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Middlemarch: Book Seven
Book Seven is a full of internal battles, tension, and excruciation. We watch multiple plots George Eliot has set in motion develop to their climaxes. And the author seems to set herself one private challenge, a radical change from the previous hundreds of pages.
It’s clear by now that Lydgate and Rosamond are at war. “In the British climate there is no incompatibility between scientific insight and furnished lodgings: the incompatibility is chiefly between scientific ambition and a wife who objects to that kind of residence.”
Richard Ford’s advice to young writers: Marry someone who thinks you being a writer is a good idea.
Bound together in marriage, the two have divergent aspirations, conflicting aims. He has genuine ambitions, to make a scientific discovery and to establish a sound medical practice. These passions are the best part of him, his soul. Outside that core of authentic dedication, his character is weaker. He doesn’t devote time or attention to questions about how to live, and his taste runs to the conventional in women, domestic life, even wine.
In the end, having the fine plates and horses doesn’t matter greatly to him, at least not as greatly as his ambitions do, but he’s learned this crucial distinction in himself too late.
Norman Rush’s advice to young writers: Keep a low overhead.
By the time Lydgate faces reality sufficiently to impose economies on his expensive household (high rent, elegant housewares, more servants and horses than are affordable with his current practice), Rosamond is horrified enough to subvert his plans.
Rosamond is a narrower person; she’s been sheltered, kept ignorant about most of the world. To get an A+ at Miss Lemon’s meant to marry up and ascend the class ladder.
“Wives have diamond rings and headaches,” an Alice Munro character says. “They still do. The truly successful ones do” (“The Jack Randa Hotel”).
Rosamond is attracted to Lydgate’s talents, as well as his birth, but only as a means to gain prestige, status, and (though this ought never to be mentioned) money.
Sometimes a gifted, authentically ambitious person becomes celebrated, rich, and famous. It’s interesting to imagine what would have happened had Lydgate stumbled into early success. Instead, Eliot picks the more challenging course and shows us the marriage once the couple’s projected dreams and limerence wear thin.
Lydgate’s two loves, his love for his work and his love for his wife, struggle against each other. He desperately wants to keep both. Several of us have pointed out in the comments how many specific and persuasive details Eliot uses to invoke the physical nature of Lydgate’s involvement with Rosamond. He fixes her braids. Several times, he asks her to come close to him and we see him touch her, in different ways.
Rosamond, of course, has her own disappointments. She writes charming letters as she’s been taught to (on proper stationary, we imagine, with carefully chosen ink, her signature color) to Quallingham, a world like Camelot, half imaginary. She believes closeness with Lydgate’s Quallingham relatives will somehow—the how of this is vague—help her husband’s career and thus their social ascent. But no invitation is forthcoming. And there’s another subtraction in her life. Since her marriage, while her husband has been working to build his practice and volunteering time to the planning of the new hospital, she enjoyed the attentions of Will Ladislaw, who is now gone and who insulted her pride, at the end of their friendship, by making it known that he valued Dorothea more than he valued her.
At rare moments, when Rosamond seems less discontented, Lydgate feels they can somehow “rub through.” Note the verb. Again, a suggestion of the physical. One evening he searches “for an account of experiments which he had long ago meant to look up” and feels again “some of the old delightful absorption in a far-reaching inquiry,” while Rosamond plays “the quiet music which was as helpful to his meditation as the plash of an oar on the evening lake.”
Lest we side completely with Lydgate, it’s useful to remember that he’s arranged for the furniture and housewares to be publicly sold out of their home.
Rosamond, desperate, without telling her husband, writes to his uncle Sir Godwin who answers by writing Lydgate a cold letter. “I did the best I could for you as guardian, and let you have your own way in taking to medicine. You might have gone into the army or the Church. Your money would have held out for that, and there would have been a surer ladder before you.”
The letter acutely galls Lydgate, in part because he had already reconciled himself to the idea of going in person to ask his uncle for help—a step he was loath to take. Eliot tucks in information about the progress of the railways we’d just seen being built: “the railway would enable him to manage the whole journey and back in four days.” But now that trip cannot be taken. Another door is closed.
“I think it was to be expected that I should try to avert some of the hardships which our marriage has brought on me,” Rosamond says.
Lydgate asks, “Am I such an unreasonable, furious brute? Why should you not be open with me?” and is met with “still silence.”
Rosamond says, “It is so very hard to be disgraced here among all the people we know, and to live in such a miserable way. I wish I had died with the baby.”
Lydgate has a deeper sense of life’s possibilities. Yet, while he knows that having to give up a beautiful house does not enter the realm of the tragic, he also understands that his wife experiences this humiliation as a devastating disgrace. “He wished to excuse everything in her if he could—but it was inevitable that in that excusing mood he should think of her as if she were an animal of another and feebler species. Nevertheless she had mastered him.”
Rosamond has mastered him, because he is the one who feels for the other more deeply. Lydgate is self-critical and works to understand her.
“In marriage, the certainty, ‘She will never love me much,’ is easier to bear than the fear, ‘I shall love her no more.’”
