This enormous novel is satisfying in so many ways. I read it in paperback concurrently with listening to the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Nadia May.
Dorothea, a young idealist in the early 19th century, ignores advice and marries a dry stick of an older man. We can all see it’s going to be a disaster and make her miserable, but she’s determined, and her amiable uncle doesn’t stand in her way.
Lydgate, an ambitious doctor who has new ideas about medicine, comes to a small town where a wealthy banker offers an opportunity to start a new hospital where he can do his research and test his ideas. When he gets tangled up with the mayor’s daughter, the beautiful Rosamund, it’s not so obviously destined for trouble, but trouble follows.
And then we have Dorothea’s more ordinary sister Celia and her ordinary destiny; Rosamund’s brother Fred who starts out feckless and impulsive but learns some things through the course of the narrative; Mr. Bulstrode the banker who has more in his past than we knew; the admirable Caleb Garth and his daughter Mary; the mischief-making Raffles; the exotic Will Ladislaw whose grandmother was disowned by Dorothea’s dry-stick husband’s family because she married a Polish refugee; and a whole enormous cast of various clergy and townspeople and business people and farmers.
Big political changes are afoot – this takes place in the early 1800s, just after the French Revolution, and Reform is in the air, which seems to involve more people getting the vote and Catholics being possibly considered to be people as well. The town has a surprising-to-me number of clergy and more variety of religions than I would have expected, given that everything I know about the English countryside comes from reading novels where the Church of England is the only game in town. (Or maybe I just didn’t notice before.) Journalists and politicians seem to be new kinds of people. Money is as always a big deal, and it’s incredibly complicated for the kind of people who don’t expect to get jobs and get paid for them. Like, Lydgate doesn’t get paid for his work at the hospital. He only gets paid by his patients, and since he disdains selling them pills, which is what they’re used to paying for – nobody pays for the doctor’s services – he gets into big financial trouble.
Running throughout though is the theme of what women are capable of doing, and the constraints the law and society put on them. Dorothea is strong-willed and intelligent, but believes the only way she can do good in the world is to marry a man whose work she can support. Mary Garth is just as smart and useful as her father Caleb, but it’s obvious she can never do the kind of work he did. Rosamund embodies the feminine ideal, with her expensive finishing-school education, and her highest goal is to be admired by men (although we eventually see that even for her, that’s not going to be enough).
And then there’s communication, lack of communication, miscommunication, and gossip. Nobody in the upper classes ever says what they think, even to their spouses, except in a couple of special cases. People are constantly making assumptions and misreading others’ motives. And then there’s the catastrophe where some information from the past comes to light, and is blown up through gossip to ruinous levels.
On top of the story are the narrator comments sprinkled throughout. Pearls of wisdom. I was too caught up in the story to copy them out as I went along. Next time I read it, and I’m sure there will be a next time, I’ll try to do better.