Dorothea finds Casaubon dead, from a painting by W. L. Taylor.
In her novel Middlemarch, George Eliot describes a culture and era which was for her, and her original readers, recent and familiar. Although it is a work of Victorian-era artistic conscience, Middlemarch’s focus is in fact on the epoch immediately preceding
Middlemarch is a curious work insofar in that it’s a work of great expanse – and length, dear reader! – and yet it retains a personal intimacy comparable to Jane Austen’s works, as it charts several specific stories engaging a select group of characters, whose fates entwine in overt and subtle fashions: the first major character, and the dominant figure in the book, is Dorothea Brooke, the niece and ward of Mr Arthur Brooke. Contrasted by her perceptibly more sensible, and yet actually, utterly uninteresting, conformist sister Celia, Dorothea, at the conclusion of her teenage years, pours both her natural adolescent fervour and frustrated intellectual yearnings firstly into a passionate religiosity, and subsequently into an ill-advised marriage with Edward Casaubon, a middle-aged cleric and scholar whose object of a life of intellectual labour is a tome that resembles something not so far from Frazier’s The Golden Bough and the works of Joseph Campbell, a key to the shared roots of all mythologies. But Casaubon, an heir who’s never struggled for a moment in his life, has grown stale in mind and emotions, his learning proves to be general pedantry, and the image of intellectual greatness that makes Dorothea smitten with him fades in the instant she marries him and therefore can’t escape her poor choice.
Dorothea soon enough finds, without quite perceiving it, a more fitting and attractive beau in the form of Will Ladislaw, a young scholar and artist who’s benefited, without much mutual respect or gratitude, from Casaubon’s patronage: Casaubon’s fortune came to him thanks to Will’s mother being disinherited for making her own way in the world as an actress, and eventually marrying a Polish immigrant. Will and Casaubon’s characters as well as social positions and ideals of vitality are highly divergent, and Will and Dorothea’s unconscious magnetic attraction hardens Casaubon’s dislike of his nephew, and as his and Dorothea’s marriage calcifies, his flashes of jealousy and pettiness concord with a quickening physical rot that overtakes him. This romantic triangle is contrasted by the swift marriage of seemingly well-matched ages and physiognomies, as Tertius Lydgate, a young reform-minded doctor who makes waves in Middlemarch with his haughty disregard for settled habits, marries Rosamond Vincy, the beautiful, spoilt daughter of the new mayor of Middlemarch, mill proprietor Mr Vincy.
Rosamond and Lydgate’s marriage proves however just as disastrous as the Casaubons’, for Lydgate and Rosamond absolutely fail to deal with each other during a fiscal crisis early in their marriage, and Lydgate, far from realising his genuine ambitions to become a pioneer of medical science, gives in to his wife’s wilful dictates. Rosamond’s brother Fred, introduced as a callow gadabout who’s flunked out of the university studies he was undertaking in order to join the gentlemanly clergy as was his father’s dream, expects a large inheritance from a perverse aged relation, Peter Featherstone. But when that expectation is dashed in a series of mordantly hilarious circumstances, he’s humiliated in the eyes of his lifelong love Mary Garth, who’s been working for Featherstone, since her manager father Caleb had fallen on lean times, an humiliation compounded by the fact Caleb has to then pay Fred’s debts. Lydgate’s patron in Middlemarch is the unctuous, much-disliked but powerful banker Nicholas Bulstrode, whose investments and charity works are always designed to further the influence of his elevated Protestant theology.
The historic milieu that Middlemarch recounts is defined by its transience, between the Regency and Napoleonic Wars, and the ascension of
Within this social landscape, individual human dramas are defined by the constant push and pull of aspiration and actuality, and the way one can alter the other. “It is…the community that preserves…an inherited wisdom about the human condition…it is the medium in which the individual lives, and shapes his destiny,” as R. T. Jones put it in his 1970 survey of Eliot’s work, and Middlemarch is defined by a contrapuntal reflection between the acts of its heroes and the reactions of social choruses. The major protagonists are defined by compliance to a personal dominant honour and circumspection, enforced by condition and custom but also quite often welling from a deep interior conflict between desired end and inner scruple. Constantly reiterated throughout the novel is the fact that characters with new-fangled outlooks and notions are all the more conscious of behaving in a fashion correct both in the eyes of others and within themselves. Thus Will, a young man with a free-ranging artistic, political, and philosophical mind, is rigidly dismissive to the legacy offered him stemming from disreputable business dealings, and courtly in the extreme towards his forbidden object of desire, Dorothea, after she has been widowed. Dorothea, with her fulsome ambitions to work for social good and intellectual fulfilment, initially expresses her longings through a marriage that proves disastrous, and channels them into religious dogmatism, abnegation, and scholarship that is retrograde, maintains a determination to live up to her choice.
