Middlemarch: Progress report 4

George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), end chapter 35 to end chapter 46.

Five pages of Middlemarch each morning has been my dependable daily joy for four months now.

This month, as usual, it turned up in other reading. Natasha May wrote in the Guardian that when she was young she found George Eliot’s sympathy for Dr Casaubon life-changing. She quoted this from Dorothea’s ‘honeymoon’ in Rome:

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.

In my 20s, as far as I remember, I thought George Eliot’s sympathy for Casaubon was largely sarcastic. My current reading is closer to Natasha May’s. This month in particular, as he faces his mortality, I can tell that Eliot genuinely feels for him, and she paints his inner turmoil so vividly that when he offers Dorothea a word of attenuated kindness, we feel it as his moral victory, as well as recognising that Dorothea is no longer in his thrall:

‘Come, my dear, come. You are young, and must not to extend your life by watching.’
When the kind quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature. She put her hand into her husband’s, and they went along the broad corridor together.

(Page 488)

That’s the end of Book Four, and of the first volume in the edition I’m reading, so pretty much the central hinge of the novel.

Since then, in the first pages of Volume 2, the narrative has been concerned with the politics of Middlemarch. Fifty years ago I read this as variously background and counterpoint to the main story of Dorothea’s romantic life. It’s not that I misread it then, but this time around I’m much more interested in Eliot’s satirical account of how an uneducated public responds to medical innovation, how professionals’ vested interests oppose that innovation, how media (in this case newspapers) function as tools of political agents, how political elites look after their own, and so on. It’s hard not to think of current conversations about the First Nations Voice to Parliament when I read a sentence like this one:

Oppositions have the illimitable range of objections at command, which need never stop short at the boundary of knowledge, but can draw for ever on the vasts of ignorance.

(Page 503)

This morning, I read a scene involving the two young men: Lydgate the reforming doctor (I can’t bear to call him Tertius), and Will (it seems unfriendly to call him Ladislaw) the reformed artistic gadabout who now edits a newspaper. Lydgate has married the beautiful Rosamond, which we know won’t end well; Will adores Dorothea, which we fear likewise. Lydgate has thrown his lot in with the religious ideologue Bulstrode because he supports Bulstrode’s hospital project. Will is allied with the scatter-brained Mr Brooke’s potential run for parliament because he sees it as a way of supporting the movement for political reform*. The young men – one of them lying on the rug in the other’s living room, while the latter’s wife, Rosamond, waits impatiently for the disagreeable conversation to finish – discuss the evergreen subject of how to form alliances with others who are less than perfect. Lydgate:

If one did not work with such men as are at hand, things must come to a dead-lock. Suppose the worst opinion in the town about Bulstrode were a true one, that would not make it less true that he has the sense and the resolution to do what I think ought to be done in the matters I know and care most about; but that is the only ground on which I go with him.

(Page 531)

Rosamond calls a halt to the conversation. When Will has gone she and Lydgate have a brief conversation and we find out in the last three lines of the chapter, almost as a throwaway that a) Lydgate’s household debts, unknown to Rosamond, are becoming more pressing and, b) Rosamond is pregnant. I thought of this novel as proceeding at a leisurely pace, but no five pages pass without significant plot developments.

* Mostly I can live with not understanding the specific political and cultural references in Middlemarch. I did look up Lord Grey’s Reform Act of 1832. Mr Brooke is a Tory, who in his typical muddled way thinks Grey (a Whig) has a lot going for him. Will hopes to help Brooke get elected, and to influence him to support Grey’s bill.

5 responses to “Middlemarch: Progress report 4

  1. I’m curious: do you feel any sympathy for Rosamond? Does George Eliot?

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a great question. I think the answer is yes to both. There’s a moment when she sees that Will is enamored of Dorothea and realised for the first time that a woman can have more than one man caught in her spell. It’s horrible, but we realise with a great thud how narrow her world is, and how any reasonable person would want to escape to something bigger. It’s not her fault that her vision is so blinkered. In her own self-centred way she’s heroic !


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