“Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels for grown-up people.” – Virginia Woolf
I have been reading Middlemarch, off and on, since May. It was, when looking at the list of books I selected for The Classics Club, one of the novels I looked most forward to reading. It is considered by many to be one of the best English language novels ever written. It is set in a small country town and deals with the lives of many, varied people. I hoped to be enthralled with a classic example of what I want to achieve with the small, fictional town I am creating in my work. Instead I have been bored, frustrated, angry and, most telling, perplexed. Why in the world is this rambling narrative held in such high esteem?
I will admit straight off reading Middlemarch in piecemeal over a long period of time is not a good idea. There are so many characters it is easy to forget who is who, what they do and why I should care about them. Unfortunately, there is noting in the story, characters or writing style that engages me enough to make me want to keep reading, to put the novel in my purse and read it whenever I get a spare minute. It has become a fixture on my bedside table, used more as a coaster for my water-glass than for entertainment.
There have been times when I thought, “Here we go. It’s about to get good.” Then, the chapter ends and Eliot shifts to a boring subplot or character or spends pages navel gazing about one subject or another. The reader expects to move on to the rising action and instead Eliot returns to exposition. One step forward, two steps back. There are too many characters doing too little.
I might be able to soldier on if not for one thing: I do not like Eliot’s writing style. I understand mid-century Victorians were verbose to the extreme and why. However, if you are going to shower me with exposition, you better write it well. I want to be wowed with your insight. I want to underline those turns of phrase that succinctly define human nature. I’m investing an inordinate amount of time in your world. I want ah-ha! moments. Eliot has not delivered enough of those and the ones she did give me I’ve forgotten.
So, I’m abandoning Middlemarch.* I am well past the age of believing in my immortality, in subconsciously thinking I have all the time in the world to read everything I want to read. Life is too short to read books I don’t enjoy. I don’t want to suddenly die and have Middlemarch languishing on my bedside table under an empty wine glass. That spot is reserved for Moby-Dick.
*I plan on watching the BBC mini-series, though, and expect to enjoy it very much. Why? They will cut out all of the navel gazing exposition.