A Serial Reading of Middlemarch

Middlemarch Cover

This Newberry Seminar is now concluded. It was held in the fall of 2015.

George Eliot’s celebrated Victorian masterpiece Middlemarch can be daunting to approach. This seminar presents the novel in manageable weekly installments (with no spoilers!) supplemented with shorter works of literature, art, and film. The result is an engaging in-depth look at Eliot’s literary technique as well as her insights into culture, science, art, and psychology. Nine sessions. 

– Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Norton Critical Edition. ISBN 978-0-393-97452-2.
– Other materials will be made available online and brought to the seminar sessions.
– For the first session, please read the novel’s Prelude and Chapter One.

George Eliot’s Middlemarch has been a popular and critical success since its publication in 1872. In fact, it was a success even before its full publication in 1872, since it was serialized in eight monthly installments beginning the year before. Victorian readers of this 800-page work enjoyed and absorbed the story for months, discussing its gradual unfolding with friends and family and anticipating the turns each new installment would take. For this seminar, I’ve drawn on my methods for regularly teaching Middlemarch serially in the undergraduate classroom and developed a schedule of readings, visual images, and film clips for Newberry Seminar participants.

Eliot divided Middlemarch into eight “books” of approximately 110 pages each, and these installments naturally form the framework of the seminar readings. For each of the weekly sessions (beginning with the second), we will primarily discuss the features, plot developments, and specific themes of the installment at hand. I will also provide shorter works of Victorian literature and make use of a/v equipment to show images and film clips specifically related to the features and issues of each installment. For example, Book 2 finds two of the central characters on their honeymoon in Rome, and to supplement the novel’s masterful depictions of history, hope, art, and memory, our seminar will read excerpts from other Victorian writers, including Tennyson and Barrett Browning, and look at some of the paintings, sculpture, and architecture mentioned in Eliot’s text.

In this way, seminar participants are able to build an ongoing dialogue with a tremendous amount of material regarding Eliot’s novel and Victorian culture, including the material found in the Newberry’s Victorian and George Eliot collections. My students and I have found that this kind of dialogue simply isn’t available to readers who wait to finish a novel before linking it to other material. Serial reading invites more consideration and commentary on specific issues, recurring images, opinions that evolve over the course of reading, and even favorite lines. Moreover, since all good novels actually teach readers how to read them, installments allow readers to benefit from this early and make use the teaching when it counts—while reading. As the installments progress, readers naturally pick up on more details, and discussion becomes distributed among a broader variety of voices as readers gaining confidence in their reactions are prompted to contribute.

Each seminar session will also include discussion of where we think the story is going—and why. This invites readers to consider not only where the plot is going but how the novelist enlists plot and character to make statements and ask questions about human nature. A particular character’s fate, for example, not only reflects what would happen to a “real person,” but also begins to be seen in light of the novel’s developing themes. In concluding each session, I will offer suggestions (while avoiding spoilers) for upcoming plot points and issues that readers should keep an eye on. I will also indicate specific “must-read” portions of each installment in case a seminar participant is pressed for time but still wants to keep up and appreciate the flow of the novel.

To be read ahead of time: The novel’s prelude and chapter one.
Theme: Why read serially?

Book One: Miss Brooke (5-78)
Theme: Eliot’s philosophy of the web

Book Two: Old and Young (79-144)
Theme: Art, memory, and hope

Book Three: Waiting for Death (145-200)
Theme: Victorian science

Book Four: Three Love Problems (201-266)
Theme: Victorian poetry, part one

Book Five: The Dead Hand (267-330)
Theme: Women in the Victorian era

Book Six: The Widow and the Wife (331-93)
Theme: Getting personal (some discussion of George Eliot’s own life)

Book Seven: Two Temptations (395-451)
Theme: Victorian poetry, part two

Book Eight: Sunrise and Sunset (and Finale) (453-515)
Theme: Adaptations and criticism

Recommended Internet Resources and Further Readings
BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History

The Victorian Web

Victorian Serial Novels

The British Library: Discovering Literature: Romantics and Victorians

The George Eliot Fellowship

Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot: A Life. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans: George Eliot, Her Letters and Fiction. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994.

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2012.

Haight, Gordon S. George Eliot: A Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Mead, Rebecca. My Life in Middlemarch. New York: Broadway Books, 2015.

Image credit: http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/art/middlemarch.html