What Is It About Middlemarch?

The most scathing piece of literary criticism I’ve ever read is an essay, published in 1856, called “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” It begins like this:

The author then describes the many literary offenses these fatuous females commit. They are incompetent at verisimilitude: “Their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.” They are as unoriginal, stylewise, as teenage girls cozily wearing one another’s clothes: “The lover has a manly breast; minds are redolent of various things; hearts are hollow.” They have the audacity to pronounce on important matters, as if “an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions.” Such allegations continue apace, until, eventually, the author provides a Silly Lady Novel recipe: “Take a woman’s head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English when not required.”

Ladies, lady novelists, all of you: Put down your hackles. This formidable piece of criticism, which makes modern arguments about women and fiction sound like pillow talk; which BuzzFeed and its positive-reviews-only policy would not touch with a 27,000-foot pole; which, placed on one side of a seesaw, would send its opposite number Smarm into the stratosphere—this essay on Silly Novels by Lady Novelists was written by one Mary Ann Evans, better known to the world by her Serious Gentleman Novelist name, George Eliot.

Like much of Eliot’s work, “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” does a remarkable number of things deftly and all at once. Although she is an uncommonly compassionate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvious thing she does here is chiffonade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while castigating some women, she manages to champion women as a whole. Her chief objection to silly novels is that they misrepresent women’s real intellectual capacity; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the ­culture that produced them—through inadequate education, low expectations, patronizing critics, and fear of the real deal.

In hindsight, however, perhaps the most interesting thing Eliot does here is trace out, in negative space, the contours of a truly great novel. Such a novel would represent human beings, in their inner and outer worlds, with nuance and fidelity. Its prose would be bespoke and cleansed of cliché. It would approach life’s knotty moral questions with knowledge, intelligence, and experience. It could not be fatuous, frothy, prosy, pious, or pedantic. It would have to be rich and filling when served hot; it would also have to keep. Fifteen years later, Eliot sat down and wrote it.

As a rule, I am allergic to the adjective “best,” which asserts only the inferiority of all other things—not a useful or appealing function, for those of us who are promiscuous thing-lovers. But here is one benchmark of a book, and a very difficult one to achieve: whether, while you are immersed in it, it mutes all other claims upon your taste and convinces you it’s the greatest thing ever written. That’s how I felt last month, when, for the third time in my life but the first in more than a decade, I read Middlemarch. 

Now that it’s back on the shelf, I won’t stake any claims here about the exact degree of Middlemarch’s greatness. Instead, I want to talk about its goodness. I don’t subscribe to the moral argument for fiction—the idea that great books make us better people. (For one thing, I’m reluctant to defend literature by appeals to its putative ends. For another, the data doesn’t look good. Plenty of reprehensible people love books.) Similarly, fiction that is a moral argument makes me wary, not for any prima facie reason but because it tends to be terrible.

And yet, on both fronts, Eliot hushes me. Middlemarch is forever waxing on about how to be good, and it was written with the explicit goal of making us a little better. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings,” Eliot wrote in an 1859 letter, “is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves.”

Harold Bloom, speaking of people who differ from ourselves, was right to note the weirdness of this part of Eliot’s ­project—or rather, the weirdness of it working. She was, he wrote, the only “major novelist, before or since, whose overt ­moralizings constitute an aesthetic virtue rather than a disaster.” Which raises a question: How does she get away with it? And, beyond the basic exhortation to be good, what exactly is it that she wants us to do?

I owe a debt of gratitude to Rebecca Mead, whose new book, My Life in ­Middlemarch, inspired me to revisit Eliot’s masterpiece. Mead first read ­Middlemarch when she was 17 and found a foothold in it. Eventually, she would climb it through college and coming to New York, through love and its loss, ­thorough parenting and stepparenting, through all the life-stuff that sloshes outside of and into those stages: ambition, frustration, ­loneliness, desire, arguments, intellectual life, aging. Virginia Woolf famously said of Middlemarch that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up ­people.” For Mead, it also turned out to be a book to grow up with. In My Life in Middlemarch, she weaves the story of that private relationship together with biography and literary criticism; the whole, gracefully executed, makes a pleasing aperitif or digestif to Eliot.

As to the main course: The soul of ­Middlemarch belongs to Dorothea Brooke, the intellectually eager, spiritually sincere young woman who marries the much older Edward Casaubon, a vicar forever at work on his unfinished anthropological-theological omnibus, The Key to All Mythologies. Dorothea believes his mind to be similarly omnibus-y, only to learn too late that she has committed her life to a scholar manqué—to, in fact, an everything manqué. “Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame,” Eliot writes, “and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: … it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.” Along with Madame Bovary and Medea, Dorothea suffers one of the greatest dreadful marriages in literature.

