Islands and Books and Winter

Shetland dusk
Our dusk view

In the winter of 2009, I spent four days in the dark windswept wilds of Shetland. Without any phone signal or internet, I was reduced to digging my book out of my bag.  Luckily, that book was Lanark by Alistair Gray. It was just what was needed. It reminded me of the days when I was much younger, and had a dog-eared book in my hand wherever I went, so that days took on the feel of whatever story I was reading. That Christmas will always be about scant daylight, blistering winds, hiding indoors, and the tangled images of the novel: the Glasgow School of Art, 1960s hipsters drinking miserably and bantering with caustic Scottish wit in a cinema bar; visions of murder and of the afterlife; whisky, murals, rebellion, and fur-clad, domineering, vivacious, hopelessly irresistible Glasgow girls. One good book is all you need, to make a soaring escape from wintertime.

On the plane to Shetland
On the plane to Shetland

Since then, for some reason (the internet) my attention span has been whittled to almost nothing, and I had forgotten how good it feels to be all wrapped up in a story. There must be something about islands and books and winter, though, because this year, I spent three days in the dark windswept wilds of Stornoway, with no internet connection, and a dead phone. But I had a copy of Middlemarch with me.

Middlemarch. The title was unpromising. Some prudish Victorian novel full of boring wedding problems? Would I have to remember the names and relationships of 68 main characters, all of them tedious company?

I took a leap of faith, based on the word of my friend who lent me the book and promised me it would be worth it.


It’s been described as holding a ‘hypnotic power over its readers’. I was one page into the first chapter, and I was in for the long haul.

The novel follows the lives of the men and women, old and young, rich and poor, living in the fictional English town of Middlemarch in the 1830s, but already that doesn’t really cover it. The novel is about all of life, public and private – politics, agriculture, money and security and the characteristics of provincial communities; and private dreams, the weaknesses and sensitivities that people wish to hide; hubris, and lust, and avarice, and failure.  We watch Mary Garth, a sensible, generous young woman, wait patiently for her beloved to become a man good enough to marry, and gently reject another suitor who is ‘ten times’ better; but then, you can’t help who you love. An old scholar, tyrannical in his devotion to his dry academic pursuits, is secretly deeply afraid of his young wife’s intellectual abilities. A banker with a puritanical streak – disliked by everyone – has a very nasty past and a belief that God is utterly on his side. And these are just the extras.

From the 1994 BBC adaptation. Bonnets, such bonnets.
From the 1994 BBC adaptation. Bonnets, such bonnets.

In the correlating characters of Dorothea and Lydgate, whose stories dominate the book, we watch nervously, and then a little bruised, and at last heartbroken for them, as these good people fail to achieve the greatness they once keenly imagined for themselves.

I’ll leave the redemptive tale of Dorothea for anyone who wishes to go forth and read the book, because I couldn’t do her justice, except to say she must be one of the kindest people ever to have lived in our imagination. But Lydgate, poor Lydgate, I’ll tarry a while for him.

He arrives in Middlemarch with a lustrous aura of potential about him. He’s an outsider, but young and handsome and with an aristocratic family connection to recommend him. He is passionately devoted to medicine as his vocation. His confidence is magnetic, and Elliot’s description of his love for his chosen field is far more moving than any romance. As a young man in a library, he stands on a chair and has a notion to reach for a book about the valves of the heart. He takes it down, opens it, begins reading. ‘The moment of vocation had come, and before he got down from his chair, the world was made new to him’. Lydgate plans, quite simply, to change the world. He knows he will change the world – he will cure illnesses, revolutionise his field, and alleviate the suffering of his fellow man. His life has a noble calling, and he quietly pities others who have given up on great aims.

But no man is an island. ‘Middlemarch counted on swallowing Lydgate and assimilating him very comfortably’, we are told. With that, we begin to watch his demise.

