On George Eliot’s masterwork and its enduring insights into the human heart.
“Know thyself” is easy to say; but how, exactly, are we mortals supposed to obey the Delphic command? Surely not through the human “sciences.” Psychology, sociology, and anthropology all seem misapplications of a method of inquiry too abstract to explain messy human reality, depersonalizing what is quintessentially personal. If you want to make sense of human actuality, to ponder what makes our lives meaningful and why we do what we do, think what we think, and hope what we hope, the best guide I know is literature.
A recent rereading of Middlemarch brought that thought home forcefully, and the decades since my last reading have taught me also to appreciate why so many authors consider this the greatest of all English novels, one of the few, Virginia Woolf thought, written for grown-ups. No one can pluck out the heart of our mystery, but in this 1871 novel George Eliot—the pen name of the formidable and unconventional Mary Ann Evans—comes as close as anyone to showing how our inner feelings and wishes interact with our outer circumstances, with the social and cultural climate that surrounds us, and with our personal relationships to shape our identity and fate.
Eliot sums up the complexity of her enterprise in an epigram that heads Chapter 53:
It is but a shallow haste which concludeth insincerity from what outsiders call inconsistency—putting a dead mechanism of “ifs” and “therefores” for the living myriad of hidden suckers whereby the belief and the conduct are brought into mutual sustainment.
Like the root systems of plants, so much that forms and motivates us happens below the surface, hidden not only from outsiders but also from ourselves. Our identities are organic, not mechanical. As Eliot says twice in the novel, “character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living, and changing,” a vital process no simple cause-and-effect equation can explain.
As literature so often does, Middlemarch takes courtship and marriage as its laboratory. While the proliferation of choices opened to women since Victorian times has changed marriage in the process, Middlemarch’s two central marriages nevertheless don’t bear out one character’s typically Victorian dictum that “a woman, let her be as good as she may, has to put up with the life her husband makes for her.” Nor did George Eliot have a conventional Victorian marriage. She lived openly for a quarter-century with the philosopher and proto-psychologist George Henry Lewes, who couldn’t divorce his wife, and who left his kids behind—though the unmarried Eliot called herself Mrs. Lewes. And today, no less than in Victoria’s day, the relationship we moderns have with our spouse or significant other(s), like our relationships to all those close to us, figures no less formatively in our lives.
In the first of Middlemarch’s marriages, the intellectually and ethically passionate Dorothea Brooke, not yet twenty when we meet her in 1829, doesn’t exactly fall in love with Edward Casaubon, a clergyman and scholar well over twice her age and, like her, belonging to the landed gentry. Rather, an idealist in the most literal sense, she pours all her yearning for “some lofty conception of the world,” for “intensity and greatness,” into her belief that Casaubon embodies “the higher inward life,” that he is a man “with whom there could be some spiritual communion; nay, who could illuminate principle with the widest knowledge: a man whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed!” She imagines that “he thinks a whole world of which my thought is but a poor two-penny mirror.”
And how does she reach this lofty conclusion? Well-born but (like most girls of her time) ill-taught, an orphan under the guardianship of her amiable but feckless landowning uncle, she has learned enough to know that Casaubon looks like Godfrey Kneller’s iconic portrait of John Locke—intense but remote, sharp-featured, gaunt, and worn. She hears raptly his account of his ambitious plan, on which he has spent years filling notebook after notebook with research jottings, to write a grand, unifying treatise, The Key to All Mythologies, which will show how the countless traditional stories that the world’s peoples use as metaphors to illuminate life’s mysteries all cohere, because they are distorted or embellished fragments of an account originally given man by God. What project could be grander, making its author, Dorothea thinks, half scholar, half saint? Imagine: the multiplicity of tales about the world’s origin and purpose add up to a single narrative that, if not literally true, is a mirror of divine truth! She could learn from him, she thinks, “a binding theory which could bring her own life . . . into strict connection with that amazing past.”