But all this is just a fraction of the tale. True to its subtitle, Middlemarch is not a portrait of a lady but “a study of provincial life,” set in central England around 1830. And here is Eliot’s genius: I cannot tell you off the top of my head who ruled England in 1830, I could not distinguish between a hansom and a hack to save my life, but I can step into the town of Middlemarch and recognize everything around me. Eliot’s characters argue about whether overweight people can blame their girth on their parents, go all nimby about local development plans, and raise the alarm about (I paraphrase, but barely) death panels. In one passage, Dorothea, who has newly become an aunt, flees her sister’s house because “looking rapturously at Celia’s baby would not do for many hours in the day, and to remain in that momentous babe’s presence with persistent disregard was a course that could not have been tolerated”—no more in Middlemarch than in Park Slope.

No wonder it’s so easy for Mead and all the rest of us to see ourselves in this book. Eliot had perfect psychological pitch; I am not sure any other writer has ever captured with such precision what it is like to be a member of our species. When it comes to committing private consciousness to the page, Woolf reigns supreme; but Eliot wrote us down as we actually live, inward and outward at once, selves in a society. Her perceptiveness is a huge part of the pleasure of Middlemarch, but for Eliot, it’s as much means as end. ­Perception is a necessary component of sympathy; if you don’t see, you don’t care. And Eliot is exceptionally committed to compassion—to bestowing it on her characters, but also to coaxing it from her readers.

Toward the end of “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” she leaves off excoriating bad writers to describe that rarer creature, the excellent one: “She does not give you information, which is the raw material of culture—she gives you sympathy, which is its subtlest essence.” Eliot gives us that, and asks something in return. Seeing ourselves in her book is just a start. What she really wants is for us to see past ourselves.

One of the oldest and most universal moral precepts is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want them to treat you. That mandate shows up in Confucianism and in the Code of Hammurabi. It was reiterated by Seneca and by the Buddha. It appears in the Bible, as the command to love thy neighbor as thyself. It might possibly have been taught to more people than any other notion in history.

It is also, on reflection, a little weird. For a guideline about how to treat others, the Golden Rule is strikingly egocentric. It does not urge us to consult our neighbors about their needs; it asks us only to generalize from ourselves—to imagine, in essence, that everyone’s idea of desirable treatment matches our own. As such, it makes a curiously narrow demand on our imagination, and, accordingly, on our behavior. And it is not alone. From Kant’s Categorical Imperative to John Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance, the self is a common benchmark in moral reasoning.

Middlemarch breaks with this tradition. Morality does not start with the self, Eliot insists; it starts when we set the self aside. “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world?” she asks. And then: “I know no speck so troublesome as self.” What a killer line, and what a memorable image. We dwell in moral myopia; literally and figuratively, we are too close to ourselves.

Over and over in Middlemarch, Eliot urges us to refocus. When Rosamond Vincy, arguably the most self-absorbed character in the book, dismisses another woman as “so uninteresting,” the much kinder Mary Garth counters her: “She is interesting to herself, I suppose.” The problem Dorothea faces in her marriage is not how to support her husband, as she yearns to do, nor how to liberate herself from his thin tyrannies, as readers often yearn on her behalf, but how to accept that he has “an equivalent centre of self, whence the light and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” That self is not like Dorothea’s; no two selves are, not even so-called soul mates. That’s one reason why marriage lies beyond the reach of the Golden Rule: As Dorothea learns to her dismay, other people do not necessarily crave the treatment we expect them to appreciate. To thrive in sustained intimacy requires learning to provide not what we think someone else wants, or should want, but what actually makes him or her happy.

This struggle to see others is the moral drama of Middlemarch, and of life. Eliot never stops resisting the autocracy of the self; what Copernicus was to ­geocentricity, she is to egocentricity. The most striking example of this resistance appears not in her books but in a letter, quoted by Mead, that Eliot wrote to a bereaved friend. “I try to delight in the sunshine that will be when I shall never see it any more. And I think it is possible for this sort of ­impersonal life to attain great intensity,—possible for us to gain much more ­independence, than is usually believed, of the small bundle of acts that make our own personality.”

Reading that passage is like watching Eliot drift upward to become the narrator of Middlemarch: omniscient, compassionate, seeing life more clearly for the distance but sharing not one iota less in its delights. From a narrator, we take such a position for granted. From a person, it’s a startlingly radical separation. It reminded me that Eliot began her career by leaving behind her name—an augury, perhaps, of the coming effort to leave behind other constraining aspects of the self.

By then, Eliot had also left behind, in smoldering ruins, the land of silly lady novels. Eventually, she would reach its antipodes. Middlemarch is the least silly, least ladyish novel in the English language: the most morally serious, and the most broadly humane. In its lovely final passage, Eliot writes of Dorothea that the effect of her goodness was “incalculably diffusive”: It exists, it matters, but who can trace it? Applied to books, that becomes a moral argument for fiction I think I can defend. Whatever Middlemarch has been doing to the world all these many years, I like to think it is diffuse, and diffusing, and incalculably good.

*This article originally appeared in the January 20, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

What Is It About Middlemarch?