Are We Dorothea? Reading Middlemarch on a Cold, Windy Day

Middlemarch eliot 9780192817600-uk-300 I wanted to get out:  I wanted to ride my bike, but the wind gusts were 9 mph. Yesterday the gusts were 21 mph:  I  zigzagged through tree-lined neighborhoods to find shelter.  Today I dressed lightly, because it was sunny and I was optimistic.  As I rode into a fierce wind, I shivered and sweated.

I took a break at a  coffeehouse and sat on the terrace and opened my copy (actually e-book) of Middlemarch.

An e-reader and iced ta.

Middlemarch on my unphotogenic e-reader and  iced tea.

What is your favorite Eliot?  It is supposed to be Middlemarch, yes? I love it, but I prefer Daniel Deronda, whose arrogant heroine, Gwendolyn Harleth, makes so many horrendous mistakes:  she even loses a valuable necklace gambling.  Yet Middlemarch is a masterpiece, an absorbing, satiric portrait of characters in a provincial town.  And we channel our inner good girl as we read about Dorothea Brooke, the bright, fiery, naive young heroine who marries a homely middle-aged scholar, Mr. Casaubon, mistaking him for an intellectual. She wants to shine in a brighter light than the society of Middlemarch and imagines herself helping with the research and making a contribution to the world.  Mr. Casaubon, however, is unable to organize his life work, a mass of notes for a “Key to All Mythologies.” During their honeymoon, he cannot even be bothered to accompany her to art museums and churches, but toils at his useless work. His young cousin, Will Ladislaw, an artist-turned-writer whose education has been paid for by Mr. Casaubon, is in Italy, and begins to take Dorothea to galleries.  He says Casaubon’s scholarly has already been done in German, a language Mr. Casaubon does not know. Dorothea is startled. And Mr. Casaubon is jealous of Will, with reason.

Illustration of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, publishe by the Jenson Society in 1910.

Illustration of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw, published by the Jenson Society in 1910.

E-readers are so wonderful on the road, because Middlemarch is a big book to carry  on a bike.  I was up to Chapter 50:  Mr. Casaubon has finally died, and Dorothea is infuriated by “a strange indelicate proviso” in his will stating that Dorothea will lose his money if she marries Will Ladislaw.   (Will and the will–I like the joke.)  Dorothea is humiliated–certainly she has never thought of a second marriage– but  she also believes Will should have half the money, because his mother was disinherited for marrying out of her class.

Women in Middlemarch are dependent on men.  Dorothea has her own money, but she does not have the education.  It is not Mr. Casaubon’s money that interested her, but his mind. And because of the proviso in the will, she is  exasperated to find he also expected her to continue his work  She no longer feels the obligation.

Every word Eliot writes is so vivid and brilliant, and the images are spectacular.  His useless scholarly work is “a tomb.”

…he willingly imagined her toiling under the fetters of a promise to erect a tomb with his name upon it.  (Not that Mr. Casaubon called the future volumes a tomb; he called them the Key to all Mythologies.)  But the months gained on him and left his plans belated:  he had only had time to ask for that promise by which he sought to keep his cold grasp on Dorothea’s life.

The grasp had slipped away. …now her judgment, instead of being controlled by duteous devotion, was made active by the imbittering discovery that in her past union there had lurked the hidden alienation of secrecy and suspicion.

Every word is perfect!

middlemarch modern library 31G4jQG40XL._BO1,204,203,200_There are many, many characters in Middlemarch.  I am fascinated by Lydgate, a brilliant doctor with the ambition to do scientific research. His marriage prevents him:   marriage is  a trap in Middlemarch.    I am also very fond of  Mary Garth, the smart, sharp, sometimes  bitterly sarcastic young woman who, unsuited to be a governess, prefers to work as a nurse/companion to Mr. Featherstone, a dying rich man.  Mary’s morality unwittingly spoils her friend Fred Vincy’s chance of inheriting the money: I won’t tell you how.  Characters struggle in Eliot’s fictional provinces with doing the right thing.  The right things are right, but can be costly.  It takes a gambling vicar, Mr. Farebrother, to explain why Mary was right in the long run.  (And that’s why Mary should marry Mr. Farebrother, but you know it’s not going to happen.)

Whom do you love?  Not necessarily the right person in Eliot’s world:  that’s for sure!

Any introduction to Middlemarch can give you the background you need. These are just musings.  Writing about the classics is so difficult:  it is the life work of scholars.  This is not my life work!

Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, my favorite, is even more intense.

On with Middlemarch!

12 thoughts on “Are We Dorothea? Reading Middlemarch on a Cold, Windy Day

  1. I have read Middlemarch at least twice and could do it again. Dorothy made a real ache in my heart because I understand how an idealistic young woman can make a terrible mistake for what she thinks are “good” reasons. I also like how Eliot turns her away from the false ideal of self sacrifice on behalf of one who was not worthy of it.

    • Oh, it is such a good book! I always especially like the parts about Dorothea, because she is such a likable young woman, and it so easy to see how she makes this mistake. And, yes, she has a nice strong ego and becomes clearer and clearer about who she is.

  2. Although I recognize Middlemarch is the far more readable novel, has more characters of deep interest and areas delved (medicine in the 19th century) for example, I find Daniel Deronda equally compelling: the Gwendoleth story may be more conventional but she dramatizes this mercenary marriage more candidly than anyone else (especially when “read” through the lens of Andrew Davies’s film) and I am drawn to the intense idealism of the Jewish characters in the story. I don’t want to choose which one. I’d love to teach DD but it is so long and I fear zionism of the book would cause great quarrels if I dared critique it. I bond with a number of the major characters (Dorothea, Lydgate, Casaubon and some minor ones) and the narrator.

    • Yes, Gwendolyn is fascinating, and I feel there is so much to her. The marriage trap is the problem here, as in Dorothea’s case. DD and Middlemarch are such very different novels. Middlemarch is by far the best loved, but I have an impression that people do not necessarily read her other books (except for Silas Marner).

  3. I’ve actually read them all multiple times and was delighted to see her short stories are back print.

    Maggie Tulliver is by far my favorite heroine of hers but Middlemarch my favorite book. Dorothea I find less satisfying the older I get. Silly girl! Her uncle should’ve been severely chastised for letting that happen! Looking forward to giving up something you enjoy???? I do think Will is a disappointment tho. She should’ve married Adam Bede!

    Middlemarch is so complex and well put together as far as plot, imagery and characters go. I wrote my senior honors thesis in college on Eliot’s use of web imagery and how it related to her ideas about community in the novel.

    And have you noticed the relationship between Gwendolyn Harleth and Isabelle Archer??

    • I love the idea of Dorothea marrying Adam Bede. Oh, I’m sure your thesis was wonderful and such a good subject. I love all of Eliot’s books and could infinitely read them over and over! Yes, Gwendolyn and Isabel certainly head into parallel marriages. At least Eliot lets Gwendolyn out.

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