Since she was a little girl, Dorothea says, she always wanted to use her life “to help some one who did great works,” just as the blind John Milton’s daughters read to him and wrote down his great epic of sin and evil from dictation. Marrying Casaubon, she thinks, “would be like marrying Pascal. I should learn to see the truth by the same light as great men have seen it by.” As we all sometimes do, she reasons by analogies, not always accurate; and with such historical comparisons as her guide, no wonder she values a key to all mythologies. But did she know one of Pascal’s most memorable aphorisms: “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing”? George Eliot certainly did.
In their brief courtship, Casaubon never misrepresents what he expects from marriage. “The great charm of your sex,” he tells Dorothea, “is its capability of an ardent, self-sacrificing affection, and herein we see its fitness to round and complete the existence of our own.” But Dorothea doesn’t grasp how much self-suppression, rather than self-realization, this frigid self-centeredness has in store for her. After all, the “difficult task of knowing another soul,” Eliot remarks, is all the more difficult for those “whose consciousness is chiefly made up by their own wishes”—like all of us, some of the time—and the task is made harder still by our confusion about how much of our sentiments are creations of our minds and hearts or are accurate responses to others. As one character replies to another’s charge that he is being disagreeable, “Disagreeable is a word that describes your feelings and not my actions.”
Casaubon’s account of his magnum opus is all about the grandeur of his intention, which opens to Dorothea’s imagination unbounded vistas and a thrilling sense of revelation and liberation. “In relation to his authorship, he leaned on her young trust and veneration; he liked to draw forth her fresh interest in listening, as a means of encouragement to himself,” an antidote to his fear that other scholars don’t respect him and that he will never finish the task at which he has toiled so long in such loneliness. After all, he too is human and thus “the centre of his own world; . . . liable to think that others were providentially made for him.” He feels no surprise, therefore, at the fluke that a beautiful young woman wants to cheer him on and devote her life to helping him—though the faintness of the passion he feels for her does surprise him. The poetic tradition, which he no less than Dorothea has taken as a guide, has overexaggerated the power of romance, he concludes.
On their honeymoon, though, Dorothea starts to doubt. During their courtship, she had attributed to her faulty understanding any apparent incoherence in his explanations. But now she suspects that his thesis really doesn’t add up, that it is but a jumble of fragments and false analogies. In her eyes, “the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead no whither.” Distracted by confuting other mythologists’ niggles, squinting over them with his little candle which makes him ignore the sunlight, “he easily lost sight of any purpose which had prompted him to these labours.” Instead of sailing with him on boundless seas of thought, Dorothea finds herself “exploring an enclosed basin.”
Perhaps a little push would get him unstuck, Dorothea thinks. So she asks the question that has frozen the blood of anyone who has ever written a Ph.D thesis: isn’t it time to stop filling notebooks with research? “Will you not make up your mind what part of them you will use, and begin to write the book which will make your vast knowledge useful to the world?” She’ll gladly help by taking it down from his dictation. Of course, no words could be “more cutting and irritating” to him, for they inflame the doubts that he has strained to dismiss as the morbid fears that must haunt any author. And her question sparks his further dread that her comforting worship of him might give way to “disrespect, and perhaps aversion.” So his manner toward her turns cold and belittling.
For all her struggle to deny it, Dorothea has to recognize that her husband will never produce his Key—that he is “a failure,” and that he probably knows it too. Reverence turns to pity for so much lost labor and waste of life, and she treats him with tenderness. For him, her pity is the last straw. Little as he expected it, his sense of self is now inextricably bound up with her opinion of him: so deeply interconnected are we, George Eliot thinks, that we inhabit each other’s identities, with the irony that those we expected to incorporate can in the end incorporate us. Casaubon, fiercely proud and morbidly sensitive, reads her tenderness as “the certainty that she judged him” and found him wanting. He wrongly takes her every silence, every remark, as “an assertion of conscious superiority.” We misinterpret one another according to our fears no less than our hopes.
So, when she tries to slip her arm reassuringly through his, he holds himself unresponsively rigid.
It is in these acts called trivialities that the seeds of joy are for ever wasted, until men and women look round with haggard faces at the devastation their own waste has made, and say, the earth bears no harvest of sweetness—calling their denial knowledge.
