George Eliot on Marriage, Human Nature, Money, Politics, Religion, Feminism, and Gossip in Middlemarch
Well, that title is quite a mouthful. I should’ve just said that George Eliot covers just about everything in her 800-page novel Middlemarch (1874), number 20 on the BBC book list. I decided to read Middlemarch at the same time as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Let’s just say, Middlemarch is now finished, and War and Peace may never be! That was a mistake, to start both of those novels together. I may resort to listening to War and Peace on tape.
As promised, this week is Middlemarch Week on my blog. All three of my posts will be about the novel. If you’d like to see the first post, click here. The post you are reading today is about the meat of the novel, but I have glossed over it (not purposefully) because it is so rich that Eliot deserves an entire feast. Dissertations have and could be and will be written on the complexities of provincial Middlemarch and its inhabitants.
Here’s my humble take.
Middlemarch is mostly about marriage. It is a study of several marriages and what makes them work (and not work).
At the outset, Dorothea Brooke marries Mr. Casaubon because he reminds her of Locke, Milton, Pascal, and Smith. These are big shoes to fill, especially for an old scholar who just wants to be left alone in his library and not have his young and pretty wife visited by dashing young nephews. Casaubon and Dorothea are both disappointed in this marriage. She makes the marriage somewhat quickly and foolishly, and I believe regrets her decision, although she’d never admit it because, “No other woman exists by the side of her” (741). She’s nearly perfect, and angelic really, in a Christian sense.
Yet, her marriage to Casaubon falls apart, and just when her husband’s cold attitude toward her seems unbearable, he dies. He dies! Hurray. It was the moment I waited for. But wait, there’s a catch. He puts a codicil in his will stating that if she remarries Will Ladislaw, his nephew, then she will not be heir to his fortune. It really is a conundrum. Not only does this stall a marriage that would be made for love, but it supposes that Dorothea was unfaithful and that there had been some hanky panky going on with Will. Yet, as we know, Dorothea is perfect, so she had never even had that thought cross her mind, although she enjoyed talking, laughing, and joking with Will when her husband was not at home. (I think she knew her feelings.) For Will’s part, he fell totally in love with her before Casaubon died, so there is a little bit of guilt there. But alas, they cannot be together. Disgrace!
Another marriage that Eliot closely examines is that of the doctor, Tertius Lydgate, to Rosamond. The two marry for love, but when times get tough financially, Rosamond is stubborn, unyielding, and downright cold. Eliot’s description of their slow descent into unhappiness and their fights over money is quite ingenious. She writes both parts fairly, and it came off of the page as a real life marriage, especially where men and women are concerned. Rosamond would say cruel things, Lydgate would fire back, then Rosamond would cry, and Lydgate would feel guilty. This happened over and over. Eventually, they work things out, thanks to the angelic Dorothea.
Many times in the novel marriage is described as an institution in which women are captive, and it is often described as a lonely institution. Distrust and loneliness are often linked in the novel, and interestingly, marriage is the site of much of these emotions. We see this played out in Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon and in Lydgate’s marriage to Rosamond.
On Human Nature
Eliot’s characters are realistic because she writes human nature perfectly. I couldn’t help but gasp at a few of her descriptions, knowing exactly what she described, yet not having it come across as clichéd or wooden. That is the magic of her writing. Here are some examples.
When Dorothea asks Casaubon at one point if he is satisfied with their trip and his ability to study during that trip, Eliot wrote: “‘Yes,’ said Mr. Casaubon, with that peculiar pitch of voice which makes the word half a negative” (190). You know that pitch! I know it! It’s the voice my husband uses when I ask him if we can watch an American Girl movie with our oldest daughter, or when I dress myself in something that doesn’t quite match. “Do I look okay?” “Yes,” he’ll respond, with that same peculiar voice. I guess a better example would be when women ask men, “Does my butt look fat?” There’s just no right answer.
In another instance, when Mrs. Garth discovers a loss of money from Fred’s stupidity, Eliot wrote: “There was an evident change in Mrs. Garth’s face, but it was like a change below the surface of water which remains smooth” (235). You know you’re in trouble when somebody gives you that face. And you know exactly what that face feels like. We all make it, especially when trying to keep a mask of calm when a storm is raging within.
Eliot has a lot to say about money, and it mostly intersects with marriage. We all know how troublesome money can be in a marriage, and I remember hearing somewhere that it is the number one cause of divorce among couples.
This is true for Lydgate and Rosamond. They fight over money. Yet, before they marry, Rosamond spends most of her time convincing her mother and father that she can handle it and that her betrothed will not end up being poor. Her mother says, “[Y]ou are not fit to marry a poor man” (283). Her mother is right, although Rosamond will not admit it and does not show her true colors until things go bad.
This line reminds me of an uncomfortable moment I had at a boyfriend’s house in high school. His family had invited me over for dinner, and while we ate and talked, his father decided to ask: “So, Emily, are you sure you’re ready to join this family?” He said it loudly, with jollity, but when everybody went silent (completely silent), his face fell and he realized his faux pas. His son and I were only 17 years old, and we were not engaged. The awkward silence only lasted a moment, and then his mother jumped in and declared snidely, “Emily’s not going to marry our son. She’s going to college, where she’ll marry a rich man!” Wow. I wanted to sink into the ground and never return. It is probably one of the most uncomfortable moments of my high school years. (Well, that and the time a Gothic girl kissed me on both cheeks in the school bathroom just to ruin my makeup with her black lipstick, but that’s another story.)
