Middlemarch - Nadia May, George Eliot I was wavering at around 4 - 4.5 stars on this, but in the end I have to give it a full 5. _Middlemarch_ by George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) is, first and last, an extraordinary achievement. Other writers have worked with a large and varied cast. Other writers have written social commentaries with verve and wit. There is something about Eliot’s work, though, that is somehow unique. Two other writers come to mind with whom Eliot could (or even should), perhaps, be compared. Dickens is one of these, another Victorian writer concerned with the social mores of his day and whose cast of characters are as broad (and certainly stranger) than Eliot’s, but he leaves me cold. I have yet to enter the world of Jane Austen, whose own commentary on the society of her day is apparently one of ironic wit, but I find it hard to believe that she will excel Eliot (I gather her range of view is a little more restricted than Eliot’s).

When I started this book I was overawed and quite frankly worried that I would never finish it (I don’t always have a great track record with high page-count classics…War and Peace has been more or less ear-marked as a failure for me after three attempts, all of which ended at exactly the same fairly early page), but Eliot has managed to pack a very long and incredibly intricate story into what I found to be a fairly quick moving and definitely enjoyable reading experience. Ok full disclosure here: I ‘read’ the audiobook version narrated by the engaging (and quite frankly wonderful) Nadia May. Just step-off all you audiobook haters, ok? There, now that that’s out of my system let’s proceed.

The story of _Middlemarch_ is both large and small. Large both because it takes as its backdrop many of the great reforms that were beginning to change life in Britain in ways as varied as medicine, politics, transportation, and social life, as well as its large and varied cast of characters running the gamut of English provincial society. Small because it concentrates minutely on the internal thoughts and feelings that make up these individual’s private lives as well as the seemingly minor details of their everyday lives. While this book certainly takes a holistic approach to examining the lives of its characters it was ultimately, for me, a book about the various ways in which hopes and expectations can come crashing down in ruins (or at the very least be significantly changed) when they meet with reality…especially in the sphere of marriage. One might take as this book’s motto the insight of the character Dorothea Brooke relatively late in the novel that “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something awful in the nearness it brings.”

Eliot presents us with a myriad of characters and families all of whose lives revolve around the insular world and concerns of the fictional town and environs of Middlemarch. To name only a few members of the cast that make up the vast narrative we have: the Brooke family made up of the saintly Dorothea, her pragmatic sister Celia and their buffoonish though lovable Uncle and guardian Arthur Brooke; the dry and pedantic scholar-clergyman Edward Casaubon and his distant and impoverished cousin Will Ladislaw; the genial though superficial Vincy family made up of father Walter, mother Harriet and two of their children: Fred and Rosamond; the fiery and idealistic new physician Tertius Lydgate; the sanctimonious and deluded banker Nicholas Bulstrode; the pragmatic and devoted Garth family (father Caleb, mother Susan and daughter Mary) as well as numerous others. What could have been an unwieldy mess becomes an almost balletic performance as Eliot guides us through the interweavings of these lives in moments of hope and crisis. What Lydgate says about his own life could just as easily have been said of Eliot’s challenges in creating the book: “…it’s uncommonly difficult to make the right things work: there are so many strings pulling at once.” She succeeds admirably.

To go into the details of the plot would be of little use, or interest…just read the book! However I must say that Eliot’s ability to create a cast of fully rounded characters was extremely well-done. Some lean more towards villainy and others towards heroism, but none are simply black or white and all are given the sympathy of their creator who goes out of her way to be as impartial as possible when presenting their thoughts and motives. Everyone is a human being, however good or bad an example of the species they may be.

Eliot also avoids the saccharine that might be expected in a Victorian novel about marriage. While I won’t say there are no happy endings, there are certainly no easy roads and even those endings considered happy have their own trials, worries and cost to those involved. Sometimes the cost may seem more than one ought to bear. More than one character comes to realize that in the necessity of interacting with others lies the quandary that “He had meant everything to turn out differently; and others had thrust themselves into his life and thwarted his purposes.” This could easily be the second motto of Eliot’s book. Still, regardless of the pain that interacting with others involves: the changing of one’s own plans in order to placate the desires and interests of another, the constant danger of rejection and pain, and, perhaps most of all, the constant threat of societal disapproval and public censure, we are forced to make the best (and sometimes the worst) of our relationships since we cannot live truly alone in utter isolation. It is a constant surprise to the characters of _Middlemarch_ how significantly their lives are able to be impacted and changed by others: “To think of the part one little woman can play in the life of a man, so that to renounce her may be a very good imitation of heroism, and to win her may be a discipline!”

Looking back I’m not sure if I was able to pull this together into a truly coherent review, but suffice it to say that _Middlemarch_ truly is one of the greats. Eliot’s delightful prose, wry wisdom, and fully-fleshed out characters make what might have been an utter snore-fest into an insightful and enjoyable examination of what it means to be a member of the human community…in any era.