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Middlemarch: Book Three
Did you notice the white stag in Chapter 28? The designer Colin D used it as a theme for the cover he designed, inspired by our Summer Reading, for his fanciful book-cover TikTok account, @colin_drawn. Watch to learn about mystical stags, local period textiles, Middlemarch covers good and terrible, and an awful lot more in just three minutes! While you’re there, visit Book Post’s Middlemarch TikTok with our own Julia and Oscar! (ed.)
The honeymoon may be over, but—judging by the conversation in our comments section—our curiosity about what did and did not happen in the marriage bed of Dorothea and Casaubon, their respective sexual energies, failures, and sublimations, is evidently still engaged.
It’s hard to account sufficiently for the change in human life that occurred roughly a hundred years after this book was written (one hundred and thirty years after Casaubon and Dorothea went to Rome for their wedding journey), due to what we called, in the twentieth century, the sexual revolution. Enabled by the birth control pill, introduced in 1960 (US) and 1961 in England, our social and romantic possibilities expanded and in exuberant celebration of “free love” many couples began to dissipate the many expectations, hopes, and projections that were once concentrated on one single day and night.
Imagine the pressure of falling in love (what psychoanalysts would call “limerence”), becoming engaged, and then marrying in a matter of weeks. Miss Brooke is put on a conveyor belt of tradition, taken through the wedding ceremony and its attendant nocturnal consummation, and comes out Mrs. Casaubon. The potent mystery—some would call it a sacrament—credited with this momentous transformation is sex.
Of course, so much anticipating happiness hinging on one single night is bound to disappoint more frequently than we’d like to admit. (The dramatic possibilities for awkwardness and damage inherent in the much-mythologized loss of virginity on the marriage night is exploited in Ian McEwan’s novel, On Chesil Beach.) Dorothea does not seem transformed. She seems simply disillusioned.
Eliot has amply chronicled upper-class provincial wedding rituals: we have a sense of the pageantry. Our final glimpse of Miss Brooke was at formal dinner party, “the last of the parties which were held at the Grange as proper preliminaries to the wedding.” These rituals continue once Dorothea returns to England from her honeymoon and begins to settle into her new home:
By-and-by Celia would come in her quality of bridesmaid as well as sister, and through the next weeks there would be wedding visits received and given; all in continuance of that transitional life understood to correspond with the excitement of bridal felicity, and keeping up the sense of busy ineffectiveness, as of a dream which the dreamer begins to suspect. The duties of her married life, contemplated as so great beforehand, seemed to be shrinking with the furniture and the white vapor-walled landscape. The clear heights where she expected to walk in full communion had become difficult to see even in her imagination … There was the stifling oppression of that gentle-woman’s world, where everything was done for her and none asked for her aid.
“‘What shall I do?’ ‘Whatever you please, my dear’: that had been her brief history since she had left off learning morning lessons and practicing silly rhythms on the hated piano. Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty.”
At the center of this idleness during Dorothea’s “transitional life,” supported by a large staff of servants, might be the traditional expectation of new duties to come, as a wife and, particularly, as a mother.
Dorothea learns soon after returning home that Celia is to be married, too, to Mr. Chettam, who will carry out the plans for cottage reform, now as a protective and supportive brother-in-law.
Celia’s wedding is not being rushed into. “We are not going to be married yet. Because everything is to be got ready. And I don’t want to be married so very soon, because I think it is nice to be engaged. And we shall be married all our lives after.”
Chapter 29 then opens with our narrator stopping in her tracks and swerving:
One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea–but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage? I protest against all our interest, all our effort at understanding being given to the young skins that look blooming in spite of trouble; for these too will get faded, and will know the older and more eating griefs which we are helping to neglect. In spite of the blinking eyes and white moles objectionable to Celia, and the want of muscular curve which was morally painful to Sir James, Mr. Casaubon had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.
Eliot emphasizes that Mr. Casaubon “had done nothing exceptional in marrying—nothing but what society sanctions, and considers an occasion for wreaths and bouquets.” He made handsome settlements (that pleased Mr. Brooke, Dorothea’s guardian). In return, according to custom, he expected to “receive family pleasures and leave behind him that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required of a man—to the sonneteers of the sixteenth century.”
A sentence later, Eliot takes this expectation away, but the fact that it’s there at all seems to suggest that, at least for a stray moment, as a velléité, Casaubon had hoped for a child. “Times had altered since then, and no sonneteer had insisted on Mr. Casaubon’s leaving a copy of himself; moreover, he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key,” our narrator says, just after she’s let slip the (perhaps unconscious) wish, indicating that the man in question had for a long time put his hope of legacy onto his unpublished work.
He’d thought he’d won the jackpot with Dorothea. She was intelligent as well as beautiful, and could serve as a “secretary.” Mr. Casaubon had never yet employed a secretary; he had a suspicious dread of being surveilled. He was “nervously conscious that he was expected to manifest a powerful mind.” Poor Mr. Casaubon. Even the prospect of hiring someone to help him makes him feel exposed and judged and perhaps found wanting. There is something sexual in this performance anxiety, which Mr. Casaubon feels not only in relation to the opinions of scholars at Brasenose (a college in Oxford), but to the opinions of his own hypothetical hired secretary and now his very real young wife. “He had not had much foretaste of happiness in his previous life. To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul … his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic.”
