Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot was published first as a serial and then in book form in 1872. Fortunately, two centuries and change later, in 1994, Andrew Davies (best known for his Jane Austen adaptations, including Season 1 of Sanditon, and 1995's Pride & Prejudice) was around to achieve the daunting task of adapting Middlemarch as a series for the BBC, featuring an accomplished cast, with direction by Anthony Page, and the superb costume designs of Anushia Nieradzik (Belle).
Miss Brooke ... was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.
Filmed in Stamford, Lincolnshire, and at several historic locations, and with a sequence in Rome, the series has a depth and thoughtfulness that pay tribute to Eliot and her masterpiece. We enter deeply into the lives of families throughout the social spectrum, as Eliot portrays the town of Middlemarch as a microcosm of an England on the brink of change. If ever a series was crying out for restoration, this is it –– the color is faded, and although the main musical theme is splendid, there’s a bit too much of it resurrected as incidental music. As for the acting, there isn’t a weak link, with some (then) newcomers as well as respected names from the past.
Middlemarch is set in the late 1820s, a time of massive progress, unrest, and political change. Both Peterloo (1819) and even the French Revolution of a generation earlier, are still fresh in people’s memories. There is industrial unrest, demands for universal suffrage (for men), and growing support for the abolition movement, all heading for the successful passages of the 1832 Reform Bill and the Slavery Abolition Act in the following year. For Eliot and her audience, it was looking back to the times just before the creation of the modern age, when nothing was ever the same again. You see this immediately in the title footage of the series with a brief glimpse of the construction of the railway system, as a stagecoach drives by. Very soon, horse-drawn long distance travel will become obselete.
Meanwhile, a younger generation of Middlemarch inhabitants are searching for their places and vocations in this changing world. Dorothea Brooke (Juliet Aubrey, who rightly won a BAFTA for her performance) is an unconventional, serious young woman who wants more than a comfortable provincial life and is troubled by her privileged position. Her sister Celia (Caroline Harker, Mothering Sunday) and their ridiculous uncle Arthur Brooke (Robert Hardy, the original Siegfried Farnon of All Creatures Great and Small) tolerate her attempts to improve the lives of the less fortunate, but they don’t really take her seriously.
Neighbor Sir James Chettam (Julian Wadham, The English Patient) is interested in her plans for rebuilding laborers’ cottages, and we can see he’s in love with her; who wouldn’t be? Wisely, he backs off and chooses the more conventional Celia for his wife. Against a background of gossip and speculation, the stories of people in the town unfold, and we’re right there with them, fingers crossed, and hoping things will work out for (most of) them. It’s rare to find a series where our feelings and thoughts are so engaged.
Dorothea makes the mistake of her life when her uncle invites a middle-aged neighbor to dine, the scholarly, ascetic Edward Casaubon (Patrick Malahide, Balon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones), and she is dazzled by his learning. All too aware of the limitations placed upon her own academic aspirations, she fantasizes that she can make her mark in the world as his helpmeet in his life’s work on the origins of all mythologies. Celia is shocked, and so are Chettam and most of their landowner neighbors.
Brooke, an eternal hobbyist, a dilettante who claims that he has “looked into” a myriad of academic subjects and who lacks the backbone to make a stand on anything, allows the marriage to take place. When Casaubon shows Dorothea his house, he introduces her briefly to his nephew Will Ladislaw (Rufus Sewell, in his breakout role), a young man with bohemian and radical leanings searching for a profession.
Dorothea and Casaubon honeymoon in Rome, and it’s an unhappy time. She realizes that her dreams of learning will not come about, and when she urges her husband to put together his years of research and write his masterpiece, we realize it’s never going to happen (and we learn that the topic is obsolete, having been exhausted by European scholars). Will, also in Rome, introduces them to his artist friend, who persuades Casaubon to pose for a portrait of Sir Thomas Aquinas while ogling Dorothea. Will, uncomfortable, pretends he isn’t.
Back in Middlemarch, we meet the Vincy family. Mr. Vincy (Stephen Moore) is the mayor of Middlemarch, and although he and his wife’s lowly origins are revealed by their accents, their children Fred (Jonathan Firth, Colin’s younger brother) and Rosamund (Trevyn McDowell) are making the climb into the middle class. Fred has been to Oxford and is preparing to take the necessary examinations for a career in the church. He expects to inherit land from an elderly relative, Peter Featherstone (Michael Hordern), who is dying, surrounded by a clutch of black-clad relatives waiting to see what they’ll get.
