In its original form, Middlemarch was published in 8 bi-monthly instalments from late 1871, which eventually made a four decker novel – as opposed to the standard three decker, that is three volumes. It was received as one of the great novels almost from the beginning. This rather extended quotation from R H Hutton, a reviewer for the Spectator – though he was far more than just a reviewer – demonstrates how the novel was being received:
We all grumble at Middlemarch; we all say that the action’s slow, that there is too much parade of scientific and especially physiological knowledge in it, that there are turns of phrase which are even pedantic, and that occasionally the bitterness of the commentary on life is almost cynical; but we all read it, and all feel that there is nothing to compare with it appearing at the present moment in the way of English literature, and not a few of us calculate whether we shall get the August number before we go on our autumn holiday, or whether we shall have to wait for it till we return.
The first striking aspect that should be noted is the use of we. Hutton is in no doubt that he is speaking for a whole class and her entire readership – and I have always loved the fact that he used the word grumble. (You might see how this was important to my PhD.) The word is slightly critical but deeply affectionate and there is a sense of ownership about this novel.
I make this point because the novel itself, obviously, hasn’t changed, but how we read it has. We don’t read it in instalments. When reading a physical book, we can judge how much there is to come and how slowly or quickly the plots are progressing, which was not that possible when it arrived in instalments. These rather physical elements mustn’t disguise something much deeper, however, that Hutton focuses on. I doubt that many modern readers, or readers after, say, 1920, would see the bitterness that Hutton identifies in the commentary on life or, indeed, its cynicism. There are barbs in Eliot’s commentary, it is certainly true, but what we now read is an astonishing grasp of human nature in the novel and one that is perhaps sad – there is even compassion for Casaubon – but, above all, forgiving of human nature. We also don’t see that the novel is set in the past in quite the same way. We see it as a novel of Victorian times, that is of the past, but it is actually set in a pre-Victorian world, which was of huge significance as it was forty years before its publication date, and while I would argue that significance, it is largely irrelevant to our reading now.
Of course I don’t see Middlemarch as the greatest 19th century novel – I, perhaps awkwardly for most people – see that as Daniel Deronda, her last novel, but, my goodness, there is nothing like the pleasure of settling down to read either novel again for me. That probably makes me rather sad in turn – but the pleasures those two novels have given me over the years has been almost immeasurable.