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Middlemarch: Book Six
Consider this little-cited paragraph:
Of course, as a servant who was to be told nothing, he [Pratt, Casaubon’s butler] knew the fact of which Ladislaw was still ignorant, and had drawn his inferences; indeed, had not differed from his betrothed Tantripp when she said, “Your master was as jealous as a fiend—and no reason. Madam would look higher than Mr. Ladislaw, else I don’t know her. Mrs. Cadwallader’s maid says there’s a lord coming who is to marry her when the mourning’s over.
By Book Six, with her full orchestra of characters established, George Eliot uses gossip to hurtle the plot forward, inspiring fear and wild risks in her characters. Gossip shows the multiple points of connection between the worlds of her novel—the town of Middlemarch and the country estates and the variousness classes who inhabit these locales. Now, people not only react to each other for our—the reader’s—benefit, they think about each other and talk about each other, and some of the rumors they spread determine other peoples’ actions and, ultimately, their lives.
In the paragraph cited above, first, we’re first given the pleasurable development of a romance we noticed the day of Casaubon’s death, when Pratt and Tantripp were flirting with each other—now, they’re engaged. This suggests a realm of drama we’re not privy to in this novel, the detailed lives of the servants. Worlds and more worlds are implied.
We glean that gossip permeates class boundaries— these two are more au courant than their employers, not only about Casaubon’s will but also about the Marquis Mrs. Cadwallader plans to fix up with Dorothea, post-mourning. And, significantly, they’re creative, demonstrating that gossip is an ever-evolving story, each hearer adding his or her own hopes, projections, or malice. Tantripp decides that Dorothea would never stoop to marry someone with as undistinguished as Will Ladislaw. Pratt ratifies her opinion, so we can imagine that when Tantripp next passes the news on (and we know Tantripp will talk; she’s been a gossip since Book One, when she told Celia the rumors about Sir James’ affections while doing her hair), Dorothea insisting on a second husband of high rank will be part of the fast-moving oral story.
Even Celia, whose love for her sister is never in doubt, goes against her husband’s wishes and talks to Mrs. Cadwallader. While Sir James, pressures Mr. Brooke to send Ladislaw away to protect Dorothea’s reputation, Celia spills the full story of the codicil to the town busybody.
And so, while Dorothea “at first … walked into every room, questioning the eighteen months of her married life, and carrying on her thoughts as if they were a speech to be heard by her husband,” everyone around her, due to the now well-known “private” fact of her husband’s will, has opinions about what is to be done with her.
Mrs. Chettam thinks Dorothea needs a companion. She recommends a Mrs. Vigo who “had been reader and secretary to royal personages, and in point of knowledge and sentiments even Dorothea could have nothing to object to her.”
Mrs. Cadwallader feels certain that “it will be well for her to marry again as soon as it is proper, if one could get her among the right people. Of course the Chettams would not wish it. But I see clearly a husband is the best thing to keep her in order.”
Celia, with total obtuseness, believes “it is very nice for Dodo to be a widow. She can be just as fond of our baby as if it were her own.” She’s certain that Dorothea has been been as happy as can be at Freshitt, observing baby and “going all about Tipton with Mr. Garth into the worst backyards.” She tells her, “now uncle is abroad, you and Mr. Garth can have it all your own way; and I am sure James does everything you tell him.”
Dorothea secretly longs to see Will, though she cannot think of “any good that could come of their meeting: she was helpless; her hands had been tied from making up to him for any unfairness in his lot … she did not even know whether Will Ladislaw was still at Middlemarch, and there was no one whom she dared to ask” (italics mine).
She imagines that Will, having heard the gossip, decided that they should never meet again and worries that perhaps she is “wrong to wish for a meeting that others might find many good reasons against” (italics mine).
When the two finally do meet, they are awkward and uneasy. Will fears that Dorothea’s “friends” have been “poisoning her mind with their suspicions of him.”
Eliot dangles the possibility that this insinuating gossip may have permanent consequences for her characters. Will says he will go away and, as Dorothea looks out the window “on the rosebushes, which seemed to have in them the summers of all the years when Will would be away,” she feels something that “may be called an inward silent sob.”
Dorothea’s relatives plan her life. Celia insists on taking her sister’s widow’s cap off and James, seeing Dorothea’s “released head,” says “‘Ah!’ in a tone of satisfaction.”
They want to regard the marriage as a mistake of Dorothea’s youth, now cancelled out as if it had never happened. “Dodo need not make such a slavery of her mourning; she need not wear that cap any more among her friends.’
