Middlemarch begins and ends with Dorothea Brooke. The novel opens with a Prelude and closes with a Finale that frame Dorothea’s story with that of Saint Theresa (as the novel spells her name). The novel’s first paragraph reads:
Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.
The narrator observes that Theresa “was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.”
These later-born Theresas “were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.”
Ardor is Dorothea’s leading characteristic. Dorothea, we soon discover, is one of these “later born Theresas.” She yearns for the epic life, but her circumstances afford no path to fulfillment.
As the narrator puts it in the novel’s Finale: “A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone.”
What about George Eliot? She may be “a new Theresa” herself. I held the question in abeyance while reading the novel.
Eliot playfully raises the question of authorship in the Finale. Referring to Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, happily married at last, the narrator relates:
Fred surprised his neighbors in various ways. He became rather distinguished in his side of the county as a theoretic and practical farmer, and produced a work on the “Cultivation of Green Crops and the Economy of Cattle-Feeding” which won him high congratulations at agricultural meetings. In Middlemarch admiration was more reserved: most persons there were inclined to believe that the merit of Fred’s authorship was due to his wife, since they had never expected Fred Vincy to write on turnips and mangel-wurzel.
But when Mary wrote a little book for her boys, called “Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch,” and had it printed and published by Gripp & Co., Middlemarch, every one in the town was willing to give the credit of this work to Fred, observing that he had been to the University, “where the ancients were studied,” and might have been a clergyman if he had chosen.
In this way it was made clear that Middlemarch had never been deceived, and that there was no need to praise anybody for writing a book, since it was always done by somebody else.
Middlemarch comes to us under the name of George Eliot. By the time of the novel’s publication in 1871 and 1872 everyone knew that George Eliot was Marian Evans. Unlike the citizens of Middlemarch, a grateful reader will feel the need to praise George Eliot/Marian Evans because we know who wrote the book. Against the currents of the time, in Middlemarch George Eliot found her medium and “walked forth” to give us an epic novel of ordinary life.