A Recommendation for Middlemarch (from a Brit Lit Amateur)

31 Jan

MiddlemarchI have a confession to make.

I’ve struggled admitting this truth as I trudged through literature class after literature class in undergrad and grad school. But I’m ready to admit…here it goes…I don’t love classic Brit Lit.  (?!*!?!) I know…

Let me clarify. I say I don’t love it because I also don’t hate it. I recognize the value and artful social critique in A Tale of Two Cities and I understand why some people love it. Learning about a time and place so different from contemporary U.S., getting sucked in by the subtle mockery of traditional British decorum found in so many novels from 18th and 19th century British writers, can be funny and heartbreaking and beautiful.

For a while, when I was in high school, I tried to convince myself and others that Jane Eyre was my favorite book. I so wanted to “get it” and be part of the Anglophile club so many of my lit loving friends were part of.

Well everyone, the ruse is up. I’ll even admit, I’ve never made it through an entire Jane Austen novel because every time I start, I fall asleep within five pages. I don’t know if it’s the style I can’t get into, or that I don’t always understand the references, but whatever it is, I’ve never found the classic British novelists (Dickens, Austen, the Bronte’s, etc.) quite as entertaining or powerful as 20th-21st century texts.

Whew…Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I will say I was moved in a unique sort of way by the final pages of George Eliot’s classic novel, Middlemarch, which I forced myself to read this year from start to finish.

Though it took me two months to finish, Eliot’s Finale tied it all together and made the weeks plodding through each page totally worth it. Here are the lines that sealed the deal for me loving this book:

“For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

The significance of every character in her long, winding novel about the connectedness of life in small-town England, is highlighted in this passage. Casaubon’s anxiety that he will be forgotten and his life’s work meaningless is especially punctuated. The irony is, Casaubon’s work was useless and the impressions he made on those around him were mostly negative. He wasted his life trying to make sure he didn’t waste his life.

Most of us will not be famous or find the cure for a major disease or found the next Apple or write the next Great American Novel. Heck, we probably won’t even be remembered beyond our children or grandchildren. But that doesn’t mean our lives are meaningless. We shape the good and the future of the world in whatever small way we can.

Maybe that’s the point. I’m starting to think, for the first time in my life, maybe that’s enough.

Whatever Eliot’s trying to say, now that I’ve experienced the masterfully spun web that is Middlemarch, I can honestly say it’s well worth the investment.

Photo cred: Gerard Moonen via Unsplash

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3 Responses to “A Recommendation for Middlemarch (from a Brit Lit Amateur)”

  1. cricketmuse January 31, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    I have yet to read Middlemarch, yet I teach AP and proclaim myself a Book Booster. I adore Jane Eyre and we are about to launch into it next month. I hope no one will Sparknote their way through it. Sometimes I get dozy when reading a classic. It took me all summer to get through Henry James’ A Potrait of a Lady. The important part is that you found a novel that reached you.

    • Joanna Rotter February 2, 2015 at 4:29 am #

      Agreed. Thanks for your comment cricketmuse! I love Portrait of a Lady! I guess you never know when a book will speak to you in a certain way. The tougher reads, I’m finding, often reap more rewarding experiences.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Anna Karenina and Levin’s Quest for Meaning | Living Literarily - August 17, 2015

    […] away because, honestly, I didn’t know where to begin. It was one of those books, similar to Middlemarch, that had been on my list for a while – one of those books I knew I should read, but kept […]

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