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Unhistoric Acts

October 23, 2009


By George Eliot

There are books everyone tells you to read. Ulysses, War and Peace, something from Proust. And then you read them and think, That really wasn’t that good. The world has been telling me to read Middlemarch for years and so I went out and bought it, but it sat untouched on my shelves for almost five years. It was nearly 900 pages. Who has that kind of time anymore?

This summer, I decided I would make the time for it and so I brought Eliot’s masterpiece with me to Lakewood, Colo. I finally started the book in July, after laboring through Within a Budding Grove. As soon as I’d finished the very first page and been introduced to Dorothea and Celia Brooke, I felt like I was home again. Proust is amazing, of course, but reading Proust is traveling endlessly in a foreign country (Marcel’s consciousness) and after a thousand pages of travel, you just want to go home. Middlemarch brought me back.

Eliot writes with that familiar, 19th-century flow, drawing you into a universe entirely of her own possession, and does not let you go. The power went out for three days at my house in Lakewood and so I spent hours with Middlemarch, hardly putting it down for the day. I felt as if I’d fairly floated out of Colorado for the rest of the afternoon. It is a vast undertaking, but it’s a vast world she’s created. The people who populate this book are unusual because they are “historical,” but they are lovable, because we know what to expect from them; we’ve seen them operate before.

The exception to predictability, however, must lie entirely with Dorothea Brooke. She’s an extraordinary creation. I think we could all benefit from being more like her. A brilliant, thoroughly dynamic heroine, she makes the most mistakes and learns the most from them. Despite her often pitiable position, Dorothea fights despair with a heartiness that can only come from within. Her compassion covers all that she does. Speaking on behalf of poor Mr. Lydgate, she says, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”

Eliot writes with force and beauty. She might be the most Tolstoyan of her kind. Her business is grounded in probing the complicated depths of human connection. The last lines of the novel hit me with a thudding power:

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.

READ IF: There is no “if” here. I join “everyone” in telling you, quite simply, READ.

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