Casaubon’s passion is not for Dorothea but for his timid ambition, with which he hopes to heal his deeply wounded pride. “The difficulty of making his Key to all Mythologies unimpeachable weighed like lead upon his mind.” The few pamphlets he has managed to produce have not been appreciated as he thought they should have been. He suspects the Archdeacon of not having read them. He blames his “old acquaintance” Carp, who seems once possibly to have been a friend, for a “depreciatory” review that he keeps locked in a drawer.
With all this pressure and the disappointment he feels for not finding married life to be restorative and delightful, he decides that “marriage, like religion and erudition, nay, like authorship itself, was fated to become an outward requirement, and Edward Casaubon was bent on fulfilling unimpeachably all requirements.”
Mr. Brooke, in his endless kindness, when suggesting some light reading Dorothea might provide for Mr. Casaubon, says it is “a little broad, but she may read anything now she’s married, you know.” Of course this too is a reference to sex. Presumably Dorothea has been initiated to the bodily aspects of a marital union and can be exposed to adult jokes. “I have gone through all these things, but they might be rather new to you,” suggests Mr. Brooke. “As new as eating thistles,” such a prospect sounds to Mr. Casaubon.
There is definitely trouble at Lowick.
This internal, unspoken drama between Dorothea and Mr. Casuabon is only one strand of the many plots, the many different kinds of plots, in Book Three, “Waiting for Death.” The title refers to the crowd of people jockeying for Peter Featherstone’s money as they wait for him to die.
Fred’s horse-trading chapter is one of my least favorite scenes in Middlemarch. It traffics in what the novelist Michelle Huneven has described as excruciation, a popular form of escalation used in certain entertainments, the horror-movie genre, for example. You are shown the stalker with the knife before the heroine sees him following her. You watch her turn onto the dark street and walk alone …
We’re made to suffer knowing Fred is going to lose the money Mr. Featherstone gave him. We almost hear the ominous music underneath the line “Fred got the eighty pounds from his mother.” (Interestingly, in trying to outsmart the seasoned horsemen, Fred never trusts them, so we don’t learn whether or not Bambridge and Horrock might have advised him well, or falsely, for their own interests.)
At the end of Chapter 26 there’s some indirection (or foreshadowing?) when one of the townswomen “got it into her head” that Mr. Lydgate was a natural son to Mr. Bulstrode. This sort of hint, like a seasoning, is a very attenuated way of plotting; we wonder, is it there for simply for flavor or will the hint pay off later?
We also have a grand last-hour-of-life tussle with a will, as momentous as the one near the beginning of War and Peace, when Anna Mikhailovna struggles with the case holding Count Bezukhov’s will, as Prince Vassily tries to wrest it from her. She holds tight and as a result Pierre inherits Count Bezukhov’s title fortune. Mr. Featherstone asks Mary to burn one of his two wills in the fireplace and she sits in a chair across the room from the frustrated, paralyzed man, not moving, watching the flames.
There’s also a parallel plot to that of Dorothea and Casaubon’s romance, but with an entirely different tone. Much social satire accompanies Rosamond and Lydgate’s flirtation. We have the comedy of Mrs. Vincy’s beside-the-point conversations and Lydgate’s “rival,” Ned Plymdale, “one of the good matches in Middlemarch, though not one of its leading minds,” whose hands (red) are compared by Rosamond to Lydgate’s (white), as well as his chin, which had “too vanishing an aspect, looking as if it were being gradually reabsorbed.”
At one point, Lydgate made fun of an engraving of a bridegroom coming out of a church: “did you ever see such a ‘sugared invention’—as the Elizabethans used to say?” “You are so severe, I am frightened at you,’ said Rosamond, keeping her amusement duly moderate.” But of course, we know she only said what she sensed he wanted to hear. She didn’t find a wedding to be an old-fashioned “sugared invention” at all. In fact, she’d been planning her bridal registry for weeks. “To Rosamond it seemed as if she and Lydgate were as good as engaged.”
Ned had loved the engraving of the bridegroom. Am I the only reader who wonders whether Ned would, in fact, have proved to be a better husband for Rosamond, as I wished—at moments during Book One—that Dorothea had seen more of James Chettam’s charms?
Book Three brings up the question: What kind of plot do you like?
Eliot has repeated, in town, the pattern of a romantic triangle she used on the estates. Both young women are guided by their feelings and the engagements happen fast.
But Lydgate, like Casaubon, has a passion even stronger than that for the young lady who is daydreaming about a life with him. “The reveries from which it was difficult for him to detach himself were ideal constructions of something else than Rosamond’s virtues, and the primitive tissue was still his fair unknown.”
Thrillingly, as Fred and Mary’s fate hangs in the balance, Chapter 30 fully merges the two locales and several of the plot lines. Lydgate is called to Lowick Manor, where he is startled to witness Dorothea’s tender care for Casaubon after his collapse.
For next week: All of Book Four! Find our schedule here.
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Mona Simpson is the author of seven novels, most recently Commitment, which appeared this spring.
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