Middlemarch by George Eliot

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Finally I’ve listened to this book–it’s been on my list for years, but I was hesitant to take on the 35-hour audiobook commitment. It has been a pleasing undertaking, so many dishes washed and weeds pulled while I heard about Dorothea and her misguided marriage to the dreadful Mr. Casuabon, Mr. Lydgate and his hopes to be a worthy medical man, the beautiful and willful Rosamond Vincy, and the estimable Mary Garth.

The book was published in eight segments and the various plots were largely separate from each other, though all centered on the Midlands town of Middlemarch and the characters had tangential connections. It was first published in 1872 and was set in 1829 to 1832; for reference Jane Austen’s books were published between 1811 and 1817.

Against the advice of her uncle and her sister, Dorothea sets out to win and marry Mr. Casuabon; she was sure he would include her in his intellectual world and she could help him publish important books. He seems to have been flattered initially by her interest then soon became unenthusiastic but resigned to the prospect. Dorothea was shocked to find that he wouldn’t be publishing anything anytime soon despite the voluminous notes he had made. And worse, he wouldn’t be doing anything worthy with his wealth to help the less fortunate. Complications ensue.

The tone of the book is captured in the quote below. For background I should explain that before Mr. Casuabon turned up, Dorothea caught the attention of Sir James Chettam. Her interest was limited to his willingness to talk about renovating cottages for tenant farmers. Here’s how the author explains Chettam’s reaction when he learned that Dorothea was engaged to Mr. Casuabon:

Already the knowledge that Dorothea had chosen Mr. Casuabon had bruised his attachment and relaxed its hold. Although Sir James was a sportsman, he had some other feelings towards women than towards grouse and foxes and did not regard his future wife in the light of prey valuable chiefly for the excitement of the chase.

The other main story concerns Mr. Lydgate, the doctor whose interest is finding modern methods to cure illness more than becoming wealthy. He gets tangled up with a rich man who is both deeply religious and deeply flawed and has a secret in his background. Bulstrode is open to modern medical methods and financed a hospital where Lydgate practices and helps patients who have no money to pay him. Lydgate’s life is further complicated by falling in love with Rosamund who thought she was securing a comfortable life when she married him.

This mention of an interest of Mr. Lydgate caught my attention:  He is eager to read a book written by a man he knew in Paris about fever because he “had followed many an anatomical demonstration in order to ascertain the specific differences of typhus and typhoid.” Recently I heard about someone in California having a mysterious high fever that was finally determined to have been caused by typhus. I learned then that typhus is spread by fleas and this person had taken in a stray cat. Typhoid is spread by eating or drinking food or water contaminated by feces.

Without recounting all the dramatic turns, I want to say that Dorothea’s act of true selfless kindness to another earned her great happiness later.

The book was read by Juliet Stevenson, the British actress, who does an amazing job that honors the book, only occasionally going overboard. I was concerned she would strain her voice when she acted out the dying Mr. Featherstone who had quite a lot to say as his end neared.

George Eliot, Middlemarch:  A Study of Provincial Life, orig. published 1872 (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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