My thanks to Ig Publishing/Ingram Publisher Services and Edelweiss for a review copy of this book.
Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life is part of the ‘Bookmarked’ series by Ig Publishing in which various authors reflect on different works of fiction and nonfiction that have impacted and inspired them in different ways. This is the first title I have picked up in this series.
In this volume, American author of fiction Pamela Erens engages with George Eliot or Mary Ann Evans Cross’s Middlemarch: A Study in Provincial Life, a book which turns 150 this year (it appeared in instalments over 1871–1872). Set in a fictional provincial town, Middlemarch (the import of which name Erens also considers), Middlemarch follows several threads and themes, from some younger characters’ aspirations to do something worthwhile in their lives, to education, including women’s education as also their roles and status in society, politics and political reform, marriage, relationships, and much more. While the idealistic and ambitious doctor Tertius Lydgate who tries to bring in modern ideas of medicine into his practice—looked at suspiciously by Middlemarch residents—and Dorothea Brooke, a wealthy but austere nineteen-year-old who seeks to do something meaningful with her life rather than simply fall into the conventional moulds that women are expected to, are at the centre of our story, the book follows several other characters and Middlemarch life as a whole.
Erens looks at Middlemarch and its many themes, and more so its characters, exploring their natures, the problems and issues they grapple with, and the many sides that each has to them, considering the relevance that the book and its lessons might have for readers today—especially in view of how far removed we are from the community-centric context of the book. She also examines the Eliot’s approach and treatment of her characters in the context of Eliot’s life and career. But this is also a very personal volume. For besides contemplating the book itself, Erens also looks at her own experiences with it from her discovering the book as a twenty-year-old college student (through a classmate) when she was struck by the assurance of Eliot’s voice, to subsequent rereads, what she has drawn from the book as concerns her own outlook on life and how it has at different stages influenced her craft as a writer.
I enjoyed reading Erens’ insights into Middlemarch, a book which I’ve read a couple of times now (the last time in 2020 as a group read for Eliot’s 200th birthday), which brought out many aspects that I think will enrich any subsequent readings that I may (probably will) undertake. There is for one, the connectedness and rootedness of community in the novel—at a time when communities were relatively fixed, outsiders few, and connect deeper. While I saw this aspect in my own reading as reflective of the period, Erens brought out how this rootedness was something she lacked (and indeed many lack) in this present-day world where moving is almost a norm, and community is sought rather than inherited thereby lacking a certain depth, which also reflects in current day fiction that stays clear of such contexts and themes (barring a few authors). These bonds or ties may be oppressive (too inquisitive even) but they are also a source of comfort. (And really, one needs community more than one realises as the author finds in her own case as well). And the Middlemarch community isn’t interestingly an oppressive one—while its people see each other’s flaws and oddities, they mostly also just let each other be.
Middlemarch might have its eccentric and somewhat unconventional characters (among them Lydgate and Dorothea) but interestingly for all the unconventional life that George Eliot herself lead, Erens points out how she ‘saw the beauty on convention which binds people together and stabilizes existence’, and showed ‘plenty of respect for those who fit in and make society run smoothly’. Even those that have different ideas and outlooks still ultimately belong.
But while there mayn’t be any ‘radical’ characters in Middlemarch, there are a whole range of people presenting a whole gamut of features—likeable and unlikeable—but in the main, there are no heroes and villains, per se. They are all real people. And as Erens highlights that while Eliot writes of her characters with all their flaws and failings (as also their better qualities), one is able to feel for them all, recognising perhaps that even the ‘worst’ are human and deserving of some sympathy. Erens shows this to be the case for the pompous and hypocritical Mr Bulstrode and indeed, the cold and off-putting Mr Casaubon Dorothea’s husband (who I was surprised to learn Eliot apparently based on herself). In fact, she encourages us to appreciate all the characters, major and minor.
Erens also points out the beauty and comfort of the actual writing of the book—its very sentences—‘when swamped by fear and grief, I experienced once again the deep comfort of sentences. Sentences that pierced through the noise of existence and laid bare its true operations’. ‘The gorgeous melody’ of the sentences of the book, ‘never fails to stir’ her.
Ultimately, for a book that is perhaps very different in time and place, it is the human lessons that stand out the most from our meeting its various characters, and that we as readers can draw from—be it the relevance of connection, our hypocrisies and ‘magical thinking’, the ‘commonality of our suffering and misfortune’ or imagination trumping reality oftentimes in our thoughts or (perhaps more Erens insight than Eliot’s) the realisation that we are ‘not the centering flame of every situation’.
(review copy: kindle arc; Ig Publishing, 2022, 162pp)