—Celia Brooke to her sister Dorothea
George Eliot's Middlemarch is irresistibly quotable. One reason is that its characters are so fully realized that readers will recognize in them their neighbors, relatives and friends—and especially, parts of themselves that usually remain unacknowledged. Eliot set out to make "a study of provincial life," as her subtitle has it. She peopled her fictional village with a memorable cast of characters viewed with an affectionate but critical eye and depicted with an almost painful psychological acuity. But the frailties and failings she depicts in her early 19th-century characters are so familiar that they seem very modern—or, perhaps, as ancient as human society itself. (Image of the first edition of Middlemarch from earlywomenmasters.net)
At the center of the novel are the "three love problems" that provide the title for the fourth of Middlemarch's eight books. The first love problem is that of Dorothea Brooke, who wants to give herself passionately to important social and intellectual projects. All too aware that the prospects for such great endeavors are sadly limited in Middlemarch, the youthful Dorothea thinks she has found her soulmate in Edward Casaubon, a "formal studious man thirty years older than herself." Casaubon has spent decades doing research for a work he calls "The Key to All Mythologies," a work that Dorothea wants dedicate herself to bringing to fruition. But is Mr. Casaubon truly the "great soul" that Dorothea ardently imagines him to be? And should Casaubon's poor young cousin Will Ladislaw disabuse Dorothea of those notions, or would that be entirely self-serving, since he's falling in love with her himself?
The second love problem belongs to Fred Vincy, the son of a local manufacturer, who wants to marry his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth, daughter of a local estate manager. She very intelligently refuses him, however, because he has no purpose in life other than the pleasures of billiards, gambling, and hunting. In the first half of the novel we follow Fred's hapless attempts to clear himself of a debt, and his disastrous entanglement of Mary's family in his money problems—which of course, just sinks Fred lower in Mary's estimation. Fred pins his hopes for escaping debt and becoming worthy of Mary on an expected inheritance from his childless uncle, the miserly and sadistic Peter Featherstone—but will that inheritance really materialize?
The third love problem is that of Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy, Fred's sister. Rosamond is the town beauty, and knows it. She wants a husband who will provide her with life full of grace, charm, and beautiful things, preferably someplace other than Middlemarch. Lydgate is a crusading young doctor who has come to Middlemarch to showcase some new medical ideas, and Rosamond builds a fantasy world around this dashing outsider. Lydgate has decided, though, that as much as he enjoys flirting with Rosamond he's not yet ready to get married; he hopes to establish himself professionally first. But Rosamond usually gets what she wants—only, is what she wants what either she or Lydgate truly need?
In her wonderful essay "Middlemarch and Everybody" (from the collection Changing My Mind (Penguin, 2009)), Zadie Smith writes of the importance for Eliot of the moment that "the scales fall from our eyes," the moment that our self-deceptions become glaringly apparent to ourselves. Making this process even more agonizing, though, is that there are usually several layers of self-deception that have to be painfully peeled away, one by one. Of course, coming to understand that the world and other people do not match our fantasies, and learning to see them (to the extent we're able) as they are, is an essential part of growing up. But that doesn't make it less distressing, or less dangerous to our capacity to give ourselves wholly to life and to love. As Eliot writes, "To have in general but little feeling seems to be the only security against feeling too much on any particular occasion." (Image of George Eliot from womenshistory.about.com)
This is why Virginia Woolf famously called Middlemarch "one of the few English novels written for grown-up people": its subject is the compromises, sacrifices and disappointments of adulthood, and particularly of married life. I'd disagree with Woolf—I think Jane Austen's novels, for example, are best appreciated by people who have experienced some romantic disappointment in their lives. It's true, though, that Austen's novels typically lead her characters up to the moment of engagement and marriage, but don't go much beyond that point. The difficulty of getting that far puts the lovers to a test which, as Austen assures us of Northanger Abbey's Henry and Catherine, "so far from being really injurious to their felicity, was perhaps rather conducive to it, by improving their knowledge of each other, and adding strength to their attachment." But Austen's novels end just when the couples' lives together are truly beginning. (In its final moments, the superb 1995 film version of Persuasion gives us the equivalent of one of Austen's brief post-ceremony codas with a vision of Captain Wentworth and Anne sharing the sort of wonderfully companionate marriage that we've seen earlier with Admiral and Mrs. Croft.) George Eliot, on the other hand, follows her couples unsparingly after marriage, through their misunderstandings, disagreements and trials both small and large.
And that we may ultimately be disillusioned in our partners and ourselves is not, for Eliot, so much a tragedy as a necessity. "For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it," she writes. In a flawed world we ourselves are necessarily flawed, and to recognize our imperfections is just the beginning of compassion and wisdom.