For what is she being punished? Dorothea wonders. Is it her fault that she mistakenly believed in him and submitted to him, shrinking and constricting her life rather than enlarging it, as she’d hoped? “In such a crisis as this,” Eliot writes, “some women begin to hate.”
Eliot—it’s her novel, after all—at this point gives Casaubon a heart attack, not fatal but a warning that time is running out and he’ll never finish the book on which “he had risked all his egoism.” His response is monstrous. He asks Dorothea to promise, in case of his death, both not to do what he would “deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire”—without specifying what he is asking and reluctant to take no for an answer. Dorothea asks for a night to think before making so outlandish a vow. A haunted night it is, as she pictures wasting her life sorting through jumbled fragments that could never prove a misconceived theory. Yet her compassion for her husband’s pain at knowing that his life’s work otherwise surely will mean nothing makes her shrink from hurting this “stricken soul,” however well she knows that only “the ideal and not the real yoke of marriage” could compel her to “bind herself to a fellowship from which she shrank.” But her sense of self lives in ideals, including an ideal of honor that would not let her break so unreasonable a promise once made. She goes to Casaubon to give her word and finds him—providentially—dead.
From Eliot’s sympathetic and inward portrait, it’s easy to guess how deeply she identifies with Dorothea. Not so with the wife in the second of Middlemarch’s central marriages. Eliot understands Rosamond Vincy as fully as she understands Dorothea, and with some sympathy. But character, while ductile and shaped by circumstances, choices, and relationships, nevertheless has a certain fixed and inborn core, and in Rosamond’s case that is a placid self-centeredness that Rosamond can’t entirely help but is hard for Eliot to like.
If the author’s understanding of this character is more from the outside in than the inside out, that’s partly because Rosamond is massively superficial. The striking beauty of that surface goes some way to explaining this trait. With her alluring shape, her hair so fine and purely blond that it resembles the perfection of a baby’s blondness, and her “lovely little face set on a long fair neck,” which she moved “under the most perfect management of self-contented grace,” no wonder that the “very nerve and muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at.”
Her superficiality runs deep. “She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique: she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own.” The daughter of Middlemarch’s manufacturer-mayor—the novel is set in the years leading up to the watershed Reform Bill of 1832, which extended the vote from the landed gentry to manufacturers and merchants—she has been the star pupil at the Midlands mill town’s finishing school, from which she graduated as “that combination of correct sentiments, music, dancing, drawing, elegant note-writing, . . . and perfect blond loveliness, which made the irresistible woman for the doomed man of that date,” Eliot writes with the archness she can’t resist in describing Rosamond. “She was not in the habit of devising falsehoods,” Eliot adds, “and if her statements were no direct clue to fact, why, they were not intended in that light—they were among her elegant accomplishments, intended to please.”
Please she did, and the town’s monied bachelors swarmed around her, shyly, awkwardly, and not quite to her liking. For she had seen, and envied, the aristocracy, and felt she belonged among them. With the “cleverness to discern very subtly the faintest aroma of rank,” she draws a bead on Tertius Lydgate, a doctor newly arrived in Middlemarch, whose refined taste, impeccable clothes, and “careless politeness of conscious superiority” mark him as gentry-born, the nephew of a baronet.
Ambitious and superbly trained, Lydgate has no thoughts of marriage. Instead, he has in mind two grand projects that together “unite intellectual conquest and the social good.” His practical scheme is to set up a hospital dedicated to the treatment of fevers, in order to quarantine in case of epidemic, to advance knowledge by specialization, and perhaps to serve as the nucleus for a new medical school in that reforming era. As intellectually ardent as Dorothea, he has, in addition, a theoretical project. Recent research had moved beyond thinking of the body’s organs separately to a new understanding that a living organism is a system composed of a variety of primary tissues that form the various organs, and a knowledge of these tissues and the ways in which they can fail is essential to scientific diagnosis and treatment. Perhaps, Lydgate hypothesizes, there exists a tissue even more fundamental than these, a “primitive tissue” out of which all these develop. If he could find it, would that not shed an even brighter light on the mechanisms of disease and lead to more effective cures? This is as sweeping a unifying theory as Casaubon’s Key—and Eliot, a regular reader of The Lancet, was suspicious of grand unifying theories—but even non-scientists now know about stem cells and DNA.
