Middlemarch: Where Are The Men?

“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”
—George Eliot, Middlemarch


George ElliotSpoiler alert: this review may reveal some plot points, though knowing them probably won’t detract from your reading of the book.

I admit it. I’m not a big fan of Victorian literature.

You can keep your Sense and SensibilityWuthering Heights could have benefitted from additional wuthering. And then there’s Middlemarch.

A book without a single man. Not one.

Okay, that’s not exactly true.

There’s one scene near the beginning of the book where a group of field workers run two railroad surveyors off an estate.

But that’s it.

The manliest thing about this book is the author’s pen name—George Eliot.

And she was a woman.

It’s not that there aren’t characters with XY chromosomes. There are. But the y’s are all lower-case.

There’s Will Ladislaw, who lives off his uncle’s charity, and spends a good portion of the book lounging in Rosamond Lydgate’s parlor.

There’s Camden Farebrother who loves Mary Garth, but won’t do anything about it.

There’s Fred Vincy who, in his late 20s asks Camden to talk with Mary, whom he also loves, to find out if she will allow him to woo her. (Who knew Victorian England was so much like seventh grade?)

There’s Arthur Brooke, who is a silly old man with zero influence over his nieces.

There’s Tertius Lydgate who is so deep in dept, he must sell the family’s furniture but can’t bring himself to tell his wife because it will upset her. When he runs into trouble at the hospital, he spends weeks unable to talk to her, while she hears it all behind his back from neighbors who assume the worst.

Finally, there’s Bullstrode, who, having had his reputation ruined by John Raffles can’t manage the courage to get rid of him, and instead allows a nurse to do his dirty work.

Not a man among them.

Too many of them cry. And not just once or twice.

This book could benefit from a dose of testosterone. Or guts.

But maybe that’s the way life was among the gentry in 1830s England. And why women tend to love these “especially long, boring books” as one notorious critic called them.

Fortunately, the author makes up for the lack of men with some of the longest sentences I can remember ever reading. Like this one:

“Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability, or not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase.”

And this:

“It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self–never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted.”

Try diagramming those, English major.

It’s no wonder some people dislike Middlemarch. Some rather intensely.

A page-turner, this is not.

But as much as I wanted to hate this book, I didn’t. In fact, by the end I kind of liked it.

Not as much as Virginia Woolf, who said Middlemarch was “one of the few English novels written for grown-ups.” But compared to many of the other long, boring books that the BBC likes to turn into long, boring miniseries, this one isn’t too bad.

Which is saying a lot for this man.


Media: E-book, 904 pages (print edition)
Rating: 3 Stars (out of 5)


Books Mentioned in this Post:

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Middlemarch by George Eliot

One Comment

  1. […] I admit it. Despite the fact that George Eliot’s Middlemarch has precious few manly characters and suffers from a long, drawn out story line, I actually liked the book. Sadly, the same can not […]