Fred is wasting time, playing billiards and cards, and making some very bad decisions regarding buying horses. In debt, he borrows from the Garth family, hard-working and honorable middling people, and finds himself unable to pay them back. It’s a disaster for the Garths, who lent him money to be used for an apprenticeship for one of their sons, and Fred has to approach their daughter Mary (Rachel Power), who is nursing Featherstone, to help him pay his debt. Mary, sharp-tongued and principled, is in love with Fred but knows him too well. Their relationship suffers; Mary is angry and resentful, and Fred guilty and shamed. He becomes seriously ill, and that’s when Dr. Tertius Lydgate ((Douglas Hodge) becomes involved with the Vincy family.
A newcomer with aristocratic connections, Lydgate is aware of the opportunities the modern age brings and believes Middlemarch’s new hospital will establish the town. He is passionate about science, but the other residents are unhappy about his enthusiasm for autopsies (one step away from grave-robbing!), his upper-class entitlement, and his contempt for old-fashioned medicine. For all his superiority and knowledge, he is not prepared for the spoiled, pretty Rosamund Vincy, the belle of Middlemarch, and before he knows it, he’s married, having sex (thank you, Andrew Davies), and spending money like there’s no tomorrow.
Lydgate despises the town politics in which he is forced to participate as part of his hospital service and makes an enemy of influential town banker Bulstrode. It’s Bulstrode who, to the Vincy family’s disappointment, inherits Featherstone’s property after a second, later will was made, leaving Fred to find another purpose in life and a profession. Mary was asked by Featherstone to destroy the revised will, and refused to do so, acting on principle and the practical consideration that Fred is too much of a lightweight to take on any responsibility. Lydgate, finding himself in severe financial difficulties, consults Bulstrode, who tells him to declare bankruptcy.
Dorothea’s uncle takes a liking to Ladislaw, whom he appoints as newspaper editor, as Brooke decides to run for Parliament. It is disastrous due to Brooke’s lack of common sense and understanding and his reputation as one of the worst landlords in the area. His jocular, informal style of address does not lend itself to public speaking, particularly after a few glasses of wine. He emerges from the first speech of the campaign covered in eggs thrown by a jeering crowd and takes himself off to France to recover. But it plants the idea in Will’s mind that he should run for Parliament and plans for London when his employment ends (Brooke fires him).
Dorothea and Casaubon are both unhappy, and he becomes jealous of Will’s interest in her. His health is failing, and he dies outside in the garden, with only his notebooks for company. Dorothea is overcome with guilt and shame as she realizes he specified that if she married Will, she was to be disinherited. Meanwhile, Rosamund Vincy is relying on Will a bit too much for solace and fun, and Lydgate, dealing alone with his financial situation, is jealous and unhappy. So is Dorothea, having walked in on them, but she and Rosamund reconcile.
Now she’s a rich woman, she realizes she can do some good by paying off Lydgate’s debts. She also offers the living vacated by Casaubon’s death to the Reverend Farebrother (Simon Chandler), an impecunious but charming vicar who supplements his meager income by winning at cards and billiards. Farebrother is yet another candidate for Mary Garth’s hand and selflessly acts as a go-between to assure her of Fred’s sincerity in a tender and heartbreaking scene. We also learn that the upright and pious Bulstrode made his money in London dealing in stolen goods, which comes as a bit of a surprise, but he and his wife quietly disappear from the town.
I think it’s the only wrong note in the novel, but in one painful scene, we see Mrs. Bulstrode (Rosemary Martin) in her shift, removing her jewelry as she abandons her life of prosperity and respect.
Dorothea agrees to marry Will and become a politician’s wife in London, choosing comparative poverty and love. She doesn’t make her mark on the world, nor does Lydgate, who sells out his ideals for a fashionable practice. It’s tempting to play around with alternate endings: What if Dorothea had married Lydgate, for instance? Would they have become Middlemarch’s power couple? And you can’t help but feel that, in some ways, Dorothea has more in common with her profligate uncle Brooke, who looks into many things but can’t commit to one cause.
At the end of the series, Judi Dench’s voiceover includes these words from the end of the novel:
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Middlemarch is currently streaming on BritBox.