To be honest, I didn’t even know George Eliot was a woman. Not until graduate school, at least. I had studiously avoided reading any Victorian novels in college, mainly because the professors who captured my imagination at the time drew me into exploring the mysteries of other books.
I marched through line after line of Shakespeare and Herbert and Milton and Donne with one of them. Was guided by another into the attics and railway stations of Moscow and St. Petersburg as sketched out in the novels of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Took epic journeys across the seas and underground with Homer and Virgil, Dante and Joyce. Examined life’s meaning through the eyes of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine. Struggled with Hobbes and Hume, Kant and Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Hegel. There were exotic excursions beyond good and evil to the mystical East by way of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita. Powerful stuff in the late ’60s. Covered the Bs from the Bible and Blake and Benjamin, to Buber and Beckett and Bellow. Did a full semester tutorial on Saul Bellow—Saul being pretty big, even before he won the Nobel, especially in Chicago. I even managed to make it through most of Wordsworth’s endless autobiographical poem, The Prelude. We called it The Quaalude. It was the ’60s, remember.
Not a page of Dickens or Hardy or Conrad, though. Nothing from Eliot or the Brontës or Thackeray or Trollope. Amazing that these writers would someday define the field of my scholarly expertise. (Strangely, one of the very first graduate seminars I took turned out to be on the novels of Joseph Conrad—all of them—and it was taught by that same Saul Bellow fellow, way out in Boston. Four years later we would be faculty members together back in Chicago, which is another story.)
But the book I finally fell in love with was one of them. It was George Eliot’s Middlemarch. A masterpiece in any century, it could only have been written in Victorian England. It’s not a story, exactly, but what Eliot called a “particular web,” a complex tissue of interconnected narratives linking scores of characters with one another, and with the twisted course of history, too—from the democratic reforms (and resistance) of mid 19th-century Europe to the dramatic developments in medical research and treatment at the time; from the emergence of revolutionary scientific theories like evolution and cell structure to the intellectual transformations of secular humanism and the higher criticism.
Big stuff. Big book. Nearly a thousand pages in my marked-up, tattered-and-dog-eared Penguin English Library edition. Complicated cast of complex characters: an idealistic young doctor, a passionate political reformer, a devout and decisive young woman, an indecisive and directionless dilettante, an ambitious but misguided intellectual, a manipulative financier, a shallow but well-meaning politician, and so many others. Through its tangled web of deeply human stories and missteps, the book is about how big dreams and great ambitions can get frustrated by petty circumstances, a cold dose of reality, and what seem like small, insignificant decisions (that turn out to be big-time disasters). It is about what happens next, when you find out the world is not “ideally beautiful,” when you realize that your best actions are “the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling against the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion.” It is a series of snapshots of the way that “every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” and how “a past error may urge a grand retrieval.” It’s about the way we live now and how we correct for error.
Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “magnificent,” and one of the few books in English written for grown-up people. Probably a good thing I didn’t discover it in the ’60s. I was so much younger then.
Did I mention I fell in love with this book? Not just the book itself, I mean—as absorbing as it was to the imagination and the heart (especially for a young man who had lived through the tumult of the ’60s and had chased a dream or two into disappointment). No, I mean I fell in love with Mary with this book. On one of our very first evenings getting to know each other, there in Connecticut where we met, we spent a long dinner together talking into the night about a novel we both loved called Middlemarch. (She, of course, had read it back in college, and I, at the time, was teaching it—again—to college students in my Victorian-novel course.) We shared our admiration for this big, big book that night, its profound effect upon the way we saw things, its artistic brilliance and intellectual depth, its emotional wisdom. Pure love.
Like anyone, we had both loved and lost at that point in our lives, made our own share of mistakes amidst whatever triumphs we could claim, experienced a few noble impulses running up against walls of imperfect conditions and limitations. The book had become part of our life stories by then, the lens through which we viewed them, its strands woven into the tissue of our own hopes and histories—separately, and yet also bound together with invisible threads of unseen connection. Reader, I married her (Mary, I mean, and soon after). No mistake about it. It really is some book. I’m glad I finally got to it. It’s been with me just about every place else I’ve managed to go since, and so has Mary.
Too good to be true that George Eliot’s real name also was Mary? Mary Anne Evans.