Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 46 (2015)
Every one of us attending this ceremony in Poets' Corner today is surely conscious of a great debt of gratitude to George Eliot for the legacy of her works. This year, partly due to the appearance of Rebecca Mead's memoir, one particular work - Middlemarch - has been the focus of much attention; and of all George Eliot's books it's the existence of Middlemarch for which I am myself most grateful. It's therefore on that work that I shall be focusing today.
For many decades it has been generally accepted that Middlemarch is George Eliot's greatest novel.' The writer Julian Barnes's judgement is that it's 'probably the greatest English novel’, while Robert McCrum said in the Observer earlier this year that Middlemarch 'looms above the mid-Victorian literary landscape like a cathedral of words in whose shadowy vastness its readers can find every kind of addictive discomfort, a sequence of raw truths'. I don't know what kinds of addictive discomfort or raw truths you might individually find in the novel, but McCrum's description of it as 'a cathedral of words' seems particularly resonant when spoken here in the Abbey. But whether Middlemarch is simply George Eliot's greatest novel, or the greatest English novel, a measure of its greatness is the nature of its effects or influence, the potency of which is reflected even in the alternative titles of Rebecca Mead's book, respectively My Life in Middlemarch and The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot.