Mindfulness and Middlemarch

The equivalence of Middlemarch with any city or town in the 21st century is worth pondering. Eliot constructed an intricate representation of a town in 1830s society, enabling readers to explore that world through the perspectives of different individuals. So much of Middlemarch is equivalent to our own context: a world in the midst of seismic progress, a world where individual pursuits are bound by career, by the ego and even vanity. Arguably, 21st century Britain actively encourages wealth, status, and career achievements. Too often, aspirations outweigh the importance of individual wellbeing, and the wellbeing of society. This is true of Eliot’s Middlemarch, and it is true of our world. 

Lydgate, Middlemarch’s new doctor, is Eliot’s epitome of the pitfalls of professional career. He’s a doctor whose ambitions are shackled by his ego and vanity. Lydgate wants to prove how all matter, or “primitive tissue” as he calls it, is linked. It is a huge question, and it is a question bound in atomic science, ultimately a science beyond Lydgate’s understanding. But he wants to prove his idea because ambition has got the better of him. Status and achievement are the marks, Lydgate believes, of a successful life. But his ambition of pioneering science is limited not only by his ego, but also because his ideas about status and possession completely consume his attention:

“Neither biology nor schemes of reform would lift him above the vulgarity of feeling that there would be an incompatibility in his furniture not being of the best.” 

Page containing pressed flowers with the title clover tuft handwritten. On the left hand side is a postcard of Arbury Hall - George Eliot's Cheveral Manor
Page from scrapbook featuring flowers and plants mentioned in George Eliot’s books.

Isn’t it true that the appearance of success in our material age is bound up in possession? It is as if Eliot is writing about now: our time and our age. How many of us are consumed by the importance of having the very best possessions – the best car? the best phone? To what extent does the need to demonstrate success and status actually prevent us from fulfilling our potential? Eliot asked readers this 150 years ago. 

Lydgate’s consumerism, and his wife Rosamond’s ambition to elevate her status through marriage, make us sympathise with them. Their actions limit their wellbeing: they make each other ill. In turn, their troubles make us, the reader, recognise and feel sympathy for both. Neither are deeply unlikeable, but their faults are laid bare.

Eliot shows us the limit of individuals, and in watching these lives play out – we feel for them. Perhaps this is the greatest magic trick of all: Eliot shows us what we might miss, in our busy lives, if ambition and status predominate. After all, mindful approaches to experience fosters compassion. How is it be possible to show genuine concern for others when our minds are busy with superficial wants? It’s incredible to think that Eliot’s writing not only illuminated what limits individuals, but how we too can better understand our plight and develop compassionate approaches to being alive. 

Toby Keane is our guest curator for our series on Middlemarch.
He lives in Cornwall, and is a writer, teacher and musician.