Following my bad tempered post after my last holiday I thought that I better try and say something a bit more positive this time.
I’ve just returned from a brilliant week in rural and coastal Lincolnshire. You really should try it sometime. It is a fantastic place and hardly anyone goes there for holidays (except for Skeggy of course where we spent a day and ate some top fish and chips).
Anyway, enough tour guiding from me.
One of the great things about a week away is that you get to do some of that reading that you never get round to at home. I tend to find I spend most of my time reading things about career development when I’m at work so I rarely read novels these days.
As I’m fond of telling everyone I’ve got two degrees in English literature and that this pretty much cured me of literature. These days I tend to avoid anything highbrow if at all possible. However, a few people have mentioned Middlemarch to me recently and I started to feel like I might be missing out. I found an unread copy on the shelf (presumably purchased for an undergraduate seminar that I missed) and took it away with me.
So 800 pages later I was pretty impressed. While it isn’t a pacey novel (did I mention the 800 pages?) it does have a lot in it that interested me. Key features that I liked were the way that both slow moving social and cultural change and faster moving political change (around the Great Reform Act) are woven into the novel. This is a book that takes context seriously. Individual characters are subordinate in importance to the overarching portrayal of society life around an industrialising provincial town. I also like the fact that at least two of the characters are bitter would be intellectuals who are aware of their own inability to live up to what they perceive to be their own potential. Schadenfreude or simply looking into a mirror – sometimes it is difficult to tell.
Of course what I liked most, and I suspect why others recommended it to me, was the strong career development element in the book. The novel charts the careers of a number of its characters showing the limitations of their personal agency in realising their career aspirations. Characters deploy intelligence, wealth, power and attractiveness with varying degrees of skill but are constrained by concerns about reputation, lack of financial resources and gender, race and class. Even the apparently wealthy world of Middlemarch has highly limited opportunity structures for many if not all of its characters.
At the heart of the novel is a depiction of class conflict between landed aristocracy and rising bourgeoisie. The former have cultural hegemony while the latter have financial resources. The careful dances that they do around each other provides enormous insights into the way in which a new ruling class came into being in the early nineteenth century.
There is so much in the novel that I could keep going. But, I won’t. Suffice to say I got more out of this than I anticipated. Pack it in your suitcase next time you have a (very) long journey.