I am really enjoying my (very leisurely) reread of George Eliot’s Middlemarch for Juhi’s Middlemarch Readalong over at Nooks & Crannies. I was in college when I first read it, and that was a thousand years ago, so it’s practically brand new to me! Besides, I realize as I get older that how we read books, what we look for and what we value, changes tremendously with time. I have no idea how I read this giant book in less than a semester with all my other class work and my college social life! But I remember totally loving it and feeling grateful for the experience of being “made” to read it.
So, Book One. We are introduced to many characters, but the main focus is the (very short) courtship and engagement of Miss Dorothea Brooke to Mr. Edward Causabon. I am sure every reader of Middlemarch has wondered what in the Sam Hill Dorothea is doing, hitching her star to his middle-aged, cold, dusty old wagon. Don’t do it!, we shout like we’re watching a horror movie and the young ingenue is heading down the dark basement staircase. But she is blissfully determined to marry Causabon. We learn from Chapter 1 that she thinks that “the really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew if you wished it.”
I feel like Dorothea is not only suffering from a martyr complex, but she’s also terribly hungry for education. Eliot makes several remarks in Book One about the shallowness of education open to women at the time. Dorothea sees Causabon as a way to gain knowledge and then perform good works, more secure in her knowledge.
Honestly, I think that Dorothea comes across as a dull, naive prig in this first book. But I feel empathy for her. When she tells Celia, her sister, about the engagement, Celia can not hide her dismay. Dorothea knows that her choice in unpopular. (“Of course all the world round Tipton would be out of sympathy with this marriage. Dorothea knew of no one who thought as she did about life and its best objects. “)
Causabon is not an appealing character, but Eliot makes him slightly sympathetic even in this first book. As he spends more time with Dorothea, he feels some sense of unease at the prospective marriage. He starts to wonder if there’s something wrong with Dorothea that he can’t make himself feel more for her, but he begins to realize that it’s nothing to do with her. He really is just a cold fish, so thoroughly acclimated to the life of the mind and his quiet bachelorhood that he doesn’t know how to love like he thought that he might, if the chance arose.
I had forgotten how funny Eliot is. The scene in Chapter 12 where Mrs. Waule goes to visit her brother, Peter Featherstone (uncle by marriage to Fred and Rosamund Vincy,) is hilarious. She is spreading gossip about Fred, trying to make her own daughters look better in comparison so they will inherit the ailing Featherstone’s money. “There’s Rebecca, and Joanna, and Elizabeth, you know,” she says before she leaves. Featherstone replies, “Ay, ay, I remember – you’ll see I’ve remembered ’em all – all dark and ugly. They’d need some money, eh? There never was any beauty in the women of our family.” He’s an obnoxious, manipulative old coot, but he’s funny!
As for the other characters, you can see the seeds of relationships being planted in Book One. The rather level-headed Celia has a thing for the amiable Sir James Chettham, who initially had his eyes on Dorothea. Fred Vincy, who is portrayed as lovable but lazy and aimless, seems to have an interest in the plain but virtuous Mary Garth. And his sister Rosamund is already scheming to make an impression on the newly arrived doctor in town, Lydgate. And then there’s Causabon’s intriguing young artist cousin, Ladislaw. He is immediately attracted to Dorothea but writes her off because of her poor judgment in romantic choices.
I’m loving reading this again. If you’ve never read Middlemarch, or it’s been a very long time and you’d like to reread it, please consider joining the #Marchalong! We’ll be reading Book Two from April 1 – April 15, so you’ve got plenty of time to catch up.