Prepare for a long Middlemarch: The BBC hopes it has a TV blockbuster with George Eliot's monument of English literature

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'I CALL it bad,' wrote Samuel Butler of Middlemarch in 1873, soon after its publication. 'The book seems to me to be a long- winded piece of brag, clever enough, I dare say, but to me rather unattractive.'

It has proved a minority opinion. Another early reviewer said with excitement that George Eliot had 'never displayed more imaginative and intellectual power', and Virginia Woolf was to declare Middlemarch 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'.

But Butler was right about one thing at least: Middlemarch is very long. Even Kathleen Adams, secretary of the George Eliot Fellowship, admits it can hardly be considered light - 'Never use one word,' she jokes, 'when 40 will do.'

Now the BBC, in the hope of restoring its battered pride after the critical failures of Lady Chatterley's Lover and Scarlet and Black, has taken Eliot's 900 pages and condensed them into 355 minutes of prime-time television, and the first results of this pounds 6m project will be seen this Wednesday night.

The choice is brave - however successful the drama, the critics are certain to moan about all the good bits left out - but on literary merit it is hardly a surprising one. Classic television means classic literature. And Eliot's sweeping tale of a Warwickshire town in the throes of electoral reform and industrialisation is as classic as they come.

The plot interweaves the story of the idealistic heroine, Dorothea Brooke, who misguidedly marries the pedantic scholar Casaubon in her search for a higher cause, with that of Tertius Lydgate, a dedicated young surgeon, also trapped

in a disastrous marriage to

the beautiful but shallow Rosamond Vincy. In between, Eliot explores the whole range of small-town life.

It is in every sense a monument of English literature, but is it a monument that people visit? Does anyone ever read Middlemarch?

Certainly its sheer bulk impresses schoolchildren everywhere. 'The lads usually turn to the number on the back page and groan,' says Doriel Hulse, who teaches English at Tonbridge School, Kent. At Crowborough Beacon Community College in Sussex, Dave Sudbury, head of English, has heard the same groans, but he finds that the sceptics often succumb to the novel's narrative power. 'Without belittling it, the novel has some of the qualities of soap opera - it does get you gripped with the lives of the characters.'

The book is also a favourite with A-level examiners. Michael Rymer, head teacher of Hurworth House in Darlington, and a Senior Examiner with the Oxford and Cambridge Board, says that despite its length it appears on their syllabus regularly. 'Middlemarch is always popular, and the candidates seem to get a great deal out of it.'

And plenty of people read it who are not obliged to by an exam syllabus. Jenny Uglow, the literary biographer who has written a critical study of George Eliot, is surprised by recent suggestions that the BBC series might trigger an Eliot 'revival'. 'I think people really do still read George Eliot. I commute to London once or twice a week and often see people reading it on the train.'

Sales figures seem to confirm this. Waterstone's branch on Charing Cross Road in central London has sold 40 copies so far this winter, with Tolstoy's War and Peace (1,444 pages) lagging far behind with eight. Even Dickens's Great Expectations has managed under 20, despite the backing of a vast literary industry - museums, academic journals, tea towels.

Middlemarch first appeared in 1871 as a serial in Blackwoods Magazine. The magazine editor changed much of the text, to the annoyance of Eliot who later revised it. On its final publication in 1872, the male literary establishment, with a few notable exceptions, hailed it as a masterpiece, although many feminists of the day criticised George Eliot for her less than fulfilled heroine.

Latterday feminists too have sometimes found little cheer in the narrowness of the traditional roles she assigns her women. But Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in 1819, wrote at a time when women were expected to sacrifice their needs to the family and when female authors felt it necessary to adopt a male pseudonym to ensure their books were published.

Eliot spent much of her early life caring for her father after her mother's death, finally leaving Warwickshire for London in 1849 at the age of 30. There she met the critic George Lewes and scandalised society by openly living with him after his wife refused a divorce. With his encouragement, at the age of 37, she wrote her first work, Amos Barton.

The ordinariness of her early life left its mark, and Eliot set many of her novels, including Middlemarch - thought to be based on Coventry - in the West Midlands of her youth. In complexity, it certainly matches any Russian epic, but even sympathetic critics have questioned Middlemarch's ability to challenge literary monoliths such as War and Peace.

Ms Uglow disagrees. 'It's quite different to the scale of Tolstoy, yet it has a huge sweep as well,' she says. 'It follows all these varied lives over a period of time, looking forward as well as back.' She suggests that women writers have a different approach to the writing of a great work, concentrating more on detail and subtlety of character.

The West Midlands can hardly rival Bronte Country for drama and romance, but the Heart of England Tourist Board says there is growing interest in its 'George Eliot Country' trail. The trail includes the delights of the George Eliot Memorial Garden, Nuneaton, and a visit to the writer's childhood home, 'Griff', a red-brick house on the nearby Arbury estate where Eliot's father, like Caleb Garth in Middlemarch, was an estate manager. Every year, as an added attraction, the George Eliot Fellowship, whose membership now numbers 450, stages readings from her work in Coventry and Nuneaton.

Hardly surprisingly, the modern West Midlands have not been chosen as the location for the BBC production. Much of the filming was done in the stone-built town of Stamford, near Peterborough.

Eliot was buried beside Lewes in London's Highgate Cemetery. Her grave is tended by Dr Beryl Gray, a fellowship member and editor of a series of Everyman paperbacks of Eliot's work.

She has planted bulbs, miniature roses, forget-me-nots and wallflowers. Many are taken from her own garden, a mile from the cemetery, but she often finds these are displaced by visitors who want to pot their own additions. So why the enduring appeal? 'With Dickens you get caricatures,' Kathleen Adams explains, 'with the Brontes, fantasy. But with George Eliot you get real people, real lives, real jobs.'

(Photograph omitted)

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