Middlemarch: ‘Unabridged’

middlemarch-tl crop

[cropped] Eliot’s Manuscript of Middlemarch © Jonathan Garnault Ouvry / British Library

Guest Post from Unit Member Kathy Rees: on reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch again, abridgement, and the significance of paratext mottoes. 


I was very excited when the Research Unit Reading Group embarked on George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), but also slightly stressed, because I knew that I didn’t have time to re-read it.  The obvious solution was audible.com, and I imagined myself happily absorbed in the dramas and doings at Tipton Grange and Freshitt Hall while I trailed around Tesco or stirred the soup.

At the point of purchase I was puzzled to note that the length of the ‘Audible Studios’ edition, narrated by Maureen O’Brien (£21), was 32 hours and 28 minutes, while the ‘Naxos’ edition, narrated by Juliet Stevenson (£37), was 35 hours and 40 minutes.  Given that both versions were emphatically marked UNABRIDGED, it seemed outrageous to pay £16 for an additional 3 hours and 12 minutes of an amorphous ‘something’ – maybe pregnant pauses, or musical intervals – so, like dear Mr Brooke, I had good intentions but was ‘spending as little money as possible in carrying them out”.[i] The outcome of my penny-pinching provoked the subject of this blog.


Right from the start, I was disconcerted by the non-appearance of the Prelude.  Anticipating the image of young St Theresa ‘toddling’ out of Avila with her brother, I was instead plunged straight into Chapter One without any preamble.  In that Prefatorial figure of St Theresa, Eliot sets out her vision of a woman’s potential to make intellectual and moral contributions to society.  Back in 1967, Laurence Lerner had famously referred to Dorothea’s ‘Theresa-complex’[ii] and certainly, a large body of critical literature on Middlemarch has been taken up with discussions about how this figure establishes the tone of the novel.  In disbelief, then, I re-started the recording in case I had fast-forwarded by mistake . . . but no, there was no mistake, there was no Prelude.

Not only that, but Chapter One had started without its epigraph.  My heart sank.  I soon realised the ‘Audible Studios’ editor had saved that 3 hours of additional recording time by excluding not only the Preface, but 85 of the book’s 86 chapter-heading epigraphs.

Only, in the thirty-second hour of narration, had the quotation from Pilgrim’s Progress in Chapter 85 survived the savage cull. Had the conscience of the editor been so pricked by Bunyan’s words, heroically scored out in his prison cell, that he/she felt morally bound to include them? No, this could not be the case, for the equally grave words by Bunyan that headed Chapter 79 had already been jettisoned; so a sense of respect for Pilgrim’s Progress was an unlikely explanation for this single survivor.  Instead, it seems that Eliot’s direct reference to Bunyan at the start of Chapter 85 had finally jolted the editor into acknowledging the link between paratext and text.  For me, the unexpected appearance of this lonely epitaph after fretting so long after its suppressed fellows, illustrated what Gerard Genet calls ‘the epigraph-effect’[iii] – the role of the epigraph in signalling to the reader that this is a work of high culture, that it is a text that works by generating our sense of awe for its weighty and scholarly resonances.

Maybe the philosophy of ‘Audible Studios’ is to ‘protect’ listeners from the potential humiliation of not understanding epigraphs that are rendered in French (Ch. 22, 35, and 38), in Spanish (Ch. 46), in Italian (Ch.7) or in an archaic Chaucerian argot (Ch. 12, 21, 50, 65). Or maybe it believes that we will be bewildered by hearing words like ‘cachexia’, ‘bradypepsia’, or ‘oppilations’, diseases listed in the quotation from Burton’s Anatomy  of 1621 (Ch. 5). Or maybe narrator Maureen O’Brien felt uncomfortable switching from poetry to prose, needing to assume a different tone before plunging back into the plot. It is also arguable that these epigraphs, often vague and inscrutable, only work for readers of the printed page who have the leisure to ponder their relevance. Certainly, this is difficult for the listener, swept along at O’Brien’s pace.

