Critical reception

Contemporary reviews

The Examiner, The Spectator and Athenaeum reviewed each of the eight books that comprise Middlemarch as they were published from December 1871 to December 1872;[36] such reviews hence speculated as to the eventual direction of the plot and responded accordingly.[37] Contemporary response to the novel was mixed. Writing as it was being published, the Spectator‍‍ '​‍s reviewer R. H. Hutton criticised the work for what he perceived as its melancholic quality.[38] Athenaeum, reviewing after its 'serialisation', found the work overwrought and thought that it would have benefited from hastier composition.[d][39] Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine‍‍ '​‍s reviewer W. L. Collins noted the work's most forceful impression to be its ability make the reader sympathise with the characters.[40] Edith Simcox of Academy offered high praises, hailing the work as a landmark event in fiction owing to the originality of its form; she rated it first amongst Eliot's oeuvre, which meant it "has scarcely a superior and very few equals in the whole wide range of English fiction".[41]

"What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?" What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this "mortal has already put on immortality." George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the "mysteries of redemption," for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.

Emily Dickinson, Letter to her cousins Louise and Fannie Norcross[42]

The author Henry James offered a mixed opinion on Middlemarch, opining that it is "at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels". His greatest criticism ("the only eminent failure in the book") was towards the character of Ladislaw, who he felt to be an insubstantial hero-figure against that of Lydgate. The scenes between Lydgate and Rosamund he especially praised, on account of their psychological depth—he doubted whether there were any scenes "more powerfully real […] [or] intelligent" in all English fiction.[16] Thérèse Bentzon, writing for the Revue des deux Mondes, was highly critical of Middlemarch. Although finding merit in certain scenes and qualities, Bentzon faulted the structure of the novel, describing it as being "made up of a succession of unconnected chapters, following each other at random […] the final effect is one of an incoherence which nothing can justify". In her view, Eliot's prioritisation of "observation rather than imagination […] inexorable analysis rather than sensibility, passion or fantasy" means that she should not be held amongst the first ranks of novelists.[43]

In spite of the divided contemporary response, Middlemarch gained immediate admirers; in 1873, the poet Emily Dickinson expressed high praise for the novel, and it was admired by Friedrich Nietzsche for its exposure of the fear of social realities that lie beneath any conception of society.[44]

In separate centuries, Florence Nightingale and Kate Millett both remarked on the eventual subordination of Dorothea's own dreams to those of her admirer, Ladislaw.[45] However, in the "Finale" George Eliot herself acknowledges the regrettable waste of Dorothea's potential, blaming social conditions.

Later responses

The immediate success of Middlemarch may have been proportioned rather to the author's reputation than to its intrinsic merits. ... [the novel] seems to fall short of the great masterpieces which imply a closer contact with the world of realities and less preoccupation with certain speculative doctrines.

—Leslie Stephen, George Eliot (1902)[46]

In the first half of the twentieth century, Middlemarch continued to provoke contrasting responses; while her father Leslie Stephen dismissed the novel in 1902, Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as "the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people".[47] However, Woolf was "virtually unique among the modernists in her unstinting praise for Middlemarch,[48] and the novel also remained overlooked by the reading public of the time.[49] F. R. Leavis's The Great Tradition (1948) is regarded as having "rediscovered" the novel,[49] describing it in the following terms:

The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.[50]

Leavis' appraisal of it has been hailed as the beginning of the critical consensus that still exists towards the novel, in which it is recognised not only as Eliot's finest work but as one of the greatest novels in English. V. S. Pritchett, in The Living Novel, two years earlier, in 1946 had written,

No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully".[51]

In the twenty-first century, the novel continues to be held in high regard. Novelists Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have both described it as probably the greatest novel in the English language,[e] [52] and today Middlemarch is frequently taught in university courses.

In 2013, the then British Education Secretary Michael Gove made reference to Middlemarch in a speech, suggesting its superiority to Stephenie Meyer's vampire novel Twilight.[53] Gove's comments led to debate concerning the teaching of Middlemarch in Britain,[f] including the question of when novels like Middlemarch ought to be read,[g] and the role of canonical texts in teaching.[54] The novel has remained a favourite with readers and appears highly in rankings of reader preferences: in 2003 it was listed at number 27 on the BBC's The Big Read,[55] and in 2007 it was number ten in "The 10 Greatest Books of All Time", based on a ballots of 125 selected writers.[56]

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