The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 30. Middlemarch
George Eliot, now at the height of her literary reputation, was still to produce two of her most important prose fictions, and was able to suit her methods and forms of composition to her own preferences. The great length, and the production, in large instalments, of Middlemarch, a Study of Provincial Life (1871–2), and of its successor Daniel Deronda, were not unacceptable to a generation which, compared with its successors, “lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs).… We later historians,” she adds, speaking of Fielding, “must not linger after his example, and if we did so, it is probable that our chat would be thin and eager, as if delivered from a camp-stool in a parrot-house.” This she says by way of humorously excusing herself for abstaining from those digressions which were not really very congenial to her; but, at the same time, she was conscious that the fulness with which she treated her proper themes might, at times, seem exacting. Yet, whatever may be thought of this increasing amplitude of treatment in her latest novels, accompanied, as it was, by a certain falling-off in the freshness and variety of accumulated detail, her incomparable power of exhibiting the development of character is here found at its height. This development, in which time, contact and purpose alike have their share, may show itself, as she writes in the preface to Middlemarch, in the epic life of a St. Teresa; but it also shows itself in many a latterday life; and, if it is worth studying, analysing, following on to its results at all, must be best worth the effort if this is made with relative completeness. At the same time, Middlemarch—the same cannot, with equalconfidence, be asserted of Daniel Deronda—is an admirable example of constructive art, and, in this respect, may challenge comparison with the consummate workmanship of Romola. The story flows on without constraint; but Dorothea never sinks out of her primary place in our interest; as her ideals never abandon her, so, her consistent shaping of her conduct in accordance with them never ceases to command our sympathy. Her great original blunder in allowing herself to be wooed and won by Mr. Casaubon, whose ultra-academical pedantry and “archangelical method of exposition” she mistakes for marks of real superiority, was all but unavoidable by one to whom, as to herself, an ordinary marraige was impossible (ordinary men may be consoled by the fact that Sir James Chettam is one of the best drawn gentlemen in George Eliot’s gallery of characters). But, although her mistake is cruelly revenged upon her, after her very submissiveness to duty has deepened her husband’s delusion as to his own value, it fails to debase her. As she gradually comes to love Ladislaw, she is protected by the lofty purity of her mind from acknowledging her feeling to herself too soon or from giving way to it after she has confessed to herself both her passion and its hopelessness. She is made happy in the end; but she has been true to herself from first to last. Side by side with Dorothea’s experiences of life and its trials we have those of Lydgate, who has matched himself unequally with smiling commonplace and has to descend from his own level. The whole story, with its double plot, is an admirable social picture as well as a profound study of human character; the episode of the political reform struggle, with the inconsequent Mr. Brooke as its central figure, is more satirical in treatment than is that of Lydgate’s efforts for medical reform; and, though ample in its framework and even finding room for a purely humorous character in the person of Mrs. Cadwallader, the novel is far less diffuse than some of its predecessors.