My cohort’s thoughts on Book One:
Laila’s Review: Thoughts on Middlemarch (Book One: Miss Brooke)
Valancy’s Review: Classic Review: Middlemarch, George Eliot (or venturing into provincial life…)
And here’s my own. . .
Till almost the half-way mark I couldn’t figure out how much of Dorothea’s foolishness stemmed from her creator’s influence and how much of it was a result of the society she lived in, a society where:
Women were expected to have weak opinions; [and] the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on.
Of the three young women Eliot introduces in Book One—Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy, and Mary Garth—it is Dorothea who blazes with an intensity that I imagine would be uncomfortable to live with. (To be fair, Mary Garth might be equally intense with no outlet for that intensity given that she’s wholly dependent on others for food, clothing and a roof over her head).
Dorothea’s thirst for knowledge much beyond what is allowed to her sex makes her a sympathetic character:
She, hardly more than a budding woman, but yet with an active conscience and a great mental need, not to be satisfied by a girlish instruction comparable to the nibblings and judgments of a discursive mouse.
And yet she’s quite tiresome too:
She was enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.
It’s easy to see why Casaubon holds such attraction for Dorothea despite being a middle-aged, doddering old prosy. He’s knowledgeable about matters close to Dorothea’s heart and more importantly indulges Dorothea in her interests. Whether he indulges those interests out of a genuine concern for Dorothea’s well-being or merely as an opportunity to exhibit and impress with his Great Knowledge is anybody’s guess. It doesn’t occur to Dorothea to make this distinction either. She wants to be married to someone who can subsume her within him—someone of a much greater intellectual stature, someone who can “help [her] see which opinions had the best foundation:”
She was not in the least teaching Mr Casaubon to ask if he were good enough for her, but merely asking herself anxiously how she could be good enough for Mr Casaubon.
It doesn’t strike her that she is too much of a doer to sit passively and let life happen to her. In this, Mary Garth has an edge over Dorothea—she has a level of self-awareness that Dorothea displays nowhere in Book One.
By this point, more than being annoyed at her relentless righteousness, I feel sorry for Dorothea. But I also take comfort from something Eliot says earlier in Book One:
Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and coloured by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge. They are not always too grossly deceived; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zig-zags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be.
So perhaps, Dorothea’s marriage to Casuabon is just the first of the many “loops and zig-zags” that will take her “where [she] ought to be.” (I like how Eliot switches from third person plural to first person plural by the end of the paragraph.)
What of Casaubon? He comes off as such a complete and utter stick-in-the-mud that I started chortling when I read of his expectations to feel “the force of masculine passion!” Eliot does seem to be having some fun at his expense:
[He’s been working on the Complete Compendium of Something or the Other for as long as anyone can remember]
His very name carried an impressiveness hardly to be measured without a precise chronology of scholarship.
Eliot surprised me even more by talking about Casaubon’s expectations for happiness. HAPPINESS?! Casaubon? Really?! “Masculine passion” had me chortling, but Casaubon’s expectations for happiness made me shiver. Why are we being made to look at Casaubon in an all new light at this juncture? The way Eliot paints Casaubon through so much of Book One—as a character in Dorothea’s story—makes it easy to forget that he also has a life (and probably desires) of his own.
Then there’s Celia, Dorothea’s sister, whose common-sense allows her “to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation.” She calls Dorothea Dodo which I think is a ridiculous nickname for someone as earnest as Dorothea. But maybe that’s the point? I like Celia’s even-temperedness and wish that Eliot hadn’t portrayed it as dimwittedness:
[Here’s Celia’s argument to convince Dorothea (who disdains of such fripperies) that it’s a good idea to spend time looking at their mother’s jewelry, and dividing it between the two of them.]
“I think, dear, we are wanting in respect to mamma’s memory, to put them by and take no notice of them. And,” she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification, “necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poinçon, who was stricter in some things than even you are, used to wear ornaments. And Christians generally—surely there are women in heaven now who wore jewels.” Celia was conscious of some mental strength when she really applied herself to argument.
