Middlemarch, Eliot’s epic study of provincial life, presents the reader with a host of frustrated characters. Dorothea is initially painted as a strong, intellectual woman, giving the impression that she will be an independent character that could be seen as a role model. Her decision to marry Mr. Casaubon, an aging reverend, because she admires his mind seems to confirm her strong will. Unfortunately, her simpering obedience to his wishes seems a stark contrast, and one I found disappointing. She does, however, redeem herself by the end of the novel. Lydgate, a medical man with high aspirations, believes he has chosen well in marrying Rosamond whose prettiness and empty head is just what he believes a wife should provide. He soon comes to realise his mistake. She is unable to cope with the reality of their debt and goes behind his back a number of times in the hope of avoiding the humiliation of moving to smaller lodgings.
The role of women is a recurring theme, and one not as feminist in its leaning as you might imagine from a novelist whose life rejected the social norms of the day. Women are shown both to be frustrated by the lack of occupation in their life, and that men believe they do not possess the capacity for serious thought. It is also shown, however, that they have great power of the men in their lives, even if they do wield it by fits and tears.
For men the main issue is vocation. Will Ladislaw is looked down upon in our first meeting because he has not committed to any line of work and enjoys the leisure provided by Casaubon’s financial assistance. Lydgate has noble aims for his career, despite his wife’s attempts to convince him to change course in order to provide a greater income. Fred Vincy also struggles, and considers becoming a clergyman despite his inclination until Mary Garth makes it clear that she will not marry him if he does. Thus we see the domestic power of the women in the novel.
A sprawling novel with a complex web of characters dealing with the changes wrought by the industrial revolution. It does what it professes to do, showing the lives of a provincial town. No exaggerated drama occurs, it is an entirely believable tale that promises no happy ending. The opening seemed promising and the last hundred pages or so draw you back in but you would be forgiven for drifting during parts of this eight hundred page novel. Not what I was expecting from my first Eliot but an interesting character study that represents the realities of married life in a fashion almost unheard of at the time.