Middlemarch: A book for grown-ups

A great English writer was born 200 years ago today.

George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Ann Evans, was born on 22 November 1819. It was not until 1856 that she began “Scenes of Clerical Life”, stories about the people of her native county of Warwickshire, published in Blackwood’s Magazine, an early champion of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Eliot’s first novel, Adam Bede (1859) was an immediate success, to be followed by The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Romola (1863), Felix Holt (1866), Middlemarch (1872) and Daniel Deronda (1876).

Middlemarch is Eliot’s most accomplished novel. Its subtitle is “A Study of Provincial Life”, a sharp-eyed exploration of the rural and urban classes, their ways and values. Eliot wrote about real people rather than fictional characters. Her models were Goethe, Flaubert, and Turgenev, from whom she learnt to create a carefully structured novel that Virginia Woolf called “the magnificent book which for all its imperfections is one of the few English books written for grown-up people”.

It is certainly not outdated. The literary critic Elinor Shaffer wrote, “This novel reads as freshly and vividly as on the day it was first printed, and with the accumulation of authority that a century of confirmation of the depth and range of Eliot’s vision has brought. With Middlemarch she took her indisputable place in the first rank of European novelists.”

Surprisingly, George Eliot also had time for poetry, which is of less interest than her other writings, but which includes “Count That Day Lost” – more like “advice to self” than sentimental Victorian moralising:

If you sit down at set of sun
And count the acts that you have done,
And, counting, find
One self-denying deed, one word
That eased the heart of him who heard,
One glance most kind
That fell like sunshine where it went –
Then you may count that day well spent.

But if, through all the livelong day,
You’ve cheered no heart, by yea or nay –
If, through it all
You’ve nothing done that you can trace
That brought the sunshine to one face –
No act most small
That helped some soul and nothing cost –
Then count that day as worse than lost.”


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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