Notes on “Middlemarch” (2)

Though Middlemarch has a large cast of characters involved in intricately related plots, Dorothea Brooke stands out as the book’s heroine. The narrative begins and ends with her. Book I of the novel’s eight Books is “Miss Brooke.”

She is a young woman of simple beauty and surpassing decency. She yearns idealistically to benefit humanity, or subordinate herself as the helpmate of a great man like John Milton in his blindness. Yet she is exceedingly foolish.

The novel commences with a Prelude meditating on the life Saint Theresa and “later born Theresas” who “found for themselves no epic life[.]” One such failed Theresa is Dorothea Brooke, with whom chapter 1 opens:

Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress. Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of a fine quotation from the Bible,—or from one of our elder poets,—in a paragraph of to-day’s newspaper. She was usually spoken of as being remarkably clever, but with the addition that her sister Celia had more common-sense.

Dorothea virtually wills herself to fall in love with Edward Casaubon, an insufferably dry and pompous scholar whose lifework is The Key To All Mythologies. Casaubon is some 25 years’ Dorothea’s senior. Sisters Dorothea and Celia are orphans raised by their uncle, Arthur Brooke. Casaubon is old enough to be Dorothea’s father.

We sense that Casaubon is far from great and that he is never to complete his lifework or find the key. Nevertheless, we won’t forget Casauubon either.

We see Casaubon through Dorothea’s eyes. Dorothea sees Casaubon as a great man, possibly the likes of Milton or Locke. We see him through the eyes of Dorothea’s younger sister, Celia. Celia is horrified by Casaubon’s unattractive physical attributes. We see Casaubon through the eyes of the young Will Ladislaw, the cousin of Casaubon whose role looms large in the course of the novel. He sees Casaubon’s scholarship as outdated by advances elsewhere. We see Casaubon through the eyes of Celia’s husband, Sir James Chettam. He is not impressed.

Dorothea’s relationship with Casaubon is only one of several plots in the novel. Indeed, it is only one of several marriage plots. Among other things, which I am neglecting here, the novel investigates marriages good and bad. It gives us a lot to think about on this score.

Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon is not good. It is probably worse than we expected. Casaubon is both laughable and unlikable. Dorothea remains unfailingly loving and loyal. Whatever her faults, she deserves better than Casaubon. We cannot help but want better for her. We (okay, I) resent Casaubon.

The narrator of Middlemarch is frequently confused with the book’s author; I believe the narrator is an interesting character in his own right, although he is generally omniscient in the traditional Victorian style. In chapter 10, however, the narrator refuses to predict the future of Will Ladislaw. Let him move on, the narrator says, “without our pronouncing on his future. Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous.” The narrator represents a consciousness apart from Eliot’s, something like the consciousness of the community.

As the narrator traces the arc of Dorothea’s marriage, at the opening of chapter 29, about a third of the way into the novel, he dramatically inserts himself to give us Casaubon’s perspective:

One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick [home], Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us. He had done nothing exceptional in marrying—nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets. It had occurred to him that he must not any longer defer his intention of matrimony, and he had reflected that in taking a wife, a man of good position should expect and carefully choose a blooming young lady—the younger the better, because more educable and submissive—of a rank equal to his own, of religious principles, virtuous disposition, and good understanding. On such a young lady he would make handsome settlements, and he would neglect no arrangement for her happiness: in return, he should receive family pleasures and leave behind him that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required of a man—to the sonneteers of the sixteenth century. Times had altered since then, and no sonneteer had insisted on Mr. Casaubon’s leaving a copy of himself; moreover, he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key; but he had always intended to acquit himself by marriage, and the sense that he was fast leaving the years behind him, that the world was getting dimmer and that he felt lonely, was a reason to him for losing no more time in overtaking domestic delights before they too were left behind by the years.

And when he had seen Dorothea he believed that he had found even more than he demanded…

“Why always Dorothea?” This is a remarkable moment.

Dorothea fails in her dreams of greatness. The narrative seeks to reconcile us to our disappointments. It urges us to do good deeds. It counsels us that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts[.]” It accords recognition to “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life[.]”

Yet George Eliot has accomplished something great with this novel. I hope to wind up these notes with a part 3 that briefly considers Saint Theresa/Dorothea Brooke/George Eliot.


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