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When I moved to Coventry in the hot summer of 1976 to begin my curacy in Coventry East Team Ministry and Parish, I was rather chuffed to learn that I would be living in a street named after one of England’s greatest novelists. The curate’s house – traditional terrace housing – was once owned by a certain Miss Shakespeare, so a literary theme was already established.

My house – 58 George Eliot Road – was situated in the middle of the street. However, only a minute’s walk away, on the opposite side, was a large house not far from the junction with Foleshill Road. On the door it advertised ‘sitar lessons’ which reflected the ethnic and religious diversity of the area. I later discovered that this property was indeed Bird Grove, the house that George Eliot moved to with her father after the death of her mother and the marriage of her brother.

Although I was aware of the literary reputation of George Eliot (whose bicentenary occurs in November this year) as a schoolboy, it was only in 1984, during a short stay in hospital in Birmingham, that I first read
Middlemarch . It proved to be both joy and a revelation and spurred me on to read some of her earlier works such as Scenes of Clerical Life , The Mill on the Floss and Silas Marner .

Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life (to give the work its full title) has, since its publication, steadily garnered critical praise and rightly so. In The Great Tradition , the critic F.R. Leavis talks about Eliot as having “rediscovered” the novel, observing:

“The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious... the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live... a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

More recently, both Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have described the work as perhaps the greatest novel in the English language. Personally, I do not dissent from these assessments. This is an extraordinary work on so many levels, even transcending the achievements of such literary titans as Austen, Dickens and Trollope.

Eliot’s view of the world is densely layered and multi-valent. Like all great art, it allows us to see life from a wide variety of perspectives. But Eliot's achievement goes deeper still for she is able in
Middlemarch to weave the latter into a coherent and meaningful narrative which is simultaneously satisfying and cautionary. Her formidable intellect, not to mention her dissenting instincts in both religious belief and sexual attitudes, serve her well in this project. However, Eliot is never just a mere observer of events or personalities. Despite delineating the foibles of her characters with wry humour, she engages with them nonetheless in a genuinely compassionate and sympathetic way.

A ‘must read’? Certainly!


Book of the Month

George Eliot