I've seen it claimed that this is the greatest English novel. I don't go in much for the idea of a single greatest achievement in any art, or for that matter in any human endeavor, but I will go as far as agreeing that there are good reasons for making this particular claim. By "English" I would mean not "in the English language" but "by an English writer." Middlemarch is such a different sort of thing from, say, The Sound and the Fury, that the comparison would be inapt.
I've put off reading Middlemarch for more than forty years, in the face of strong recommendations from people whose opinions I respect, some known personally and some by reputation, because I acquired a prejudice against George Eliot's work when I was a teenager. I can't figure out now exactly where that came from, but I have a vague notion that it had to do with Silas Marner--and yet I don't recall reading it. I have an even vaguer, and now embarrassing, notion that I may not have read the novel at all, but rather a comic book version of it. There was a comic book series called Classics Illustrated when I was growing up, and I read several of them. From what I can remember they were pretty horrible: I'm pretty sure I acquired a somewhat similar prejudice against Jane Eyre from that source, though it didn't stop me from eventually reading and appreciating that novel.
Perhaps it was just as well that I've only just now read Middlemarch for the first time. I'm not at all sure I would have appreciated it when I was, say, in my twenties, which is when I remember hearing my first recommendation of it (from my late friend Robert W, whom I've mentioned here before). Why now? I've understood for many years that it must actually be a good book and have had in mind to read it. What finally pushed me into picking it up was the fact that the January issue of The New Criterion has an article about it, and I didn't want to read the article without having read the book first.
A few years ago when I reread Moby Dick for the first time since high school I said "It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed every word of this book." The same is true of Middlemarch, or almost; perhaps a bit more of an exaggeration, but only a bit. And that was a surprise. I expected it to be undeniably good, but perhaps a bit stiff or a bit dull at times; I would not have been surprised if it had been somewhat moralistic. The greatest surprise was that Middlemarch is a very funny book. Not comic, in the sense that, say, some of Dickens's characters and incidents are comic, but witty, in a way that strikes me as very feminine: arch, dry, similar to Jane Austen's wit, but to me rather more funny. I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud within the first few chapters, and frequently thereafter.
For the most part this humor is in the observations of the narrator, not in the characters or the situations. And in general I think it's the authorial voice that sets Middlemarch apart. The characters are alive, the plot is engaging. But the most remarkable aspect of the book, the aspect that had me often pausing in sheer admiration, is the voice of Eliot herself. There seems little warrant for supposing that the narrator is in any major way different from the author.
There are, I grant freely, many gaps in my reading. But I don't know of another novelist who seems to have (or be able to express, which as far as a novel is concerned is the same thing) the psychological acumen of Eliot. Henry James comes to mind, but I haven't read that much of him, and most of it was many years ago, so I can't really judge. Eliot seems acutely attuned to the subtle workings of the psyche, and is able to describe them with great precision. And these are not just phenomena of sensibility, but of motivation, of self-will and self-delusion--the springs of action. It seems almost god-like, and made me think of that remark from St. Paul about the word of God being sharper than a sword, judging the intentions of the heart.
And that touches upon the only thing I would wish to be different about the book. Eliot was a free-thinker of the Victorian type, newly converted from orthodox Christianity by scientific and scholarly challenges of the time. She translated the German skeptic Feuerbach. Despite the presence of several clergymen as major characters--and perhaps revealing of the state of the Church of England at the time--the novel has essentially no vertical dimension. It's all horizontal, all of this world. In a pattern that would become dreary and very, very stale, the only person who seems deeply concerned with Christian faith is an odious hypocrite.
But that's like complaining that Shakespeare is not Dante. Over and over again while reading Middlemarch I thought "this woman is a genius." She doesn't have to be right about everything to deserve that praise. (And clearly she would have been considered a remarkable intellect even if she had never written a word of fiction.) And it's worth mentioning that the book begins and ends with the comparison of its central character, the great- and noble-hearted Dorothea, to St. Teresa (of Avila), and regretting that Dorothea did not have before her the potential field of action that Teresa did. (Elizabeth Seton and Katharine Drexel would have argued with her there.)
I wonder what Eliot really intended in Middlemarch. It's very topical, very specifically placed in a certain time (around 1820, about the time Eliot was born), very concerned with the politics and other developments of that specific period. Did she realize that she was writing for the centuries?
I'm not bothering with a plot-and-character summary. You can find those anywhere, and this is not a review which might be someone's only information about the novel. I'm only telling you why I liked it so much, and will surely read it again. I liked it in that rare way that makes one wish to have known the author. I can't imagine that I would have been able to hold a conversation with her, but I think I would have loved to listen to her.
If you haven't read it, or if it's been a long time since you did, and you don't already own it, I suggest you get an edition with notes. I read the only one readily available to me, the local library's Modern Library edition, which has no notes, and I felt the need of them on every other page, it seemed. So I found myself constantly picking up my phone or Kindle to look up a word or a reference to some place or thing (and of course sometimes just passing things by and hoping they weren't essential). In the course of deciding which edition to buy for myself, I ran across a great web site, Middlemarch for Book Clubs, which is a sort of orientation, and which includes a very helpful guide to Choosing an Edition. (I plan to get the Oxford World Classics one.)
The author of that web site begins by noting someone's assertion that Middlemarch may destroy your book club. I can see how it might. It is a very long book (800 pages in the edition I read), and it's not easy reading: the narrator, and many of the characters as well, lean toward very long and complex sentences with subtle meanings which often required two or three readings for me. And there are a lot of characters to be kept in mind. I didn't find any of this excessively burdensome; in fact it's the quality of the prose in general that's the essence of the book's great delights. But some may find it so.
One last note: I'm struck by the concern of most of the characters with their personal honor. It is considered an intolerable blight on their reputations even to be put in a light where it would be plausible to suspect them of anything dishonorable. Now the predominant type of our culture is the one described by Yeats:
Who were it proved he lies
Were neither shamed in his own
Nor in his neighbors' eyes
As soon as I'd finished the book I was tempted to watch the 1994 BBC dramatization. I say "tempted" because I was wary of having my perception of the book damaged by badly-chosen actors and interpretations. I did fairly soon give in to the temptation, and was not sorry. No dramatization could possibly be a substitute for the book, for reasons that should be obvious from what I've said. But this one is quite respectable and I wouldn't warn anyone away from it.