“Learning to Do it Well:” Life, Love and Work in Middlemarch

Middlemarch was published serially over twelve months from 1871-1872

George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch was published nearly 150 years ago, in 8 installments from December 1871 to December 1872. Victorian readers would have had plenty of time to speculate on the characters’ decisions and lives as they awaited the next chapters to be published.  Waiting, you see, was part of serialized reading.

Taking a year to read a novel is an elusive experience for contemporary life centered on binge watching serial television or listening to episodic podcasts.  Immersion has its place, certainly, in a world that is fragmented and demanding, but reading over a period of time affords insight and transformation that compressed immersion does not.

“What is the quality of your waiting?” I once heard a spiritual leader ask.  Academic calendars don’t encourage waiting but our vocational discernment clocks, which should be set for a longer, more deliberate reflection, can. The quality of our waiting can allow us to respond with purpose.

Middlemarch is a novel about vocation—some might even argue, the novel about vocation. It portrays life slowly unfolding before us. Many have seen the novel as a guide to deliberating a professional path, to navigating adulthood, to choosing a marriage partner, to surviving small-town life. More broadly, a recent BBC poll ranked Middlemarch as the greatest British novel

Thus, Middlemarch obviously recommends itself but to garner the full Middlemarch effect, one might want to savor the steps of the story through prolonged reading and reflection to better know its merits.

When I read the novel over a 15 week semester with students, we spend every Friday discussing Middlemarch and students’ personal vocational reflections about the novel.  The vocational topics are diverse; students write about their reactions to Fred’s cavalier attitude towards education, Mary’s realist worldview, Lydgate’s professional dreams, Dorothea’s blinding idealism.  Along the way we see the characters swimming in the fishbowl of emerging adulthood, trying to navigate the pull of local politics, professions, and families. “Middlemarch” becomes a pseudonym for “my life” as we read the novel slowly, over time.

Some literary theorists claim that this serialized reading provides space for life on and off the page to coalesce. Following others’ extended life journeys on the page guides our work towards finding a suitable place in the world. The lesson on vocation, then, is that the missteps and triumphs of the many characters in Middlemarch are a way for us to understand our own. Reading the book slowly allows this narrative worldview to take shape.

Robert Coles’ important book The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination references many British novels and the ways in which reading literature can guide us. His students come to recognize the characters as “persisting voices” over the course of their lives (162).  One student returns repeatedly to Middlemarch, asking years after his first reading of the novel, “What would George Eliot do with our family?  She would show the changes in me…” (161).  Similarly, New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead’s article Middlemarch and Me: What George Eliot Teaches Us,”  explains “I have gone back to Middlemarch every five years or so, my emotional response to it evolving at each revisiting.”  (She eventually published her memoir My Life in Middlemarch in 2014). Indeed, reading slowly—either in serial or in re-reading over many years—can allow us to see our own stories as narratives of change, transformation or transcendence.

Eliot’s novel lays bare the very fine processes that one has to endure to shift professional and personal goals. For example, Fred Vincy has to leave the protection of privilege provided to him through university education and family money. He has to admit to gambling debts and to taking advantage of others’ goodwill towards him by swallowing youthful hubris. Fred’s early failure to overcome idleness and pass his exams to be a clergyman frustrates everyone but one person: Mary Garth, his childhood sweetheart. Mary sees that he is not “fit” to be in the church, and patiently waits while he reflects on his own deep desire for work that is practical and not intellectual, and for Mary’s hard-won respect.

At the moment of Fred’s deepest worry about work, Mr. Garth tells Fred:

You must be sure of two things: you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin. And the other is, you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else. You must have a pride in your own work and in learning to do it well. (527)

Eliot then spends the rest of the novel showing us how to learn to do it well.

The missteps and triumphs of the characters in Middlemarch are a way for us to understand our own.

At the same time, we enter the “virtual tomb” that is Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon. Dorothea’s mistake is believing the marriage to the erudite older clergyman will provide her a “fuller life” as she supports his supposed scholarly pursuits. Despite some concerns from her uncle: “I thought you liked your own opinion” and complaints from her scorned suiter Sir James: “She is too young to know what she likes,” Dorothea marries Casaubon. While many Victorian novels might end in marriage, Eliot closes one courtship loop in the first installment. We are left instead to wade through married life with Dorothea (over many months in the serialized text).

Dorothea’s story teaches us to live with disappointment, confusion and outright frustration, finally recognizing a “hunger” for a “fuller sort of companionship.” Eliot’s novel describes the pain of living with one’s choices but it also reveals the ways we begin to know ourselves in difficult situations. Casaubon’s scholarly work is dry and meaningless, and Dorothea can hardly countenance that truth. After his death, she resolves to re-focus her life on making meaning in the community—largely through supporting Lydgate’s hospital—while her future husband, Will Ladislaw, pursues a course of personal development in public life as a political writer and barrister after his earlier wayward artistic life. Eliot warns of the vocational wastelands of work without purpose, and marriage without intellectual and emotional synergy. Dorothea and Will’s individual paths reflect what we might call a quality waiting—a waiting that transforms struggle into renewed purpose.

One of Eliot’s landmark contributions to vocational understanding, however, is her portrayal of individuals woven together through relationship, be it family, friendship, marriage or community. Within that web, we see everyone’s life as a purpose-filled story. More significantly, these stories matter because they showcase the unrecorded actions of the everyday, the generosity of spirit, the courage to connect with others despite barriers and despair. The opening pages issue an important reminder that instead of the “epic life” many expect, we find ourselves living a “blundering life” full of mistakes. She closes the novel with a now famous call to commemorate decent, purposeful living:

for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Middlemarch, and reading it as the Victorians would, advocates for the space to learn to love one’s work, to contribute to community, to cherish meaningful relationships. The novel suggests that finding purpose in the “provincial life” of the novel allows us to find that same purpose in our experience. While not conventionally epic, it is a vocationally deep and wide way to live.

Erin VanLaningham is Associate Professor of English and Director of the Honors Program at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.  She teaches courses in the British Novel, Spiritual Memoir, and Women’s Writing, and has published in a variety of academic journals.  In 2017, she was selected as a participant in NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.

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