George Eliot’s Middlemarch Gets Reborn as a 21st Century Web Series: Watch It Online

In 1856, nov­el­ist George Eliot—real name Mary Anne Evans—issued a vicious cri­tique of oth­er women Eng­lish writ­ers in lan­guage we would expect from the most self-sat­is­fied of misog­y­nists, a group of peo­ple with an unqual­i­fied monop­oly on the cul­ture, but who had very lit­tle new to say on the sub­ject. But Eliot cer­tain­ly did, in “Sil­ly Nov­els by Lady Nov­el­ists.” Though she couch­es many of her crit­i­cal obser­va­tions in the con­de­scend­ing vocab­u­lary of a male antag­o­nist, the lan­guage only serves to make her argu­ment more effec­tive. The essay, writes Kathryn Schulz, “does a remark­able num­ber of things deft­ly and all at once.”

Although she is an uncom­mon­ly com­pas­sion­ate writer, Eliot has knife skills when she needs them, and the most obvi­ous thing she does here is chif­fon­ade the chick lit of her day. Yet even while cas­ti­gat­ing some women, she man­ages to cham­pi­on women as a whole. Her chief objec­tion to sil­ly nov­els is that they mis­rep­re­sent women’s real intel­lec­tu­al capac­i­ty; and the chief blame for them, she argues, lies not with their authors but with the ­cul­ture that pro­duced them—through inad­e­quate edu­ca­tion, low expec­ta­tions, patron­iz­ing crit­ics, and fear of the real deal.

The fault, she assert­ed, lies with the gate­keep­ers, the tastemak­ers, the lazy thinkers. Though an accom­plished essay­ist and trans­la­tor, Eliot would only pub­lish her first nov­el in 1859, at the age of 37. But “Sil­ly Nov­els by Lady Nov­el­ists,” writes Schulz, “traces out in neg­a­tive space, the con­tours of a tru­ly great novel”—one that wouldn’t arrive until four­teen years lat­er: Mid­dle­march: a study of provin­cial life. (Read online or down­load in var­i­ous for­mats here.)

The book’s first chap­ter intro­duces Dorothea Brooke, a well-off 19-year old orphan—who, writes Pamela Erens, “has dreams of doing some great work in the world” but gives her life instead to “dry humor­less pedant” Casaubon—with an iron­ic quote from the licen­tious Jacobean play The Maid’s Tragedy: “Since I can do no good because a woman, / Reach con­stant­ly at some­thing that is near it.”

As with the pen name she adopt­ed, Eliot appro­pri­at­ed the armor of a male-dom­i­nat­ed cul­ture to bring into being some of the most stag­ger­ing­ly insight­ful writ­ing of the time, and a bea­con to oth­er great women writ­ers. “What do I think of Mid­dle­march?,” wrote Emi­ly Dick­in­son, “What do I think of glory?—except that in a few instances ‘this mor­tal has already put on immor­tal­i­ty.’” Vir­ginia Woolf pro­nounced the book “one of the few Eng­lish nov­els writ­ten for grown-up peo­ple.” Num­ber twen­ty-one on The Guardian’s list of “The 100 Best Nov­els,” Mid­dle­march, writes Robert McCrum, exerts “an almost hyp­not­ic pow­er over its read­ers…. Today it stands as per­haps the great­est of many great Vic­to­ri­an nov­els.”

Do we have the time or the atten­tion to read Eliot’s sprawl­ing 900-page real­ist epic in the 21st cen­tu­ry? Giv­en that Karl Ove Knaus­gaard’s 3,600 page, six-part auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal nov­el, My Strug­gle, is one of the most laud­ed lit­er­ary works of the past few years, per­haps we do. More specif­i­cal­ly, in the lan­guage of many a con­de­scend­ing crit­ic of today, do “Mil­len­ni­als” have the time and atten­tion to read Mid­dle­march? At least a cer­tain con­tin­gent of young read­ers has not only read the nov­el, but has adapt­ed it into a sev­en­ty-episode web dra­ma, Mid­dle­march: The Series—an “attempt worth watch­ing,” writes Rebec­ca Mead at The New York­er, “for its ambi­tion as well as its charm.”

Writ­ten and direct­ed by Yale under­grad­u­ate film stu­dent Rebec­ca Shoptaw, the series stars sev­er­al of Shoptaw’s peers “as stu­dents at Low­ick Col­lege, in the fic­tion­al town of Mid­dle­march, Con­necti­cut,” and it tran­scribes the novel’s form into that most 21st cen­tu­ry of medi­ums, the vlog. You can see the offi­cial teas­er at the top of the post; watch the first episode just above, intro­duc­ing Yale stu­dent Mia Fowler as Dot Brooke; and see the full series, thus far, down below. (The show has already won awards and recog­ni­tion from sev­er­al film fes­ti­vals. See “air dates” and more on its busy Tum­blr page.)

Up to now, notes Mead, Eliot’s fic­tion has resist­ed the kind of treat­ment giv­en to Char­lotte Bron­të and Jane Austen in adap­ta­tions like “a chap­ter book for tweens called Jane Air­head” and the Austen-inspired Brid­get Jones’s Diary and Clue­less (not to men­tion Pride and Prej­u­dice and Zom­bies). And yet, despite the daunt­ing size, scope, and seri­ous­ness of Eliot’s nov­el, Mid­dle­march: the Series con­tin­ues in this tra­di­tion of light-heart­ed, pop-cul­tur­al mod­ern­iza­tions, using the same device as the award-win­ning Austen vlog adap­ta­tion The Lizzie Ben­net Diaries and Bron­të vlog adap­ta­tion “The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Jane Eyre.”

Though it is “an impos­si­bly tall order,” writes Mead, “to expect a Web series to approach the nuance of a nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry novel—of the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry nov­el,” adap­ta­tions like Shoptaw’s don’t even attempt to do this. They express “a win­ning affec­tion” for their source mate­r­i­al, and a sense of how it still informs the very dif­fer­ent gen­der iden­ti­ties and sex­u­al rela­tion­ships of the present. In that sense, it may be use­ful to think of them as, in part, work­ing in a sim­i­lar vein as anoth­er very 21st cen­tu­ry medi­um: fan fic­tion. Would the knives-out crit­ic Eliot approve? Impos­si­ble to say. But I dare say she might admire the ambi­tion, cre­ative impuls­es, and nar­ra­tive inge­nu­ity of Shoptaw and her cast per­haps as much as they admire her great­est work.

via The New York­er

Relat­ed Con­tent:

“The Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of Jane Eyre” Adapts Brontë’s Hero­ine for Vlogs, Tum­blr, Twit­ter & Insta­gram

Hear Jane Austen’s Pride and Prej­u­dice as a Free Audio Book 

Read Jane Austen’s Fic­tion Man­u­scripts Free Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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