Middlemarch – should it be read just to impress or for enjoyment?

Janet Downs's picture
When Middlemarch was filmed in Stamford, the local book shop filled its window with copies of the book. Many people bought it. A local dentist (whose surgery was turned into a Middlemarch dress shop) told me he hadn't found any of his patients* who'd actually finished it. Shortly afterwards I read that a well-known journalist (sorry, can't remember the name) could only complete the book when she was at university by struggling through the night with a wet towel on her head.

These are anecdotes but are offered to show that Middlemarch is difficult. Michael Gove suggests that parents should be impressed if their 17 year-old daughter (sic) was reading Middlemarch. But literature isn’t about impressing other people. If someone picks up Middlemarch it should be because they expect to enjoy it not because they regard reading the book as intellectual one-upmanship.

However, if wily teenagers (or anyone else) pick up Eliot to impress then that can easily be achieved by tucking a copy of an easy read into the covers of Middlemarch and googling a summary which would probably be something like this:

"Middlemarch: set in provincial town during coming of railways. Passionate Dorothea marries bookworm Casaubon. Casaubon dies. His will prevents Dorothea from marrying handsome but penniless artist, Will Ladislaw. But Will was cheated out of inheritance by Bulstrode, now a Middlemarch banker (hiss!) and respected pillar of society. Meanwhile, marriage of idealistic Dr Lydgate to materialistic airhead Rosamond ends in tears. Spoiler alert: Bulstrode disgraced when drunken ghost from past returns. Dorothea marries Will. Brother-in-law, Sir James, once in love with Dorothea, is not happy. But Dorothea does good things and the world is a better place for her being there."

Of course, this doesn't do the novel justice and certainly not the moving ending. Here is Eliot describing Dorothea in the final paragraph:

'. . . the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

It took me three attempts to reach that ending. My advice: don't read Middlemarch just because it might impress others. Read it because you genuinely want to. If you find it hard going then leave it. Return to it later.  There's a lifetime to enjoy literature - you don't have to ingest the whole lot while you're at school.  Life would be poorer if great books were abandoned at the classroom door.

And before you pick up Middlemarch - watch the BBC adaptation. And look out for the dress shop.


*This is not a representative sample. It cannot, therefore, be regarded as an accurate survey.

Note: Read the reviews first if you buy Middlemarch on Amazon. Some of the editions are not, as one reviewer put it, “Middlemarch-as-she-was-wrote”.  Yes, I know that’s not grammatically correct but it makes the point succinctly.  Some editions contain American spellings and one edition had pages missing.  And perhaps the time is right for the BBC to broadcast a repeat of the dramatisation.

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