Failure happens so slowly to Lydgate that he doesn’t notice that he is stumbling, and sinking. His calling takes a back seat to earning an income, and for one reason or another he never quite gets back to his studies. There are a few less noble traits in him – his financial illiteracy, his slightly demented idealisation of women – which we see laying the foundations of calamity. And then, although he doesn’t plan to marry for at least five years, he is nonetheless swept into a flirtation with the prettiest girl in town, Rosamond Vincy.

Rosamond considers him with ‘watchful blue eyes’, and calculates her next move. Eventually, Lydgate is more or less conned into marrying her, going in to this arrangement ‘blind and unconcerned as a jellyfish which gets melted without knowing it’. He barely knows her, and pathetically believes she will be a docile, pretty, witty ornament in his life. In fact, Rosamond is indomitable, and her talent for manipulation is finely tuned. We know his mistake long before he does.

Much later, Lydgate despairs as he considers the man he once believed he would become. He has made some catastrophic mistakes, but his final degradation in the eyes of the community comes about from pure bad luck. He is in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong person. Helpless, he can only acknowledge that ‘chance has an empire which makes a fool’s illusion of choice’. The world has been too full of nefarious surprises, too vast in its complexities and awful coincidences, for the young passionate being that he was to have survived. He dies young: as one small ghostly phrase at the end of the novel has it: ‘his hair never became white’.

It feels Shakespearean – this precise verdict on human nature, presented in a language that is both economic and poetic. As I read, I kept getting that feeling, ‘I always thought that, but I didn’t know how to put it into words’, and now that Elliot put it into words, it just slips off the tongue, poignant and incisive. Chance has an empire.

Then again, it would be a very disheartening novel if all we encountered was failure. Eliot tells us, ‘every limit is a beginning as well as an ending’, and Dorothea’s tale offers us a very different kind of life, in which disappointments are met with a gentle, heroic resilience.

Usually, a writer attempting omniscience is irritating, if not disastrous. AS Byatt in this (somewhat amazing) essay on Middlemarch points out that it used to be fashionable to mock Elliot for her god’s eye view (didactic; old-fashioned; weirdly stunted in its unoriginality). It works, though – it is amazing to read – because she is wry and compassionate and witty and wise. Or, as excitable fan Vincent Van Gogh put it, ‘profound things are said in a plain way’ in her novels. ‘There aren’t many writers who are as thoroughly sincere and good as Eliot’, he wrote in a letter of 1883. And we’ll stick with this simple, lovely compliment, rather than delve into Henry James’s awful ‘she’s hideously ugly but I think I’m in love her’ fan letters about Elliot.

Middlemarch is also very funny. Self-absorbed Rosamond Vincy remarks of another woman that she is ‘so uninteresting’, and the wonderful, selfless Mary Garth counters, ‘She is interesting to herself, I suppose’. You can feel the laughter she’s holding back.

While we follow some characters closely, the rest of the Middlemarch townspeople – their meandering opinions, their private thoughts – can be heard and felt. Throughout the book there’s a wondrous and alarming sense of the enormity of other people; that every person is a world far more complex than the little bit that we can see. Every thought that troubles a character could be one that you’ve had. We can hardly guess at each other’s secrets, yet we’re all made of the very same material.

George Elliot said of her work that “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves’. This tender habit of compassion appears again, when Dorothea passionately argues with her male relatives, late on in the book, about whether she should make use of her influence to save Lydgate from ruin: ‘What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?’ she demands to know.

In a book that follows the intricacies of failure and the obstacles to redemption, Elliot realised her ambition perfectly. It’s not often a book seems perfect, but this great big unpromising Victorian novel actually is. Also, its 884 pages long, so I didn’t finish it in three days on an island, even with a storm raging outdoors and a hot water bottle and a fire indoors. Those three days, though, were the very best of this winter.

If you’re feeling a lot of sad feelings just now, because it’s the third Monday in January, and we’re never seeing sunlight again, then get thee to an island, throw your phone into the sea on the way over, and remember to take a good book with you. Take Middlemarch. I’ll see you in the Spring, and we can talk about it.


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