Eliot Without Tears

George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’

directed by Anthony Page. produced by BBC Television
Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, PBS, April 10–May 15, 1994

The six-part television adaptation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch now on Masterpiece Theatre is introduced by Russell Baker, who recently replaced Alistair Cooke as the program’s host. Mr. Cooke had a manner of speaking of books and their characters as one might speak of colorful family members long deceased. He was almost a literary character himself, a sort of roguish cleric, and he had a trick of blurring the distinction between fact and fiction in a way that made the stories seem a little more real at the expense of making himself seem a little less so. We would not have been entirely surprised to hear Mr. Cooke tell us that his mother’s nanny was actually once married to a cousin of Mr. Casaubon’s butler.

Mr. Baker’s approach is much more wholesome. He doesn’t pretend to a greater intimacy with the stories he introduces than is consistent with the persona of a cultivated fellow who’s done a few things in his life beside read novels. He knows, in the case of Middlemarch, that we might be glad for a few facts about George Eliot, and (in contrast to Mr. Cooke, whose manner of delivery sometimes gave the impression that he was making it up as he went along) he rattles off two or three pieces of information, mostly inaccurate, about her with the complacent authority of an anchorman.

He’s also sensible enough not to act as though Middlemarch is the sort of novel most of his viewers will ever have felt drawn to read without the stimulus of a television program, and he puts himself on those viewers’ side at once by confessing his own longstanding reluctance to plough through the thing. Dipped when still a boy into the literary prune juice of Silas Marner, he confides, he once swore off George Eliot forever. But after being obliged, in his new capacity, to tackle Middlemarch, he astonished himself by becoming “absolutely and hopelessly hooked. It was,” he exclaims, “a page-turner!” The experience emboldened him to return to Silas Marner, which he reports to be similarly absorbing stuff—all going to show, as he puts it, that “school can keep you from getting a good education.”

The good-natured and slightly anti-intellectual defensiveness of this appeal is, of course, just Mr. Baker’s hostly gambit, and wouldn’t be worth remarking on if it didn’t typify the whole public relations effort accompanying this adaptation. The Modern Library has put out a “companion edition” of Middlemarch, which is advertised as “complete and unabridged” (as opposed to what? complete but abridged?) and which reprints a brief essay by A.S. Byatt in which she recalls her youthful exasperation with the tedious Silas and subsequent enlightenment. An event staged earlier this month to publicize this new Modern Library edition (which is, of course, only the old Modern Library edition reset and with a different jacket) involved a discussion of the novel by a panel whose members included …

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