George Eliot, Middlemarch: A study of provincial life (George Eliot, 1871–1872; Könemann 1997), chapter 73 to end
I had lunch last week with a friend from university days, who remembered me going on about Middlemarch back then. Apparently I was very keen on Casaubon’s doomed project, the Key to All Mythologies. My friend assured me that my keenness was ironic, but maybe in his heart of hearts the young me feared he had a lot in common with Casaubon.
As I read the book this time, two things stood out for me that I’m pretty sure I took for granted in 1968 (yes, it’s been that long!).
First, the main characters are very young, and the narrator speaks with the gravity of experience. In 1968 I read a contemporary review that, from memory, began by saying that reading George Eliot’s prose was like lifting the heavy lid of a sarcophagus. I was at a loss to understand what the reviewer meant, but this time around the narrator’s world-weariness is clear as a bell, along with her deep affection for, and possibly even envy of, the young characters.
Second, there’s a serious concern with money. Dorothea can be virtuous because she inherited a small fortune from her mother, and she inherits a further substantial fortune when Casaubon dies. Part of her virtue for most of the novel consists of a commitment to use her wealth well: she sets out to be a decent landlord, but never considers that her wealth is created by the labour of the people she means to be kind to. (Marx was still working on Das Kapital when Middlemarch was published, but George Eliot had almost certainly read Les misérables.) Lydgate comes from gentry, but is determined to make his own way as a doctor and scientist. Rosamond is all about wanting affluence without worrying where it comes from. Fred gets into serious trouble by gambling, and finds his way to responsible work.
These two strands come together brilliantly in the climactic scene at the end of Chapter 83. Dorothea and Will have just declared their love for each other, all doubts as to the other’s integrity dissolved, and they have faced the apparent impossibility of marriage because of the terms of Casaubon’s will:
‘Oh, I cannot bear it – my heart will break,’ said Dorothea, starting from her seat, the flood of her young passion bearing down all the obstructions which had kept her silent – the great tears rising and falling in an instant: ‘I don’t mind about poverty – I hate my wealth.’(Page 923)
It’s been stated explicitly much earlier that Dorothea could renounce what she has inherited from Casaubon, but only now does she see that as a real option. ‘I hate my wealth’ – the wealth is a kind of prison from which she can escape.
But the word ‘young’ is crucial here. The narrator and the reader know not to take her outburst literally. Will takes her in his arms and, looking into his eyes, she says ‘in a sobbing childlike way’:
‘We could live quite well on my own fortune – it is too much – seven hundred a-year – I want so little – no new clothes – and I will learn what everything costs.’(Page 924)
So, she doesn’t really hate her wealth as such, only the part of it that constrains her. She’s hardly opting for poverty. The narrator sees that, and so do we, but we can still appreciate the moral leap she is making. And that wonderful final clause, so clearly the cry of a young person – ‘I will learn what everything costs’ – sends echoes back through the whole book. Fred has had to learn the cost of his gambling; Lydgate the cost of marrying unwisely; Rosamond, however briefly, the cost of dalliance. Even some of the older generations learn what things cost – notably Mr Bulstrode whose sins find him out.
I’l miss the world of Middlemarch. I’ll wait a couple of weeks before I plunge into my next slow-read project, in no hurry to have George Eliot’s voice fade from the front of my mind. I’ll give her the last word, from the beginning of the ‘Finale’:
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.(Page 945)
That’s from Mary Ann Evans, towards the end of a book dedicated ‘To my dear husband’, to whom – scandalously – she was happily not married.