But the decision to omit the epigraphs implies that ‘Audible Studios’ believes that listeners don’t wish to hear anything ambiguous or abstruse.  Eliot makes numerous allusions within the body of the text – for example, to Southey, Shelley, Swift and Scott – and all those references are respected: why not, then, retain the epigraphs?  Surely it is possible to enjoy the sheer resonances of verses by such poets as Spenser (Ch.37), Donne (Ch.39), or Shakespeare (from whose corpus, incidentally, Eliot selects memorable tags for twelve Middlemarch chapters) without needing to understand every word?  Why else is Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’ the longest running poetry request show on any radio station anywhere in the world? Listeners have been tuning in for over 35 years to hear poetry that they may not fully understand, but the recitation of which provides pleasure and inspiration.

Philipe Lejeune describes the paratext as ‘a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text’ (my emphasis).[iv] Certainly, Eliot’s epigraphs or ‘mottoes’ (her preferred term) are intrinsically linked with the chapters they head, sometimes offering an ironic refraction or a metaphorical evaluation of them, or sometimes providing a prolepsis of character or an affirmation of theme.  Within the critical literature, certain Middlemarch epigraphs are legendary: David Higdon, and other critics, have read Eliot’s citation at the head of Chapter 2 of Don Quixote’s vision of a cavalier on a ‘dapple-grey steed’ that is corrected by Sancho Panzaas being ‘a man on a grey ass’, in terms of the dreamy Dorothea in her idealized vision of Casaubon, being corrected by the pragmatic Celia, who cannot see beyond the scholar’s white moles.[v] Lejeune’s notion that paratexts have a controlling function seems particularly pertinent when one considers that 31 of the 86 chapter-tags are autographic epigraphs, verses composed by Eliot herself. Their astonishingly wide metrical range – including blank verse, couplets, a triplet, quatrains, octosyllabics, decasyllabics, and a sonnet – reminds us that Eliot, whilst embroiled in this complex novel, is also experimenting as a poet.  These verses, then, emanate from the same pen as the body of the text; so how can they be deemed irrelevant?  One such autographic epigraph features a figurine of ‘finest ivory’ that is compared with ‘majolica/ Of deft design’ (Ch.45).  This verse is often interpreted in terms of the ivory representing Dorothea, “white, fine, pure, ageless”, and the majolica signifying Rosamund, ‘costly for its craftsmanship but not for its inherent worth’.[vi] The epigraphs thus constitute a second authorial voice that comments on the action in many ways.

Although we can never be sure about the gender of the authors of The Squire of Low Degree (source of epitaph for Ch.62) or of The Not-Browne Mayde (Ch.84), virtually all of the ascribed epigraphs are male-authored.  Eliot’s assertion of her own voice in the autographic epigraphs is therefore an important contribution to the exploration of notions of gender equality that run through the novel.  When Mr Brooke, with genial misogyny, makes such assertions as ‘young ladies don’t understand political economy, you know’,[vii] we are reminded how many male discourses were out of bounds for Victorian women, and this makes Eliot’s insertion of her own mottos even more significant, and their omission even more reprehensible.

So, having purchased the audiobook in order to save time, the final irony is that I am now expending even more time by starting afresh with the printed text, where I read each epitaph with loving attention.  But with regard to the label ‘unabridged’, I say: ‘Caveat emptor’!

[i] George Eliot, Middlemarch, (London: Penguin 1965),p.30.

[ii] Laurence Lerner, The Truthtellers: Jane Austen, George Eliot, D.H. Lawrence (London: Chatto and Windus, 1967), pp.249-69.

[iii] Gérard Genette, Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, (Cambridge: CUP 1997), p.160.

[iv]Quoted by Genette, p.2.

[v]David L. Higdon, ‘George Eliot and the Art of the Epigraph’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 25:2, (Sept. 1970), pp.127-151 (p.135).

[vi]Higdon, p.146.

[vii]Eliot, p. 39.

2 thoughts on “Middlemarch: ‘Unabridged’

  1. As a long time listener to books-on-tape or CD, I’d just like to confirm or reinforce this caveat. When a “talking book” is advertised as unabridged, it is not necessarily so. There are no savage cuts in the texts themselves (the chapters) but all else is regarded as expendable.


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