Lydgate, Eliot writes, is determined not to become “one of those failures” who sets out to change the world but ends up “shapen after the average and packed by the gross,” scarcely ever conscious of how “their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly.” But he does turn into a failure in his own eyes, like Casaubon and others in this novel, one of whose themes is failure. Middlemarch traces the subtle process of Lydgate’s change, which—as is often the case, Eliot remarks—is the consequence of his marriage. He is a case study in how little we often know our own feelings—as Lydgate is certain that his perception of Rosamond as “what a woman ought to be” doesn’t mean he is falling in love with her—and of how, in “the stealthy convergence of human lots,” our lives mutually modify each other, shaping our destinies and even our very identities in ways we don’t foresee, wish, or approve.
With a copy of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in hand, you might readily diagnose Rosamond’s narcissistic personality disorder. But what a dry sense you would get of her inner emptiness and self-estrangement, as she fashions herself according to “her own standard of a perfect lady, having always an audience in her own consciousness.” You wouldn’t feel how arid and impoverishing it must be to live within her egoistic entitlement. Above all, what you would miss is how such a character, while remaining apparently passive, can spark and stoke that gradual process of change that fatefully remakes another’s life. It’s that drama that interests Eliot, and such dramas are literature’s primitive tissue.
Not that the skeptical Eliot thinks that even literature is an infallible source of knowledge. Sure, it enshrines the empirical wisdom that acute observers have drawn from the experience of mankind, but understanding it requires as close attention as The Lancet does. Lydgate, certain that he knows all that’s necessary about love and marriage from youthful reading and traditional lore, has resolved not to consider wedlock for at least five years anyway, so as to focus on medicine. So he is surprised to find that all Middlemarch, and Rosamond herself, thinks his constant, careless flirtation is serious courtship, and he abruptly stops his visits. After a long absence that he is sure has dispelled everyone’s misconceptions, he impulsively drops in, without examining his own motives. He is surprised to find Rosamond so sad and withdrawn; surprised, when their eyes meet at last, to see tears in hers; surprised that he can’t help kissing them away; surprised to leave her house an engaged man. More careful study of literature, Eliot might caution, would have taught him that the heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing.
It also might have taught him to probe Rosamond’s character enough to avoid a marriage that brings him only grief. Like Casaubon, he pours out to his betrothed his high professional ambitions with “an ardour which he had fancied that the ideal wife must somehow worship as sublime.” But in time he learns that she cares about his talent and intellectual striving only for the prestige they might bring him—and her, by reflection—like a ribbon in his buttonhole. Medicine and medical research are distasteful to her. All that disease and cutting up of dead bodies reminds her of vampires—a nice gothic touch in a novel in which people feed on each other. The part of Lydgate she values least is the part he cherishes most. Instead of the eager help and interest that Dorothea lavishes upon her husband’s work, Lydgate, whose undertaking really is valuable, gets “blank, unreflecting” indifference, which corrodes his resolution.
Alongside his intellectual ardor, though, Lydgate has what Eliot calls his “spots of commonness”—his “hereditary habit, . . . unreflecting egoism,” and naivety of expecting effortlessly to have good servants, good boots, good silver, and the proper glasses for Riesling. Under other circumstances, such expectations might be harmless, but wedded to Rosamond’s sense of entitlement, they turn toxic. Lydgate rents one of the town’s best houses, fills it with furnishings to match, buys his beautiful wife beautiful jewelry, and soon finds himself so deep in debt that his chief creditor sends in an appraiser to inventory the furniture and silver he has pledged as collateral, to Rosamond’s mortification.
