a massive Victorian soap opera without the pathos of Dickens, the wit of Austen, nor the intensity of Emily Bronte

Good list! To add to it, Middlemarch may also lack Anthony Trollope’s perceptive glimpses into small corners of human character.

I don’t find Middlemarch’s characters to be particularly believable as living, breathing people, and I’m not surprised to find their idealism thwarted because I found their idealism unlikely in the first place.

But I do find Middlemarch to be impressive overall. It is really wide-ranging in depth and scope, with lots of different social conditions and interactions squashing characters into their paths. It comes across as a very serious book, deliberately making weighty points that are tied into a painstaking portrayal of the “provincial life” of the subtitle.

I don’t think that Middlemarch lacks wit, exactly, and there certainly are amusing passages, but you have to wade through a lot of text in between the smiles and the neat turns of phrase!

This book is l-o-n-g, and I’m not finding it to be much of a page turner. But I’m enjoying it, and still looking forward to finding out the ending.

Aha. From the reviews I’ve seen, many people find the journey to the end worthwhile. I hope it’s worth the journey to you.

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I’ve never been able to finish a Salman Rushdie book, so there’s that. :slight_smile: Middlemarch, however, is up there as one of my favourites, and not just because I was born the George Eliot hospital. While I agree that Eliot doesn’t quite have the wit of Austen (and she certainly doesn’t have Austen’s skill for the perfect sentence, but then who does?), she’s not far off in a number of sections of this book. (The waffling Mr Brooke could be straight from an Austen novel.)

It does take a little persistence and adapting to the style - the first chapters are a little high-falutin’ until the prose settles - but the effort is worth it. Once you get past the initial Casaubon-focused chapters and characters such as Will Ladislaw, Fred and Rosamund Vincy, Lydgate and Mary Garth come to the fore, it’s a lot of fun. As soon as the focus pulled out and the Vincy family provided a counterpoint to Dorothea’s initial piousness, I loved every page.

And (no spoilers) that dramatic thunderstorm in the denouement - not to mention one of the best (and most famous) final lines in literature.


I had tried to read Middlemarch a couple of times over thirty years, found the first few chapters hard going, and had given up.

It wasn’t until I downloaded the audiobook version that I realised what the fuss was about. The narrator (Juliet Stevenson) brings the whole story to life in a way I found captivating. I had never realised just how much humour (dry, sardonic, pretension-puncturing) and how much wisdom there was in the book.

Stevenson is simply brilliant as a narrator[*], as you’d expect from such an accomplished actress. I’d recommended to anyone to listen to the audiobook, whether or not you also read it on the page.

[*]: Of course, not even Juliet Stevenson can make the first ten chapters of Henry James’ Portrait of a Tedious Woman and her Insufferable Clique interesting.

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Just one more point (which I’ve stolen, naturally, from someone far more erudite, whose name I can’t remember because it was ages ago…) Apologies if everybody already knows this, but I found it an interesting perspective.

We see the great sprawling Victorian novels as giant tomes which it can be a struggle to wade through, but that’s not how the original readers encountered them. Middlemarch was originally published serially in eight volumes, not in one huge dollop. There’s a website Reading like a Victorian which tries to recreate this experience.

Also, I found it interesting to realise that Middlemarch was a historical novel, not a contemporary one: it was written forty years after the events in the novel, which gives it a slightly different perspective.

And Juliet Stevenson is brilliant…

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I’m glad you mentioned that, @brookter, because it gives me the opportunity to mention that I hope to start a Book Club “read-along” later this year, to read Dickens’s Bleak House in twenty instalments (monthly) in line with its original publication schedule. And after twenty months of that, I thought that Thackeray’s Vanity Fair would be fun to approach in the same way.

I don’t know if Juliet Stevenson can be induced to take part, though! :grinning:

All the best,

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That sounds like a good idea, Astrid!

I read Vanity in the late 70s, so I’m due a refresh of that.

I have to confess I have a blind spot about Dickens (too much saccharine sentimentality and oh-so-funny comic names for me) – I’ve never got through more than a hundred pages of any of his novels apart from A Christmas Carol.

I do acknowledge that he is capable of some brilliant passages (case in point – the first few pages of Bleak House), but I suspect that he’s a bit like Wagner, who Rossini (probably didn’t really) said had some wonderful moments, but some bloody awful half hours…

So, 1/20th of Bleak House a month sounds perfect for me!


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The “read like a Victorian” concept sounds good! I look forward to it. But even this concept won’t get me through Middlemarch. As nearly as I can tell, I finished the first “instalment,” and I would never have picked up the second from the newsstand. “And has Mr Dickens anything new on offer?” would have been my question.

As for audiobooks – no. I’m sure Ms Stevenson is indeed brilliant, but I have a learning disability which makes listening to audiobooks, recorded lectures, radio programs, and the like nearly impossible. It would be even worse torture than reading Eliot’s pontificating fourth-wall breaks.

I’m sure the last line in the book is brilliant, just as @KB says. But to quote Han Solo, “No reward is worth this.”


(no spoilers) that dramatic thunderstorm in the denouement

I must be hard-hearted, or just old and jaded! :grinning:

I finally finished Middlemarch at the weekend. Did I enjoy it? Not really, but it has definite strengths and I am glad that I have read it at long last. I had to force myself to pick it up each day, and ended up feeling rather let down by some aspects. But now that I have finished it, I find that I remember the story elements (which are good) rather than the extensive and convoluted rumination that bogged it down. I’m less annoyed by the characters than I was while reading. And I have recognised some themes/techniques shared by a couple of other George Eliot texts that I have read, which are now exercising my thoughts. So I am enjoying the book more now, thinking about it in retrospect, than I did while reading. I wonder is it a book that is better when studied than when read at leisure?

