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Growing Up with Middlemarch

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National Portrait Gallery, London
George Eliot; chalk drawing by Sir Frederic William Burton, 1865

What did Virginia Woolf mean by calling George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–1872) “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”? Like many of Woolf’s most telling critical remarks, it is tossed off without elaboration, as if both the character of Eliot’s “magnificent book” and the judgment on the rest of English fiction went without saying.

One clue to the latter may come from the piece on “The Russian Point of View” with which Woolf followed her essay on George Eliot in The Common Reader (1925). By comparison to the Russians, Woolf suggests, readers of Victorian fiction had grown accustomed to novels in which good and bad characters were sharply distinguished from one another and everything was neatly sorted in the end. Woolf’s crisp formula for such endings—“lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed”—might superficially do for the closing chapters of Middlemarch as well, but only if one resolutely ignored Eliot’s insistence that there are no villains in her novel, any more than there are heroes and heroines free from what she calls “spots of commonness.” To write for grown-ups, in this sense, is to disabuse readers of those judgments “agreeable to our vanity”—the phrase is Woolf’s but could just as easily be Eliot’s—by which we can apportion our praise and blame undisturbed.

Nor does the uniting of lovers or the exposure of intrigue in Middlemarch prove as satisfying as the more wishful among us might have been led to expect. Rather than the fulfillment of youthful hopes—whether of its characters or of its readers—the novel delivers several different stories of disappointment and accommodation. Tertius Lydgate, ambitious of scientific discovery and determined to reform the practice of medicine, surrenders to financial pressure and ends by quitting town under a cloud of scandal. Rather than an ardent explorer in “the dark territories of Pathology,” he becomes a London physician catering to the diseases of the rich. “In his student’s chambers, he had prearranged his social action quite differently,” the narrator says of an early episode in this slow descent: one of the novel’s more quietly devastating sentences.

Already prematurely aged when the novel begins, the Reverend Edward Casaubon succumbs to a heart attack without ever completing his hopelessly outdated “Key to all Mythologies.” Rosamond Vincy manages somewhat better, but only by trading her dreams of rising in rank through marriage to the aristocratically connected Lydgate for the consolations of a second union with a wealthy older doctor after Lydgate’s untimely death. Awakened from his own dreams of easy gentility when he fails to inherit an uncle’s estate, her brother Fred must settle instead for the humble position of manager on that same property—an accommodation itself made possible only when his other uncle, the evangelical banker Bulstrode, after revelations that he was once a pawnbroker and has since abetted his blackmailer’s death, finds himself compelled to flee in disgrace from a community he had once hoped to dominate morally. In one of the novel’s most moving episodes, Bulstrode’s wife emerges from comparative obscurity to prove both a finer person and a rounder character than we have thought, when she mournfully signals her acceptance of the “poor lopped life” her husband’s shame has prepared for her by stripping herself of the jewels in which she has hitherto taken naive pride.

Most famously, of course, Dorothea Brooke longs “to lead a grand life here—now—in England” and ends by being “absorbed into the life of another,” as her aspirations for wide knowledge and epic deeds find their only outlet in the small and “unhistoric acts” on which “the growing good of the world,” according to the narrator, partly depends. That meliorist note notwithstanding, there is more adult resignation than youthful optimism in a novel whose last words close on the “unvisited tombs” of forgotten men and women.

Even before she began writing fiction at the age of thirty-seven, Mary Ann Evans had made emphatically clear the kind of novels she would not wish to write. A year before she published her first story, the frequent contributor to and editor of the Westminster Review took advantage of the conventional anonymity of Victorian journalism to launch an attack on what she termed “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists” (1856). Though the satire is rather heavy-handed, her caricature of contemporary fiction drives home an argument that is as much formal as substantive:

The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues….
The men play a very subordinate part by her side. You are consoled now and then by a hint that they have affairs, which keeps you in mind that the working-day business of the world is somehow being carried on, but ostensibly the final cause of their existence is that they may accompany the heroine on her “starring” expedition through life.

What is wrong with such a novel is not merely its impossibly idealized heroine, or even the wish-fulfilling structure of its plot, but a narrative design by which all is subordinated to the single subjectivity at its center. Or rather, the business of fulfilling wishes and of treating the protagonist as “the final cause” of others’ existence are one and the same. For the future George Eliot, to tell stories like this is both to flatter the reader and to infantilize her.

