Filling the gaps… “Middlemarch” by George Eliot

Another one of those books I missed in college… A friend of mine discussing “reform” in English politics said I had to read Middlemarch. A few rainy days followed, and before I knew it, I was hooked.

What a soap opera! The fictional “Middlemarch” is a small English town not accustomed to newcomers. Social stratification is very rigid. Eliot follows two sisters (Dorothea and Celia), orphaned and living under the protection of their uncle. They are part of the local aristocracy, just below those possessed of hereditary titles (none of whom actually live in Middlemarch).

The name “Dorothea” jumped out at me. That was my mother’s sister’s name, and I was told it came from a novel. Middlemarch? Quite likely. So where did my mother’s similarly romantic, literary name, Arvilla, originate? Any ideas??

Eliot starts with a discussion of St. Teresa of Avila, a passionate woman drawn to action and extremes of commitment. Middlemarch explores what might happen to such a woman in the England of her time. Dorothea, Celia and their neighbors Rosamond and Mary are her subjects. She also spend considerable time on the men in the community. Each young woman eventually marries.

Dorothea’s first marriage, to a man she idolizes, disintegrates as her husband succumbs to jealousy and suspicion. Dorothea is loyal. Her husband dies. Her sister Celia makes a socially “desirable” marriage and lives a highly predictable life. The widowed Dorothea eventually renounces most of her wealth and marries beneath her station, leaving Middlemarch and finding happiness with a man who lacks “background” but loves her devotedly.

Rosamond marries a newcomer to the community, and suffers great disappointment. Mary “takes in hand” a flighty but kind hearted man who happily steps down a bit on the social ladder in order to join lives with the woman he has loved since childhood.

So much for plot! If this hasn’t been made into a movie or TV series, it surely will be. (I haven’t checked the Internet Movie Database yet, or Sparknotes. I will do so, and may find out that I’ve got it all wrong or missed important nuances… After all, I’ve only read it once, and it’s not a “read it once” kind of book.)

None of the women examined led a life that would qualify her for sainthood. It’s unlikely that St. Teresa herself would have done so in the town of Middlemarch.

Miscellaneous notes… the book is full of unusual words, some archaic, some just obscure. If I had started a list at the beginning, I’d have dozens of find new expressions. Like megrim. Do you know what it means? I do, I looked it up.

There’s an epigram at the start of each chapter, some rather long, and some in foreign languages, not always translated in my (Kindle) edition of the book. Authors include Spenser, Bunyon, Shakespeare and others unknown to me. I didn’t read all the epigrams. I think I’ll go back and check them out. Great project for a future rainy day.

I was amused and puzzled by an expression used to describe a man of obscure or tainted family background. Dorothea’s “undistinguished” husband is described as no better than “an Italian with white mice”. What on earth does this refer to? WHO is the “Italian with white mice”? Will Google solve this one for me? Or Wikipedia?? Or someone who reads this blog post? Could this be one of the odd errors that occasionally show up in a Kindle edition? The expression is used more than once.

I’m glad I read Middlemarch. If I could take just one book on a long train trip, this might be it.


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