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    Old Cottages at Pinner, 1885-1895 painting by Helen Allingham

    Middlemarch Marriages

    The fraught marriages of George Eliot’s novel point to a better definition of love and sainthood.

    By Sarah Clarkson

    August 8, 2022
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    • Rachel H.

      Middlemarch is wonderful! I read it in 2016 and again in 2020. Someday, I plan to read it again. Thank you for writing this wonderful article, Sarah! I enjoyed and appreciated your insights.

    • Juliet

      Now I want to dust off my copy of the book! I also read it a decade ago in my 20s. It will translate differently now as I've grown older. I think the movie version is quite good, fwiw.

    I first read Middlemarch in my early twenties, and when a friend asked me my initial impressions, I sputtered, “It’s like reading the Bible.” What I meant, I think, was that in a deceptively straightforward novel about a small English town and the people who marry, love, and die within it, Eliot manages to lay bare something of the heights and depths of human motivation. She excavates, with unnerving insight, the secret desires and anguished needs that drive the loves, fraught decisions, and difficult marriages of ordinary people. Middlemarch offered me a keener understanding of my own heart, and so affected me in much the same way as Scripture; reading me as I read it.

    But Middlemarch is also quietly a novel of very big questions. This is perhaps surprising in a book whose subtitle is “A Study of Provincial Life.” One doesn’t expect epic conclusions about the meaning of life from a pastoral novel, but Eliot is clear from the first word of her opening that this “provincial” novel shall deal in questions of biblical magnitude, for she begins her story with the account of a young woman in fierce search of sainthood, hungry either for a good work or a great love to give meaning and rootedness to her life.

    What, asks Eliot, shall we do with Dorothea, a modern Saint Teresa of Ávila, “foundress of nothing, whose loving heart beats and sobs after an unattained goodness”?

    She asks this question not only for Dorothea, but also for her readers and herself, for if we are honest, we all bear this inward “sob” after some great meaning. Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in rural Warwickshire in 1819, was a writer driven to answer such questions. By nature, Eliot was always one who hungered. “We can never give up longing and wishing,” she wrote in Adam Bede, and as a teen she wrote earnestly to a mentor that “those people are happiest who are considering this life merely a pilgrimage, a scene calling for diligence and watchfulness.” As a young woman, Eliot at first embraced the narrow evangelical Christianity of her upbringing as her source of meaning, but by her early twenties had already roundly rejected it for what she perceived to be a refusal to deal either in true mystery or with the real problems of suffering people. Influenced by a circle of freethinking intellectuals, she embraced a life of radical, questing philosophy. She became the unlikely translator of David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, a work that denied the divinity of Christ and marked a new era of secularization.

    Eliot’s rejection of religion was driven by a deep sense that there must be a truth more comprehensively compassionate and more transcendent than she had yet experienced. Eliot worked on the Strauss translation with a crucifix before her, yearning for even “higher possibilities than the Catholic or any other church has presented,” and this anguished reaching for the ultimate was integral to the stories she crafted as a novelist. Early in her writing career she penned a tart, mocking essay titled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” excoriating the sentimental religious writers of novels that sought to present the glories of the invisible world by a “totally false picture of the visible.”

    Eliot’s novelistic philosophy is exactly the opposite of this. She strove to write novels that were doggedly true to the visible, to the foibles of human beings, to the disappointments of marriage and lost ideals. But her realism was in no way nihilistic; rather, it was an honest wrestling toward her hard-won belief that “the immediate object and the proper sphere of all our highest emotions are our struggling fellowmen and this earthly existence.”

    Old Cottages at Pinner, 1885-1895 painting by Helen Allingham

    Helen Allingham, Old Cottages at Pinner, 1885-1895

    Middlemarch is one of Eliot’s later novels, and offers, I believe, some of the deepest insights that Eliot discovered in her own search for meaning. The answers she offers in Middlemarch are epic in the ancient sense of a truth that is both a story and a form that gives shape to human ideals. But this epic answer is given in the most quotidian terms. For while the novel certainly covers a wide range of characters and histories, questions about meaning are most intensively explored through the domestic dramas of three fraught marriages. By looking at each in turn, and identifying which Eliot presents as a “success,” we get a tour of Eliot’s own pilgrimage. We glimpse her own confusion and disappointment in the various fictional marriages, but we also travel with her to the novel’s surprising and powerful (and, indeed, biblical) conclusion about what makes a life meaningful, a love great, and a person a saint.

