Rohan Maitzen at Open Letters Monthly:
Mead read Middlemarch for the first time when she was seventeen and found it “riveting, from the very first sentence of its first chapter.” Speaking as someone who has assigned Middlemarch to hundreds of students not much older than that, I would say that her reaction is not entirely typical (though speaking as someone who read Middlemarch for the first time at eighteen, loved it, and has been rereading it ever since, at least as often and as appreciatively as Mead, I would also say that I find it entirely credible, and not a little endearing). Many readers approach Middlemarch with trepidation or leave it in frustration.
Not that the novel is not difficult in the way, say, James Joyce’sFinnegans Wake is difficult. It is, as the subtitle promises, “A Study of Provincial Life.” It chronicles the intersecting stories of a range of characters in a small English town on the eve of the 1832 Reform Bill that, by altering the balance of political power in Britain, launched an era of broader reform and modernization. There’s idealistic Dorothea Brooke, whose naïve yearnings for an intellectually significant life blind her to the faults of her unlikely suitor, the pedantic scholar Mr. Casaubon; ambitious Dr. Lydgate, whose hopes to reform his profession are derailed by the limpid blue eyes of the Mayor’s self-centered daughter Rosamond; shrewd, forthright Mary Garth and her faithful but feckless sweetheart Fred Vincy; Mr. Casaubon’s bright but erratic cousin Will Ladislaw, who adores Dorothea, flirts with Rosamond, and struggles to find his place in a rapidly changing world.