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Middlemarch: The Fresher's Manual to Tackle Loneliness?

If Eliot’s novel can bring comfort to a nervous Fresher at a Bristol club 150 years after it was published, that surely makes it ‘universal’.

By Amaya Lewis-Patel, English and Classical Studies

THE CROFT/I can’t stop boasting to everyone that I have finally finished George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It seemed like something that I ‘should’ read (and would have to at some point anyway, as an English student). When I saw the book in its physical form, all 864 pages of it, I wondered if people call it the ‘Great English Novel’ because of any virtue of its own, or due to its sheer size (a problem which I’m sure anyone who has ventured to read the novel will relate to).

However, a few pages into meeting Dorothea Brooke, alienatingly devout yet
endearingly naïve and genuine, I (in cliché fashion) didn’t see reading it as an
effort but a pleasure. What struck me most is the detailed and realistic way Eliot
presents the intricacies of human relationships, even through her small
repertoire of main characters. Her motif of society as a ‘web’ shows the
interconnectivity of rural and urban, old and new, gentry and working class in
Middlemarch, a town where everybody is somehow linked, and truly no man is an

Reading Middlemarch through Freshers Week caused the habitual loneliness that
comes from immersion in such a rich array of characters. I felt somewhat adrift:
how could they be so integrated into the world around them, while I feel newly
alone and lost? Opening the novel became a painful and unpleasant reminder of
what I viewed as an isolation unique to me, and I silently cursed Eliot for
misrepresenting life in the adult world. How had the newcomer Lydgate managed
to integrate himself into the insular society of Middlemarch and yet, amongst
thousands of other new students, I feared I would never find friends like those
from back home.

©Amaya Lewis-Patel

On a night out at the end of the week, however, I found myself bumping
unexpectedly into familiar faces, introducing flatmates to coursemates to schoolmates, discovering mutual acquaintances. Coming back to the book the
next day, I finally recognised that Eliot was right all along: like her characters, I
felt I was at the centre of a web of people who I could join together, and each of
these people is at the centre of their own web. In fact, each of our webs are
merely connected parts of a global web with infinite connections – we are
individual strings which cross and tangle to form the whole. The metaphor may
be somewhat obvious and overused, but the comfort I felt from realizing the
truth of it and seeing myself within this interdependent system was, in that
moment, overwhelming.

Eliot humbly states that she only has the power to focus on ‘this particular web’
of Middlemarch, not ‘that tempting range of relevancies called the universe’, but
in fact the novel’s scope extends beyond its characters. If Eliot’s novel can bring
comfort to a nervous Fresher at a Bristol club 150 years after it was published,
that surely makes it ‘universal’. She shows that it is not through the sterile ‘what
course do you do’ conversations, but through coincidences and chance meetings
– like Dorothea seeing Will in an art gallery, or Rosamund meeting Lydgate as he
cares for her sick brother – that we find kindred spirits. Through this, we feel like
we are an integral of our particular web of university life, and university as a whole.

Feature Image: Prateek Katyal via Unsplash

Did you read any texts in fresher's week that helped ease your experience?