Winter here in the Midwest is a good time to sit by the fireplace while the snow swirls outside and finally read one of those long Victorian novels you always wanted to read and never got around to.
I recently read Middlemarch by George Eliot (which is a pseudonym for Mary Anne Evans, an English nineteenth-century author.)
One of the primary plot lines in the book is the story of a young woman named Dorothea Brooke who, within the limitations of 1820 Britain, searches for meaning in her life.
The story unfolds against the momentous changes that were occurring in Britain — liberal philosophy and politics was sweeping England and all of Europe, the industrial revolution was maturing, wealth and social structures were changing, and monarchies were giving way to democracies.
I don’t like to read long books straight through from front to back. I will typically read something about the book, then read parts of the book, then review the synopsis, maybe view a video of the book if there is a good one, then come back to the book and read more. I also often like to read a biography of the author in parallel with the book. Over time, I will have read most of the book, and certain parts of it more than once.
George Eliot’s novel lovingly illuminates the English past with its Sylvan landscapes while not denigrating the changes sweeping Britain in the nineteenth century — railroads, telegraphs, improvements in medicine. Her book is not a comedy of manners, not a romance, and not a historical novel, but somehow a little of all these things.
I have become so entranced with George Eliot’s writing that I am planning to give a presentation on the subject to our local Osher Life-Long Learning Institute. I’ve attended many classes at our local OLLI and have given a few presentations too. It’s great fun. Classes are non-credit, no exam courses, aimed at an over-50 audience. Here’s a little promotional clip I made using excerpts from a class I gave last year.
One of the underlying themes in Middlemarch is “women’s work:” what were women allowed to do, what were they capable of doing, and what did they want to do.
Coincidently, the 2023 Nobel prize in economics was awarded for research on the subject of women’s paid work over the last 150 years. The award went to Claudia Goldin, an American researcher at Harvard.
Here’s one of the graphics from her speech, which depicts the percentage of married women working for pay.
Prior to the industrial revolution, most enterprises were family operations. Everyone worked: men, women, children. Then came machines in which human-power was still required, so married women seldom worked. Then industry evolved to use water, steam, and petroleum energy rather than human power. Training and education became essential to most jobs, and the curve begins to rise, influenced now by social expectations and childcare requirements.
Here’s a link to Claudia Goldin’s Nobel Prize lecture if you care to watch. It is really interesting.
Another point that George Eliot's Middlemarch illustrates is that even people with all the advantages sometimes do not succeed in doing the important work they want to do. Tertius Lydgate, the idealistic doctor in their small town of Middlemarch, is just such a character. But despite the fact that neither Lydgate nor Dorothea achieve their aspirations, the ending of Middlemarch does not feel downbeat.
Which inspires the closing thought of the book: Much of the good in the world is created by ordinary people doing ordinary work.