Why Victorian novels are so damn wordy

ringsI just finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Now I understand why it’s considered one of the greatest of the Victorian novels. A hefty tome of nearly 800 pages, Middlemarch explores society, marriage, and individual life in a small Midland, English town.

The cast of characters is extensive and from every layer of the social strata, their interior lives rich with nuance and contraditions, the exterior landscape always lovely and relevant to the characters’ frame of mind. 

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the plot or cast of characters (Wikipedia has a good description of both). I will say that what’s remarkable about Middlemarch is the incredible depth of its characters, and how spot-on George Eliot is on a variety of human experiences and weaknesses, from marriage and family to gambling and gossip.

In this pre-Freudian era, Eliot (whose real name was Mary Anne Evans) understands the human heart better than any therapist (or priest I’d wager) of the modern era.  Her syntax sings, and while descriptions of her characters’ mental and emotional states may require effort on the reader’s part, the gift is in Eliot’s incredible insights.

Take for example, the default heroine, Dorthea Brook whose high ideals and passion for a soulful life lead her to marry a Casaubon. She mistakes this cranky, puckered up wannabe philosopher/author for her soulmate.

Casaubon soon shows his true colors and the dutiful Dorthea is stifled until his untimely death of a heart condition. But Dorothea has already met her true love and soulmate in Will Laidslaw, a man equal to her integrity but with dubious parentage and beneath her in social stature. 

Unfortunately, Casaubon had made an addendum to his will that voids Dorothea’s inheritance of his estate if she marries Laidslaw. Noble Dorothea renounces material wealth in favor of true love. But a grave misunderstanding precedes this decision. (Dorothea wrongly believes Will to love Rosamund, a beautiful, but superficial and deeply unhappy woman due to her misguided marriage to Dr. Lydgate.)  Eliot describes Dorothea alone in her room, in what can only be her darkest hour:  

 In that hour she repeated what the merciful eyes of solitude have looked on for ages in the spiritual struggles of man–she besought hardness and coldness and aching weariness to bring her relief from the mysterious incorporeal might of her anguish: she lay on the bare floor and let the night grow cold all around her; while her grand woman’s frame was shaken by sobs as if she had been a despairing child.  

Too wordy? Perhaps. And yet, Eliot’s writing quivers with truth and unveils the human soul in all its complexity, while still managing to uphold its mystery. Middlemarch is art at its best. Give it a read; if the going gets rough, hang in there. The last paragraph alone is worth the journey.


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