Lady Chettam, a formalist, reminds her daughter-in-law that a widow must wear her mourning at least a year.
“Not if she marries again before the end of it,” says Mrs. Cadwallader. Sir James, horrified by the conversation, plays with Celia’s Maltese dog, which she has at last received.
Everyone presumes Dorothea needs guidance. “But you know, Dodo, if you ever did marry,” Celia says, “it would be all the better to have blood and beauty.”
“I shall never marry again,” Dorothea declares. She seems to be the only one to accept her marriage as a real epoch in her life, always to remain.
“I have delightful plans,” she goes on. “I should like to take a great deal of land, and drain it, and make it a little colony, where everybody should work, and all the work should be done well. I should know every one of the people and be their friend. I am going to have great consultations with Mr. Garth: he can tell me almost everything I want to know.”
In life and in Middlemarch, not all gossip is destructive. As Oscar Wilde once wrote “gossip is charming.” It can forge friendships. “Dorothea’s confidence in Caleb Garth’s knowledge, which had begun on her hearing that he approved of her cottages, had grown fast during her stay at Freshitt, Sir James having induced her to take rides over the two estates in company with himself and Caleb, who quite returned her admiration, and told his wife that Mrs. Casaubon had a head for business most uncommon in a woman.”
Caleb tells his wife, Susan, what Dorothea said to him: “Mr. Garth, I should like to feel, if I lived to be old, that I had improved a great piece of land and built a great many good cottages, because the work is of a healthy kind while it is being done, and after it is done, men are the better for it.”
Oscar Wilde also wrote, “History is merely gossip.”
Introducing the enormous changes the railroads would bring to rural England, Eliot first speaks of them as a “topic” of conversation, one as exciting as the “Reform Bill” or “the imminent horrors of Cholera.” Those who held the most decided views are “women and land-owners” our narrator claims. Women, by and large, old and young, regarded “traveling by steam” as “dangerous” and “nothing should induce them to get into a railway carriage.”
Caleb Garth has no such fears. He negotiates with the railway companies to get “the best possible terms” for Dorothea in exchange for the portion of Lowick upon which they plan to lay rails.
Timothy Cooper, who keeps his savings “in a stocking-foot” and is “not to be wrought on by any oratory,” is suspicious of the railways, claiming, “This is the big folks’s world, this is.”
Garth, conciliating, casts his view as a false rumor. “Somebody told you the railroad was a bad thing. That was a lie. It may do a bit of harm here and there, to this and to that; and so does the sun in heaven. But the railway’s a good thing.” Lest we assume that Timothy echoes Eliot’s own opinion, like some of Shakespeare’s Holy Fools, her narrator clarifies, calling Timothy a “rustic” ruled by “feeling” and “impervious to a neatly-carved argument for a social benefit.”
Eliot was wealthy by the time she wrote Middlemarch and Caleb Garth was largely modeled on Eliot’s beloved father, “who was for most of his life the manager of the estate where Eliot was born.” He’s the one character in the book who literally never does even one tiny thing wrong.
He says to Fred, about working in land management, “A young fellow needn’t be a B.A. to do this sort of work, eh, Fred?”
When Fred confesses his love for Mary and explains her refusal to marry him if he enters the church, and Mr. Garth gives him advice (“you must love your work, and not be always looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin … you must not be ashamed of your work … You must have a pride in your own work,” etc.) and then hires him, the reader might fairly assume that Mary/Fred plot is mostly concluded.
But GE wrings out every last twist and nuance of her plots.
Caleb Garth gives his blessing to Fred, but his wife, Susan is greatly disappointed, believing that her daughter could have had a man who is “worth twenty Fred Vincys.”
Many readers may agree with her estimation of Mr. Farebrother as worth twenty Freds.
Susan “was rational and unhopeful. Which would turn out to have the more foresight in it—her rationality or Caleb’s ardent generosity?” the narrator asks us. We’re given a bit of evidence that would seem weigh the matter to Susan’s side.
“Certainly Fred’s tailoring suggested the advantages of an English university,” we’re told. And: Fred “had not thought of desk-work.”
Eliot makes the point that in the 1830s “the opinion existed that it was beneath a gentleman to write legibly, or with a hand in the least suitable to a clerk … like the majority of young gentleman, he [Fred] wanted an occupation which should be free from disagreeables.”
Note fiction writers: A good title. The Disagreeables.
