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Reading Middlemarch in Jiangxi

By Mengfei Chen

Is it still a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife? Perhaps he’d rather spend that fortune on bottle service and club bunnies. Certainly, modern day Lily Barts need not die young, alone and poor because they nixed a number of suitable suitors — not if Sheryl Sandberg has anything to say about it.

Great nineteenth century novels built on the question of “will he propose and will she say yes” live on, but mostly as bonneted costume dramas on the BBC. They seem like historic relics in the age of the pre-nup and easy divorce.

When I took George Eliot’s Middlemarch on my trip to spend Spring Festival with my grandparents earlier this year, I thought I was packing a work of historical fiction. It was holiday reading. I wanted to take advantage of the long journey home (17 hours by train each way, bracketed by another two hours on the newly built two-lane highway dodging tractors, overloaded long-haul trucks and the occasional confused water buffalo) to cross the book Virginia Woolf called the only novel written for adults off my literary bucket list. I did not expect the book, which charts with great sensitivity the marriages, successful and otherwise, of several couples in a 19th century English country town, to resonate so powerfully with the lives of people living in a 21st century Chinese one. Continue reading