Stroud & District

Summing up Middlemarch

One thing that makes us both human and modern is our idea of our own past and those of other people and earlier societies; another is that we can all have some idea of what is going to happen in the future. All novels that are ‘grown up’ – an expression George Eliot herself used – pay great attention to these facets of experience. The more we read the more these matters become clear to us.

At last we have reached the end of Middlemarch and we can sum up our experiences. It has been a long haul but we have enjoyed it. Our final week looked at the last few chapters in relation to what we had read already. Two or three years pass during the first 80 chapters, but many years pass between the beginning of chapter 81 and the end of the Finale – in fact much longer than the period between the Lords rejecting the Reform Bill – which she deliberately mentions, early in the story, to help place the action in its time – and the publication of the novel more than thirty years later, both real events in real time that she incorporated into what George Eliot called ‘the web’. We learn about the various pasts of the main characters, and we read at the end something of their futures.

She knew that stories, whether fictional or historically true, never actually end and she wanted us to recognise that, though she knew that we do not want to know much about later characters who come after the people we have read about, the people we are interested in. They reflect our own experiences and relationships through fiction. We decide who we like and who we dislike and decide which of them are worth our while thinking about them. We looked at how the events of the book mirror and throw light on all sorts of matters that we know about ourselves and about other people in our own lives.

We seem to have spent a lot of time looking at the ways in which George Eliot uses language, often metaphorically, so that we seem to miss (or not notice) the metaphor or image as we read, because we are trying to follow the story; yet it influences the way we think about the characters. One example we looked at is the way we visualise the meeting between Dorothea and Rosamond. Dorothea is all in black, because she is a widow; Rosamond is wearing ‘a light shawl’ which turns into ‘a light white shawl’.

We spent much time considering this story of Dorothea visiting Rosamond, and their subsequent interview, as a sort of climax. All it does as a function of the plot, though, is to tell us that the story itself has not finished (and we can see that a lot of pages are left in this thick book); we know that a sort of resolution has been achieved in the Rosamond and Lydgate strand of the web and that Dorothea has been redefined as an autonomous and important character. For the first time in the book she is acting completely for herself, uninfluenced by anyone else. The character stands out as a developing creation in our heads

The second and final climactic event is the episode of thunder and lighting when Dorothea and Will Ladislaw discover that they love each other enough to ignore the Casaubon will and its codicil.

The Finale, in a leisurely way, ties up some loose ends. We learn that Will becomes an MP supported by Dorothea, though some people think she could have done better than be an MPs wife; they have children; they are reconciled to the Chettams; Mr and Mrs Bulstrode have gone to live at the seaside ‘among indifferent people’; Lydgate has died suddenly and Rosamond has remarried, to a more suitably rich doctor; after some interesting conversations Mary and Fred have married and have three sons and are now a white-haired old couple; Mr Brooke has died and Will and Dorotheas elder son has inherited through the entail but has refused to be a candidate for Parliament.

Finally, George Eliot draws her quietly triumphant conclusion about lives and celebrity: ‘…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’.