If the opinion of author Diana Preston were to be asked, she would make Middlemarch, a novel by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), compulsory reading.
She is not the only one to have been fascinated by the riveting story set in 19th Century England, when the Reforms Bill and the Railways were threatening to change the landscape, both physical and psychological, of the country amid stiff resistance. The acclaimed Virginia Wolf too had lauded the novel as one written for “grown up people”.
The book was also polled by writers, in January 2007, as one of ‘The 10 Greatest Books of All Time’.
No wonder then that the book has been converted into film, television and theatrical versions. But the best adaptation is probably BBC’s 1994 period drama series that was directed by Anthony Page and scripted by the familiar Andrew Davies.
Middlemarch is clearly not a run of the mill story with a social butterfly on a hunt for a rich beau, something which was a pivotal mission of young beauties in that period. Instead the novel, based in a fictitious provincial town of Middlemarch, has Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey), an earnest young woman yearning to devote her life to some great service of God. As an “ideal Christian” of the 1830s, she drafts schemes to build homes for the impoverished tenants of her landowner uncle Mr Brooke (Robert Hardy), and seeks ways to ameliorate the poverty of the downtrodden. Unfortunately, her ideas are dismissed outright by her Uncle and the only taker of her plans seems to be Sir James Chettam (Julian Wadham). His interest clearly is not so much in improving the lot of the poor as in putting a wedding band around Dorothea’s pretty finger.
But he fails as Dorothea picks a much older and staid, Reverend Edward Casaubon (Patrick Malahide), who is engaged in a fantastical mission to write a book on the key to all mythologies. On first impressions, the work captures the young lady’s imagination and she willingly accepts the hand of Casaubon, thinking she would be able to put her education to enormous good by helping her husband, who would in turn enlighten her about the great theories of life.
The picture perfect vision of her future is soon shattered, as she finds her husband unemotional and unresponsive. Worse, he isn’t the intellectual blaze she had imagined him to be. He has been struggling with his work, which seems to have lost focus and direction. Incidentally, she meets Casaubon’s young cousin Will Ladislaw (Rufus Sewell), who is seemingly good for nothing, but actually immensely talented and refreshingly engaging.
Despite Dorothea’s noblest intentions, the marriage is strained, and one can pick some undertones of jealous rage in the clergyman. He dies soon after, but not without putting Dorothea in a bind with a rider in his will that she would have to abdicate all her rights to his property, should she ever plan to marry Ladislaw. The provision does huge disservice to Dorothea’s untainted devotion to her husband by putting her character and intentions under question.
In the parallel runs the story of young and dynamic doctor Tertius Lydgate(Douglas Hodge), who is intelligent and avant garde, but brusque in his manners. His firebrand ideas about how medical practices must be conducted don’t go down well with the old lot and he makes several enemies. He however holds attraction for the most beautiful maiden in town, Rosamond Vincy (Trevyn McDowell), for whom he falls for in no time. But the vain young thing dislikes her husband’s profession and shares none of his idealism. For her, life must be a sweet song, full of well connected relatives, expensive gifts and music.
As the plot progresses, Lydgate finds marriage is not a bed of roses. He, however, is still smitten by his lady whose extravagant ways are turning him bankrupt. Lydgate’s desperation for money slowly brings a slow transformation in his personality, and he takes to gambling and borrowing money, things that he would have typically found despicable. Rosamond, on the other hand, comes across as someone who is self-centred and manipulative, not worthy of the trust of her husband. She is insensitive to her husband’s position or feelings, and does only what she sets her mind to, even if it causes acute embarrassment to Lydgate and harms her as well.
Meanwhile, Will Ladislaw places himself in the service of Dorothea’s uncle as an editor of a paper promoting Mr Brooke’s candidacy for Parliament on back of the Reforms Bill. He slowly begins to find his feet in public life, but all the while lives in the neighbourhood mainly to be in the close vicinity of Dorothea. While he makes no overt references, and seems to be spending a lot of time with Rosamond singing duets, he actually has a deep and hidden love for Dorothea.