Susan Garth, who believes in submission to her husband one in every hundred times he insists on something, can’t restrain herself from telling Fred about Mr. Farebrother’s interest in Mary, provoking him to a depth he’s never before sounded. “Fred’s light hopeful nature had perhaps never had so much of a bruise as from this suggestion that if he had been out of the way Mary might have made a thoroughly good match.”
Still, he’s not “in the least ready to give up Mary for her good” and rides directly to the Farebrothers’ new home in Lowick. While there, he’s provoked by how well Mary gets on with the three elder ladies and feels jealous of Farebrother, wishing “that he had been ugly and fat as men at forty sometimes are.”
Mary, confronted by Fred, has to face the truth of Farebrother’s affection for her, intimations of which she’d dismissed. (Her talent for deciphering the language and nuance of romantic inuendo is decidedly more like Dorothea’s, not like her old schoolmate Rosamond’s.)
Mary feels awkward to be refusing Mr. Farebrother, a “much honored” man, whom she’s respected her whole life. Our narrator notes that this is “dangerous to the firmness of a grateful woman.”
Are we to think Mary is a bit tempted?
We know her solidity. She “earnestly desired to be always clear that she loved Fred best. When a tender affection has been storing itself in us through many of our years, the idea that we could accept any exchange for it seems to be a cheapening of our lives. And we can set a watch over our affections and our constancy as we can over other treasures.”
Is she protesting too much?
“It was impossible to help fleeting visions of another kind—new dignities and an acknowledged value of which she had often felt the absence. But these things with Fred outside them, Fred forsaken and looking sad for the want of her, could never tempt her deliberate thought.”
Hmm. Is she shutting out the possibility of Farebrother because she feels sorry for Fred and a bit guilty for determining his fate by not burning Mr. Featherstone’s will?
To get every last drop out of the Garth/Fred plot, Eliot lets us see the scenes of Fred telling his disappointed parents his decision, having finally passed his exams, to forgo the esteemed position of a curate to do what they consider manual labor.
“You’ve thrown away your education, and gone down a step in life, when I have given you the means of rising, that’s all,” Mr. Vincy says.
But there is no severe consequence to this disappointment. Fred is not kicked out. “Of course your mother will want you to stay. But I shall keep no horse for you, you understand; and you will pay your own tailor.”
This is hardly the end of the world. Am I the only one who can’t help liking the Vincys? They’re the contemporary parents, who have grown up spoiling their children, know it but can’t stop themselves from doing so. “You always have spoiled the boy, and you must go on spoiling him,” Mr. Vincy says to his disconsolate wife. “We must expect to have trouble with our children. Don’t make it worse by letting me see you out of spirits.”
They then go on to talk about Rosamond. It’s from eavesdropping on their conversation about her that we learn she’s lost her baby and that she’s gotton over the loss “nicely.” Mr. Vincy has been privy to rumors that Lydgate is “making a mess of his practice, and getting into debt too, by what I hear.” Mr. Vincy reminds his wife that he never did like that marriage.
The rumors that Mr. Vincy has heard are true: Lydgate is in debt. And now, we’re introduced to the dark, un-charming side of gossip and its concomitant shame.
How a doctor with a new practice and expensive habits could find his expenses exceeding his income can easily be conceived, our shrewd narrator points out, “by anyone who does not think these details beneath his consideration.” As his bills become more pressing, Lydgate is forced to face reality and begins to consider details formerly beneath his consideration. He plans to return whatever furniture and silver he can and change his household habits to live within their means. But there is the tormenting problem of his wife, “who had known nothing but indulgence, and whose dreams had all been of new indulgence, more exactly to her taste.” Previously, he hadn’t wanted to bother her about expenses, because she was carrying their first baby. Now, men coming to estimate a price for his furniture and plate, he has no choice.
The loss of the baby is narrated in a tone of careful distance, to impart Lydgate’s sense of astonished pain. “Her baby had been born prematurely, and all the embroidered robes and caps had to be laid by in darkness. This misfortune was attributed entirely to her having persisted in going out on horseback one day when her husband had desired her not to do so.”
Rosamond went out on horseback on that fateful day was because she was entertaining Lydgate’s cousin from Quallingham, a baronet’s son, who had brought a horse for her to ride. In her imagination, his rank penetrated their Middlemarch friends and acquaintances “as if it had been an odor.” She imagined a future with and visits to and from Quallingham and “vague advancements in consequence” for her husband. This notion of “advancement” has little to do with actual accomplishments in medical practice or scientific discovery, Lydgate by now realizes. He is beginning to understand that any attraction his wife had for his talent was only for the hope that it would give him prestige, “like an order in his button-hole or an Honourable before his name.”
