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Now I want to re-read Middlemarch

August 9, 2007

A. S. Byatt’s shower of praise in the Guardian won’t shed any new insight into Eliot’s Middlemarch, but it will remind you why “It is possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel.”

When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work – as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise – not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. Here is Casaubon, having just been told he is mortally ill: “When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die – and soon’, then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.”

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