Issue 175 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published February 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review
Transferring the classics to the small screen can sometimes be an exercise in nostalgia for a cultural back to basics. Whether Middlemarch succumbs remains to be seen. But if the adaptation wins new readers for the novel then all well and good.
George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans) wrote the novel in 1871-72. It looked back to the period just before the Reform Bill of 1832, the period when the British bourgeoisie--the factory owning class--forced its way into parliament. The captains of industry weren't exactly waging war on the old aristocracy. But there were high hopes that something more than simply expanding the franchise might come of parliamentary reform.
In reality those hopes quickly faded. Social advance proved less than glorious and frustration and disappointment are central to the novel. The two characters who dominate the book, Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate, start their adult lives with a burning conviction that conditions can be improved for the mass of the population. Dorothea wants to devote her wealth not to the frivolous pursuits of the landed gentry she has been born to but to noble causes: building model houses and repairing the homes of her uncle's tenants.
She also wants a nobler life for herself. As a woman she is denied access to real education. She is expected to be interested in the feminine pastimes of her class: jewellery, visits and gossip--a life her sister is perfectly prepared to settle down to. So Dorothea hopes she can gain access to education through marrying knowledge. Her clergyman husband is engaged in strenuous mental labour, synthesising all past cultures, which she wants to help him with and thereby help diffuse it to a larger audience.
Lydgate is the man of science. He too has turned his back on his class to study medicine, not for a comfortable provincial practice, but to extend the boundaries of medical understanding and improve the health of the people.
But these wide horizons are rapidly narrowed by the characters' own shortcomings and what George Eliot calls 'the meanness of opportunity'. The epic life is not available to an upper class 19th century woman who cannot see what is plain to everyone else: that her husband, the Reverend Edward Casaubon, is a dried up pedant whose knowledge is useless and old fashioned.
Marriage seals her in a living tomb. Marriage also seals the fate of Lydgate. He falls for the lovely Rosamund Vincy, who has been turned out by the best local finishing school her father, the mayor, can buy. Lydgate's 'spot of commonness' is to see in her the woman who can adorn his life while he gets on with his scientific research. And she sees in him the realisation of her dreams of moving up the social scale.
Before long their mutual infatuation turns to mutual contempt, the marriage descending into a deadly tussle of wills, with victory going to the placid but determined Rosamund.
Some of the best passages of the novel are those which trace the way in which the reality of the wedded state dawns on the characters. George Eliot refuses to simplify the characters into goodies and baddies. Casaubon's coldness and emotional cruelty towards Dorothea follows from his realisation of his own inadequacy. Rosamund's childish obstinacy stems from the way she has been 'infantalised' to become the perfect wife.
The characters produce their own misery but they are also products of their social environment. The novel is set in middle England with its provincial limitations and habits. But events are also in mid march towards a newer England. An older, more enclosed world is dying out to be replaced by speedier communications and more cosmopolitan ideas.
There are gains and losses. Dorothea glimpses that new world in the art and culture of Rome, which she encounters on her honeymoon and which so shocks her provincial, Protestant soul. She also encounters it in her deepening relationship with Will Ladislaw, the cosmopolitan (Polish, Jewish, English) cousin of Casaubon. But Ladislaw is rootless, drifting from one enthusiasm to another, in both art and politics, even though his sympathies are wider than Casaubon's.
For much of the novel George Eliot seems to be in two minds about her attitude towards change. There is irony both at the expense of dull, plodding Middlemarch society and at that of bright new ideas for reforming the world. She sympathises with the passion for change but also warns against wanting to progress too fast.
In many ways she was the classic Victorian liberal, against both conservatism and radicalism, looking for a middle way, evolution rather than revolution. The novel concludes with the observation that 'the growing good of the world is partly dependent on the unhistoric acts.'
The message is: trust the slow path of progress and avoid heroics. This explains some of the weaker sides of the novel, such as the relationship between Ladislaw and the banker Bulstrode. For it turns out that Bulstrode has a shady past and a set of unconvincing coincidences lead both to his exposure and to the removal of obstacles to Ladislaw marrying Dorothea after the death of Casaubon.
There has to be, at one level, a happy ending because there has to be a reward for wanting to improve the human condition. But because George Eliot cannot put her trust in change from below (ordinary people are too ignorant, heroic individuals too likely to be naive idealists, or worse) she has to put her trust in the conviction that events will come out right. Hence the creakiness of the plot at points in the novel.
But the novel is not dominated by the author's ideological commitment to gradualism. Lydgate may go down to defeat, becoming a society doctor whose claim to fame is his treatise on the rich man's disease of gout rather than his research to improve the health of the poor. And Dorothea may not rise above being the wife of 'an ardent public man, working well in those times when reforms were begun with a young hopefulness of immediate good which has been much checked in our days'.
But what remains, and what makes the novel so brilliant at its best, is the enduring conviction that struggle is needed to bring about a new world--even if that world is a mediocre one that wastes and abuses the passion which brought it to birth.