    The first marriage comes near the beginning of the book and is that of the Casaubons. Dorothea is a privileged young woman living with her guardian. Eliot styles her as a contemporary Saint Teresa with no idea how to be a saint. She is restless, bored, dismissive of the wealthy existence to which she has been bred, “enamoured of intensity and greatness,” and determined to escape the expectations of society as presented to her in the form of a goodhearted and amorous baronet who wishes to marry her. She becomes infatuated with Casaubon, a local Anglican priest and scholar twice her age, whose vast academic knowledge seems to offer her the scope and meaning she has so long desired. Convinced that she will finally find meaning in life as his scribe in his work of creating a “key to all mythologies,” her own ardor momentarily overwhelms his ingrained isolation, convincing him (to his own shock) to propose. Against the advice and urging of all their friends, they wed.

    No sooner are they on honeymoon in Italy than both confront the disaster that is their marriage. The Casaubons “loved” each other only for what the other could provide: Dorothea thought to gain dignity and significance as the wife of a great scholar, a man whose knowledge she could come to possess as her own, while Casaubon assumed he would gain an intelligent and worshipful young wife content to applaud his every opinion and wait quietly through the arduous hours of his scholarship. Neither got their wish. He finds her intelligence a threat to him, and she learns that his scholarship is faulty and his affection for her absent.

    Their marriage is the tragedy of those who love another person for what they thought the other could offer them. It would be easy to pit Dorothea’s idealism against Casaubon’s defensiveness; Causabon is a pitiful, mean character whose retreat into relational cowardice marks him throughout the book. But Eliot doesn’t allow us to cast blame so easily; Dorothea, too, is culpable in this relational disaster because she related to Casaubon as an ideal she could attain that would fulfill her need for significance, rather than as a human being she could love in all his stark need, a living person who could demand the gift of her whole self as well as provide its fulfillment. The yearning to be a saint isn’t enough to make one so, and only in the difficult sphere of her marriage does Dorothea begin to wrestle with what true sainthood, and love, might require.

    The second couple is the popular Lydgates: Rosamund, the charming, beautiful, and spoiled daughter of a wealthy merchant, raised to expect luxury and adoration, and her suitor and eventual husband, Tertius, a slightly arrogant but well-meaning young doctor intent upon making himself known through some great discovery in medicine. In them we have the well-worn tale of those who are overpowered by sheer romance: fluttering hearts, quickened pulses, and half glances stirred by desire into a momentary feeling strong enough to propel marriage but not much else. Tertius thinks marriage will insure the long-term adoration of a pretty woman and the envious admiration of everyone else. Rosamund thinks she’ll get the rich house and handsome husband she deserves. There’s a carelessness to their romance, but there’s a darkness to it too. Eliot asks us, as we read the thoughts of each, whether the love each person bears was ever for the other at all, or simply for the enhanced self each sees reflected in the eyes of the other.

    The marriage of Rosamund and Tertius plays itself out as a tragedy: when Tertius can’t provide the luxury that Rosamund wants, and she refuses to offer sympathy, there isn’t even the consolation of a cleansing of ideals; instead, there is only the gathering bitterness of disappointed expectation as each continually fails to make the other feel important, loved, or wealthy.

    Such heroic beauty can only be won day by faithful day, tiny act by tiny generous act, the gentleness and self-giving of a lifetime creating that unhistoric beauty that changes the world.

    The third marriage is more curious, one that almost doesn’t take place: the Vincys. It is in the reluctance of the bride to marry the man she loves that Eliot allows us to glimpse a different kind of love, a different way of relating both to life and people. This love begins with Mary Garth, a plain girl with a keen intelligence, a loyal heart, and a somewhat ironic sense of humor. Daughter of the upright and generous Caleb Garth, Mary is considered socially beneath the good-hearted, affectionate Fred Vincy, who loves her heartily despite his many personal failings. Fred is the brother of Rosamund, and though not quite so spoiled as his sister, is irresponsible and dependent on others for his living. Having failed at Oxford, he returns to Middlemarch in search of a vocation. His parents insist that he enter the priesthood, the last respectable option for a young man of his standing. But raised by hard-working parents, including a father who lost his business but paid off every penny of debt, Mary feels she cannot marry Fred if he does this. She also feels that he is not called to the priesthood and would be living a lie.

    The courtship of Mary and Fred reveals that love requires honesty, truth, and loyalty in order to flourish. Unlike her counterparts in Dorothea and Rosamund, Mary is well aware of the flaws of her beloved. But this is a condition for the kind of long-term, nourishing love she offers, a love rooted in an almost brutal honesty that means the beloved is utterly seen, loved not for what he can offer but for who he actually is and even might become. A second condition of this love is that it is rooted in and aided by the wider community, informed not just by the passionate feelings of the couple but the help, wisdom, and generosity of those around them.

