I have a vivid early memory of George Eliot’s writings. At least five decades ago, my classmates and I were required to read her The Mill on the Floss. I remember that we were assigned a certain number of pages each day and discussed them in class the next. Like my friends, I shared their view that this book was the most boring and uninteresting one I had ever read. I recall discussing one day why we had to read such tiresome stuff. But then one evening, I found myself reading beyond the assigned page, so engrossed that I had read to the end without realizing what was happening.
I cannot remember much of the story or what captured my interest. I do still remember my friends’ surprise and disparaging remarks about my tastes. One lesson stuck with me: Some of the most profoundly moving novels require patience and often many pages to unfold but then they stir a reader’s deepest emotions.
I’m pretty sure I also read Eliot’s Silas Marner as a school assignment, but I had never read Middlemarch (1874), which Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have said is the greatest English novel ever written and Virginia Woolf described as “…one of the few English novels written-for grown-up people.” I probably wouldn’t have read it this late in life if I hadn’t happened upon a reference to it in Lewis Wolpert’s essay, “An Unkind Litereature,” on Lab Lit. I had just purchased a Kobo eReader, was anxious to try it out, and the novel was attractively priced.
Like any nineteenth century writer, Eliot requires a contemporary reader to shift gears mentally—focusing on the beauty of the prose with a willingness to let the story unfold gradually. Friends of mine have read it aloud, which seems right. I read it on six twenty-minute bus rides a week over a couple of weeks. I looked forward eagerly to those rides as a chance to revisit my friends in the English countryside and find out how their lives were changing. It was a kind of getaway from the world of words in which I live most of my life. But I’d be the first to admit it’s not for everyone.
As lab lit, Middlemarch is a peek into the lives of scientists in the Victorian Era. As such, it puts the dilemma of today’s young scientists (beautifully limned in Jenny Rohn’s recent blog post), in perspective.
I was also struck by a parallel between Tertius Lydgate, in Middlemarch, and Martin Arrowsmith in Sinclair’s celebrated novel of the early twentieth century. Both tried to pursue scientific research while practicing medicine in small rural communities. Both were young at the time and brought to their work progressive ideas about both clinical and ethical aspects of medical practice. And for both, their idealism ends in discouragement. Eliot’s Lydgate, is the only truly tragic character in the large cast that populates the novel.
Another lens through which a reader can view Lydgate, is to notice that his is the only romance that leads to a truly unhappy marriage, and the source of the breakdown of the latter is his wife’s inability to appreciate Lydgate’s aspirations or even the demands made on a physician’s time and energy. Thus, we have, as Wolpert suggests of earlier literature, another instance of a scientist portrayed in a negative light, even though the reader can in Lydgate’s case sympathize with him and admire his integrity.
It is worth noting for readers interested in fiction about science (or lab lit) that there isn’t very much science in Middlemarch and the plot doesn’t really hinge in any way on the success or failure of either research or application. This in no way detracts from the literary quality of George Eliot’s novel. Indeed, reading it in small servings over the course of many days gave me a new appreciation for her ability to create memorable characters and devise a complex tangle of relationships and situations to bring out hidden aspects of their emotional life.
I found myself pulling for the couples drawn to each other by love rather than status and money. Like many Victorian novels, these romances are the emotional force the drives the plot. I was delighted by the author’s ability to reveal the depth and intensity of her character’s feelings without delving into the physical details of their relationships.
The power of words to evoke the inner lives of a diverse cast of characters within the moral constraints of nineteenth century English literature was a refreshing contrast to much of what I’ve been reading (and writing) this past year.