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Middlemarch: Book Four
In Book Four, we see the great interconnectedness of life in Middlemarch and life at the old country estates. The social world, with all its complexity, rushes in between and around the characters we’ve been following so intimately, and a major theme emerges: how people (not only men) make a living, how to choose a profession, and how that question is becoming more pressing, with the rising manufacturing class. Throughout, pride seems to be a great human deterrent. Since we have so much at work, and such a long reading with a whole book, I’ll—this week—break down comments a bit by chapters.
In the first two chapters, we observe the landed gentry literally looking down at the townspeople as they file into Lowick Parish, for Mr. Featherstone’s funeral. Mrs. Cadwallader, who, as we remember, married beneath her, despises the nouveaux riches, bargains for her chickens, and admires frugality, describes Mr. Vincy as: “One of those who suck the life out of the wretched handloom weavers in Tipton and Freshitt. That is how his family look so fair and sleek.” We’re reminded that Middlemarch is a manufacturing town, which makes ribbons, cloth, and braids for the production of fine dress. Celia and Dorothea wear simple clothing, as a matter of moral restraint and refinement. So far, we’ve only seen Rosamond, and her Aunt Bulstrode, in town, wearing opulent fashions. What would Picketty make of this early capitalism? A Middlemarch manufacturing class becoming rich on producing clothing to satisfy its own desire for class distinction.
Amidst the catty commentaters, Dorothea alone recalls the dead man: “I cannot bear to think that any one should die and leave no love behind.” Is she thinking of her own husband’s death, which, after his recent attack, cannot be far from her mind?
In the middle of this social drama, Celia cries out that she has spotted Will Ladislaw in the crowd. Dorothea feels “a shock of alarm” as Mr. Casaubon glances in her direction. She knows that, although she had no part in her uncle’s decision to invite Will to stay with him at the Grange, Mr. Casaubon will assume otherwise. She finds it impossible to explain herself to her husband. We feel her frustration at being unable to make him see her view of things. He’s endlessly polite but her experience is always of being shut down.
Will has arrived in Tipton, at Mr. Brooke’s invitation, to help put his papers “into shape—remembers what the right quotations are, omne tulit punctum and that sort of thing,” creating a comic parallel to Mr. Casaubon’s need, that Dorothea hoped to fill, for a secretary to help him complete his great work. We have two late middle aged men who have inherited legacy fortunes and devoted their lives to pursuits of their own choosing, hoping to leave significant contributions. One can’t help but imagine George Eliot making fun of herself, fussing indoors with her books and papers and ambitions on many a sunny day.
“A very pretty sprig,” says Mrs. Cadwallader. “What is your nephew to be, Mr. Casaubon?”
“Pardon me,” Mr. Casaubon interjects, “he is not my nephew. He is my cousin.”
Here we see the raw evidence of a jealousy that has little to do with the “Key to all Mythologies.” Mr. Casaubon buries his sexual jealousy under the patronizing idea of protecting his impressionable young wife from Will’s influences. Dorothea refused to admit James Chettam’s frankly romantic interest in her. Now she can’t let herself acknowledge that her husband’s animosity towards his younger cousin is fueled by raw jealousy.
The second chapter of Book Four provides a payoff for all the waiting for Mr. Featherstone to die. There’s comedy in the tableau of the Featherstone relatives’ disappointment and the appearance of Mr. Featherstone’s natural son, which echoes Mrs. Taft’s prediction in Chapter 26 that Mr. Lydgate would turn out to be Bultsrode’s. Mr. Brigg, the natural son, soon becomes a target of opportunity for the second-cousin who is a mercer, or textile merchant, as “there was no knowing how many pairs of legs the new proprietor might require hose for, and profits were more to be relied on than legacies (italics mine).”
