Date of this Version
Published in My Victorian Novel: Critical Essays in the Personal Voice, ed. Annette R. Federico and Jane Tompkins (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2020), pp 109-127.
What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory?”1 This is the famous reply Emily Dickinson wrote to her bookish cousins in 1873 after her first reading of George Eliot’s novel. Dickinson’s sentiments were also my own when I completed my first reading of Middlemarch (1871–1872), about thirty-five years ago. Middlemarch is the book that made me realize literature could be more than a source of entertainment, that it could be Art with a capital A. Here was a text with fascinating and seemingly limitless possibilities for interpretation that would continue to reward scrutiny. Of course, I didn’t come up with that assessment entirely on my own. Since its publication, Middlemarch has ranked among the world’s most popular and highly acclaimed literary works. It was one of the staples of Victorian literature courses and was essential reading for English majors at Queen’s University in Canada, where I completed two undergraduate degrees. Even before I learned that “George Eliot” was the pseudonym of a female writer, Mary Ann Evans, I’d been conditioned to recognize her name as part of the canon of Great Authors, a list dominated by male writers such as Homer, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Conrad, and Joyce. I still meet people all the time who have heard of Middlemarch as one of the world’s best-loved novels and know George Eliot is the author but don’t know she was a woman, let alone the most successful woman writer of the Victorian era. Knowing a book is on the “should read” list and actually reading it are two entirely different things, and I must confess I never did make it all the way through Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Reading Middlemarch, however, turned out to be life-changing, igniting my passion for Victorian literature and for George Eliot in particular. What I hope to convey here is how and why this Victorian novel and its author continue to inspire me.