I’ve been putting off this post for weeks. Why? Well, I’ve been really busy. Also, maybe I didn’t want this blog to end. I love telling people what to read so much, why should I shut down this opportunity? 🙂
Nevertheless, the time has come to end my reading recommendations with that greatest of all books to read in your twenties, “the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
Virginia Woolf’s words, not mine.
Middlemarch. Where do I begin?
Perhaps with a piece of advice I got from Cheri Larsen Hoeckley, in whose “Women Writers” class I first read this book. Write down all the characters’ names in a list as you meet them. Then use that list to keep track of all the people in the book. It was immesurably helpful and took away a great deal of the trepidation I felt when facing the hefty tome.
Really, I think the book is animated by two simple questions:
Who am I?
What should I do with my life?
If you are asking those questions, you should read this book. And there are all kinds of related questions that are illuminated in this novel as well. For instance: What does it mean to be a good person? Are we morally obligated to live up to our potential? What happens when we don’t live up to others’ expectations? What does “greatness” look like in ordinary life?
And of course, there’s the wonderful question that opens the book’s Prelude:
“Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand- in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?”
As Dorothea, Lydgate, Fred, and others try to figure out the answer to those questions through careers, marriages, and so on, their struggles take place within a shifting society. Middlemarch is a world in a little village, a microcosm. Not only that, there are family secrets to be uncovered, forbidden love affairs,* faux-quotation epigraphs that Eliot didn’t attribute to herself (to make the book seem even more literary), and all kinds of other awesome stuff.**
This post hardly does justice to this magnificent work of literature. The only real way to do justice to it is to read it again. So I think I may just do that. What better way to start my 30s?
Note: You could read an e-text for free, but I find a bit of notes and apparatus helpful while reading old books, which is why I linked to the Oxford World’s Classics edition. Or just ask a Victorianist. I am sure he or she has a favorite edition.
*Will Ladislaw = Byronically hot, yet not a (total) jerk.
**Dorothea’s blushing neck!