We now see the consequence of Mary’s still, dignified refusal to do as Featherstone wished, to burn the last will: that without meaning to “she had perhaps made a great difference to Fred’s lot.” She tells him, “Be brave, Fred. I do believe you are better without the money. What was the good of it to Mr. Featherstone?” Depending on your calculus, Fred’s lost ten thousand pounds would be worth from around a million to multiple millions of dollars in 2023 ($1.9 million to judge only by inflation). No wonder Mr. Vincy’s mood is fragile in the following chapter. He blames his wife for spoiling Fred and encourages Rosamond to break off her engagement to Lydgate, whose financial condition is a bit of an unknown.
Meanwhile the “gossamer web” of young love-making spins on, a web “made of spontaneous beliefs and indefinable joys, yearnings of one life towards another, visions of completeness, indefinite trust.” Eliot’s couples would seem to confirm Janet Malcolm’s psychoanalytic notion that: “Even (or especially) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: We cannot know each other.”
Lydgate spends money easily, leasing the house Rosamond wants. He makes impulse buys to set them up: “it had never occurred to him that he should live in any other than what he would have called an ordinary way, with green glasses for hock, and excellent waiting at table.”
He “foresaw that science and his profession were the objects he should alone pursue enthusiastically; but he could not imagine himself pursuing them in such a home as Wrench had–the doors all open, the oil-cloth worn, the children in soiled pinafores, and lunch lingering in the form of bones, black-handled knives, and willow-pattern.”
He imagines that Rosamond, unlike poor Dr. Wrench’s wife, will “create order in the home and accounts with still magic, yet keep her fingers ready to touch the lute and transform life into romance at any moment.” This is a tall order, and one we certainly understand Rosamond has no intention of fulfilling, having learned at Ms. Lemon’s school that money should not be referred to (or probably even thought about) by a lady.
He’s not fond of the Vincys. “Even with the wine of love in his veins,” he is irritated to have “to mingle so often with the family party … and to enter so much into Middlemarch gossip, protracted good cheer, whist-playing, and general futility” (note: “general futility”). He looks forward to giving Rosamond a “much needed transplantation.” Nonetheless, he counts on Mr. Vincy giving him a dowry to help set up a household.
Rosamond has been keeping up her end of the spending. She thinks that no one could be more in love than she is and expresses this by seeing to the best in dress and household linens. She’s hired Mary Garth to sew lace on the edges of a dozen handkerchiefs, saying “her sewing is exquisite; it is the nicest thing I know about Mary. I should so like to have all my cambric frilling double-hemmed.”
Rosamond and Fred have been profligate in their spending for chapters now, exactly as they were brought up to be. They were raised to be social climbers. No one in the family speaks to Lydgate directly about his “prospects,” and their only rich relative, Mr. Bulstrode, washes his hands of the matter.
Lydgate advocates for a quick marriage. “You will not mind about new clothes. Those can be bought afterwards.” He importunes her to give him a date.
“Rosamond became serious too, and slightly meditative; in fact, she was going through many intricacies of lace-edging and hosiery and petticoat-tucking, in order to give an answer that would at least be approximative.”
He suggests a week’s honeymoon. Rosamond says, “Oh more than that!”
“She was thinking of her evening dresses for the visit to Sir Godwin Lydgate’s, which she had long been secretly hoping for as a delightful employment of at least one quarter of the honeymoon.”
And so they blunder forward.
In Chapter 37, Will thinks: “Casaubon had done a wrong to Dorothea in marrying her.”
Do we agree?
While I’ve long thought that one of the radical inventions of Middlemarch was Eliot’s stake in placing her two greatest characters (Dorothea and Lydgate) as parallels who never feel the least romantic interest in each other, she does something even more shocking in Chapter 37. She encourages the reader to root for a potentially adulterous liaison.
Consider the chemistry in this scene (and also note what Mrs. Casaubon is wearing). Dorothea sits “in her plain dress of some thin woollen-white material, without a single ornament on her besides her wedding-ring, as if she were under a vow to be different from all other women,” and Will “opposite her at two yards’ distance, the light falling on his bright curls and delicate but rather petulant profile, with its defiant curves of lip and chin. Each looked at the other as if they had been two flowers which had opened then and there.”
