Diana Athill: Middlemarch by George Eliot

This month the editor, novelist and memoirist Diana Athill has kindly chosen a book for us: Middlemarch by George Eliot. She writes:

The book that has meant most to me is Middlemarch by George Eliot.  It takes a bit of patient getting into, but once there you are in a real world – a real world full of real people. You are taken back not only into a few past lives, but the stories of four or five sets of people, which interlock but are very different from each other. I remember when I first read Middlemarch and saw that I was getting near to its end I felt really sad – I didn’t want to leave that world! George Eliot understood people incredibly well, and it is almost uncanny how she can draw one into their lives. For instance, although at the time when she lived people simply didn’t write openly about sex (a word which I doubt that she ever put on paper), when poor foolish Dorothea discovers what a terrible mistake she has made in marrying Casaubon, that sad, dry old stick of a man, one understands perfectly well that her disappointment is not just because he is intellectually less grand than she had believed – one understands it better than innocent Dorothea understands it herself! Of course a great many other people have loved and admired this novel (even thought it the greatest of all English novels) – but I remember that I myself steered away from it for many years, for some reason expecting it to be worthy but dull, so that when finally, and rather unwillingly, I picked it up, it came as a glorious surprise.  I expect it will have the same effect on many other people.

Athill’s latest book, Alive, Alive Oh!: And Other Things That Matter, was published by Granta in November last year.


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