George Henry Lewes as a young man, by Anne Gliddon
In this way marriage, the binding of distinct personalities, considered far beyond mere expression of immediate personal desires, becomes vehicle for the attendant concerns of money, property, and propriety. Dorothea’s first husband, Casaubon, seems a personification of the unpleasant qualities Mary Garth associates with the genteel clergy, and yet he beguiles Dorothea at first with a vision of towering, unimpeded intellect and labours of great spiritual worth. His increasingly aloof, controlling intent exacerbates exactly the situation he fears, and he becomes, whilst not altogether unsympathetic, a kind of fossilised example of a waning, inarguable patriarchal authority rooted in possessor’s privilege, and religious and scholarly orthodoxy. Rosamond Vincy becomes avatar of corrosive self-interest and firm, insensitive willpower, although, ironically but logically, as a pretty and respected native of Middlemarch, none of the same level of social disapproval falls on her as it does on assailed outsiders like her husband and Ladislaw.
Lydgate, before marrying her, has pretences to achieving greatness in medical circles as a researcher, a pretence gradually ruined by debt, the wiles of his wife, and his own guardedness, so he settles for being merely a “successful man,” an amusing antithesis, but also a reduction that seems tragically unfair. And yet Lydgate conforms entirely to the expectations of family and society he imposes on himself in marrying Rosamond. The inability of individuals to escape such binds of imposition, for which marriage is both common example and neat metaphor, is something both Lydgate and Dorothea repeat. Both do their best to please their partners through support and capitulation, but both face obstacles that cannot be surmounted, stoked by Lydgate and Casaubon’s shared trait of intense, elevated pride that exacerbates rather than leavens their situations. Lydgate himself, although desiring to define himself an explorer of new medical worlds, and brusquely dismissive of entrenched interests and received thinking within his professional sphere, is unimaginative and inflexible, even innately conservative, beyond it, and is weak in the world in a way that is described long before he marries.
For her part, Dorothea’s ambitions to find herself a niche in which action and engagement, with both a factual world of people in need and with a high-minded life, and desire to become part of a great man’s life and therefore expand her own moral and intellectual horizons, is expressed through marriage, a path to self-fulfilment that sees her first subordinated to Casaubon’s increasingly sinister prerogative, for his scholarship is, in spite of the hoped-for confluence of religious prerogative and real-world benefit, entirely divorced from any useful end. She then finally fades into social inconsequence whilst Will rises to fame with the aid of her private income. Her marriage to Casaubon is considered mildly objectionable for the unseemliness of a young woman choosing an older man for his mental faculties rather than physical desirability or fiscal and social security, although the marriage does bring her the last two, at a bitter cost. Dorothea nonetheless dedicates herself to that marriage with as much fortitude as she can muster, reduced in essence to unpaid secretary and servant to Casaubon’s embittered and paranoid will, and their union proves to embody the mustiness of the lifestyle Casaubon extols. Dorothea’s ripostes and rebuttals to her husband’s often grating insinuations and statements, however, only result in guilt-wringing bouts of illness.
