Book of a lifetime: Middlemarch, By George Eliot

  • @Melissa_Benn

I agree with Michael Gove about very little but we are at one on the greatness of Middlemarch, rightly described by Virginia Woolf as "a magnificent book that, with all its imperfections [is] one of the few English novels written for grown-up people". Originally published in part form, subtitled "A Study of Provincial Life", Middlemarch is a slow, unfolding story of the lives and loves of one Midlands town (thought to be Coventry), as well as a reflection on the bigger political issues and changes in mid-19th century England.

But the real pleasure of the novel lies in its skilfully drawn array of characters: from Edward Casaubon, the pompous scholar, to Nicholas Bulstrode, the banker with a sordid past, to Tertius Lydgate, the idealistic young doctor seduced by vanity. Self-deception runs through the lives of most of the main characters, male or female. Lydgate's wife Rosamund, the acknowledged beauty of the town, diverts and ultimately destroys the nobler instincts of her idealistic husband.

Young, wealthy, charming Dorothea Brooke, with her admirable passion for social reform, channels her formidable energies through marriage to the deadly dull Casaubon and later to the spirited, politically ambitious Will Ladislaw. The second marriage promises to be livelier than first, but might still be judged an abdication of her own considerable talents.

Dorothea's ambiguous fate is just one of many reasons why Middlemarch should be suggested but – please note, Mr Gove – not compulsory reading for all young women. I bought the book when I was 13 but did not truly understand it until I was much older.

Despite the incredible advances in women's lives since Eliot's time, she reminds us of the eternal importance of sound judgement, generosity and self-awareness in the shaping of a single life. One of the strongest characters is Mary Garth, neither privileged nor self-deluded. Plain-speaking, principled and kind, she guides her childhood sweetheart Fred Vincy to wise choices in work and love.

The book is rich in incidental pleasures, with a stream of sharp observations on character or circumstance. The town's women have a "love of truth", which turns out to be "a lively objection to seeing a wife look happier than her husband's character warranted". In a curate, Dorothea's sister Celia sees "an excellent man who would go to heaven… but the corners of his mouth were so unpleasant". It's impossible not to admire the sly wit, as well as capacious intellect and human understanding, at work in Eliot's masterpiece.

Melissa Benn's 'What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female' is published by John Murray