Why I am Thankful for Period Piece Adaptations, Example Three: Middlemarch (1994)

Time for the third installment of the series. First, we discussed Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and then last week we went over Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Today, I present you the masterpiece that is George Eliot’s Middlemarch from 1994. Now, George Eliot is one of the few authors people are unable to lie about knowing, because when Eliot’s work comes up in conversation and the pretended says “I love his work” you know a) they have no clue who you are talking about or b) they are mistaken. Why? Because George Eliot is a she, not a he. Born Mary Ann Evans (22 November 1819 – 22 December 1880 - one of my favorite people to share a birthday with!), Eliot had a few different reasons to use a male pen name: to distance herself from the female author stereotype of writing only romance novels, to separate her work as writer from her established work as an editor and a critic, and potentially to shield her private affair with the married George Henry Lewes that lasted for over twenty years (until his death - side note, Lewes and his wife apparently had an open marriage)

Regardless, she created a collection of wonderful works, which include Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Middlemarch was released in serial form from 1871–72. Two years later, in 1874, it was published together in one large volume. The town is thought to based on Coventry, during the period 1830–32. Middlemarch, like Bleak House, is very much a character driven piece with multiple plots that intersect. You have more than one main character and storylines that are interconnected through not only the fact they happen in Middlemarch, but also through their association with other characters. I am going to focus on four of the main characters, but there are many additional colorful characters that add to this piece.

Middlemarch Characters & Their Part in the Plot

Dorothea Brooke is played by Juliet Aubrey in the 1994 adaptation.

Dorothea Brooke is played by Juliet Aubrey in the 1994 adaptation.

There is Dorothea Brooke, a young woman of means who wishes to do more with her life, such as improving houses for the poor. Her uncle and pseudo-guardian has an old school mentality to the poor - no need to spend money on them. Dorothea ends up marrying Mr. Casaubon, an older, dry scholar, because of her idealistic nature - hoping she can help him achieve great work (she could have married the handsome landowner Sir James Chettam - luckily her sister, Celia,  gets him on the rebound). Of course, Mr. Casaubon does not encourage his wife to assist him; he is yet another man who does not see her vision or potential to do good with her life. When Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s young cousin (handsome and more age-appropriate for Dorothea), enters the mix, his friendship and admiration toward Dorothea leads to much drama (aka Casaubon disapproves and puts restrictions in place that eventually have the whole of Middlemarch talking).

In the 1994 adaptation, Dr. Lydgate is played by Douglas Hodge and Rosamond is played by Trevyn McDowell

In the 1994 adaptation, Dr. Lydgate is played by Douglas Hodge and Rosamond is played by Trevyn McDowell

Another idealistic character is that of Dr. Tertius Lydgate who hopes to put Middlemarch on the map for medical reform. He is the type of person who will do work for free for the betterment of mankind. He makes connections with one of the town’s financiers, Mr. Bulstrode, which leads to many complications along the way. Then there is one Ms. Rosamond Vincy (Bulstrode’s niece, Mayor’s daughter, but not one from a good deal of money. She needs to marry a person of means and has set her sights on him, because although he is a doctor (which did not make much money back then) he was said to have rich, well-connected relations (just imagine every gold-digger song you know playing when she enters the room). Her assumptions lead to trapping Dr. Lydgate, and to please her, he in turn takes on a little too much debt. Insert here the problems that occur when one person wants to eliminate debt, but the other wants to keep up appearances and you will understand where their drama originates.

Left you have Rachel Power as Mary Garth and Right is Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy.

Left you have Rachel Power as Mary Garth and Right is Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy.

Then there is Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s brother, who wishes more than anything to marry Mary Garth. They both love each other, but there is a slight problem. Mary will not have him unless he finds a career he is passionate about. You see, Fred went to school under the assumption that he would join the church. That profession, however, is not right for him. Fred, and his family - in particular his mother, have set his future too much on his expectations (Featherstone’s inheritance to be exact). Complicate that with bad horse-dealing, gambling, and debt (even borrowed money from Mary’s father Caleb Garth) - Fred really need to get his act together or he will never have Mary’s hand.

And as Will Ladislaw, a man who belongs in period clothing, Rufus Sewell. 

And as Will Ladislaw, a man who belongs in period clothing, Rufus Sewell. 

Now, shall we skip back to a previously mentioned character, and one of my favorite leading men in Middlemarch, Will Ladislaw. Let’s face it, Mr. Casaubon has a reason to be paranoid. Ladislaw is very much love in with Dorothea from the start. He does behave properly as he not only loves, but respects Dorothea and would not want to cause her scandal. He stays close by working for an newspaper, befriends Dr. Lydgate and his wife (though Rosamond in her state tries to get a little too friendly), and is angry when he finds out the stipulations put on Dorothea by his cousin (which as said before, cause much scandal and talk in Middlemarch). When you compare Ladislaw and Casaubon’s actions - one realizes that the former loved and respected her more than the latter (despite being married to her).

However, Ladislaw also has a bit of an outsider / gypsy spirit about him, which is usually illustrated by his choice of lying on rugs instead of sitting in chairs. Eliot mentions this on more than one occasion, so I feel that it is important to share a few of these with you:

This is why wonderful things like this exist! (via tumblr)

This is why wonderful things like this exist! (via tumblr)

“It seems nobody ever goes into the house without finding this young gentleman lying on the rug or warbling at the piano.”‘

“...that in houses where he got friendly, he was given to stretch himself at full length on the rug while he talked, and was apt to be discovered in this attitude by occasional callers for whom such an irregularity was likely to confirm the notions of his dangerously mixed blood and general laxity.”

“He was invited to Mr. Bulstrode's; but here he could not lie down on the rug.”

“But the house where he visited oftenest and lay most on the rug was Lydgate's.

 

 

Now for the reasons you should watch the 1994 adaption of Middlemarch. The mini-series consisting of six episodes is available online through the following providers (though your local library should have a copy):  Netflix, Amazon InstantHulu Plus

1. Colin Firth's Younger Brother! Yes, Mr. Darcy's brother is Fred Vincy. Jonathan Firth is great in this role and deserves your respect. Look, he can even do the Mr. Darcy brood-face.

 

2. George Eliot rocked some major "Truisms." Here is a sampling.

3. Like Bleak House, we have to give another shout out to Andrew Davies, who excels at period piece adaptations. Last week I mentioned only his period works, here are a few modern titles you are probably familiar with as well.

 

4a. Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw.

 

4b. Rufus Sewell demontrating how to wear a cravat, waistcoat, & brightly-colored coat combo (not to mention, the hands, gloves, boots, and high-waisted pants).

 

and of course, the last point one could be considered a *spoiler* - advance at your own risk!

 

5. Because its not just the kiss that makes for a happy ending, it is the look of absolute love that radiates from their eyes. That little touch my friends, makes a superior period piece.