My note beside this says, “Strength of what? An ant?”
I’m a little puzzled at why Eliot has set up Dorothea’s cleverness in opposition to Celia’s common-sense. Wouldn’t the two go hand-in-hand? Their differing temperaments notwithstanding, the sisters seem to have an affection for each other.
I’m not sure what to make of Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s and Celia’s uncle. So far, he seems to be mostly bluster and no substance. Towards the end, a flurry of characters makes their appearance. Rosamond Vincy seems to be a thoroughly selfish and unlikable character and I wonder if Eliot will endow her with any redeeming qualities like she did with Dorothea. I do want to read more about Mary Garth. As I mentioned above, she seems to be more self-aware than Dorothea, an awareness that might lead her to faring better than Miss Brooke perhaps?
Throughout the story Eliot gives us glimpses of the society in which our characters move.
On marriage, especially the woman’s role in it, and how woefully unprepared Dorothea is for her own (because even though we can’t be sure of what Casaubon expects from his marriage, I suspect it would cleave more to the first part of this paragraph than the latter):
Let but Pumpkin have a figure which would sustain the disadvantages of the short-waisted swallow-tail, and everybody felt it not only natural but necessary to the perfection of womanhood, that a sweet girl should be at once convinced of his virtue, his exceptional ability, and above all, his perfect sincerity. But perhaps no persons then living—certainly none in the neighbourhood of Tipton—would have had a sympathetic understanding for the dreams of a girl whose notions about marriage took their colour entirely from an exalted enthusiasm about the ends of life, an enthusiasm which was lit chiefly by its own fire, and included neither the niceties of the trousseau, the pattern of plate, nor even the honors and sweet joys of the blooming matron.
A hint of the winds of change to come and the Old Guards’ reaction to it:
You’d sooner offend me than Bulstrode. And what’s he?—he’s got no land hereabout that ever I heard of. A speckilating fellow! He may come down any day, when the devil leaves off backing him. And that’s what his religion means: he wants God A’mighty to come in. That’s nonsense! There’s one thing I made out pretty clear when I used to go to church—and it’s this: God A’mighty sticks to the land. He promises land, and He gives land, and He makes chaps rich with corn and cattle. But you take the other side. You like Bulstrode and speckilation better than Featherstone and land.
And that such changes have always been a part of the societal fabric:
Old provincial society had its share of this subtle movement: had not only its striking downfalls, its brilliant young professional dandies who ended by living up an entry with a drab and six children for their establishment, but also those less marked vicissitudes which are constantly shifting the boundaries of social intercourse, and begetting new consciousness of interdependence. Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirants, gained wealth, and fastidious gentlemen stood for boroughs; some were caught in political currents, some in ecclesiastical, and perhaps found themselves surprisingly grouped in consequence; while a few personages or families that stood with rock firmness amid all this fluctuation, were slowly presenting new aspects in spite of solidity, and altering with the double change of self and beholder. Municipal town and rural parish gradually made fresh threads of connection—gradually, as the old stocking gave way to the savings-bank, and the worship of the solar guinea became extinct, while squires and baronets, and even lords who had once lived blamelessly afar from the civic mind, gathered the faultiness of closer acquaintanceship. Settlers too, came from distant counties, some with an alarming novelty of skill, others with an offensive advantage in cunning. In fact, much the same sort of movement and mixture went on in old England as we find in older Herodotus.
I like that what Eliot says about the changing nature of society is as true today as it was when she wrote this.
I like her wit and her descriptions. I like her epigraphs. I like that her characters are of such a varying degree. I like that she seems to be suggesting that these characters are as much a product of their times as their own inclinations. I like how there seem to be so many moving parts in this story. I REALLY like the sprawling nature of this novel! And can’t wait to read Book Two!