Middlemarch and the spell-binding power of 'unhistoric acts'

Middlemarch"What actually happens in this book?" I am asked after my son feels he has listened to Middlemarch with me for long enough on our long drive north a week ago.

It is a good question and one I had been asking myself, along with why this book has exerted such a powerful hold over me.

What happens in Middlemarch is that people in a small provincial town live their lives. They work, they love, they marry, they gamble and they gossip. They slip in and our of one another's lives, bound by their place in a society with rigid rules that govern much of their existence. 

For my son, the book lacked drama. Our usual fare is quite different. I was shocked by how much drama and tension George Eliot generated in a gently meandering plot in which the defining moment is the passing over of a fortune for love. Eliot reveals the answer to my son's question in the last line, her magnificent eulogy to the quietly heroic Dorothea. 

"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."  

There is such emotion and drama in these hidden lives though. I found the tension of Fred Vincy waiting to deliver his bad news to the Garths almost unbearable. And there is such extraordinary insight into the human condition throughout the novel, often delivered through the constantly surprising device of the writer's own voice commentating on matters. And the writing is beautiful throughout.  

To some Middlemarch is the greatest British novel, and it is genuinely not difficult to see how the conversation arises. It's a glorious, magnificent novel, moving, thought-provoking and engrossing from start to finish. I may never convince my son to read it, but I can't recommend it highly enough. 


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