George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 47 to beginning chapter 59
This month, as usual, Middlemarch made its presence felt elsewhere than in the five pages I read each morning. Researching her family history, the Struggling Artist learned that her paternal ancestor who came to Australia roughly a decade after the events related in Middlemarch was a health practitioner who started out as a doctor and became an apothecary because that’s where the money lay after medical doctors were no longer able to sell drugs. This change in the law plays a big role in the fortunes of Middlemarch‘s Lydgate. He is in favour of the changes and the established medical men of the town, believing they will be deprived of much of their livelihood, take against him.
In last month’s progress report, I described the moment when Dorothea feels pity for Casaubon, her dried-up stick of a husband. I thought it was a central turning point, a hinge. Little did I know (spoiler alert) that the real turning point would turn up in the next day’s reading! He died.
This month, among the older generation there’s much buying and selling, some blackmail, some generosity to the younger generation, a near riot as the railway comes to town, and some apparent endorsement by George Eliot of appalling class attitudes and behaviour.
Among the younger generation, which is where our interest really lies, Dorothea is taking up the management of her inherited estate, while a codicil to Casaubon’s will says she will be disinherited if she marries Will Ladislaw – which if it becomes known will create the impression that the two young people have been having a dalliance (nothing could be further from Dorothea’s mind or Will’s upright nature, though it’s what we want for them both). In the hope of winning Mary’s hand, Fred has given up any intention of becoming a clergyman, but he has discovered, and inadvertently alerted Mary to the fact, that the altogether decent, but older, Mr Farebrother has his hopes set on her too. Rosamond, who only last month revealed that she was pregnant, has had a miscarriage probably caused by going riding against her husband’s advice, and there’s a brilliant scene when Lydgate tells her about their financial crisis expecting her to see it as their shared problem, only to find that their understandings of the world, including in particular of their marriage, are separated by a huge gulf.
Today the narrative returns to the vexed issue of Dorothea and Will’s prospects. At least, that’s where I think we’re heading. Chapter 59 begins with this wonderful sentence, a nice example of Eliot’s way with similes, and of her wry understanding of how good intentions don’t guarantee good outcomes:
News is often dispersed as thoughtlessly and effectively as that pollen which the bees carry off (having no idea how powdery they are) when they are buzzing in search of their particular nectar.
While visiting the Farebrother household Fred learns about the codicil to Casaubon’s will. He, who ‘knew little and cared less about Ladislaw and the Casaubons’, wants to avoid being scolded tiresomely by his sister for having given up the Church, and passes the news on to distract her. Who knows what his sister, gorgeous and totally lacking in empathy, will do with the information? It’s not like her to keep any cat in any bag.
The suspense is massive.