There’s a lot of politicking in Middlemarch. It is a provincial town where such events are exciting to all of the residents. It kind of reminds me of our current political environment, in which I get phone calls every single day promoting this candidate or that. In Middlemarch, candidacy is decided by men and by money and status, so not all that different from now! Some of the more memorable lines about politics follow.
“They represent the local stupidity better” (441). Uh huh.
“There is nothing more thoroughly rotten than making people believe that society can be cured by a political hocus-pocus” (442). Uh huh.
“Politics and medicine are sufficiently disagreeable to quarrel upon. You can both of you go on quarrelling with all the world and with each other on those two topics” (444). This reminds me of a familiar and more current adage: Never discuss politics or religion. That always turns out badly.
So, since we’re talking about politics, let’s tackle religion. Eliot’s work is obviously based in the Christian tradition, as is most Western literature. See my post about that here. However, she has a great line that I appreciated and that I think most people can appreciate. She wrote: “I have always been thinking of the different ways in which Christianity is taught, and whenever I find one way that makes it a wider blessing than any other, I cling to that as the truest – I mean that which takes in the most good of all kinds, and bring in the most people as sharers in it. It is surely better to pardon too much, than to condemn too much” (472). Amen to that!
I could go on and on about this topic, especially given the material in the book. I will try to keep it brief, but Eliot didn’t, so I might not. Eliot addresses the concerns women have in education and in being considered property. Dorothea is educated, interested in being more educated, and often pushed aside in her efforts to become increasingly educated. Casaubon is a scholar, and she wishes to learn what he knows, but she is always given ways to help him study that won’t be too taxing for a woman’s mind. The men in Middlemarch are condescending toward her efforts to learn more and to study with her husband. The worst offender is her uncle, Mr. Brooke. Here are some of his doozys.
“[T]hat love of knowledge . . . that sort of thing doesn’t often run in the female line; or it runs underground like the rivers in Greece, you know – it comes out in the sons. Clever sons, clever mothers” (41). I could smack him right now.
“Your sex is capricious, you know” (50). Oh, just shut up, Mr. Brooke!
Those are his best anti-feminist lines. Other characters offend as well, but I supppose that Eliot only wrote them to point out the ridiculousness of the statements.
Mrs. Plymdale thinks: “Rosamond had been educated to a ridiculous pitch, for what was the use of accomplishments which would be all laid aside as soon as she was married?” (158). Why lay them aside when you get married? Why not use them to improve the world and one’s family? The two can coexist.
Dorothea’s brother-in-law, Sir James Chettam is also quite the misogynist. He says to her, “Surely, a woman is bound to be cautious and listen to those who know the world better than she does” (700). Jerk!
His wife, Celia, defends him to Dorothea, saying, “And, of course, men know best about everything, except what women know better” (701). It’s like she realizes the ridiculousness of what she’s saying midsentence. I wonder if she learns to speak up a little more to her awful husband Sir James after that.
As to women as property, this idea is scattered throughout the book, and is obviously most prominent when Dorothea sees the codicil telling her who she can’t marry if she wants to keep her dead husband’s money. However, when he is still alive, she feels acute embarrassment at “having expressed what might be in opposition to her husband’s feeling” (351). How sad. And in this marriage, Dorothea “had been suffering from the strain and conflict of self-repression” (468). This statement sums up the entire lives of women in the Victorian era.
On top of all this, when Casaubon does die and leaves his will and nasty codicil, none of the papers is addressed to Dorothea. The papers dictate her future and tell her what she can and cannot do, but they are not addressed directly to her. He can’t even give her that sort of respect. It’s no wonder that she vows to never marry again several times, before she finally throws everything and everybody over and gives into her heart by marrying Will. That’s pretty feminist, if you ask me.
Dr. Lydgate is egregiously affected by gossip. It is the source of most of his money problems, and eventually leads to scandal, from which Rosamond wants to escape. She regrets her marriage because of it. Yet most of the problems are caused by idle talk and people sticking their noses where they don’t belong. Their entire saga can be construed as a warning against gossip.
The real star in all of these gossip-caused problems is Caleb Garth, who has become more wealthy and successful by working for Mr. Bulstrode. When he finds out that Bulstrode has been dishonest and has been spreading slander about Mr. Lydgate, Caleb does what is right, even to his own detriment. He says, “If you led a harmful life for gain, and kept others out of their rights by deceit, to get the more for yourself, I daresay you repent – you would like to go back, and can’t: that must be a bitter thing” (663). He quits the extra work Bulstrode has given him because of his principles, and he does not ever repeat of word of what he knows (the gossip) about Bulstrode to anybody. He is a true and honorable man.
At each chapter heading, Eliot uses a line or two from poems and great works. My favorite is at the heading of Chapter 69. It says: “If thou has heard a word, let it die with thee” (661).
This is one of the longest book reviews I’ve written, and I haven’t covered even the tiniest sliver of its depth and complexity. Yet, it is one of the longest books I have read on the BBC list. Middlemarch is not just lengthy, however. It is rich, full of meaning, inexplicably wonderful, and colorful. Or, as Siobhan says (in my first post here), “It’s BANANAS!”
Eliot, George. Middlemarch. New York: Modern Library, 2000.