Normal people, hidden lives: ‘living faithfully’ in provincial England

Normal people, hidden lives: ‘living faithfully’ in provincial England
In this series some of our literary collaborators will be giving suggestions for lockdown reading, books of all kinds to amuse and raise our spirits. This week, Felix M. Larkin writes of that ‘study of provincial life’ which deals with normal people and their hidden lives, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72).

At a public lecture in Dublin in February, held under the auspices of Studies magazine, I heard Chris Patten, the former British Conservative MP and last Governor of Hong Kong, describe Middlemarch as “the greatest English novel”.

That was not the first time that I heard it so described, but I had never found time to read it. I decided that I should use the period of seclusion required by the Covid-19 regulations to finally read this much admired work.

What constitutes a ‘great’ novel? For me, greatness in literature is a function of its ability still to speak to us despite being the product of a different era and/or a different culture. By that standard, Middlemarch – first published in 1871-72 – is certainly ‘great’.

It is a novel about ordinary people – one is tempted to say ‘normal people’, making a genuflection to one of our currently popular novels and television adaptations. The characters live “faithfully a hidden life”, to quote from the famous final sentence of the novel.

This focus on the ordinary is something that resonates with us today: there are no heroes, just people whose lives are spent “in channels which had no great name on the earth”.

There is, however, a villain – one whose villainy is familiar to us. Mr Bulstrode is a dodgy banker, with a dark secret of past malfeasance. He tries to compensate for his past with a stridently evangelical Christianity, leading one of the locals in the town of Middlemarch to say of him after he is eventually exposed: “What’s more against a man’s stomach than a man coming and making himself bad company with his religion, and giving out as the Ten Commandments are not good enough for him, and all the while he’s worse than half the men at the tread-mill?” This could well be said of some of the evangelical zealots in Trump’s entourage.

It is long and moves at a stately pace, and the language is very formal – though beautiful”

At the core of the novel are certain ‘love problems’ – marriages and courtships – which are every bit as tortured as Connell and Marianne’s affair in Normal People. Unlike Normal People, there are no sex scenes in Middlemarch – but a definite frisson is evident when Dorothy and Ladislaw overcome their reticence and admit their love for one another at the end of the novel.

One of the problematic marriages involves a young doctor, Lydgate, who has wonderful plans for a new hospital in Middlemarch and is, at one point, concerned with “preparing a new ward in case of the cholera coming to us”. This adds a contemporary dimension to the novel, with the threat of Covid-19 hanging over us.

There was a cholera epidemic in Britain in 1831-32 – and Middlemarch is set over a period of years ending in 1832.

And how could a curmudgeonly old bachelor like me not respond sympathetically to Mr Brooke’s pronouncement on marriage: “I never loved any one well enough to put myself into a noose for them. It is a noose, you know.”

It has been many years since I last read a Victorian novel, and I will confess that I found Middlemarch challenging. It is long and moves at a stately pace, and the language is very formal – though beautiful.

I am happy to acknowledge it as ‘great’ and am glad to have read it, but I have not changed my view that the greatest English novel – pace Chris Patten – is Dickens’ Bleak House.