Will admits that he came to Tipton just to see Dorothea. When she mentions the many things she told him in Rome, he says: “‘I remember them all,’ … with the unspeakable content in his soul of feeling that he was in the presence of a creature worthy to be perfectly loved.” Our narrator writes, using a rare first person, “I think his own feelings at that moment were perfect, for we mortals have our divine moments, when love is satisfied in the completeness of the beloved object.”
Not unsurprisingly, Dorothea defends her marriage, saying that her family, who worry about her being shut up at Lowick, “want me to be a great deal on horseback, and have the garden altered and new conservatories, to fill up my days. I thought you could understand that one’s mind has other wants.”
Dorothea does not lie about her husband’s feelings about Will. “Mr. Casaubon must have overcome his dislike of you so far as his actions were concerned: and that is admirable.”
She and Will speak about his right to an inheritance. “It was an abominable thing that my grandmother should have been disinherited because she made what they called a mésalliance, though there was nothing to be said against her husband except that he was a Polish refugee who gave lessons for his bread.”
Dorothea begins to ruminate about property and inheritance. “Here was a daughter whose child—even according to the ordinary aping of aristocratic institutions by people who are no more aristocratic than retired grocers, and who have no more land to ‘keep together’ than a lawn and a paddock—would have a prior claim. Was inheritance a question of liking or of responsibility?”
When she returns to Lowick, her husband is in an unusual sunny mood. He’s had the rare experience of a compliment. “I have had the gratification of meeting my former acquaintance, Dr. Spanning, to-day, and of being praised by one who is himself a worthy recipient of praise. He spoke very handsomely of my late tractate on the Egyptian Mysteries,—using, in fact, terms which it would not become me to repeat.”
When he learns that Dorothea has seen Will, though, and that Will intends to stay on in the neighborhood to edit “The Pioneer,” the Middlemarch newspaper Mr. Brooke has recently bought, he can’t return to his form giddiness from praise.
Dorothea begins to think of her husband’s will, which had been made at the time of their marriage, “leaving the bulk of his property to her, with proviso in case of her having children.”
Later, in her new stage of accommodation and partly unconscious pity, she gets up when she senses Casaubon’s sleeplessness, lights a candle and reads him to sleep again.
During one of these sessions she tries to tell him her feelings.
“And what are we doing with our money? We make no use of half of our income. My own money buys me nothing but an uneasy conscience.”
She’d like to give her portion to young Ladislaw.
Casaubon predictably shuts her down. “To let any one suppose that he was jealous would be to admit their (suspected) view of his disadvantages … All through his life Mr. Casaubon had been trying not to admit even to himself the inward sores of self-doubt and jealousy.”
In Chapter 37, Casaubon writes to Will telling him that if he chooses to accept the post as editor of “The Pioneer,” Casaubon will no longer acknowledge him. We assume at first that this response is driven only by Casaubon’s jealousy concerning Dorothea. But he’s not the only one who finds the idea of a family member being a newspaper editor to be insulting. Mrs. Cadwallader and Sir James Chettam agree.
“It is Aquinas’s fault,” says Mrs. Cadwallader. “Why didn’t he use his interest to get Ladislaw made an attaché or sent to India? That is how families get rid of troublesome sprigs.”
Chettam and Mrs. Cadwallader team up to use insinuations against Brooke in the town to urge him to step down from his notion of putting himself up for a seat in Parliament and to goad him to improve his estate. We learn that Brooke “got rid of Garth twelve years ago, and everything has been going wrong since.” Brooke, it is said, “shrieks at corruption” but “does not mind if every field on his farms has a rotten gate.” The matter of the gate is of the essence. Sir James tells Brooke, “Dagley complained to me the other day that he hadn’t got a decent gate on his farm. Garth has invented a new pattern of gate—I wish you would try it. One ought to use some of one’s timber in that way.”
“You go in for fancy farming, you know, Chettam,” Brooke replies. ‘That’s your hobby, and you don’t mind the expense.”
“I thought the most expensive hobby in the world was standing for Parliament,” snaps Mrs. Cadwallader.
