Even English majors miss things sometimes and I have to admit that for most of my life I thought George Eliot was a man. I knew nothing about her and only new passingly that Middlemarch was in fact, a book. But after finding out that Eliot was in face a woman, and hearing that Middlemarch was like Tolstoy writing with Austen themes, I went out and grabbed it.
"The fact is unalterable, that a fellow-mortal with those nature you are acquainted solely through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship, may, when seen in the continuity of married companionship be disclosed as something better or worse than what you have preconceived, but will certainly not appear altogether the same."
Dorothea is a upper class lady who marries an old cranky man in a misplaced idea that marrying him would give her more opportunity to do good deeds. She, surprise, does not get fulfillment out of this relationship but keeps up her duty because hello, it is her duty. But then there is her husband's dashing, penniless cousin,Will Ladislaw, running around...
"There is hardly any contract more depressing to a young ardent creature than that of a mind in which years full of knowledge seem to have issued in a blank absence of interest or sympathy. "
A new idealist Doctor comes to Middlemarch and sweeps the most beautiful girl in town off her feet, despite his determination not to marry until he makes a world-wide breakthrough in medical reform. But Rosamond is the most spoiled pretty thing that she cries and gets her way. Good luck curing typhoid fever when your wife thinks doctors are icky and neither of you can stop spending money.And she has been seeing a lot of that Will Ladislaw lately...
"And Rosamond could say the right thing; for she was clever with that sort of cleverness which catches every tone except the humorous. Happily she never attempted to joke, and this perhaps was the most decisive mark of her cleverness."
Mary I-Don't-Want-No-Scrubs Garth has the short straw in status and wealth compared to the other two gals, but she knows exactly what she wants in a man and is not going to settle. Rosamond's brother Fred has been in love with Mary since they were children, but his family would not want him to marry so beneath them and Mary doesn't want to marry some idle guy who she cannot respect. Apparently she doesn't have time for Ladislaw.
"Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers, but, dressed in their small wardrobe of notions, bring their provisions to a common table and mess together, feeding out of the common store according to their appetite."
There is so much more to this book (murder? blackmail! bankruptcy!), but I love the three relationships. I guess there is a fourth since Dorothea's sister Ceclia also gets married and quickly turns into the 1800's version of a facebook mom. I'm not too up the history of the British political system so that wasn't really the big draw for me. But Eliot addresses so many things with this book without really going off on a tirade at any point. It felt at times very similar to reading Austin, but broader. Austin only really ever gives us the women's side of things, but Eliot shows scenes of men without any women around and captures them very well. Austen might work on her two inches of ivory but Eliot uses the whole china cupboard.
All in all, worth being on all of the best book lists that it is on.