Lydgate “had never liked the makeshifts of poverty, and they had never before entered into his prospects for himself; but he was beginning now to imagine how two creatures who loved each other, and had a stock of thoughts in common, might laugh over their shabby furniture, and their calculations how far they could afford butter and eggs.” We hear the tenor of his voice change. “I may get my neck broken, and that may make things easier to you.”
It’s almost impossible to question the authenticity of love for his wife—his desire for her was immediate and remains strong—as much as we know that his loyalty to her will undoubtedly change his destiny. Seeing Lydgate gambling at the Green Dragon, Fred feels “a shock greater than he could quite account.” He vaguely knows (everyone in Middlemarch by now does) that Lydgate is in debt and Fred’s own “inclination to enter into the play was suddenly checked.”
Farebrother, finding Fred there, takes the brave step of revealing to Fred his own internal battle, admitting that “my prompting was to look on and see you take the wrong turning, wear out Garth’s patience, and lose the best opportunity of your life—the opportunity which you made some rather difficult effort to secure. You can guess the feeling which raised that temptation in me—I am sure you know it. I am sure you know that the satisfaction of your affections stands in the way of mine.”
Farebrother’s inclination to let Fred ruin himself fights against his essential kindness. “Aren’t you worth as much as he is, and don’t your sixteen years over and above his, in which you have gone rather hungry, give you more right to satisfaction than he has? If there’s a chance of his going to the dogs, let him …” He tells all this to Fred. Then, he speaks again. “With a change in his tone like the encouraging transition to a major key” he remembers, “I had once meant better than that, and I am come back to my old intention. I thought that I could hardly secure myself in it better, Fred, than by telling you just what had gone on in me.”
By way of constrast, there is Bulstrode, who also started out with good intentions and “who had longed for years to be better than he was—who had taken his selfish passions into discipline and clad them in severe robes.” Like Farebrother, he’s deeply conflicted. He wants to live with his wife among neighbors who believe him to be good. After Raffles emerged and threatened to reveal his past, Bulstode tried—in a limited way—to atone by offering money to Will Ladislaw, who refused to accept his amend. Also, unlike Farebrother, Bulstrode is not telling anyone what is tormenting him. He’s harboring a great secret. Even when trying to explain his offer to Will, he doesn’t come clean. Will has to guess at the truth.
“Who can know how much of his most inward life is made up of the thoughts he believes other men to have about him, until that fabric of opinion is threatened with ruin?”
The threats that circle Bulstrode close in. Caleb Garth resigns from the job of managing Stone Court. Bulstrode begs, ““I may trust then to your solemn assurance that you will not repeat either to man or woman” what he has heard from Raffles..”
Caleb promises he will keep Bulstrode’s secret.
“If you led a harmful life for gain, and kept others out of their rights by deceit, to get the more for yourself, I dare say you repent—you would like to go back, and can’t: that must be a bitter thing … it is not for me to make your life harder to you.”
Finally, Eliot gives us the dramatic situation of Raffles, whom we already know to be a drinker, arriving sick with alcohol poisoning at Bulstrode’s estate.
Bulstrode calls in Lydgate, the doctor in town he knows best, but who, just yesterday, asked him for a loan in order to get him out of his harrowing domestic debt. Bulstrode refused, while also telling him he intended to stop supporting the new hospital, which he knows to be the cherished part of Lydgate’s intellectual ambition. What is so striking about this refusal is that it would have cost Bulstrode little to comply with Lydgate’s request for personal help, especially at a moment when he was considering withdrawing from his involvement from the hospital. Even Bulstrode’s wife feels roused to counter her husband “for the first time,” saying “I think you are always a little hard towards my family, Nicholas. And I am sure I have no reason to deny any of my relations. Too worldly they may be, but no one ever had to say that they were not respectable.”
Despite his personal problems, Lydgate immediately becomes engaged with Raffles’ illness and declares, “In my opinion, men in his condition are oftener killed by treatment than by the disease.”
Lydgate’s opinion is not a whim; he’s recently read Dr. Ware’s “Remarks on the History and Treatment of Delirium Tremens,” in Transactions of the Massachusetts Medical Society (Boston, 1831), an article which inspired much argument and conversation. Before, in Europe, already having been interested in alcohol poisoning, Lydgate became “convinced against the prevalent practice of allowing alcohol and persistently administering large doses of opium; and he had repeatedly acted on this conviction with a favorable result.”
Bulstrode now gives Lydgate the money he refused him a day ago, because today he has a selfish reason to—he’s hoping to create a sense of obligation in Lydgate.
Eliot has given Bulstrode the opportunity for a perfect crime—he has a clear motive and Lydgate has unintentionally given him the means—and the only thing to keep the banker from committing the murder is a morality he has been professing for a long time, to himself, his wife, and all of Middlemarch.
Nonetheless “Raffles dead was the image that brought release, and indirectly he prayed for that way of release, beseeching that, if it were possible, the rest of his days here below might be freed from the threat of an ignominy.”
Although we watch for an excruciating chapter, there’s little doubt as to how this battle of desire against a morality, erected over a secret, will end.
