What a very strange beginning. For those reading Middlemarch in eight monthly parts, as we are doing here, the Prelude parachutes in a world history at odds with what’s touted on the cover. Who that cares about history has not thought about Saint Theresa toddling off as a child to try and join the Crusades? I mean, who has? This is a bit unexpected.
In the original part issues of the novel from 1871, the pages turned to get to the Prelude might have made this even more surprising. The title vignette captures an engraved view of a distinctively English landscape. A wagon lumbers towards the edge of a town marked by a crenelated church tower and a big house – or perhaps factory; a few figures wander the border between the buildings and the surrounding woodlands. Caught in a circle, the image evokes new ways of seeing and studying life that Eliot refers to throughout the novel. Microscope, telescope, the life that exists in a single drop of water: the front cover of Middlemarch promises a study of quiet provincialism held in place by a meniscus of nostalgia for a certain sort of English life.
The advert on the inside cover for Mr Streeter, goldsmith of Conduit Street, reaches out to readers imagined to aspire to the new ‘machine made’ cheaper luxuries of watches and jewellery, secure, at least in the sense that such portable property could be sold back for cash in an economic downturn. ‘Special Designs for Bridesmaid’s Lockets’, it reads, flagging up all the ritual and expense of the many weddings ceremonies we never actually get to see in the novel. Then, after all this grounding in ivy-twined comfortably unfashionable life, we’re swooped away to Spain in the 1500s and Theresa of Avila drawn into the vast currents of global conflict between Islam and Christianity: Reformation, Inquisition – a life lived to the full in passionate ecstasy, making a mark, for better or for worse, on world history. The Prelude reminds us that a woman’s life can be – and has been – epic.
This book, however, is not an epic. The title, Middlemarch, tells us where we are going to find ourselves: walking round the edge-lands, borders, and ‘marches’ of a middling sort of life, rather than setting off down the road that leads to the foundation of a new order of things. Dorothea – and perhaps, in her own way, Rosamond as we shall discuss later – wants an epic sort of life that takes her away from home towards something bigger and more meaningful. But it’s the wrong time and place, the wrong sort of story too, for that to be possible. The monumental form of the life of a saint is dropped in favour of fairy tale. Dorothea might be fitted to be St Theresa, but in the context of provincial life, she’s just another ugly duckling who never sees the swans flying overhead.
The swans are there all the same.
The world history that the Prelude launches into so abruptly is just the first of many juddering experiments in scale and perspective in the novel. For all that the novel seems to tease with the idea that Middlemarch, the place, is small, distant in time and place, and a bit cut off from the big stories of the world, it reminds us that all is connected. The story of a woman’s lot in provincial England around 1829 is still part of the history of the world, just as the wider currents of global politics, trade, religious conflict, and empire, work their way into life in this town.
Perhaps one of the most useful ways to think about what the Prelude does, then, is in terms of music. Eliot adored music and there has been excellent scholarly work done on its presence in her novels by Delia da Sousa Correa among others. We might think about the Prelude as a short piece which sets up some of the major themes of the text in a loose and expansive way: ambition, the journey of life, passion thwarted, the power of a ‘national idea’, and most of all, a woman’s lot. In its passing glance at epic and fairy tale the Prelude also touches on the question that the narrator throws out at readers across the novel which is one about how we represent and understand the world around ourselves through many different patterns, forms, stories. The eight books of the novel that follow weave together what Eliot originally conceived as two separate narratives – Miss Brooke’s story and that of the young doctor, Lydgate. The novel’s tight patterning of plots and deliberate counterpoint of different choices made in similar circumstances offers an extended fugue to the opening Prelude. The eight books work out the local detail of that expansive swoop of history, telling the story of a world by beginning with a single young woman.