New book! Middlemarch by George Eliot

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.

And with this inauspicious beginning we tackle the next book in the Master List, Middlemarch by George Eliot. Here are the details on the novel. Pick up a copy… if  you dare.

Full title: Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life

Pages: Ranging from 600 to 900 depending on the edition (good heavens!)

Publication history: The book was begun in the late 1860s, in fits and starts, and was begun serial publication in 1871. A full edition was published in 1874.

First impressions: As I noted in the previous post, I begin this novel in anxiety. Not only does it appear, upon first impression, to be a “social criticism” novel about 19th century domestic tension in faire olde Englande, it is 316,059 words long.  You could read Jane Austen’s Emma and Pride and Prejudice and still have time for the first quarter of Sense and Sensibility before you matched Middlemarch in heft.

However, in its defense there is some real human feeling in the first few pages. Two sisters, Dorothea and Celia Brooke are reviewing their deceased mother’s jewelry and we learn something of our apparent protagonist, Dorothea. She is imbued with Puritanism, concerned with sin and the denial of gratification. This well-done first scene where she debates the merit of keeping her mothers jewelry demonstrates great differences in the personalities of the two sisters. Here is a telling early moment:

“How very beautiful these gems are!” said Dorothea, under a new current of feeling, as sudden as the gleam. ” It is strange how deeply colors seem to penetrate one, like scent. I suppose that is the reason why gems are used as spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John. They look like fragments of heaven.

This moment of discovery in the beauty of jewels is then quickly tempered with a thought that, though the stones themselves point to a perfect and powerful power overseeing her, the path they’ve taken to reach her is not all that heavenly:

Then, letting her hand fall on the table, she said, in another tone, “Yet what miserable men find such things, and work at them, and sell them! She paused again, and Celia thought that her sister was going to renounce the ornaments, as in consistency she ought to do.

This kind of complex personality is rare so early in a book of this time period, far more Shakespearean in its complexity than most British novels of the proper and their property. I hope to see more ahead.

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