The epigraph for the chapter is:
“Our deeds still travel with us from afar,
And what we have been makes us what we are.”
At first, it seems that Bulstrode might be allowed to achieve his desire passively. He’s resting in his room, by the firelight, when the thought occurs to him that “he had not told Mrs. Abel when the doses of opium must cease.”
But no. Eliot will not settle for a death by omission. She gives us another deathbed scene, Mrs. Able on one side of the door, Bulstrode on the other. Mrs. Able asks to give Raffles alcohol, because she believes it will help him.
Eventually, Bulstrode hands her the key to the liquor cabinet.
Because Eliot has set up Lydgate as a maverick, a forward thinker, and introduced Dr. Ware’s method as new, still not well known and controversial, who can say (for sure) “that the death of Raffles had been hastened? Who knew what would have saved him?”
We know why Bulstrode gave Mrs. Abel the key. But we can’t say with confidence that the administration of alcohol killed Raffles. Any of the other doctors in town would have honorably prescribed exactly what Mrs. Abel administered.
Just when Bulstrode is enjoying his first relief in a long, long time, just when Lydgate is beginning once again to feel hopeful about his life, gossip is running wild in Middlemarch. “The news that there was an execution in Lydgate’s house had got to Lowick by the evening, having been carried by Mr. Spicer, shoemaker and parish-clerk, who had it from his brother, the respectable bell-hanger in Lowick Gate …”
I’m remembering the two Woody Allen movies in which powerful men get rid of their bothersome mistresses by having them murdered and escape consequences and even guilt.
Eliot will permit no such escape here.
Bambridge tells a group of Middlemarchers about meeting Raffles, who told him he knew all Bulstrode’s secrets and could “tap” him “to any amount.” “Raffles!” exclaims Mr. Hopkins. “I furnished his funeral yesterday. He was buried at Lowick. Mr. Bulstrode followed him.”
The facts pile up. “Brimstone” is evoked. Mr. Hawley asks, “Where did the man die?”
“At Stone Court,” says the draper.
Soon, Lydgate’s name is invoked as the doctor, just as the news of Lydgate being able to stay the repossession of his furniture and pay all his debts begins to buzz around Middlemarch. “That the money came from Bulstrode would infallibly have been guessed even if there had been no direct evidence of it; for it had beforehand entered into the gossip about Lydgate’s affairs that neither his father-in-law nor his own family would do anything for him, and direct evidence was furnished not only by a clerk at the Bank but by innocent Mrs. Bulstrode herself, who mentioned the loan to Mrs. Plymdale, who mentioned it to her daughter-in-law of the house of Toller, who mentioned it generally. The business was felt to be so public and important that it required dinners to feed it, and many invitations were just then issued and accepted on the strength of this scandal concerning Bulstrode and Lydgate; wives, widows, and single ladies took their work and went out to tea oftener than usual; and all public conviviality, from the Green Dragon to Dollop’s, gathered a zest which could not be won from the question whether the Lords would throw out the Reform Bill.”
The gossip becomes general, long-hidden facts are revealed and others are made up whole cloth. (It may be useful to remember George Eliot’s years of social isolation and how the rules and gossip of polite Victorian society shaped her life.) Mr. Dill, the barber, whom we have not yet met, and Fletcher, Hawley’s clerk, have opinions, as does a Mr. Thesiger, who wants Bulstrode out of the parish.
It’s no surprise that the Vincy family have already heard the rumors about their aunt, “poor Harriet,” that Lydgate notices people looking strangely at him, or that Bulstrode has still not confessed to himself that he’s done anything “in the way of contrivance” towards Raffles death. He’s accounting the death as an arrangement of “providence.”
But amid this tension, winding closer and closer, as rumors, both true and false are running in packs wildly through Middlemarch, I know I am not the only reader to notice, with discomfort and a sense of feeling in the dark among the chaos and ominous foreboding, that we have not seen Dorothea for this entire book.
Where is Dorothea?
It’s hard not to imagine her absence as a challenge Eliot set herself, when, at the very end of Book Seven, we finally do see her.
“Oh, my dear,” says Mr. Brooke, “we have been hearing bad news—bad news, you know.”
They walk through the garden towards the churchyard gate, Mr. Farebrother wants to go on to the parsonage. Dorothea hears the whole sad story.
“She listens with deep interest, and begs to hear twice over the facts and impressions concerning Lydgate. After a short silence, pausing at the churchyard gate, and addressing Mr. Farebrother, she says energetically—‘You don’t believe that Mr. Lydgate is guilty of anything base? I will not believe it. Let us find out the truth and clear him!’”
Author’s note: Aaron Matz, author of Satire in an Age of Realism and The Novel and the Problem of New Life has written a wonderful paper about Dorothea’s absence and reappearance in Book Seven, which he generously delivered, twice, to my Middlemarch class.
Join us with your thoughts in the comments below.
For next week: To the end!
We’re thinking further Middlemarch adventures: We’ll keep you posted!
Mona Simpson is the author of seven novels, most recently Commitment, which appeared this spring.
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