Growing Up with Middlemarch

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National Portrait Gallery, London
George Eliot; chalk drawing by Sir Frederic William Burton, 1865

What did Virginia Woolf mean by calling George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–1872) “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”? Like many of Woolf’s most telling critical remarks, it is tossed off without elaboration, as if both the character of Eliot’s “magnificent book” and the judgment on the rest of English fiction went without saying.

One clue to the latter may come from the piece on “The Russian Point of View” with which Woolf followed her essay on George Eliot in The Common Reader (1925). By comparison to the Russians, Woolf suggests, readers of Victorian fiction had grown accustomed to novels in which good and bad characters were sharply distinguished from one another and everything was neatly sorted in the end. Woolf’s crisp formula for such endings—“lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed”—might superficially do for the closing chapters of Middlemarch as well, but only if one resolutely ignored Eliot’s insistence that there are no villains in her novel, any more than there are heroes and heroines free from what she calls “spots of commonness.” To write for grown-ups, in this sense, is to disabuse readers of those judgments “agreeable to our vanity”—the phrase is Woolf’s but could just as easily be Eliot’s—by which we can apportion our praise and blame undisturbed.

Nor does the uniting of lovers or the exposure of intrigue in Middlemarch prove as satisfying as the more wishful among us might have been led to expect. Rather than the fulfillment of youthful hopes—whether of its characters or of its readers—the novel delivers several different stories of disappointment and accommodation. Tertius Lydgate, ambitious of scientific discovery and determined to reform the practice of medicine, surrenders to financial pressure and ends by quitting town under a cloud of scandal. Rather than an ardent explorer in “the dark territories of Pathology,” he becomes a London physician catering to the diseases of the rich. “In his student’s chambers, he had prearranged his social action quite differently,” the narrator says of an early episode in this slow descent: one of the novel’s more quietly devastating sentences.

Already prematurely aged when the novel begins, the Reverend Edward Casaubon succumbs to a heart attack without ever completing his hopelessly outdated “Key to all Mythologies.” Rosamond Vincy manages somewhat better, but only by trading her dreams of rising in rank through marriage to the aristocratically connected Lydgate for the consolations of a second union with a wealthy older doctor after Lydgate’s untimely death. Awakened from his own dreams of easy gentility when he fails to inherit an uncle’s estate, her brother Fred must settle instead for the humble position of manager on that same property—an accommodation itself made possible only when his other uncle, the evangelical banker Bulstrode, after revelations that he was once a pawnbroker and has since abetted his …

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