Dorothea’s second marriage, to Will, brings larger external consequences, with severance from fortune and family (if temporary) and from the standards with which she has lived in the Middlemarch scheme of things. Both marriages are acts of aspiration in intent, the second even revolutionary in terms of the expectation of her relations and peers. Yet each marriage, to some extent, removes from Dorothea the self-animating will and sense of mission that drives her during both her adolescence at the outset, and then in her extended period of widowhood, and “the emphasis is all on aspiration, very little on achievement,” as Robert Speaight put it. Even within herself, Dorothea is a bundle of contradictions, imbued with enormous capacity for feeling and sympathy, and yet early on, at least, expresses herself through priggish, abstaining conduct. A link between Dorothea and Rosamond is discernable, in spite of their disparate natures and deeper than their mutual attachment to Will. That similarity is found in their essential dissatisfaction with being passive agents in how their own lives are to proceed, and can both be described as “victims of their fancies.” Both embark on marriage as much in the hope it will change their world, in reaction to their home lives. In Dorothea’s case, to swap the haze and dismissiveness of Mr Brooke’s upbringing for elevation into exalted spheres of learning and achievement, in Rosamond’s for the far more worldly end of entering aristocratic circles and bathing in attendant glamour distant from Mr Vincy’s cash-conscious volatility. For both, ambitions have to be filtered through marriage and its attendant submission to a sentimental form of neutrality and sublimation, a submission Rosamond resists in relation to Lydgate, and which Casaubon tries to impose on Dorothea even after death.
"Middlemarch", by Stephen Alcorn
Middlemarch is also a vicinity of ironies and hypocrisies. Mr Brooke, genial, pro-reform independent political candidate, is a tightwad about maintaining his property and tenants. Bulstrode, apostle and arbiter, made his fortune out of pawnbroking and dubious deals and can contemplate manslaughter to protect his reputation. The Casaubon fortune too, with its idyllic estates and great house replete with the signifiers of careless luxury and scholastic wealth, a summit of genteel aspiration, is based in the same, dirt-smeared processes of exploitation and pretence. The scandal of Bulstrode and Lydgate “gathered a zest which could not be won from the question whether the Lords would throw out the Reform Bill,” a deliberate phrase that links the failures of both men’s differing crusading spirits in the face of enthused reactionary attitude and the high political manifestation of a similar sentiment. A constant quid pro quo in social, moral, and personal values is detailed, as positions of power and reliance are altered and often reversed. Twinning opposites are continually described, through characters like Will, the “gypsy” rebel, and Bulstrode, dean of Middlemarch capitalism and tireless labourer for God’s glory – if strictly in terms of his denominational preference – are found to be intricately linked, and likewise with Casaubon, pillar of learned clergy and landed gentry, and both elders hide deplorable characteristics, where Will’s intelligence, honour, and careful progressive ideals count for little in the face of xenophobia and expedient prejudice.
Poor marriages and unfortunate alliances are easily made; more fitting ones constantly impeded by decorum and economics, and also sometimes through good sense. Through Will and Dorothea, and other characters, adherence to customary social forms of etiquette and behaviour is confirmed as a necessary codicil to any novel outlook, partly to justify and paint in the best light those outlooks, for even the whiff of wrongdoing gives conservatives a weapon, and because of a logical link in the author’s mind that a dedication to progress is a hallmark of a highly conscientious character. Even Casuabon’s and Bulstrode’s actions spring from an overwhelming, almost morbid sensitivity, and whilst he cannot be called a reformer so much as a zealot, Bulstrode’s cash and dedication is vital to Lydgate’s efforts as medical progressive. And yet, often, acting in pure accord to both custom and conscience finally provides as many problems as it checks, as, for instance, Lydgate’s affectations conspire to cut off all but his last, most odious recourse.
The punishment for even minor violations or evasions of strict responsibilities can be severe, as proves all too accurate in the case of Lydgate, and for Bulstrode, whose own agenda is gleefully sabotaged by the enemies he has made, after the return and then suspicious death of the sleazy reprobate Raffles, his foil in the novel’s second half. Whilst to a certain extent imbuing the likes of Will and Dorothea with such exacting private standards, as opposed to the likes of Rosamond and Bulstrode, serves the familiar need of a dramatic author to render the figures intended as exemplary and those who are not in their necessary, exclusive light, it also offers the firm assurance that fibre, and the capacity to withstand and absorb abuse and compromise, is a necessary characteristic of the first-rate human. Lydgate, for instance, is entirely defeated precisely because he is too rigid to conciliate: his capitulation, to Rosamond, to monetary imperative, to Middlemarch’s rejection, is total rather than arbitrated.
