Welcome, Readers and Writers! I’ve been working hard on rounding out the characters in my second book this month, which led me back to this post from a while back. Sometimes the best teachers of good characterization are the vibrant characters we meet in other novels. I hope you enjoy my reaction to George Elliot’s Middlemarch.
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
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 Some of the obscure medical and historical references bogged me down- thank goodness my book had copious end notes!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.
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 a 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 aging 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.
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, Middlemarch 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.