Lydgate is mortified too, but at his own imprudence, and he resolves to cut spending. Raising the subject with Rosamond, he hopes for understanding, comfort, and support, but she feels only “offence and repulsion” at his distress and stern tone, instinctively thinking that the sternness is directed at herself and certain “that no one could justly find fault with her,” for she is perfect. Hearing of the debt, she says, “But what can I do, Tertius?”—a response that chills Lydgate to the marrow, because he sees how alone he is in this trouble—even more alone than he yet knows, given that Rosamond’s feeling about the trouble and his consternation is that “if she had known how Lydgate would behave, she would never have married him.” He tries to be gentle, to reason with her about the need to economize, but his peremptory tone returns when he forbids her to ask her father for money, knowing that he has none to give. When he tells her that their jeweler has offered to take back some of their silver and jewelry, she refuses to look at the list he has made, and tells him to return what he likes, “leaving Lydgate helpless and wondering. . . . It seemed she no more identified with him than if they had been creatures of different species and opposing interests.”
She’ll go to her parents’ house when the appraiser comes, she tells him, and he responds with a look that “had in it a despairing acceptance of the distance she was placing between them.” But he pulls himself together and tries again. “Now we have been united, Rosy, you should not leave me to myself in the first trouble that has come.” And she replies with her unquenchable self-focus: “Certainly not. I shall do everything it becomes me to do.” But her passive resistance to his economizing is unrelenting. Since “the world was not ordered to her liking, and Lydgate was part of that world,” she never looks at him, radiating a “studied negation by which she satisfied her inward opposition to him without compromise of propriety.” Heartsick at their growing estrangement, bedeviled by money worries, Lydgate chafes at his sense of “wasted energy and degrading preoccupations” that bars him from the “grand existence in thought and effective action lying around him.”
Rosamond’s passive resistance turns to active sabotage when Lydgate decides to rent out their house and take a cheaper one. She surreptitiously countermands his orders to the real-estate agent and falsely tells the prospective new tenant that the house is unavailable. When Lydgate flatly rejects her suggestion that he ask his gentry relatives for help, loath to humiliate himself by admitting his plight to people he despises, she secretly writes a pleading letter to his uncle. The baronet replies not to her but to him, assuming he put her up to writing such a letter. Chiding Lydgate for such “roundabout wheedling” conduct, his uncle bluntly refuses help. So Rosamond has doubly shamed him before his family, both for his improvidence and his supposed unmanliness. The baronet, like Lydgate before his marriage, has his own hereditary habit of assuming that the husband is the master of the family.
However active, even vigorous, Rosamond’s interference, and however destructive the consequences, her seamless sense of perfection makes her impervious to guilt, or even reason. Lydgate’s angry rebuke for her meddling “make[s] her shrink in cold dislike, and to become all the more calmly correct, in the conviction that she was not the one to misbehave, whatever others might do.” Her father, her husband, the baronet, the creditor—all are in the wrong.
In fact there was but one person in Rosamond’s world whom she did not regard as blameworthy, and that was the graceful creature with the blond plaits and with little hands crossed before her, who had never expressed herself unbecomingly, and had always acted for the best—the best naturally being what she best liked.
Faced with such narcissistic passive aggression, if you’ll excuse the jargon, what is Lydgate to do? He feels
that half-maddening sense of helplessness which comes over passionate people when their passion is met by an innocent-looking silence whose meek victimized air seems to put them in the wrong, and at last infects even the justest indignation with a doubt of its justice.
In addition, he loves her and dreads seeing that love slip away—the more so, perhaps, because, like Dorothea, he has had an uncle for a guardian in place of dead parents, and a coldly distant uncle, at that. Whom is he to love if not his wife, whose self-love is so consuming that she has none to spare for him, though her approval can turn to dislike? Her reproaches reverberate in his mind—“You have not made my life pleasant to me of late”; “the hardships which our marriage has brought on me”—and fill him with the dread that he and Rosamond might “sink into the hideous fettering of domestic hate.” With this fear—more that he should stop loving her than she him—he rationalizes every excuse for her he can dream up, with the result, says Eliot, that “she had mastered him.” It takes two to engineer the dynamics of a marriage—“So command/ Exists but with obedience,” as Eliot puts it in another chapter epigraph—and he chose to comply. “Perhaps if he had persisted in his determination to be the more because she was less,” Eliot remarks dubiously, everything might have turned out better, but “his energy had fallen short of its task.”