Eliot’s ambition then to create a narrative that describes what is a lucidly probable and prognosticative account, albeit with positive results and instructive lessons attached (as opposed to one in which various ideals are illustrated and fulfilled, or pointedly unfulfilled), can be described as quintessentially “realist”, and the manner in which she thoroughly describes a precise sense of the relationship between individual and society, essayed through an “interpreting intelligence” as a hallmark of that style, as C. P. Snow summed that genre up. The gift that Eliot’s authorial voice offers the reader is one lacking for the characters, the capacity to leap from one viewpoint to another, conceive discursive perspectives and how they collude to create painful situations, of the “inevitable incompleteness of every human judgement” on any action, except, in glimmerings, for Dorothea. All deeds and consequences are considered in both their personal and public light, “compelled by many conflicting currents in their daily flow” (Speaight) and Middlemarch presents that populace as a fully functioning organism, with a heart and its own systole and diastole motions.
In terms of pure craft, Middlemarch, in spite of its length, is a dream of a book, Dickensian in its humour and evocation of human peculiarity, but not half as overgrown in prose, Austen-esque in its intricate sense of the interpersonal, but far wider in the scope of its awareness and depth of its portraiture. Many commentators over the years have found Will an insufficient character, a censure which characters intended as good generally draw. He’s not the kind of bitingly convincing figure who can drive the reader insane with their sorry aspects, like Rosamond or Raffles, or the kind to move you with efforts to find their better nature, like Fred. But Will’s keenly described psychological reflexes, in trying to avoid facing his own terminal attraction to his “aunt,” and his hot, suggestively resentful sense of his own outsider status when he lets loose in outrage at Bulstrode and Rosamond, and natural his bohemianism – he likes to lie on the carpet of people he visits – nonetheless make him a far more convincing and substantial character in such traits than most other idealised characters in Victorian fiction: none of the ghostly goodness of Oliver Twist or Elizabeth Bennet here. But Dorothea, whose quality is always a given but never pushed into the realm of unlikely saintliness, is by far the superior character. She moves through a series of educational tragedies and often fails in tact and form, and whilst her innate integrity doesn’t change, the way it expresses itself, and the ideals she pours it into, are convincingly remoulded and fortified by life.
Eliot was also often perceived as a woman who insisted on a high moral tone in her books, perhaps to compensate for own her mildly scandalous relationship with George Henry Lewes, whom Will is partly based on. It’s certainly true of Middlemarch that she emphasises that behaviour has inescapable consequences, and adherence to propitious norms is necessary for happiness in life. And yet the quiet crackle of the erotic is almost always tangible in, say, Will's conversations with Dorothea, so that it’s not too hard to see why Casaubon goes rigid at the merest sight of them together. Such a crackle is also preset in Lydgate and Rosamond’s flirtations, and interestingly absent from Fred and Mary’s relationship, which began and has remained largely pre-adolescent in its purity. Eliot’s slow-burn narrative pays off with several scenes that are sheer beauties in climactic effect, and yet which are nothing, in terms of any external drama: Dorothea’s appeal to Rosamond to be a better partner to her husband, a moment which sees the two women joined in momentary fellowship, and, then, Dorothea’s explosive spurning of all she possesses for the inevitable clinch with Will, in Casaubon’s deserted, cavernous, shadowy house as a thunderstorm erupts outside. It’s the kind of romantic melodrama that
As Middlemarch’s narrative draws to a close, of her major protagonists, some find fulfilment, others prosperity, but the two are not necessarily mutual. The immediate story concludes with the rejection of the Reform Bill, whilst Lydgate and Rosamond, Mr and Mrs Bulstrode, and Will and Dorothea all must leave Middlemarch, the median nature of which is suggested by its very name: it is the centre, the core, the given, the banal and the essential. Lydgate does well for himself, but considers himself a failure. Will is elected to parliament and becomes a man of note, at the expense of Dorothea’s shrinkage to mere social appendage. All of these are ambiguous, imperfect ends that seem symptomatic of their era and human relations within them. But Eliot reminds us that she is writing of the past, and that such was the nature of things, she suggests, whilst the future has already happened and will go on happening. In Dorothea, most clearly, awareness of humanity as a shared state, sensing “the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labor and endurance…that involuntary, palpitating life”, rather than as a net of limitations, a new reality awakens, and all these were skirmishes in an ongoing struggle for society and the self.
Bullett, George 1947, George Eliot: Her Life and Books, Collins,
Jones, R. T. 1970, George Eliot,
Snow, C.P. 1978, The Realists, MacMillan,