I began reading Middlemarch in 2016 – on April 16, precisely, according to my Amazon orders’ history – and I’m still not done. Nearly everything else about my life since then is different. I no longer work a full-time job in print journalism, a career I stopped loving a while ago; I do it part-time now, and have had to give up on shopping. My days are no longer a robotic waltz of rage and anxiety, but allow for sweet interludes of face-time with friends, slow lunches, long runs and unplanned napping. My body is stronger; my big hair is gone, and with it my apex fear of being nothing and no one. Also, I don’t hate Middlemarch anymore.
This is admittedly hard to tell because I lumber on with it at about the same tempo as when I began it and am constantly checking the progress percentage on my Kindle. But my feelings about George Eliot’s sweeping (880 pages!) “study of provincial life” in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch – agreed to be one of the greatest works of English literature, right out the gate in 1872 – really are completely different. I think I am now in harmony with generations of critics, readers, literary luminaries, obscure fan clubs and cheeky adaptations about its artistic achievement. Which is nice, because finding it overwrought, leaden and boring is a lonely experience, and you soon get tired trying to make sure that everybody knows it’s not because you just don’t get the book.
The strongest and weakest novel
Henry James, in his 1873 review, best expressed my initial frustration with Middlemarch and also why I just couldn’t bring myself to give it up, even though I have no qualms about giving up on all kinds of things, all the time: “Middlemarch is at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels”. With thick coils of prose and backstory, a surfeit of secondary characters and subplots, lengthy homilies, glacial action and boundless disregard for the old “show, don’t tell” dictum; it’s as if Eliot is daring you to keep going. And if you do, at the end of this obstacle course lie truths so fine and jagged, they’re like lock-picks to an uncomfortable level of insight. Sometimes you’re just not ready for it.
Here’s one that that obviously led to a nebulous dread that accompanied me everywhere those days:
“It is an uneasy lot at best...to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self – never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardor of a passion, the energy of an action…”
Who needs this kind of pressure?
I had magazine issues to close, online engagement to boost, my sick cat’s astronomical medical bills to tremble at, stress-based back spasms to be functional through, a partner to try not to take it all out on, and Netflix had just arrived on our shores. If I was going to put in the effort – to eke out time and concentration and the patience to keep checking the dictionary and remembering who everybody was – I would like not to feel attacked in return.
I imagined young Dorothea Brooke, Eliot’s dumbly conscientious heroine, at her bow window in her boudoir at Lowick Manor, shaking her head regretfully: “Not gonna happen.” In July 2016, I’d had enough. I finally gave up and put Middlemarch away. A few weeks later, I also quit my job.
Cut to late February 2018, to a low-signal pocket in the Nilgiris, where I was travelling on assignment. Our base in that drowsy town was a still Victorian home-turned-hotel, complete with limping man Friday, ornate salon and weak tea – and submitting to slow hours under the winter sun (between site inspections) was our only brief. I had finished reading everything else on my Kindle. There couldn’t be a more perfect setting to resume Middlemarch.
There, in the long shadows of a 100-year-old magnolia tree, on a late morning of an open-ended day, Middlemarch was to me, a joy without caveats. All the things I had once found tiresome now glinted with meaning: Eliot’s preoccupation with righteousness was really a device for underlining its arrogance. And if the action moved with all the momentum of a dripping tap, it was because she believed, “art is the nearest thing to life,” and rendered it with dutiful precision and trenchant humour.
And her empathy, oh my word. Characters she first presents as incorrigible and unlovely, Eliot nearly always later reveals to be only acutely human. Dorothea’s middle-aged husband, Mr Casaubon, a pedantic scholar who always undermines her zeal, is only a cruel bore until you’re shown him grappling with his own stillborn dreams. Straight-as-an-arrow Mary Garth can’t help but love Fred Vincy, the mayor’s deadbeat son even though has just wiped out her family’s savings with the latest of his bad deals; he makes her laugh and in his presence, she becomes something greater than herself. He has noble plans for revolutionising the medical profession, but the suave, capable Dr Tertius Lydgate might just derail them by succumbing to his “spots of commonness”, not least of which is his fragile male ego. Eliot repeatedly reminds us that everywhere around us slosh inner lives just as deep and unknowable as our own.
Ah, I thought, sitting back, it was never Middlemarch; it was always me.
Over those two days, I read a record 50 pages, gliding along sleek with concentration and comprehension. Then I returned home and realised I would also need to lead daily life. I was going to need a plan to work around this claim on my attention.
A multi-pronged approach
As a first line of defence, I drastically altered my definition of enjoyment. Yes, fat and fast hits of dopamine in the way of Parks & Rec reruns, @doggosbeingdoggos, 21st century English, and YouTube makeup tutorials were amazing, but so is being quietly ennobled by the act of deliberately sitting with something you know is good, but doesn’t always feel good. And if after, you got to walk away with a, “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence”, woohoo.
But I still wished for Middlemarch to have the glaze and pop of an indulgence. If I could just combine it with something I passionately loved to do, and then stage 2 of the plan came to me. I started complaining about it. Loudly, fearlessly, digitally. Whenever it got too dense, I vented. When it got too personal, or too good, I vented. Sometimes I did it in fun fonts and with cool gifs and polls. And in return, I received commiseration, commissions (like this essay) and links about George Eliot’s sex life. Middlemarch was now also active and immediate and instantly gratifying.
The final – and maybe most important – part of the plan: I took it out of the context of time. This sounds pretty cool, but all it really means is that I have no target for when I want to finish Middlemarch. Some days I read it with the kind of intention and energy I reserve for a 6.00 am run. And other days, I only want to revisit the bits I’ve marked, turn over their phrasing and ideas, and not go any further. Sometimes it remains untouched for weeks at a time while I start and finish other books (consequently I’ve now had the happy sensation of good and great books feeling like guilty pleasures). It means that if I were never to finish Middlemarch or finish it this Tuesday, they would signify the same thing: nothing, really. For a compulsive mind like mine, this kind of freestyling is wild, and just a small part of a much bigger unclenching.
It’s been two months since the redux, and with long lapses and much leeway, I’ve chewed my way through to the middle of Middlemarch. And it appears at this time, as if Dorothea and a few other members of the main cast, are all poised at the edge of private precipices. I’ve avoided the spoilers (if a 146-year-old blockbuster can still be said to have those), but I already know they won’t all find exactly what they wanted and how they wanted it. My hope for them, however, is that they’ll land somewhere truer and not altogether awful. I know I did.
Cheryl-Ann Couto is a writer, editor and performer. She tweets at @CherylAnnCouto