I don't normally get excited about Victorian novels. I'm using that term loosely to apply to eighteenth-century British novels, about the small squirmings of the upper class and the landed gentry of England. And yet, Middlemarch succeeded in utterly beguiling me. It's less like Austen to me, and more like Henry James; it is passionate, realistic, and willing to gaze upon the lives of unhappy individuals with great clarity and compassion. Unlike the stories of Austen, which generally bear toward a marriage, several marriages happen in Middlemarch right at the outset. The drama will stem not from who will marry whom, but what life will truly be like after these matches, for better or for worse, have been made. One storyline follows Dorothea, an enlightened, modern women with great wisdom, ambition, and intelligence. She is a wonderful character to follow, full of identifiable emotion, passion, and loyalty. She marries an older man who is a respected scholar because she believes she wants to support him in his great work; but to Dorothea's dismay, and the reader's as well, we discover that his work is useless and backward, the scholarship that he has been devoting his life to an utter waste of time. Through Eliot's graceful writing, we can see a marriage, having lost its foundation, crumbling from within.
There are other married-life dramas within this story, including another marriage that seems to begin on the best of terms, but begins to fall apart as husband and wife discover how little they know about each other and how unwilling they are to understand each other. Eliot's descriptions of the small bitternesses of relationships, and how wounds can fester, or how chasms can open between people who once loved each other, are sensitive and real. They feel as relevant to relationships today as they must have been about marriages of a previous century. Frequently I felt myself associating guiltily with the character of Rosamond, whose utter self-absorption causes rifts to open in her marriage. She firmly believes each new hardship is done deliberately to spite her or marr her happiness; it's these sorts of perspectives that I feel I take when I'm at my worst. And it's these sorts of perspectives that can make relationships fall apart.
Of course, in the time and place of Middlemarch, divorce or breakups are not an option; so the members of these unhappy unions must struggle along the best they can, facing a lifetime of dischord. They realize that unhappy marriages can mean a lifetime of smothering their true selves, or subjugating their wills to others; but a chance for freedom, even at the risk of social disapproval, might just be worth taking.
Middlemarch is a small-town gossip novel; it's a gripping portrait of troubled family life; it's a coming-of-age novel; it's even a murder mystery. I found it riveting, honest, subtle, and true. It's the first book in a long while that I've felt a real, personal connection to. Finally, I get what all the hype was about.