Books to Re-Read Every Five Years: George Eliot’s Middlemarch

Everyone has a book they re-read every few years because, as they age and change, so does their experience of the book. In fact, it gets better with age, like a balsamic vinegar, or French cheese. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is my fine wine.

To say that this is a good book is to minimize the words “good” and “book.” This is a great book. One of The Great Books of British Literature. And it is more of a small town than a book, actually. It is populated with shops and farms and pubs, and politics, and many, many different characters – but its main theme, I think, is the self-delusions we all harbor.

At least that’s what I thought when I read it at 40. When I read it at 25, I thought it was about love. At 30, it was about following your dreams. At 35, it was about…I forget I was so busy with two kids under five. I’ll think something different when I read it again, at 45. Middlemarch and George Eliot and I are on a five year plan, for the rest of my life, and I think of her as a dear friend, if we only see each other every five years, like some families have reunions.

George Eliot as a writer is incredibly quick-witted and can suss out a character’s intentions at a distance of a mile, but she is kind, and can find something grounding, sincere, and humane about even the flightiest flibbertigibbet – I’m talking about Rosamund. It is crushing when she slowly realizes that she and her doctor husband Lydgate are broke. Eliot can peel back the layers on the holiest of holies, Dorothea Brooke, our “Miss Brooke,” as she realizes her pure intentions to be an intellectual midwife to her husband, Casaubon (would-be author of The Key to All Mythologies) have been misplaced. Casaubon is mired in his research, even in Rome, the seat of sensuality to many a Brit, he remains buttoned-up, a dry cricket. Oh, how I hated him when I was 25! Will Ladislaw, the artist, of the touseled English hair, caught my eye, just as he does Dorothea’s.

Now I feel like I understand Casaubon, and to some extent I am him. All around me youth, and beauty, and opportunities for growth in the form of my children and here I am besieged by laundry, obsessed with getting everyone to eat more vegetables. I have developed a loathing of kids’ birthday parties, at them I am working on my very own Key To All Mythologies, the key being we’re in our decline as a culture if kids get pool parties.

There is something sad, repressed, and undeveloped about Casaubon, like a caterpillar dead in chrysalis, and George Eliot knows this, and has picked up his shell, as I do now that I am 40, and can appreciate his expectation that his life would be more than it is.