Book review: Middlemarch (plus The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists)


After listening to the audiobook of Ulysses, and reading War and Peace in print, the last two audiobooks I listened to have also been “classics” that frequently appear on “books to read before you die” lists: The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, and Middlemarch by George Eliot (who was actually a woman named Mary Anne Evans). Both of these, like War and Peace, were highlighted and recommended in Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously.

When it came to The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, I wasn’t that impressed. It’s basically a very long tract on the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism, using an assortment of poverty-stricken workmen as the framing device. It certainly does a very good job of getting its arguments across, but it’s far less effective as a novel. It repeats its messages over and over, and like The Grapes of Wrath, the idea that it’s building towards something is an illusion, as it ultimately goes nowhere satisfying. I found myself turning up the speed on the audiobook as fast as I could without it becoming unintelligible, wanting to finish it as quickly as possible. As it turned out, I could have just given up halfway through and I wouldn’t have missed much.

Middlemarch, however, was a different kettle of fish.

First published in 1871, and set in the 1830s, Middlemarch is the name of a fictional Midlands town where the novel takes place. It opens by introducing a young lady named Dorothea Brooke and – quite naturally for literature of this era – detailing the complications of her prospective love life, with two suitors being interested in her. Not knowing much about the story besides the audiobook’s description, I was a little surprised when before long, it moves away from Dorothea to various other figures in Middlemarch, all of them connected to some degree and all of them with their own difficulties. The style of having this big, interconnected web of characters living in one place, with subplots fuelled by everyday drama and romance, really made Middlemarch feel like a soap opera.

The audiobook, at 35 hours and 40 minutes, is the longest I’ve ever listened to, just beating Under the Dome. (I’m not counting the 71-hour Sherlock Holmes collection as I’ve not listened to all of that, and what I have listened to was in bits.) The narration, by British actress Juliet Stevenson – who I’ve also heard narrate Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South – is especially wonderful. Stevenson is one of those narrators whose character voices are so good – from young women to wheezy old men – that you’re never thinking about the gender of the narrator themselves. Her storytelling talent definitely played a part in making the story seem to go by very quickly; but of course, the quality of the story itself also played a role.

Middlemarch is certainly a much more dynamic work than The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, where nothing of importance ever seemed to happen most of the time. I mostly listen to audiobooks driving to and from work, and with every car journey that was accompanied by Middlemarch, it seemed like something of significance happened: a character’s circumstances changing, or them gaining new information, or something else that would keep the drama going. And said drama gets more and more engaging the more you stick with it. The characters are all deeply flawed and not always likeable – Dorothea becomes one half of an infuriating will-they-won’t-they relationship, fuelled by both sides’ inability to communicate their feelings and knowledge properly with each other – but certainly very interesting, and pleasant enough that you want things to work out for them. Andy Miller had said that the prose could be hard to get through (which was why I chose to listen to it as an audiobook), and it did feel pretty thick at first – but once you get used to it, it really isn’t an obstacle. (Certainly easier going than Ulysses.) By the final third, I was constantly eager to find out what would happen next.

If you like North and South, anything by Jane Austen, or even Downton Abbey, you’d probably enjoy Middlemarch. It’s almost certainly going to be on my Top 10 books for the year.

Anyway, it’s time for a break for classics. I’m reading some non-fiction in print at the moment – and thanks to taking advantage of deals on Audible, I’ve ended up with a backlog of audiobooks to get through!

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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