Self-help books. You could fill a library with them and still it would contain only a fraction of the titles published. Every five minutes there seems to be a new self-help guru promising to change your life and make you happy. And yet there are single paragraphs in George Elliot's great novel Middlemarch which are worth hundreds of those latter-day gospels. These gems of insight and beauty arrest your mind and make you reread and pause to contemplate. They offer profound insights into morality, human character, life and metamorphosis.
Middlemarch is not an edge-of-your-seat kind of read. Rather, it is loving study of human character. You walk in many different shoes, seeing people and events through the eyes of disparate people. You understand their motivations, their weaknesses, their strengths, the unique mix of traits which colour their outlook. And in so doing, you see them and their lot as they see it themselves, not as an observer would see it, coloured with their own prejudice. Most touching of all are the depictions of the relationship between husband and wife. Through this most intimate and effecting partnership, a character's strengths, weaknesses and habitual modes of thought and action are put into sharp relief. Casaubon, with his cold intellectualism and feeble, hesitating ways, causes Dorothea pain and cages her, too, in the grey, musty little world he occupies. Likewise, shallow, subtly egotistical Rosamond shackles poor Dr Lydgate to the pretty, pointless circle of her narrow interests. A truly loving spouse elevates their mate, while a weak, selfish one acts as a millstone around the neck, weighing down their mate so they never soar as they might have.
"Lydgate had accepted his narrowed lot with sad resignation. He had chosen this fragile creature, and had taken the burden of her life upon his arms. He must walk as he could, carrying that burden pitifully."
Poor Lydgate! What woman can read of his plight and not wish to have been to him the wife that Rosamond was not? And yet, however weak Rosamond was, we can still understand and sympathize with her a little. Who has not felt that the selfish joy of having might be greater than the rewards of scarifying? With Middlemarch, we can feel that every human life has worth. We can look upon it with understanding, and forgive, and love. And we can feel, too, that great nobility, that worthy achievement, is often a hidden thing which lives and dies noticed by only a few, as Dorothea did.
"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."
What better answer to today's celebrity and success-obsessed culture can we have, than this voice of wisdom which echoes to us from the past?
(All images are from the 1994 TV drama Middlemarch)