I take the view that if you are going to read a book, you may as well read the best. You are not going to be able to read all the books in the world in your life, so try to stick to the ones worth reading.
They don’t call them classics for nothing.
The reason I hadn’t read Middlemarch, or anything by George Eliot before, is summed up in its subtitle: ‘A Study in Provincial Life’. An ancient Victorian novel set in the Midlands in which the themes include the Great Reform Act of 1832, unhappy marriages and complicated inheritances? It’s not going to knock ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ off the best-sellers’ list, is it?
Not that I’ve read Fifty Shades of Grey, but I would bet money that Middlemarch: A study in Provincial Life is a whole lot more sexy.
It is something that you don’t get in many modern books: naturally intelligent but not clever-clever.
It is a drama of characters we soon care about, making mistakes, struggling against the restrictions society imposed at that time, and just occasionally getting things right. It has a huge depth of characterisation, subject and theme, and if that’s not sexy I don’t know what is.
The best books require effort on behalf of the reader. If you just want to be entertained without having put too much into it, you’ll find plenty of that elsewhere. (The modern novel, again).
Middlemarch has so many characters I found it difficult to keep track of them all, but that’s what the internet is for.
It is dated, or at least very much of its time. That Great Reform Act may have still been a major issue 40 years later, when the book was published, but another 140 years on it has lost its interest, to me at least.
Similarly, at first I misread the way Eliot had portrayed the role of the country doctor. At the start, when I saw doctors viewed with suspicion and contempt by the townfolk, not respected and certainly not well paid, I assumed in a subconscious sort of way she was being ironic, and that before long we would get a more modern view of the medical profession.
We didn’t, and she wasn’t being ironic: that’s how she viewed it in 1870.
And yet, alongside that, some issues haven’t changed: you have some depictions of marriage and the role of women in society which would resonate greatly with the modern reader.
Either way, it’s the characterisation that makes Middlemarch not just good and worth reading, but a great book, and if it hits at the right moment in your life, you may well think it is one of the things that changed the way you looked at the world.
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