Book: a book that changed me

Bel Mooney on George Eliot's 'Middlemarch'
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it? I first read Middlemarch when I was in the sixth form at Trowbridge Girls' High School. My wonderful English master, Denis Boulding, advised me to give it a try. I had read Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss but he said that to read Middlemarch was a different order of experience and that he felt me "mature" enough. The lure of flattery is easily as powerful as that of literature.

I can still remember the heady, addictive fall into George Eliot's provincial world, the greedy reading in the solitude of my bedroom, the desperation that Dorothea should not marry Casaubon nor Lydgate be trapped by the poisonous Rosamund Vincy. Still I can revisit, in imagination, the powerful emotions aroused by my first reading of George Eliot's sublime closing paragraphs. They never fail to move me to tears, and I do not believe there are finer words in the whole of our literature.

Why did it strike you so much? It spoke to me of the vast dignity and potential of what is ordinary, and of the imaginative sympathy with all living things, part of the redemptive function of art. Its sweep was equal to Doctor Zhivago's, even without the framework of great political and historical events. I read with awe Eliot's account of how the vainglorious Mrs Bulstrode finds humility and love in forgiving her husband the disgrace he brought upon them: " ... now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible for her in any sense to forsake him". Was any other writer capable of such knowledge and such compassion? At 17 I doubted it - and still feel the same. I heard Martin Amis dismissing the morality of Eliot, maintaining she tells people what not to do. What arrant nonsense! She says, "This, right and wrong, is what people do, how they are and willy nilly, it is all capable of being understood."

Have you re-read it? I have re-read Middlemarch four or five times, and writing this, itch to revisit its world soon. Each time I find the novel even greater, discovering things in it as if for the first time.

Do you recommend it? Like a religious fanatic I would convert all to my faith; read Middlemarch and hold a glass to your own soul, in its infinite possibility of greatness.

Bel Mooney's fifth novel is 'Intimate Letters', Little, Brown pounds 15.99