'Middlemarch' is the daunting 5th novel from George Eliot. It primarily concerns the lives of the gentry and middle class, but showcases Eliot's dazzling ability to create worlds. The English novel typically had large supporting casts of characters and depended upon depicting shades of rural life, but Eliot was a master of crowd-work. Her four major plots are punctuated by extended sequences of social calls, gossip, and plain conversation that reverberate through the main text and give it life. I hesitate to call many of the characters minor not merely because of the their place in the plot, but in because how deftly they're drawn. These characters have layers. No matter how small their role is in the plot, like Miss Horner, or even a barely mentioned Mr. Clintup, have history and lives going on behind the scenes. They also have subtle social relationships with each other.
I read this novel at breakneck speed, perhaps 12 hours altogether over two evenings and a morning, and that allowed me to really experience the close relationships between many of the characters. Eliot provides vast insight into the inner lives of her characters, but also in their differing outer relationships with each other including all of the misunderstandings that create the two 'main' marriages of the plot, and, more cunning, the relationships which possess understanding. Dorothea and Casaubon; Lydgate and Rosamund; as fraught as their whole situation is, it was the relationship between Camden Farebrother and his family, Mr. and Mrs. Garth's mutual recalculation of their lives in the wake of Fred's note coming due (without Mrs. Garth knowing beforehand!), and even Trumbull, the auctioneer, being bequeathed a gold-headed cane seemed to be punctuation to a long-told joke.
Maybe I'm still worn out from all of that not sleeping so I could read 'Middlemarch' in time for the book club, but everything in this meandering novel is significant. It is not significant with the everything is an allegory way either. Eliot raised the bar again with her research, giving 'Middlemarch' an impeccable timeline and even mined 40-year-old medical journals for Lydgate's benefit. I loved this.
This novel merits the reams of words that have been written about it. She is rapidly becoming my favorite author. I was disappointed by Silas Marner and my appreciation for Romola is (mostly) academic. I had a bad time of it in college when I had to read this for the most boring man ever to scrape a chalkboard, but I'm so glad that I gave it another chance. Many serial novels suffer from how they were written, even with polish and editing, there's usually something disconnected. I'm including Thackeray and Dickens in that criticism, among others. Eliot was a planner and the end-notes of my edition repeatedly referenced her process. Read it in a glorious rush the way I did, or in your own serene time, but this one is worth it.