George Eliot was born (a long time ago, let's not get bogged down by details) near Nuneaton, now a small satellite town of Coventry. She moved to the larger town in her teens, spending many of her formative years there, and when she was looking to write a grand novel set in a provincial centre, my home town was the pattern for the book (hurray!). The setting is crucial for 'Middlemarch'; the book is set in the years around 1832, when the great Reform Bill (abolishing many 'rotten boroughs' and increasing the number of people able to vote in elections) was the talk of the nation. By using a semi-urban centre away from the capital, Eliot was able to show the changing society of early-nineteenth century England as social mobility became a reality. In a town of substantial, but not national, importance, we can more easily see the interplay between events and people. Many of the characters in 'Middlemarch' rise or fall in class and social standing over the course of a few short years, affected by external events or their own rash decisions or shortcomings; Fred Vincy, disappointed in his hopes for a large inheritance, voluntarily descends in the social order by taking up a job which involves some manual labour while Caleb Garth and Vicar Farebrother both end the story richer and more successful than when it began.
One of the major causes of change of class is, of course, marriage, something which is all too common in what Henry James describes as the great, baggy monsters that are Victorian novels. Unusually, however, some of Eliot's marriages occur early in the piece, leaving us with the opportunity to examine the marriage, and not just the wedding. As a result, we are able to compare the lots of the young, devout Dorothea Brooke (who marries a much older man and lives to regret it, through no fault of her own) and the local doctor Tertius Lydgate, whose marriage to Rosamund Vincy descends into a loveless torture, owing mainly to the selfishness and shallowness of his beautiful bride. Dorothea's sister, Celia, who marries more for convenience than real love in accepting the proposal of Sir James Chettham, the former suitor of the elder Brooke daughter, is (initially at least) far luckier in love poor Dorothea.
As can be seen from the previous section, one of the telling features of 'Middlemarch' is the intricate web of human connections which Eliot spins over the many pages of the eight books making up the novel. The limited size of Middlemarch, the inter-marrying between families, and the chance arrival of strangers who have a connection with one or more locals leads to a sense of 'wholeness': the book does not consist of a few separate stories loosely tied together; rather, each character and relationship is vital to the book as a whole. 'Middlemarch' (and the town itself) is a living, breathing organism which is difficult to reduce to the sum of its parts. One reading does not do justice to the skill with which Eliot has put the novel together, and each time you approach the book, more layers of subtlety are revealed.
Crotchety old Henry James (a great admirer of Eliot's, who, nonetheless, blew hot and cold about this particular book) also said that this was the book which pushed the idea of the Victorian novel to the limit. He wasn't being completely complimentary when he said that, but I prefer to understand it literally; with 'Middlemarch', Eliot had taken the genre of the sprawling, multi-plot novel as far as it could go. It literally wasn't possible to connect each part of a book to every other part more than she had done here.
The first time I read 'Middlemarch', I didn't really fully understand its greatness. Of course, that's probably because I got distracted by the fact that it was supposedly set in my home town and spent the whole time trying to spot local landmarks (which wouldn't have existed 135 years ago anyway...). This time, however, I enjoyed the book a lot more; in fact (if I may end on a pun) being sent to Coventry was never such fun.