I’ve just finished reading Middlemarch for the fourth time. It’s still my desert island book.
Each time, different plot strands within the complex narrative have caught my attention. When still at school, the story of the mismatched Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate was of most interest, and I thought Dorothea rather a prig. Poor silly Rosamond, who valued material comfort and social standing equally highly and regarded her husband’s intellectual endeavours as far less important; and the country doctor Lydgate, planning a future of stunning medical discoveries but ending up writing a treatise on gout, ‘a disease which has a great deal of wealth on its side’.
In my twenties, behind a bookshop till and on the London Tube, I was won over by Dorothea Brooke’s idealism and full of pity for the way it had to be expressed through marriage. This time, I admired her plans – to help the less well off, and to assist her new husband with his work – and followed with more interest her growing realisation of Casaubon’s limitations. However, his convenient death, and the convoluted journey towards the second marriage, were and have remained less convincing. The scene when Dorothea and Ladislaw finally (oh Lord, finally – in chapter 83) confess their love for each other does diminish the novel, in my opinion.
In my late thirties, a local government worker with a long commute, my attention turned to Casaubon, Dorothea’s husband. By now I was more sympathetic about the pity she begins to feel for his personal tragedy of having worked so hard at something that turned out to be of no use whatsoever. It was also the time when I realised that Middlemarch is an historical novel, first published in 1871-2 (in instalments) but set around the time of the Reform Bill of 1832. I have never felt the political elements of the novel have been the best reason for reading it, but it has helped my appreciation of the story to think of how if, for example, it had been written in 2009, the background would have been the events of 1969. The recent past is a contested area and Eliot’s readers would have had very different views on the continuing saga of electoral reform and its political impact, which would have affected their views of the characters and perhaps of the novel itself.
So, what has been the most interesting aspect of the novel on a fourth reading, in my early fifties? To my surprise, it’s been the chequered courtship of childhood sweethearts Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. Maybe it’s because in middle age it’s possible to see that this love story is not as ordinary as it appeared earlier. Fred – Rosamond’s brother – is spoilt by his mother and runs wild at university, doing all those nineteenth-century tearaway things such as drinking and gambling. Sent down after failing his exams, he borrows money from Mary’s father and is unable to repay it because a legacy doesn’t come to him as expected. The message here is that both money and happiness must be earned. Fred achieves both, training as an estate manager with Mary’s father, marrying Mary, and living happily ever after; an achievement that is perhaps valued more when you’ve tried it yourself.
I wonder what will be the highlight of the fifth reading?