Middlemarch has a wide span and several other characters like Rosamond’s brother Fred Vincy (Jonathan Firth), his childhood sweetheart Mary Garth (Rachel Power), and a bishop, as devoted to humanism as to divinity, Rev. Farebrother (Simon Chandler). Then there is Mr Bulstrode (Peter Jeffrey) who is probably one of the richest men in Middlemarch, and to whom half the town owes debt. But his antecedent is unknown as are the sources from which he made money.
All loose strings of the story are tied with the entry of a drifter Raffles (John Savident), who is a former partner of Bulstrode and knows all about his dark past and how he through unfair means, acquired his wealth. After long years Raffles is now back and threatening to spill the beans on him unless Bulstrode keeps putting money in his way. Busltrode does not know how to get rid of this albatross and in some manner hastens his death. Raffle’s sudden passing away after a brief illness sets tongues wagging about Bulstrode’s role, as also the complicity of Lydgate, who has been extended a loan by the former to settle some pressing debts.
In the meantime, Dorothea develops a misunderstanding about Will and Rosamond. This devastates Will so much that he confesses of his love for Dorothea in an outburst to Rosamond, thus clearing any misconception that she may have been harbouring about the charm she holds for him.
At the end, Dorothea bails outs Lydgate by offering him money to payback Bulstrode, thus redeeming his reputation. Bulstrode leaves town, and hands over his estate to his nephew Fred Vincy, who makes a success of it and thereby wins the hand of his beloved Mary. Will Ladislaw hears about Casaubon’s will and determines to leave Middlemarch forever. But he meets Dorothea for that one last time. On a dark stormy evening, passions abound. Dorothea and Will can hold back no longer; she gives up her status and money and assents to marrying him despite her family’s strong reservations.
Will eventually becomes a MP and Dorothea happily accepts her position as his subordinate in all that he does, but never loses her zeal to good to those who are in need.
In the cleverly crafted story, Eliot drives home some points about real life. The episodes in the lives of her characters relate to all of us through ages; the non-existence of a perfect marriage, class struggle, resistance to change and the power of love.
The seven episodes do full justice to the ambience and characterization, and thankfully, remain loyal to the original story to a large extent, not taking too many liberties in the name of artistic license and thus ruining the plot, as happens so very often.
Juliet Aubrey as Dorthea and Douglas Hodge as Lydgate are brilliant. Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond and Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw are convincing; and one of England’s most successful actors Robert Hardy is endearing as Mr Brooke.
Juliet won the BAFTA’s best actress award for her performance and also picked the Broadcasting Press Guild Award for the same category. This Masterpiece Theatre Production was adjudged BBC Programme of the Year by Television and Radio Industries Club Awards.
There are two areas in the drama version which left me wanting for more. As per the book, Dorothea is the prime character and probably Lydgate the close second. In the adaptation though, Lydgate hogs most of the limelight. But probably the character who is most shortchanged is that of Will Ladislaw. The drama series does not pay much attention to his growth, as was intended in the novel. Nor is it able to depict the depth of his love for Dorthea. It misses out on finer details about how Will Ladislaw is the one that Bulstrode deprived of his rightful inheritance, and how he rejects an offer of money as compensation because he feels Dorothea will never approve of ill-gotten wealth.
The climax is perhaps the most disappointing. Not a single dialogue is exchanged between the two when Dorothea agrees to succumb to Will’s love.
In the original story, there is an intense ambience to this high point of the narrative. Ladislaw proposes in the same library where the stiff Casaubon used to resist his cousin’s presence in their lives. The stormy weather, the beating rain, the pauses in passionate moments, their close proximity, the dread of the uncertain future, the horror of their torn hearts and lives, and the final submission to each other. None of this is shown in the adaptation and one truly misses out on the finale that Eliot weaved for us.
Well, now news has it that BBC is planning another adaptation of the novel this year with screenplay by Andrew Davies again, but direction by Sam Mendes. Let’s hope this time the series is even better than the last one, which was undeniably good to say the least!