They hope Dorothea can finish the persuasion they’ve failed at. “Sir James has been telling me that he is in hope of seeing a great change made soon in your management of the estate—that you are thinking of having the farms valued, and repairs made, and the cottages improved, so that Tipton may look quite another place. Oh, how happy—… If I were at home still, I should take to riding again, that I might go about with you and see all that! And you are going to engage Mr. Garth, who praised my cottages, Sir James says.”
“Chettam is a little hasty, my dear.”
The Dagleys become real to us and perhaps to Mr. Brooke. Dagley’s son is caught having killed a leveret. (We see, in this, that these tenant farmers own nothing. They can’t even hunt for their own food.) The Dadley home, Eliot tells us, “would have made a sort of picture which we have all paused over as a ‘charming bit,’ touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest, with the sad lack of farming capital.”
A suggestive question Dorothea poses in his chapter is “What is your religion?…I mean—not what you know about religion, but the belief that helps you most?”
Chapter 40 opens with Mary sewing Rosamund’s wedding handkerchief. Mary has resigned herself to going to teach in a school. She feels she’s “less unfit to teach in a school than a family.” She doesn’t like the prospect but “there is nothing else to be done.” She needs to earn money.
The family discusses various vocations. Mrs. Garth was once a teacher and loves the nobility of that calling. She immensely respects Mr. Garth’s work. “It will be a blessing to your children to have had a father who did such work: a father whose good work remains though his name may be forgotten.”
George Eliot’s father, like Caleb Garth, was a land manager.
Caleb Garth has the idea of hiring Fred to help him manage the estates, as he’s now learned that he has three new jobs, Freshit, Tipton Grange, and Mr. Featherstone’s. “I think, there is hardly anything honest that his family would object to more,” says Mrs. Garth. “They all think us beneath them.”
“Life is a poor tale, if it is to be settled by nonsense of that sort,” says Caleb, about the Vincys pride.
“Yes, but there is a certain pride which is proper, Caleb.”
“I call it improper pride to let fools’ notions hinder you from doing a good action.”
Considering the long arguments in these chapters about the choosing of the right profession, the futility of the landed gentry’s chosen pastimes, Lydgate’s inability to reconcile his upper-class expectations with his serious professional aims, the Garths’ honest work for money seems the gold standard.
I should mention that the idealized Caleb Garth does, in this chapter, utter the phrase “Rich as Jews.” Ouch. What are we to do with this?
Like Dorothea’s wedding, Lydgate and Rosamond’s takes place offstage. George Eliot is not much interested in weddings, Christmases, Easters, or other designated occasions. She prefers daily life.
Soon after his wedding, Lydgate is called back to Lowick, this time by Mr. Casaubon himself, to ask the doctor how much longer he has to live. Out of pride, he wants to speak to the doctor alone. Casaubon shrinks from pity for his illness. Completion of his “Key to all Mythologies” is the ostensible impetus for this conversation with his doctor, but other obsessions haunt Casaubon. His chronic sense of insult from an “inappreciative world.” A bride who has “quickly turned into the critical wife.” A rival whom he suspects of pursuing his fortune.
Lydgate believes that Casaubon suffers from a “fatty degeneration of the heart, a disease which was first divined and explored by Laennec, the man who gave us the stethoscope.” He tells Casaubon that death could be sudden, but that he could live a tolerably comfortable life for fifteen years or even more. For the first time Casaubon “found himself looking into the eyes of death.”
Is Casaubon’s inability to complete the masterpiece the world can celebrate him for in some ways a parable for inherited wealth? Eliot suggests that the “most characteristic result” of Casaubon’s “hard intellectual labors” was “not the ‘Key to all Mythologies,’ but a morbid consciousness that others did not give him the place which he had not demonstrably merited (italics mine).” Pride, Eliot seems to insist, is the greatest underminer of character.
Images: Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) was born in 1819 on South Farm (left) in Warwickshire, where her father was for decades the manager for the Arbury estate (right). Robert Evans died in 1849. Photographs © 2014 Arbury Estate
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Mona Simpson is the author of seven novels, most recently Commitment, which appeared this spring.
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