After enjoying a repeat viewing of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, I decided to re-watch another major Andrew Davies adaptation from around the same period . This time I went for the BBC’s six-episode version of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, made the previous year, with a superb cast, headed by Juliet Aubrey and Rufus Sewell… though Robert Hardy actually gives my favourite performance.
This is another production which was originally shown when my children were very young and so I almost certainly failed to take it in properly at the time. Watching it again now, I found myself full of admiration for it, and think it is every bit as good as the Davies P&P – dare I say, maybe even better. It’s been a long while since I’ve read Middlemarch, so I can’t comment in any detail on how near the adaptation is to the novel, although clearly, with such a long book, large chunks are bound to have been lost or condensed into smaller scenes or sequences of dialogue. In any case, I do think this mini-series, directed by Anthony Page, is a complex work of art in its own right, creating a powerful picture of the tensions and rivalries within a small community, and within two marriages.
The cameras linger on the beautiful settings , from the English countryside to Italy, and the often lavish costumes, but there’s always an awareness of the cost of it all. This is a world where everybody is watching everyone else and calculating their income – something which is also the case in Austen and Gaskell, of course, but I think perhaps Middlemarch makes the small-town atmosphere seem even more oppressive.
As with the 1995 P&P, I found that watching this production certainly doesn’t work as a means of escapism from the credit crunch. The theme of money is everywhere, from the relatives desperately vying for a share of the fortune hoarded up by the miserly Peter Featherstone (Michael Hordern) to the Rev Farebrother (Simon Chandler) gambling in order to supplement his tiny stipend… to the self-righteous Mr Bulstrode (Peter Jeffrey) trying to build a religious tyranny with the money he originally made through fencing stolen goods.
Money is clearly at the heart of the problems in the marriage between Dr Tertius Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) and Rosamond (Trevyn McDowell). However, I don’t think I’d previously noticed that power struggles over money are also important in the disintegration of the other marriage at the centre of the drama, between Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey) and Casaubon (Patrick Malahide).
In the case of the Lydgates, the issue of money is inescapable. They simply don’t have enough of it to keep up the lifestyle they want – and, when their debts reach crisis point, their reactions are very different. Rosamond is desperate to keep up appearances and wants to move away if they have to live in what she sees as a “sordid” way, while Lydgate is equally desperate to stay in the community where he feels he is making a difference as doctor.
I remember that while reading the book I found it hard to have much sympathy for Rosamond, as she seems to keep ignoring her husband’s warnings about finances and go on buying things which they don’t need and can’t afford. I don’t think the story is ever shown through her eyes, so she seems like a beautiful, smooth surface rather than a full person. In the mini-series, I found her more sympathetic and felt that Davies at times swings things round to show things from her point of view – showing how humiliating she would find it to play out her domestic problems in front of all the nosy neighbours who have watched her all her life.
She becomes more emotional than she does in the book, instead of hiding her feelings. It’s also clear that both Lydgate and Rosamond married hoping they would change the other person – he thought she’d be perfect if she could just stop being a spendthrift and caring about appearances so much, while she hoped he might give up being a doctor and do something less unpleasant.
By contrast, Dorothea always has plenty of money, but for her the problem is that she isn’t free to do the things with it that she wants and make a difference to the community around her. While living at home with her uncle, Arthur Brooke (Robert Hardy) at the start, she longs to persuade him to do something about the terrible living conditions of his tenants, but finds that he is always just thinking about it and might do something at some stage in the future. I think Robert Hardy is brilliant at bringing this deliberately vague character to infuriating life.
Dorothea marries Edward Casaubon (Patrick Malahide) partly because she wants to get away from the frustration of living with Mr Brooke . But her husband proves no more flexible about money than her uncle was, refusing even to discuss her suggestion of a fairer settlement on his cousin, Will Ladislaw (Rufus Sewell), and then even trying to dictate her way of life from beyond the grave through the ludicrous financial stipulations in his will. The couple’s occasional arguments about money serve as a focus for the deeper power struggle between them. He wants her to give up her life to assisting in his research, while she wants him to compress it into something publishable rather than going down even more side alleys.
I remember that, while reading the book, I felt a lack of sympathy for Casaubon. I still see what a disappointment he is as a husband for Dorothea, but, perhaps partly because I’m that bit older, I feel a lot more sympathetic for him in his reluctance to finish his work – the way he relishes doing the research for its own sake, and doesn’t want to be told it’s unpublishable, or that he has to hack out huge chunks. As with Rosamond, I think this production succeeds in showing the story from Casaubon’s viewpoint at times, and so shifting the sympathy between the couple.
In some ways, the two central marriages are in sharp contrast to each other – with the Lydgates’ being entirely built on sexual attraction, and the Casaubons’ on their marriage of minds, with bodies apparently forgotten. (A couple of contrasting key scenes which stick in my mind – Casaubon turning away from Dorothea in bed, and Lydgate murmuring “You’ll ruin me!” to Rosamond as he pulls off her clothes.) However, I was surprised to realise that there is a similarity between Lydgate’s research and Casaubon’s. He wants to find the “primitive tissue” which is the key to all life – just as Casaubon wants to find “the key to all mythology”. Both enterprises seem equally doomed.
In the novel, as far as I remember, Will Ladislaw isn’t an entirely convincing character, seeming a bit too much of a romantic dream. However, the very fact that he is played by Rufus Sewell makes him seem a compelling figure, and I thought the production brings out the parallels between him and Dorothea – such as the way he almost takes on the same job she has just given up, as frustrated helpmate to Mr Brooke.
I’ve written quite enough here, but must just say that there are also many other great performances, including Jonathan Firth as Fred Vincy (almost unrecognisable here after seeing his swaggering role as Troy in Far from the Madding Crowd) and Jonathan Hackett as the drunken Joshua Rigg. I also think there are many other themes that could be picked out as well as money – and that this is a production I will want to watch again in the future.