Leading Article: Middlemarch joins the masterpieces

Click to follow
THE LAUNCH next week of the BBC's serialisation of George Eliot's Middlemarch raises the interesting debating point: is this the greatest English novel? The advance publicity even speaks of it as 'the greatest novel in the English language', a yet larger claim.

All such judgements are subjective, since no objective yardsticks of greatness exist, and literary reputations are subject to huge fluctuations. George Eliot was hailed at the zenith of her career as the greatest living English novelist, with admirers ranging from Turgenev to Queen Victoria. But a reaction soon set in. Virginia Woolf helped in the rescue work, calling Middlemarch 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'.

It was in the late Forties that the great George Eliot revival began, with F R Leavis leading the way. He concluded that 'she is not as transcendently great as Tolstoy, but she is great, and great in the same way'.

The novelist and critic David Lodge cites an unknown critic who observed: 'Every novel would be Middlemarch if it could.' To Eliot's admirers, the reasons are clear. Middlemarch combines a penetrating portrayal of a broad social and political canvas with extraordinarily acute and compassionate observation of its many characters, who meet through four ingeniously interwoven plots. On top of all this is the wit, muscularity and sheer intelligence of Eliot's style.

Such claims will naturally not dent the fervour of Jane Austen's admirers, who see in such small masterpieces as Pride and Prejudice and Emma perfect microcosms of a larger world. Nor will it impress those who rate Charles Dickens first among equals for the overwhelming vitality and humanity of his greatest novels.

If 100 professors of literature were asked the same question, their answers would probably be far more varied than those of their equivalents in, say, France, Germany and Russia. From those literatures, masterpieces such as Madame Bovary, A la recherche du temps perdu, Buddenbrooks, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment loom snow-clad above surrounding peaks. The best effect of the BBC's new serial will be to alert millions of viewers to the possibility that Middlemarch is in the same league - and thus persuade them to read it.