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George Eliot, Middlemarch (Everyman’s Library, 1991).
Sub-titled “A Study in Provincial Life,” the novel is set in a fictional provincial town based on Coventry, where Eliot lived when she was young. This grand tale of life in the provinces is set in the late 1820s, though she wrote it fifty years later. At the center of a large cast of characters are Dorothea Brooke, a idealistic and strong-minded young woman with designs to do good work, and Tertius Lydgate, a naive and ambitious young doctor. Both enter into ill-advised marriages, frustrating their hopes, and both chafe under the constraints of Middlemarch society, which is not an abstract thing but a cast of well-drawn characters with their own stories. (This is not a short novel.)
Wikipedia’s entry about the novel is quite detailed, and its entry on Eliot is also worthwhile. Here is another Eliot bio. Google Book Search lets you read some of it. LibriVox has links to text and acoustic recordings of the novel. AS Byatt calls it arguably the greatest English novel. The Complete Review calls it a muddled but grand panoramic novel. Kevin Hartnett calls it a monument to the fraught lives of women and men. Edward Tanguay says it teaches you how to see detail again. Gareth Jenkins (Socialist Review) lauds the novel’s enduring conviction that struggle is needed to bring about a new world. Trish liked Eliot’s flawed characters. Magistra muses about male reputation. Sheila O’Malley says it’s about an entire society and a culture. Lyza Danger Gardner sees a world in the book. Linera Lucas has become atuned to Eliot’s fine, wry sense of proportion. Marta was left wistful and melancholy. Jandy thinks it needs an editor. Arukiyomi agrees that it’s too long. Jessica promises it is worth the work. Ubaid Dogar finds it odd. It fell flat for Julie. Susan loved it. It’s one of the best books Mrs Walker has read. Writing about Eliot for The Atlantic in 1873 (via Powell’s), Arthur George Sedgwick was more tempted to admire silently than to criticise at all. Another 1873 reviewer (Galaxy) called it a treasure-house of details, but an indifferent whole. An 1871 reviewer (The Guardian) called it an intellectual gift. Pamela Moore takes a medical perspective. Artes Perditae collects many wonderful lines. Here is an on-line guide at the University of Virginia meant as an introduction to Middlemarch commentary and criticism. Ken Thompson writes about Middlemarch‘s marriages. And Azra Raza has Eliot’s darker side.