(Let me digress a moment to admire the way a George Eliot sentence can snap at the end to make fun of the person for whom it has just engendered sympathy. “Those words”—he said to his wife that she wished he was more like his dopey cousin and she doesn’t contradict him—"were like a sad milestone marking how far he had travelled from his old dreamland, in which Rosamond Vincy appeared to be that perfect piece of womanhood who would reverence her husband’s mind after the fashion of an accomplished mermaid, using her comb and looking-glass and singing her song for the relaxation of his adored wisdom alone.” But while we see “that total missing of each other’s mental track, which is too evidently possible even between persons who are continually thinking of each other,” there is a great difference in each of their responses to the impasse they find themselves in. Lydgate’s frustration is profoundly mingled with “self-discontent.”
He’s disappointed that Rosamond won’t join him in their trouble. She says she’ll go to her father’s house the day the estimators will arrive to assess the value of their furnishings and silver. Lydgate remembers Dorothea’s “looks and tones of emotion about her husband when Lydgate began to attend him—from her passionate cry to be taught what would best comfort that man.” He remembers her begging, “Advise me—think what I can do—he has been all his life laboring and looking forward. He minds about nothing else—and I mind about nothing else.”
As Lydgate faces this great humiliation, Rosamond asks “What can I do” with “as much neutrality” as those words could hold.
Nonetheless, he pities her, he loves her and “her tears cut him to the heart.”
But let’s return to the ever-moving river of gossip. The evening Fred Vincy went to the Farebrothers’ he heard the news about the codicil and Will Ladislaw from the three old ladies, who had heard it from Tantripp. Miss Winifred was astounded to learn that her brother (Farebrother) had already known about it and not told them. Fred tells Rosamond. We then discover “Lydgate, like Mr. Farebrother, knew a great deal more than he told, and when he had once been set thinking about the relation between Will and Dorothea his conjectures had gone beyond the fact. He imagined that there was a passionate attachment on both sides, and this struck him as much too serious to gossip about.”
He advises his wife, “Take care you don’t drop the faintest hint to Ladislaw, Rosy. He is likely to fly out as if you insulted him. Of course it is a painful affair.”
But Rosamond once again ignores her husband’s advice. (This is the author’s way of showing us Rosamond’s obstinate refusal to question herself: after willfully going against her husband’s insistence that she not ride again, she rode again and lost the baby and now, even after that loss, she does not pause to consider whether his counsel could help her.) She whispers to Will “I know all about it” and then explains. This is how Ladislaw learns about the codicil to Casaubon’s will, in which he is explicitly implicated.
“Pray don’t say any more about it,” he says in a new tone of voice. “It is a foul insult to her and to me.”
Will fights against being a victim of gossip. He goes to a public auction to perform a service for Mr. Bulstrode, the new owner of the “Pioneer” (and thus his boss). He is not intimidated to appear in public “before the Middlemarch tribes who looked down on him as an adventurer, and were in a state of brutal ignorance about Dante—who sneered at his Polish blood, and were themselves of a breed very much in need of crossing.” But at the auction, he has a chance meeting with Raffles, who tells him unsettling gossip about his origins. If what he says is true, there’s a “blot” on his geneology: his grandfather ran a “slap-up shop” serving as a middleman for fenced goods. His mother ran away from the family when she learned about the nature of her father’s business. Will imagines the scandal if “Dorothea’s friends had known this story—if the Chettams had known it—they would have had a fine color to give their suspicions, a welcome ground for thinking him unfit to come near her.”
To Oscar Wilde “scandal is gossip made tedious by morality,” but Eliot’s sensibility is too universally sympathetic to be bored by even her villains’ pain.
Mr. Bulstrode, in hopes of disarming Raffles while possibly easing his conscience, writes to Will. Though there are many flaws in Mr. Bulstrode’s character, Eliot insists on revealing one noble strand in his love for his wife, “whose imitative piety and native worldliness were equally sincere, who had nothing to be ashamed of, and whom he had married out of a thorough inclination still subsisting.”
Bulstrode reminds himself that he is not “in danger of legal punishment … only of seeing disclosed to the judgment of his neighbors and the mournful perception of his wife certain facts of his past life which would render him an object of scorn and an opprobrium of the religion with which he had diligently associated himself. The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases.”
We are told some of these general phrases Mr. Bulstrode has consoled himself with and the truth they glossed over. He remembers his first moments, as a young preacher given an unexpected opportunity “in business,” reckoning with the knowledge that one source of the “magnificent profit” that was coming in with his help “was the easy reception of any goods offered, without strict inquiry as to where they came from.” His doubts “were private, and were filled with arguments; some of these taking the form of prayer.” He asked himself: “is it not one thing to set up a new gin-palace and another to accept an investment in an old one?”
