When I realized Middle March was 3000 pages on my mobile reader, after I had just put off finishing Anthony Trollope Barchester towers, I was terrified.
Barchester towers wasn’t uninteresting, it’s just that the language and style of narrative made it difficult to finish. Since I had to finish Middle March before the vacations ended I thought it would become a cause of much pain and struggle. Halfway through the first chapter I was shocked at how wrong I was.
Middle March felt very different from what I expected a Victorian novel to be. The characters seemed like archetypes at first, but Elliot manages to show us their complexity and inner struggles in a way that makes nearly everyone of importance in the novel likable. You could sympathize with everyone from Celia to Raffles. Ever character was given some back story that let you understand why they behaved in the ways they did. Even when they behave badly you understand why they did so.
Mr. Raffles who is the closest thing to a villain in the novel, is a man who has clearly suffered a lot and is haunted by his past. He has nightmare, debts, drinking problems and seems to have made many enemies who force him to flee for his life. Mr. Causbon who is the cause of Doretha’s suffering is also a character who is easy to sympathies with. You understand that there motives that are quite understandable for each character. This humanization of all the characters makes the novel more engrossing.
You might be able to predict where certain subplots like the one with Mr Causbons’ nephew and Mrs. Causbon are going fairly easily. But the fact that it is so easy to care for these characters makes their stories more engrossing. You sympathize with them and even if you know exactly what’s going to happen next, you can’t help but hope that they don’t run into the calamities you see them walking into.
The ending might seem like a fairly safe one with most of the main characters getting a happy ending, but since you have seen so much of their anguish and suffering-along with the fact that they are so easy to sympathize with- make their endings seemed deserved. They have actively worked towards and fought for the endings they get.
When you really think about it the endings don’t seem all that fairy tale like. Quite a few have suffered- the doctor knew he was mistaken in marrying his wife and died early. While she lived to a very long age and never seemed to have done anything about her own issues. Mr. Bulstrode and his family were driven away from Middle March. They might have found comfort in each other, but they still suffered a great deal and Mr. Bulstrode had blood on his hands. What effect would that have had on a man who wished to be so righteous? Mr. Causbons suspicions were well founded and he never got his life’s work published.
Few achieve what they really want and even consider themselves failures. The reader might find better satisfaction in the conclusions of the story rather than in the conclusion of their [The characters] lives. Despite the fact that not everyone got a happy ending, all the development the characters go through make the ending seem satisfactory.
A person who might not have known all that we do might assume that nearly everyone ended up with unhappy endings and had lowered their standings and happiness. But as Elliot explains in the final chapter many of us crate harmful perceptions when we judge people without knowing about the struggles they go through. The novel is extremely effective in arguing for that final suggestion by Elliot.
It must have been very forward for a woman in those times to write a novel that questioned [and sometimes mocks] most of the values and beliefs held at those times. I can’t shake the feeling that the novel is daring in the way it seems to suggest that everyone from gentlemen and clergy to doctors and peasants could, from time to time, be wrong, mislead and cruel. The comparison she makes between Doretha and the Virgin Mary, apart from being a great argument, must have been very blasphemous/dangerous.
The fact that several characters are encouraged to go against so many social norms must mean that Elliot was quite the rebel. Although the novel deals with a lot of relationships sex is never mentioned. This isn’t surprising given the more conservative time during which it was written but I think Elliot compensates for it by showing so much intimacy. Intimacy being the best word I can think of to describe the delicate bonds and weaker/romantic moments between the characters.
It is clear everyone is aware about their gender roles, the sort of behavior expected from them etc. but they seem to break these barriers placed on them where no one else see them. Eliot shows us the humanity hiding beneath formality. Their weaknesses, their ungentlemanly / unladylike qualities are all laid out. And for everyone one of those qualities she makes arguments telling you why those should not give you cause to condemn any of the characters.
Middle March is also interesting because of the history it reveals. Elliot makes it clear that she is talking of a time before she began to write the novel. 40 years if I remember correctly. But looking back on it from out time it seems even more historical and fascinating. Much more has changed since Elliot wrote her novel. It is impossible to think medicine was considered a low profession and one that would not leave you wealthy. It’s also interesting to see the standing the clergy and priesthood held, with most of the scientific minds of the time, being from the clergy. The fact that there seemed to be so much wealth in the clergy is also interesting.
The contrast between Mrs. Causbons’ orthodox Christianity and the more worldly and liberal Christianity she finds in Rome seems in opposition to the sort of attitude to religion you’d find in those places today. The political events that occur in the background are interesting, but the way everyone reacts to it is the most fascinating part.
The talks on the coming of railways, industrialization, cholera etc all links up Middle March to the rest of England, letting it comment on the changes that those things brought. The book might take a while to finish, but it is impossible put down. You’ll never find yourself unwilling to read through the huge descriptions and digressions because you’re so engrossed with the story and can’t wait to find out what will happen next. The deliberations that the characters drag out make reading a nail biting experience at some points. Elliots’ detailed and sympathetic study of country life is a fascinating read with likable character, many tense moments, much rebelliousness and a very interesting plot.