By George, We've Got It

LIKE MORE THAN A FEW OF US, RUSSELL Baker swore off George Eliot in the ninth grade: he, too, had to read "Silas Marner." So when Baker learned that another Eliot novel, "Middlemarch," was scheduled for "Masterpiece Theatre," the PBS series' new host grudgingly picked up a copy-"expecting to be asleep by page 10." Instead, an astonished Baker found himself "hopelessly hooked." Us, too, only we were converted by six hours of irresistibly intelligent costume drama. Importing the latest BBC smash, public TV is about to do for Eliot what it did for Galsworthy and Waugh. Sort of getting out the words.

"Middlemarch," airing over six Sundays starting April 10, transports us to a 19th-century British village confronting the Industrial Revolution. On its simplest level, it traces two calamitous marriages: one between the sweet, idealistic Dorothea Brooke (Juliet Aubrey) and priggishly meanspirited Rev. Edward Casaubon (Patrick Malahide), the other pairing equally idealistic Dr. Tertius Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) with the wretchedly selfish Rosamond Vincy (Trevyn McDowell). Eliot surrounds them with a menagerie of twits, hypocrites, ne'er-do-wells, grasping old buzzards and viper-tongued dowagers. If "Middlemarch" is a metaphor for Victorian society, it's as bleak as they come.

Eliot, however, knew how to forge surprising connections, and so does this intricately woven adaptation. It deftly finds links between political corruption and sexual frustration, between scientific entropy and religious hypocrisy, even anticipates contemporary feminism through the emotional strangulation of its heroine. (Eliot, on the other hand, rebelled against Victorian convention by taking up with a married man.) "Middlemarch" stuffs all this into a yeasty mix of disillusionment and betrayal, liberally salted with satiric touches worthy of Trollope. "He's coarse and butcherlike," sniffs a snooty matron about her young new doctor. "But he understood my constitution."

At the epic's core, Aubrey, barely a year out of drama school, gets the endearingly foolish Dorothea exactly right; she's the next Emma Thompson. Equally memorable are Rufus Sewell as the brooding artist who heats Dorothea's hormones and Michael Hordern as a sinfully rich miser who deliciously torments his avaricious relations. "Middlemarch" is the most expensive production in BBC history, and it shows. Grand estates and opulent banquets-you half expect Sebastian Flyte to stroll by. Scriptwriter Andrew Davies even invented some bodice-ripping; he straightfacedly claims that Eliot's ghost "pestered" him to steam things up. But for most viewers, the vivid humanity of "Middlemarch's" inhabitants offers reason enough to visit. These characters are so irresistibly involving "we'd like to tap them on the shoulder and give them a friendly warning." That's from Russell Baker, who's learned that ninth graders don't know everything.