I will admit upfront that this is a slow book and it took me a long time to plod my way through it. Especially the middle third of the book is unbearably tedious as Eliot goes into the minute inconsequential details of the daily lives of the key characters. Having finished the book, I was dragging my feet about writing this review but that gave me some time to think about the book as a whole and in hindsight appreciate Eliot’s craftsmanship in developing the key characters and also how different the overall theme was as compared to the other Victorian novels. Like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Eliot too focuses on relationships as the key aspect of her story but it’s not a romantic novel and doesn’t have a classic happy ending. Instead this is a study about real relationships, failed marriages, compromises people make to keep things going and mistakes one makes when they marry for wrong reasons.
The story is set in a small English county called Middlemarch but the story itself is quite universal. We meet several interesting characters who live here and each one gets to be the hero/heroine in the little story of their own, evolving in parallel. Eliot takes us into the everyday details of their lives, their emotions and the decisions they make. While this paints a vivid picture for the reader, it also felt cumbersome at times. But in the last third of the book, the story picks up pace as all these individual lives collide and take us to an unexpected ending.
Apparently, Eliot started this work as two different stories- one about our heroine “Miss Brooke” and one about the hero “Mr. Lydgate”, till she realised that they together would complete the story. But Eliot is clever and she doesn’t fall for the usual trap of the “hero” and “heroine” coming together as a happy couple in the end. No, these main protagonists don’t even meet each other till the first 200 pages or so. Then they cross paths several times as they go through ups & downs of life and in the process develop a deep sense of respect and admiration for each other.
The complexity in Eliot’s characters is praiseworthy, none of them are black & white. There is no typical lead female character who is beautiful, kind, intelligent and passionate. Instead Eliot deals with the greys in the human character. In her story- the beautiful ones are vain and egocentric, the plain ones are kind & empathetic, the intelligent ones are emotionally vulnerable and so on.
What I did struggle with was that I just couldn’t relate with any of lead characters. Dorothea’s blind idealism, Lydgate’s emotional naivety, Will’s lack of conviction and Rosamond’s general egocentric stupidity – none of these I identified with and therefore I didn’t feel immersed in the story. I didn’t feel their joy nor their pain, it felt detached like watching the happenings on the street from your upper floor window.
I also struggled with the hundreds of biblical references that are usual in classics of this kind. Language used is old style Victorian English which can sometimes feel a bit difficult to follow.
Overall, a definite one-time read though I am not sure I would go through it again.