“We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves,” she writes at one point in Middlemarch; and the novel as we know it had its genesis in a creative act that was itself an implicit protest against the moral stupidity of such representations. By choosing to combine an unfinished bildungsroman of 1870 with several chapters of a slightly earlier manuscript apparently focused on Lydgate, George Eliot saw to it that the resulting novel would be not only multiplotted but multicentered, its design inherently resistant to the reader’s impulse to find a point of identification and stick to it.1 Precisely because “Miss Brooke” was left almost unchanged when it became the first ten chapters of Middlemarch, readers lulled into identifying with the restless yearning of Dorothea can find the structure of what follows quite disorienting.

Just when we have become curious about the outcome of Dorothea’s quixotic marriage to the desiccated Casaubon, the apparent heroine of our story disappears from view, to be replaced by a quite different center of interest. The abrupt rhetoric that famously opens a subsequent chapter—“Dorothea—but why always Dorothea?”—only reinforces a movement that has been built into the novel’s composite design from the first. Such insistent delay of narrative gratification is another sign that this is a book written for grown-ups.

The New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead is surely right to contend that “even the most sophisticated readers read novels in the light of their own experience,” and that “in such recognition, sympathy may begin.” What is nonetheless a bit disheartening about My Life in Middlemarch is the apparent assumption that literary criticism and even biography will be most appealing to contemporary readers when packaged as memoir. In George Eliot’s novel, few words carry a more consistently ironic charge than “Providence” or “providential.” Characters who believe that events have been providentially arranged for their benefit always discover their mistake—not just because the novelist, rather than Providence, has charge of their destinies, but because the belief in such an arrangement necessarily presumes that the final cause of the universe is the individual ego of the believer.

Though Mead is scarcely under such a delusion, there is still a whiff of the providential about some of the connections she traces between her own history and George Eliot’s. A provincial seventeen-year-old “aching” to escape for Oxford when she first encounters Middlemarch, Mead finds in its knowledge-hungry heroine an uncanny incarnation of her own resistance to what the novel calls “meanness of opportunity.” Weymouth, the seaside town in England where she grew up, proves to be the location of a house rented by George Eliot and her partner, George Henry Lewes, during the writing of The Mill on the Floss (1860); the novelist was in search of a suitable mill and found one in the nearby village of Radipole, where Mead attended school when she “was the age of young Maggie Tulliver.” In her mid-thirties Mead met another writer with three sons “not very different in age than were the Lewes boys when George Eliot met George Henry Lewes.” Having once believed that Middlemarch had nothing to teach her about the possibility of becoming a stepparent, Mead now senses the novelist’s “experience of unexpected family woven deep into the fabric of the novel.” (Though George Eliot regarded her union with Lewes as a marriage, such a family in her case was extralegal: the fact that he had condoned his first wife’s adultery and accepted her illegitimate children as his own meant that he was debarred from getting a divorce.)

Mead likens the “modest success” of her younger self at decoding the Titians and Caravaggios in the National Gallery to Dorothea’s bewildered encounter with high art in Rome. When she subsequently visits the National Portrait Gallery to inspect Frederic Burton’s chalk drawing of the novelist at middle age, she bends over the picture and scrutinizes it “as I might scrutinize my own reflection in an unfamiliar mirror.”

The figure of art as a mirror is a realist commonplace, but this hardly seems the kind of activity George Eliot meant to invite when she too invoked the comparison in a well-known passage of her first novel, Adam Bede (1859). The novelist speaks of giving “a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind,” not of encouraging her readers to look in the novel for reflections of themselves. Though Mead surely knows this, she has nonetheless chosen an inauspicious way of honoring a book resolutely skeptical of histories centered on the first person. That she still manages to produce a disarming tribute to George Eliot’s novel depends primarily on her skill at making her own life with the work a springboard for some speculative forays into the lives of others.

Despite a table of contents that precisely replicates George Eliot’s, My Life in Middlemarch usually adopts an oblique relation to the novel itself. “Waiting for Death,” for instance, begins not with George Eliot’s study of the greedy relatives gathered around the bed of the dying Peter Featherstone, but with the arrival in England of Lewes’s lively middle son, Thornton, who returned in terrible health from his colonial ventures in South Africa. That “Thornie” came home to die just as the novelist was about to embark on her masterwork—it was the same year that George Eliot sketched what would become the Lydgate chapters of Middlemarch—offers a sobering reminder of the indirections by which experience may be transformed into art.

  1. 1

    The classic account of the novel’s genesis is Jerome Beaty, “Middlemarch” from Notebook to Novel: A Study of George Eliot’s Creative Method (University of Illinois Press, 1960). 

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