It is a historical novel, so is set within a cultural landscape of real events. But somehow, I came away knowing as little about the Reform Act of 1832 as I did before, and I’ve had to look that up in Wikipedia to remind myself of what I had learnt about it at school. The earlier sections seemed promisingly interested in technological developments at the time, history of medicine, conditions of farm workers, and so forth, and I enjoyed those bits a lot, but the author seemed largely to forget about that later on. Come on, George Eliot – what happened about the cottages?

I didn’t find the characters to be particularly realistic; they each seemed to have one defining characteristic, although sometimes with some hidden backstory. Mr Brooke was great, and I enjoyed his role and contributions. Mr Bulstrode turned out to be much more interesting than I expected, and I wished I had paid more attention to him early on. The female characters all seemed very two-dimensional.

I kept waiting for Fred to start lying to everyone and committing romantic indiscretions, although that never happened. From the outset, he was painted as blond, feckless, ridiculously optimistic, and convinced that the world owed him a living; in my head, it was just a matter of time before he proved to be a stranger to honour and truthfulness, too, but he never plumbed those depths. So George Eliot didn’t, after all, model Fred on a certain figure in UK politics, however firmly that image was lodged in my head. :grinning:

My biggest reservation about this book is that there are altogether too many words! I am a fan of words, generally, including long or obscure ones. I like long novels. I like long, convoluted sentences. I like complicated plots, with random technical details thrown in for good measure. But my goodness, some of this endless introspection was heavy going.

So, as Henry James suggested when he wrote that Middlemarch is “at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels”, I would agree that Middlemarch has definite strengths but also definite weaknesses. I can see why the book might come across differently each time you read it, based on your own life experiences and outlook at the time, but I’m not sure I will ever put that to the test.

I’m glad I read it, though. Good choice, poll voters. Which brings me to a reminder that the poll for September’s book choice is open, with Dracula currently in the lead.

All the best,


That is an excellent website, @brookter. By coincidence, I seem to have spent most of 2021 time-travelling to 1864-66, reading (or listening to) three of the four listed titles in that stack. The website is now prompting me to spiral down the 1870-72 rabbit-hole in which Middlemarch can be found:

" The 1870-1872 Stack includes Anthony Trollope’s Ralph the Heir , Sir Harry Hotspur and The Eustace Diamonds, Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood , William Henry Ainsworth’s Talbot Harland and Tower Hill , George Meredith’s The Adventures of Harry Richmond , Charles Reade’s A Terrible Temptation , Wilkie Collins’s Poor Miss Finch , and George Eliot’s Middlemarch alongside volume-form works Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Poems , Benjamin Disraeli’s Lothair , Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man , Edward Burnett Tylor’s Primitive Culture , and others."

I am currently reading The Eustace Diamonds (carrying on a Trollope binge that started last year). I’ve never read any Ainsworth, Meredith or Reade, so I quite fancy giving them a go. And I plan to re-read Poor Miss Finch as summer-holiday reading; I have read it before, but I have only the haziest memory of it.

Thanks for the recommendation.

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Wonderful – I’m glad you find it useful!

I really must start expanding my reading along the same lines – I’ve only read a tiny fraction of them…

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Reading a Victorian book in one huge dollop would be the equivalent of binge watching Game of Thrones or some other TV series.


I found Middlemarch to be one of the greatest novels ever written, and I’m surprised at some of the reservations here. Surely there are other, longer books no less tedious. While there is a “Victorian” historical context, I think that is a secondary consideration alongside of the way it resonates beyond time and place, which is certainly the mark of a great book. I found the truth of the Casaubon to be devastating on a personal level, to the extent that it explodes the folly of dabbling in things incessantly and never getting anywhere with them. I also thoroughly appreciated Bleak House. It is true that it is an even more exhausting read, but thoroughly worthwhile in the end.

It is interesting to note the original, serial format of these works in terms of how they ought to be read. We have an equivalent phenomenon in the way that television series have evolved, insofar as many of us like to binge-watch them rather than waiting for episode after episode to appear, so it is comparable to reading a novel straight through.

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Now you’re making me wonder what I missed! :grinning: Maybe I should put Middlemarch back on my mental list of things I should re-read in the future.

There certainly are. Even ripping yarns like The Count of Monte Cristo drags excessively in places. And I found Samuel Richardson’s Pamela to be tedious beyond endurance, even though it was a wild success in its day; I can’t remember if I ever finished it.

Opinions on books can be very subjective. Sometimes I have found a novel to really strike a chord, and have been baffled by its apparent insignificance to others. Other times, I have re-read a book I disliked on a previous reading, and found it to be much better than I remembered, presumably because of intervening changes in my own outlook or experience – or maybe just the mood I was in when reading.

I am with you 100%. I really enjoy Bleak House, and am looking forward to re-reading it in instalments.

We have been binge-watching some older television series recently, and it is very clear that they weren’t designed with a non-stop approach in mind. My husband started pointing out verbal repetitions (exposing a rather formulaic plot structure) that occur in every episode of one series that I had been thoroughly enjoying up until his revelation; we would never have noticed that if we had watched them one episode at a time, on a weekly basis, as the creators originally intended.

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