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An extraordinary novel in many ways, one of which is the way in which I think this, from Rosemary Ashton's introduction to the current Penguin Classic edition, is dead wrong:
We have seen that Lydgate's own ideal of womanhood is damagingly limited and egotistical. So too is Casaubon's ... Yet there is some authorial ambivalence here. Just as, while criticizing Lydate's expectations of a wife, George Eliot seems also to blame Rosamond for not putting her husband's view and needs before her own, so with Dorothea she moves between sharp satire of Mr Casaubon's requirement of complete devotion in a wife and warm authorial endorsement of Dorothea's desire to serve her husband selflessly. (xvii)

I don't think there is any ambivalence here: all are being judged by the same criteria, which is the extent to which they are able to enter imaginatively into other's lives. Lydgate, Casaubon and Rosamond are criticized for (in different ways) failing to do so, or doing so only to a limited extent; Dorothea is praised because she does so, even though it is in many cases to excess.

The great strength of the book, of course, is the astonishingly generous omniscient voice in which it is told, which has time for every character's particular desires, and (though it chides) has sympathy with every one of its inhabitants. More people, I want to say, should write omniscient voice like this, and this well. The voice enables some of the things I enjoyed most about the novel -- its wit, and its social acuity -- things which, it strikes me, are what Jane Austen fans say they get from her writing, but which I have never been able to find there. For me, in fact, the voice was often the most compelling thing about the book; Ashton is right that
[Ladislaw] is the least successfully imagined character in the novel, partly because he is obliged by e plot to be rootless and have mysterious origins, and to function as a handsome, youthful foil to his fading older cousin Casaubon. (xv)

-- with the result that his relationship with Dorothea is supremely unconvincing (if entirely predictable; I'm a little astonished that Jo Walton can write "I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen in Middlemarch, even from half way through", because it's blindingly obvious that Dorothea is going to end up in a suitable marriage at the end of the book, it being unthinkable that she might live happily as an independent; the only questions are ones of detail, exactly how the marriage is going to happen), although he's not the least interesting character: that would be Bulstrode, most of whose chapters nearly put me to sleep.

I wonder whether that voice isn't ultimately a vice disguised as a virtue, in some ways; its message is -- quite rightly -- that we can never know the full circumstances of anything, never know another person entirely, but its existence undermines that message. Makes it a bit too comfortable. Although this was never a book where I sank through the page. I think that was in part because for all the precise delineation of the various relationships -- Rosamond and Lydgate's marriage is the best, because it would have been so easy to make one or other of them unambiguously the villain; this is where the narrator's limitless sympathy and empathy are most admirable, and the hard edge to their ending feels right -- the geography of the setting was more than a little vague. Every time I thought I'd worked out where one place was in relation to another, I would be (it seemed) contradicted, and my inhabitance of the book disturbed. Yes, reader, I wanted a map!

But it's a book I will probably return to in five or ten years, nevertheless.

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