Books, Storytelling, Uncategorized, Writing Tips

George Elliot’s MIDDLEMARCH, and Keeping Readers Engaged for the Long Haul

Eight hundred sixty-four pages.

When talented photographer and fellow blogger Arti announced that she would be hosting a “Middlemarch in May” Read-Along, I couldn’t resist.

I’d never read anything by George Elliot, but Middlemarch was ranked as the best English novel of all time. The full list of “best 100” included some of my favorites, and I was excited to read the book that had defeated them.

My excitement dimmed just a little when I saw it waiting for me on the library’s hold shelf- all 836 pages of it.

While I love to lose myself in the winding paths of a good story, the weight of the book made me wonder if I  might have signed on for as much work as pleasure.

Still, I reasoned, there must be something about this hefty tome that made it endure, something to make the story of people living in a provincial town in 1820s and 30s England resonate with readers today.

I dove in

Photo courtesy of Anastasia Zhenina via.

When I emerged three weeks later and had reacquainted myself with my family, I felt like, just maybe, I had found what that something is.

Yes, Middlemarch has some slow bits. Some of the obscure medical and historical references bogged me down- thank goodness my book had copious end notes! Also, while I’m sure the issues surrounding the 1832 Reform Act were important, I don’t have much (all right, any) background in 1800s British politics.*

But the characters…the characters kept me coming back.

Middlemarch Rosamond
“Of course she had to finish reading. I’m so pretty, who wouldn’t want to read about me? We should really be richer, though, don’t you think Tertius?”   “Sigh. Yes, dear Rosamond.”

It’s not necessarily that I found Elliot’s characters likeable. Some of them would be the sort of friends who, when their name showed up on your caller id, you might be tempted to ignore.

No, the people of Middlemarch felt too real to be entirely likeable. And because they felt so real, both in their failings and their triumphs, I couldn’t help but finish the journey with them. I had to see where they ended up, because in each of them I could see a little bit of myself.

If Middlemarch were  painting rather than a book, no flat, cartoonish portrayal of characters would do. With words rather than brushstrokes, Elliot shaded in her characters’ personalities: a stroke of light here to show their strengths and successes, offset by the deep shadows of flaws and failings.

With 836 pages to work with, I had ample time to get to know the young heiress, passionately spiritual, who only wanted to dedicate herself to something great, to serve in some profound way. Unfortunately, she was so set on doing this that she didn’t take enough time to consider if she were attaching herself to the right cause.

I watched with pity the ageing scholar, who hoped for happiness, hoped for success in his endeavors, but was warped and bent inward by worry, and caged by self-doubt.

I walked beside the talented young doctor, sure of himself and his abilities, unwilling to sacrifice his ambitions for anything. He was so self-assured, he failed to see that his hasty marriage might threaten it all.

Mary Garth and Fred
“Why doesn’t she talk about us, Mary?” “Well, there are an awful lot of characters, Fred.”

Elliot, the omniscient narrator, sketched her characters through description and observation, then shaded them in using the observations of her other characters, and finally breathed life into them by showing how they reacted to their world.

In the end, it was almost as if the people populating Middlemarch were the ones who took my hand and led me through their story. (Well, maybe sometimes they got behind and pushed me through the rough patches.)

All in all, Middlmarch was not only an excellent example of complex and realistic characters, but it was also an excellent encouragement to continue refining my own characters. After all, they need to be ready and equipped to lead readers on the journey through their world.

Have you read Middlemarch? What did you think of it? Can you think of other stories with striking, detailed characters?

Many thanks for visiting!


* If you want a summary of the book, here’s one that includes links for character descriptions etc.

30 thoughts on “George Elliot’s MIDDLEMARCH, and Keeping Readers Engaged for the Long Haul”

  1. I haven’t read this one yet but it sounds amazing! I read Les Misérables several years ago, though, and while it was veeeery long haha it became one of my favorite books because of the incredible characters, too, so I can definitely relate. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kudos for finishing such a weighty tome! I have serious trouble finishing a 200 page novel. Yet when I find something I really like I can do it. I am rereading “Watership Down” which has over 400 pages. I’m not sure if I’m ready for 800. Maybe I need to work my way up to that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! If I hadn’t said I’d do it to someone else, I might have fallen off I’m afraid- I don’t have the attention span I used to (must be the sleep deprivation!) How are you liking Watership Down? I’ve always been interested, but never picked it up.


  3. Wonderful review, Anne! It takes commitment to take on such a titanic text, and I can tell you’re tickled you tackled Elliot’s towering tome! 🙂 Seriously, I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read a few that grabbed my attention and swept me right along for near or over a thousand pages (Michner’s “Centennial” comes to mind). Very interesting post; thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always wanted to read an Elliot novel and Middlemarch is high on my list. The 800+ pages scares me a bit, but I’m thrilled to know you enjoyed it and can’t wait to make time with it.
    Thanks for sharing your honest opinion and re-establishing my desire to read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad it was a helpful review. It really is an interesting story when you’re ready to dive in ;). Our library has the miniseries too, so I think that’s my next stop to see how it compares!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks so much for joining in our read-along, Anne. It sure has been a long haul, but time well spent. It’s been a pleasure reading all the posts and comments, so helpful in sustaining the journey. Good that your edition has all the historical background notes, must have enhanced your enjoyment. Yes, we’ve all arrived and in good time. Again, thanks for all the ripples. And btw, just an avid birder at the Pond. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for hosting it, Arti! It was good push for me to sit down and read something with a little more meat to it than my standard fare. I really did enjoy it, and it was great to see what everyone else had to say, too. And I love seeing the feathered friends you capture in your photos 🙂


  6. I love exploring genres that are outside my norm — but this is one I haven’t touched! Have you tried the original “Phantom of the Opera”? It is SO not the Webber musical! (Who knew that Raoul had a brother?!)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I thought about joining in Arti’s read-along and then just got overwhelmed. So I love hearing what you have to say. Oh, and I saw Arti’s comment above. You would love All the Light. I’ll be doing a post on it (well, mostly on St. Malo) for Paris in July this summer. But then, I’m a sucker for any WWII book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am too 🙂 I’ll have to check out your post- once I read the book, of course (I have a stack of kiddie lit to get through first, as I’m now teaching Reading next year- wohoo!)


      1. Check out the post sometime before you read the book. It’s photos of the town in which the book is set — St. Malo (perhaps you’ve been!). I gives little info on the book itself so no spoilers! It will post July 1!


  8. Hi Anne – I haven’t read Middlemarch … but one day I think I probably should settle and read … thanks for the push towards it! Cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t read it and the idea of such a large book may have put me off, if not for your description. I also loved your mention of if the book were a painting 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol- Yes! I read it back in hs I think…back when I had a wee bit more time and sleep 😉 Three Musketeers was good too. For NOW though, as it looks like I’m teaching 7 and 8 reading, I am diving in to LOTS of MG/YA. Wohoo! Had fun revisiting Hatchet last week.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay! Don’t forget Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH! And Witches! And I’ll also recommend Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. And of course you must do something from Diana Wynne Jones. Something fun but also insightful. The Ogre Downstairs is a great one about blended families, that could inspire some nice discussions. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

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