Both partners have participated in this outcome, but Eliot is clear that both are not equally to blame. “Rosamond’s discontent with her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself,” Eliot judges, “to its demands for self-suppression and tolerance, and not the nature of her husband.” With a different character and the same financial circumstances, how different things might have been, since they merely need to economize, not starve. As Lydgate muses, “[T]wo creatures who loved each other, and who had a stock of thoughts in common, might laugh over their shabby furniture, and their calculations how far they could afford butter and eggs. But . . . in Rosamond’s mind, there was not room enough for luxuries to look small in.”
But there’s a final blow, and it’s worse. The financial backer of Lydgate’s projected hospital, the banker Nicholas Bulstrode, is being blackmailed by someone who knows that he began his career working for a London jeweler who fenced stolen goods on the side. Shadier still, the hyper-pious banker later married his boss’s widow, after promising to launch a search for her runaway daughter and falsely reporting that she couldn’t be found, though both he and the blackmailer had discovered her whereabouts. At his wife’s death, he inherited her fortune, a large part of which would otherwise have gone to her daughter and her grandson. With that deviously acquired inheritance as his seed capital, Bulstrode moved to Middlemarch, grew rich and powerful as the town’s chief banker and philanthropist, and remarried. The blackmailer comes to Bulstrode’s country house for a payoff, falls ill there, is treated by Lydgate, and dies after several days. By chance, a Middlemarch townsman, returning from a trip, has heard the blackmailer tell Bulstrode’s history in a distant town and spreads it all over Middlemarch. All immediately suspect Bulstrode of murder—though his guilt is equivocal—and they suspect Lydgate, who is entirely innocent but is known to be deeply in Bulstrode’s debt, of complicity.
After a couple of days of ostracism by the townsfolk, without a word from Rosamond, “as if they were both adrift on one piece of wreck and looked away from each other,” Lydgate asks her if she has heard “[t]hat people think me disgraced.” She says she has, and Lydgate waits to hear an avowal of trust from her, a declaration that she knows him to be a man of honor. She says nothing. As he gathers his strength for one last effort to explain himself and make his innocence clear, she suddenly bursts out that now they must move to London. “I cannot go on living here,” she exclaims, with her trademark self-focus. “Whatever misery I have to put up with, it will be easier away from here.” I, I, I!
Lydgate gives up: “He had chosen this fragile creature, and had taken the burthen of her life upon his arms. He must walk as he could, carrying that burthen pitifully.” They move to London, where he prospers tending the rich, migrating in the summers to treat them in a European seaside resort. He publishes a treatise on gout, then thought to be a disease of overindulgence—and a far cry from the research he had planned to do. Though his practice prospers, to Rosamond’s satisfaction, “he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do.” When he dies at fifty, Rosamond marries a richer and older doctor, enjoys riding out with her four daughters in a showy carriage, and speaks of her happiness as “ ‘a reward’—she did not say for what,” but probably meant, says Eliot, for putting up with Lydgate.
How might Rosamond have behaved? Eliot gives us a counter-example in the second Mrs. Bulstrode, who hears the rumors about her husband from her brother, Rosamond’s father, and shares his belief that they are true. However flighty, superficial, and showy,
this imperfectly-taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her—now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him.
She knows at once that she will “espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach,” but she needs time to pull herself together and “sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life.” She locks herself in her room, takes off all her fine jewelry, changes into a plain black dress, unpins her hair and brushes it down, and then goes down to him and puts her hand on his. They can’t speak but weep together. “His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent.” And unlike Bulstrode, Lydgate is innocent.
Earlier in the novel, when Lydgate examines Casaubon after his first heart attack, he feels a certain pity, denatured by a streak of derision, at the scholar’s distress that he might not live to finish his book. Lydgate was then too young and unused to disaster to feel “the pathos of a lot where everything is below the level of tragedy except for the passionate egoism of the sufferer,” Eliot remarks. It’s that pathos of the human condition that suffuses Middlemarch, irradiated by Eliot’s infinitely understanding compassion.