Thursday, June 18, 2020

Lessons from Middlemarch

Some say that Middlemarch by George Eliot is the greatest Victorian novel ever written.  Poet Emily Dickinson said of it, "What do I think of Middlemarch?  What do I think of glory -- except that in a few instances 'this mortal [George Eliot] has already put on immortality.'"  That is high praise.  And, in my humble opinion, Middlemarch is a novel worthy of such praise.

First a little background.  George Eliot is the pen name of Mary Anne Evans.  Evans originally envisioned two different stories, which she later blended into one novel.  Middlemarch was published in eight volumes from 1871-1872.

The title comes from the name of a fictitious English town.  Middlemarch has a very wide scope.  The complexity of the town is represented through a long list of characters, who come from all levels and aspects of society.  Eliot often uses the image of a web in her descriptions.  The citizens of Middlemarch are interconnected in various ways and the politics and gossip of the small, provincial town are also entangling like strands of a web.

It's interesting to compare Eliot with another famous English novelist: Jane Austen.  Every Austen novel begins with a single young woman and then follows said woman's journey to marriage.  Each novel ends with a marriage proposal.  Austen's focus is really courtship.  Eliot, however, has her two principle characters marry in the beginning, in the first section of the book.  Middlemarch then traces the journeys of those married lives.  Courtship is certainly adventure, but marriage not any less so ... maybe even more.

Marriage is one of the main themes of Middlemarch.  It's a little ironic, I think, since Eliot herself spent most of her life unmarried.  She lived in an adulterous relationship with a man for many years and considered herself married to him, though in fact, they were not.

Let's start by looking at one of the main characters, Dorothea Brooke.  Dorothea is an ardent, humble, compassionate, and generous young woman.  Eliot paints her as a kind of St. Teresa of Avila: a reformer.  Dorothea has great aspirations and hopes in her heart.  She would like to make life better for those around her.  

"I should like to make life beautiful--I mean everybody's life."

Initially, she does this by trying to create better homes for the poor tenants on her uncle's estate.  She realizes though that, as a woman, her ability to affect change is limited.  Hence, Dorothea looks to marriage as the way she can live out her desire to reform and help those in need.

Her sight is set upon Edward Casaubon, an academic about twenty years her senior.  Dorothea thinks that Casaubon will be the one to help her gain the knowledge and wisdom she lacks.  

"He thinks with me," said Dorothea to herself ...

She herself, as a woman, cannot become a learned scholar, but she anticipates that Casaubon may be both her husband and her teacher.  She perceives him as the guide who will take her along the greater path.  In turn, she is eager to be his helpmate and assistant.  Since he is older, Casaubon's eyesight is failing.  Dorothea desires to be his eyes and to help him in what she perceives is a task of great influence and important: writing his Key to All Mythologies.  

 " ... it always seemed to me that the use I should like to make of my life would be to help some one who did great works, so that his burthen might be lighter."

Her relatives and friends all discourage her from pursuing a marriage to Casaubon, but Dorothea ignores their advice.  She is a very headstrong woman and, once she becomes passionate about an idea, she is hard to deter.  

Eliot makes it clear from the beginning that this marriage will not be easy.  The issue is that, when a man and woman enter into marriage, they both have expectations of what that married life like will be like: what they desire and hope from the other.  What happens when those expectations don't align?  People often talk about finding their "soul mate."  But what if you marry someone who isn't your soul mate?  What what happens if you marry the wrong person?  

She was always trying to be what her husband wished, and never able to repose on his delight in what she was.

Mr. Casaubon's expectations are entirely different from Dorothea.  First, they have contrasting personalities, which are not complimentary.  Where Dorothea is passionate, youthful, and lively, Mr. Casaubon is slow, aged, and deliberate.  Even his mannerisms are tedious: Eliot describes him as slowly nodding his head in assent.  His knowledge is characterized as a "lifeless embalmment."  He describes himself thus:

"I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with the dead.  My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes."

As a husband, Mr. Casaubon is pathetic.  He takes Dorothea to Rome for their honeymoon, but spends the day in the Vatican libraries alone, pouring over research and compiling notes for his always-ongoing, never-completed book.  When they have an argument concerning that very book, Dorothea is the first the apologize, with tears of remorse, but Mr. Casaubon offers no apology for his wrongdoing.  He is emotionally vacant and physically distant.  

"What is that, my love?" said Mr. Casaubon (he always said "my love" when his manner was the coldest).

It feels like Dorothea loses herself in this marriage.  It's a question that I often pondered as I read Middlemarch.  Obviously as a wife, you should give yourself to your husband, serving him generously and selflessly.  But, on the other hand, you aren't called to be a doormat, to entirely ignore your own needs and dreams.  In my past life, I found that I would revert to whatever another person wanted, keeping my own desires silent, for the sake of "people pleasing."  If someone were to ask me what kind of movie we should see, I often would reply, "Oh, whatever you want" -- as though my opinion didn't really matter.  I'm not so sure that this is virtue; it feels more like low self-esteem, shyness, or lack of fortitude.  Dorothea seems guilty of this, too.  For example, during their engagement, when Mr. Casaubon asks her how she would like her rooms decorated in their home, she responds that she prefers whatever he would like.  

Dorothea lives her marriage in complete submission to Mr. Casaubon, as a kind of virtue.  Renunciation and duty are the driving forces for her marriage.  Perhaps this would lead to a healthy and loving marriage, if her husband acted the same in return.  Such is not the case, however.  

When would the days begin of that active wifely devotion which was to strengthen her husband's life and exalt her own?  Never perhaps ...