    When Mary makes clear that Fred must turn from thoughts of ordination and find an honest way to earn his bread if he ever wants to win her, Fred is despondent. With little education in either discipline or practicality, he is thrown on the mercy of his friends. But ah, what friends he has! Caleb Garth, who recognizes his daughter’s love for Fred, offers to make a place for him as an apprentice in his own hard-won business. Reverend Farebrother, the jolly, pragmatic vicar who also loves Mary, sacrifices his own hope for her love by standing in the way of Fred’s gambling, turning him from disaster. These friends’ quiet actions of faithfulness and generosity enable Fred’s love for Mary to take root in a discipline and fidelity larger than his own impulses. Eliot relates these generous actions without pomp or fanfare, and yet, I think, they embody some of the core conclusions she has drawn.

    In order to truly understand the value Eliot gives to the actions of these unobtrusive friends, we must return to the larger story of Middlemarch, to its questions about sainthood, and to the girl whose passionate desire for meaning was not utterly lost in the disaster of her marriage but transformed by loneliness and grief into a new and quiet power. The closing lines of Middlemarch circle back to its opening gambit for modern sainthood by describing Dorothea in later years:

    But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

    There is a subtle but radical transformation here of the opening sentences of the book. Earlier, Dorothea’s bid for sainthood is described as a yearning after an “unattained goodness,” as if it were something she could find and possess by sheer effort outside the realm of ordinary life. Indeed, she rather despises the mundane. An ideal of sainthood as primarily about ultimate acts and epic virtue drives Dorothea in the early portions of the book to be quite petty; she disdains the clothes her sister loves, cares little for anyone’s opinion but her own, and sees little value in the odd, humorous, local drama of human lives.

    But the suffering she experiences both in her bitter marriage and in her frustrated love for another man teach her to turn from a self-centric view of sainthood as radical and passionate acts to a sainthood that is a union with the suffering world. After a night of life-changing inward turmoil, she awakes, draws back the curtains, and sees the new morning with a shepherd on the horizon and a woman with her baby. She feels “the largeness of the world” and knows herself part of that “involuntary, palpitating life,” and she can no longer look out on it “as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining.”

    This mingling of her own life with the larger drama of the hurting world is exactly what is captured in that closing paragraph that describes her life as “diffusive,” a life that is poured into and through the lives of others. Rather than this being a loss of sainthood, this diffusive compassion is its fulfillment. In the next line Eliot tells us that the “growing good” of the world is dependent upon such vision and the faithful, compassionate acts that flow from it. From a young girl hungering after “unattained goodness,” Dorothea has progressed to a compassionate woman whose life actually is a source of goodness to others. Sainthood is not attained like a prize but realized in continual, generous offering of oneself for the good of other.

    As is true love.

    The marriage of Fred and Mary is the quiet fulfillment of the novel’s secondary question of what constitutes a true and worthy love. Mary loves Fred to her cost, patiently waiting as he acquires the honesty and faithfulness he needs to return her love in truth. And his capacity to do so is dependent upon the “unhistoric” and “faithful” acts of Garth and Farebrother, which are barely even flagged by Eliot yet integral to the plot of her book.

    The heroism of their acts is something I have come to appreciate more keenly over the course of my own life. I was once as ardent as Dorothea in my idealistic hunger for meaning, but I have discovered that the desires I bear – for true love, for a world cleansed of evil, to nurture children and form beauty – can’t be satisfied in an instant by one great symbolic gesture. Such heroic beauty can only be won day by faithful day, tiny act by tiny generous act, the gentleness and self-giving of a lifetime creating that unhistoric beauty that changes the world. I have known this beauty in the quiet, heroic gifts of others who stood by me in seasons of darkness. And now I am to offer that quiet beauty to my children, my husband, and all who wander into my story bearing their sorrow and need and desire.

    “Trust in the Lord and do good, dwell in the land and cultivate faithfulness,” says Psalm 37. The vision of Middlemarch helps me to do this work. In a letter to an old friend, Eliot wrote that “our moral progress may be measured by the degree in which we sympathize with individual suffering and individual joy.” In Middlemarch she lets us glimpse what such moral progress might look like as it is wrestled out in the private corridors of our mundane daily lives. She leaves with the suggestion that a life of such hidden and generous goodness might be the vocation of every human alive. A biblical ideal indeed.

    Contributed By

    Sarah Clarkson is a writer and author exploring the intersection of good books, beauty, and theology. Her most recent book is This Beautiful Truth: How God's Goodness Breaks into Our Darkness. She writes and wonders in an old Oxford vicarage where she lives with her husband Thomas and their three children. She can be found at sarahclarkson.com.

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