He elected to stay in the business. And yet, he thinks now, “if he could be back in that far-off spot with his youthful poverty—why, then he would choose to be a missionary.”
Eventually, his mentor dies and Bulstrode woos the widow, who never knew the precise nature of her husband’s business. After “advertisement as well as other modes of inquiry had been tried,” she “believed” that a daughter who had run away from the family “was not to be found” and consents to marry Bulstrode without reservation of property for her.
Note how Bulstrode thinks in the passive voice. The daughter “had been found”; but the only man who knew it, the very Raffles, “was paid for keeping silence and carrying himself away.” Bulstrode still cannot say to himself, “I paid Raffles to keep quiet and go to America.” He offers the “consolation” that “the unhappy young woman might be no more.”
Then we come to this: “There were hours in which Bulstrode felt that his action was unrighteous; but how could he go back?”
We’re left to infer that there were also, apparently, hours, probably the majority of them, when he did not feel that his action was unrighteous or, for that matter, think about it at all.
He divides his life into compartments; he is a “a Churchman, a public benefactor”; he is also “a sleeping partner in trading concerns, in which his ability was directed to economy in the raw material, as in the case of the dyes which rotted Mr. Vincy’s silk.”
Bulstrode offers Will a substantial financial settlement, emphasizing again that it is “as I have already said, … entirely independent of any legal compulsion.” I begin to question whether concealing facts relevant to an inheritance would not be subject to legal remediation.
Will immediately challenges him. “I suppose you did know of my mother’s existence, and knew where she might have been found … And was that business—or was it not—a thoroughly dishonorable one—nay, one that, if its nature had been made public, might have ranked those concerned in it with thieves and convicts?”
Bulstrode, having expected his costly offer to yield compliance, becomes furious. His “intense pride and his habit of supremacy overpowered penitence, and even dread, when this young man, whom he had meant to benefit, turned on him with the air of a judge.”
Will decides to refuse the money. “My unblemished honor is important to me. It is important to me to have no stain on my birth and connections. And now I find there is a stain which I can’t help. My mother felt it, and tried to keep as clear of it as she could, and so will I.”
Eliot’s narrator (no Oscar Wilde) wonders whether Will wasn’t too hard on a man of sixty who was making efforts to be better.
It is telling that “perhaps, through all other hidden thoughts, the one that breathed most comfort (to Bulstrode) was, that Will Ladislaw at least was not likely to publish what had taken place that evening.”
In the final chapter of Book Six, we see Will struggling to maintain his independence and self-made dignity now that he knows, not only about the codicil, but also about the added blow of a “blot” on his family’s history. He goes to say goodbye to Dorothea imagining people that people are gossiping about him, and, of course, we see that he’s right. But this time the gossip we overhear moving through the neighborhood (from Standish to Sir James to Mrs. Cadwallader, who feels it best to tell the rumor to Dorothea) is about Lydgate and Rosamond. Dorothea is not the only person who has discovered Will on Lydgate’s rug, making music with his wife.
Will confesses all to Dorothea. He says “under no circumstances would I have given men the chance of saying that I sought money under the pretext of seeking—something else” and then goes on to say that “what I care more for than I can ever care for anything else is absolutely forbidden to me—I don’t mean merely by being out of my reach, but forbidden me, even if it were within my reach, by my own pride and honor.”
Will believes that it would be impossible for Dorothea to misunderstand what she means to him, but of course she, too, is affected by the gossip that she tried to shake off when Mrs. Cadwallader tells it to her. She answers him neutrally, which makes him angry and skittish and they once again part.
I’ve always found this second goodbye a little implausible, given the palpable chemistry between them, but, then, Eliot foreshadowed Mrs. Cadwallader’s gossip when Dorothea discovered Will with Rosamond herself. Also, on Will’s side, he has no idea that Dorothea has any money, and he, as of now, has no means of support. And unlike Rosamond, whose aspirations make her tastes in dress and housewares extremely expensive, Dorothea has grown up with the blithe if conflicted assumption of wealth, exemplified by the fact that a dedicated lady’s maid, Tantripp, is maintained to accompany her everywhere. That’s likely to intimidate a young man who has had to rely on funds first from the husband of the woman in question and then from her uncle.
Mona Simpson is the author of seven novels, most recently Commitment, which appeared this spring.
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