Dorothea's expectations of married life are entirely dashed.  Mr. Casaubon is not at all interested in elevating his wife's knowledge.  He does not consider her someone capable of learning such as he.  But just as devastating is Dorothea's gradual realization that Mr. Casaubon's lifelong labor of love, his Key to All Mythologies, is irrelevant and needless.  She learns, from Mr. Casaubon's cousin, that the German scholars have long since discussed this topic and have shifted the intellectual debate to a new angle.  Casaubon's unfinished work will add nothing to the conversation (especially since he cannot read the German texts).  So, what great task, what lofty work, is there for Dorothea to even assist in?  It is all for naught.

... had she not wished to marry him that she might help him in his life's labor?—But she had thought the work was to be something greater, which she could serve in devoutly for its own sake. Was it right, even to soothe his grief—would it be possible, even if she promised—to work as in a treadmill fruitlessly?

Eliot, however, is brilliant in her writing because, as horribly as she paints Mr. Casaubon, she doesn't make him the villain; she makes the reader actually sympathize with him.  Though his behavior toward Dorothea is despicable, Eliot changes the perspective and reveals that Mr. Casaubon had his own expectations of marriage.  He wanted a wife who would sit in awe of his writing and academic efforts.  

Instead, Dorothea's efforts to assist and encourage strike him as a critique and interference.  When she urges him to at last finish his book, he reacts defensively.  Who was she to know when his notes and preparation were ready?  He already felt internally insecure about his project ... he didn't even want to voice to himself that his book would never bring him the fame and respect he desired.  How much worse to have his wife, whom he expected to be his ally and supporter, be the judge--she who knew so little?  

He distrusted her affection; and what loneliness is more lonely than distrust?

Dorothea's character finds a parallel in the figure of Tertius Lydgate, a newcomer to Middlemarch.  Lydgate is a doctor who, like Dorothea, hopes to do great things to help others.  He desires to advance in the medical field, to help others through his research.  He cares for his patients and sincerely seeks the best remedy for their conditions (not just prescribing medicine in order to get some extra cash in his pocket, as his colleagues do).  

Lydgate doesn't intend to marry, since he wants to devote his energy and time to the medical cause.  But then he meets Rosamond Vincy.  She is Dorothea's foil; where Dorothea constantly gives and gives of herself, Rosamond seeks to gain.  Her expectations are to climb the social ladder of society and, similar to Dorothea, she cannot do that on her own as a woman.  She needs a husband who will elevate her to the upper echelon of society.  Rosamond sets her sight on Lydgate, whom she believes is wealthy and from a high, respectable family.

Rosamond and Lydgate

Rosamond is a pupil of a woman's school and knows just the right way to turn her delicate head to give her profile its best advantage.  She has rejected all the Middlemarch suitors: she wants an outsider who will get her out of this provincial town.  She acts as though she is playing a part in a play ... and she is the star.

Lydgate completely falls for her charms.  He marries Rosamond, confident that he has found "perfect womanhood."  His expectations for marriage are high.

[Rosamond would be an] accomplished creature who venerated his high musings and momentous labors and would never interfere with them; who would create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment; who was instructed to the true womanly limit and not a hair's-breadth beyond—docile, therefore, and ready to carry out behests which came from that limit.

Lydgate, never before concerned about financial concerns, piles up a large debt in buying and preparing a new home.  Soon both he and his wife find that their expectations are far from being met.  They are unhappy.  Rosamond is devastated when Lydgate reveals they must economize and even purposefully thwarts his effort to put their house up for rent.  Lydgate finds that Rosamond is repulsed by his research and scientific talk.  She is not a docile wife; despite his pleas and rationales, she calmly and collectedly does what she wants.  

Between him and her indeed there was that total missing of each other's mental track, which is too evidently possible even between persons who are continually thinking of each other.

Marriage is such a fascinating relationship.  Two people can be bound together in the closest bond possible ... and yet, sometimes, that closeness makes the distance between them even greater.  At one point, Lydgate tells Rosamond, "When I hurt you, I hurt part of my own life."  What a beautiful way to describe marriage: their hurt is always shared, because husband and wife are really one.  As frustrated as Lydgate is with her, he sympathizes with Rosamond.  He knows she married him, not fully realizing what married life with him would be like.

Just like with Mr. Casaubon, Eliot elicits sympathy for Rosamund, despite her selfishness.  Perhaps she was not suited for marriage.  Maybe she would have risen through society on her own merits and abilities--if she had been a man.  Rosamond is trapped in her marriage, in its self-suppression and submission.  This is not what marriage is intended to be, but it is the reality for Lydgate and Rosamond.

Perhaps you are wondering, in these dismal portrayals of difficult marriages, whether Eliot offers any hope.  The answer is: yes.  Rosamond has a brother named Fred, who is in love with a girl named Mary Garth.  They were childhood playmates and grew-up as friends.  That solid friendship provides a strong foundation for their relationship.  Fred wishes to marry Mary, but she sets very clear expectations.  Fred has not finished school, struggles with gambling, and hasn't proven himself dependable.  Mary tells him he must finish school, pay his debts, and hold down a solid job before they can marry.  There is romance, prudence, and--with clear expectations--they are able to enjoy a married life as husband and wife.  

Eliot's Middlemarch is a fascinating read and certainly gives the reader much to ponder, especially regarding marriage.  Dorothea and Rosamond find themselves in similar, dismal marriages, but they handle it in contrasting ways: Dorothea by self-sacrificing her desires to serve her husband; Rosamond by asserting his own desires to the detriment of her husband.  No marriage is without its time of struggle and pain.  But, as Eliot poignantly writes, it is always an epic journey.

Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning, as it was to Adam and Eve, who kept their honeymoon in Eden, but had their first little one among the thorns and thistles of the wilderness. It is still the beginning of the home epic—the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent unravelling of a classic novel that I knew little about before you read it!