Middlemarch – George Eliot

4 March 2010
Book 1 – Chapters 1-12
I’ve read this novel twice before and I always blithely say it’s my favourite. It isn’t only to do with George Eliot’s way of moving seamlessly from one storyline to another, from generation to generation, from consciousness to consciousness – it’s the unembarrassed confidence of that authorial voice. And she’s doing new things with the conventions of the novel, making it absolutely clear who’s in charge (the authorial ‘I’) and yet pretending that her creations have inner lives she can only guess at. She sets characters on doomed (or not doomed) paths, and then makes pronouncements about them as if she’s a Mrs Cadwallader in some heavenly court of judgment. I’ve not checked, but it feels as though there isn’t a page without some authorial opinion.

Who have we got? There are four young women: Dorothea and Celia Brooke, Rosamund Vincy, and Mary Garth. There are three young men: Will Ladislaw, Lydgate and Fred Vincy. There’s Casaubon. There are the parents or parent-substitutes: Mr Brooke the uncle, Mr and Mrs Vincy. There are relatives, notably (so far) Fred and Rosamund’s calculating uncle, Mr Featherstone, and his sister, the equally calculating Mrs Waule. And there’s everybody else in this middle-class world: James Chettam, Dorothea’s unsuccessful suitor, and his mother; Mrs Cadwallader and her husband the gone fishin’ local vicar; Mr Bulstrode, self-styled philanthropist, disliked by almost everyone. (He’s somebody’s brother-in-law, I think.) And so on. This is a novel as much about a society as it is about individuals, so the parish and the town are always there. Everybody has an opinion – Eliot really is like a character in that respect – and everybody is always on show. These people are held up for examination, both in the town and in the forensic fictional universe Eliot has created: we’re all in the business of passing judgment. Phew.

The Dorothea/Casaubon plotline is an almost satirical twist on the conventions of romantic fiction. In, say, Jane Austen’s Emma the heroine has to go through a process of learning before the author deems her fit for marriage, and it takes 50 chapters. In this novel Eliot has got these two hapless lovers – at different times they’re ‘poor Dorothea’ and ‘poor Casaubon’ – married and packed off to Rome in ten. It feels like less, and Eliot has issued dire warnings to us about the ‘pilulous smallness’ of the real understanding any man and woman have of one another before marriage. Dorothea – Eliot is absolutely plain about it – has mistaken this man’s narrowness for depth. Casaubon… well, he is an incorrigible egoist. Eliot has a lot of fun with him, from the letter he sends Dorothea that made me laugh out loud to his decisive opinion that his own lack of passion proves all those love poets mistaken.

Dorothea. Eliot gives us a lot of time with her, often in Celia’s company. She’s not quite twenty, red-blooded but full only of a desire to direct her energy into being useful to society, to help people. Eliot has also given her a 19th Century taste for renunciation, so Casaubon and his project are bound to appeal. She is able to dismiss the lure of a safe match with Sir James Chettam because Eliot has made him dull: we’re definitely not in a Jane Austen novel. How was Dorothea to know that not all country gents are such lightweights? Celia is endowed with more common sense, as well as the ability, especially after the engagement, of being slyly satirical about Dorothea’s priggishness and the sheer dreariness of Casaubon. Eliot lets her say what any right-minded person would think, so she’s far more likeable than her solemn-minded sister. (Eliot allows herself to be satirical too, not least about Sir James. After half an hour he’s got over his disappointment and is testing out Mrs Cadwallader’s suggestion that Celia might be more promising….)

Even before the happy couple are out of the way, Eliot turns her attention to the other young people. We get Will Ladislaw, sketching near his cousin’s house. His cousin is Casaubon, who pays for his education and is obviously disappointed in him. Eliot is merely satirical about this perfectly likeable dilettante, looking for opportunities to let his genius show itself. He’ll have to wait a long time: when he sets off on his latest travels he has no more specific plan than that he is going to ‘Europe’. Fine. We get Lydgate, far more serious-minded and already planning a career of good works and, he is sure, success – although Eliot reminds us that success in a town like Middlemarch is not at all assured for a young doctor without a private income.

And then we get Fred Vincy, first introduced in his absence – because he hates getting up unless it’s for something he likes – as ‘the laggard’. Oh dear. He’s starting to run up debts – and when he starts to drop hints that he expects to do well from his uncle’s will, the old man hears of it from the unspeakable Mrs Waule and puts Fred through the mill for it. Eliot wants us to see both that Featherstone is a nasty piece of work and that Fred is in the wrong. Now he’s got to get written assurance from Bulstrode of all people that… oh, never mind. But Fred is going to have to ask yet another favour of his already exasperated father. The town considers Fred’s mother to be over-indulgent to both him and his sister Rosamund. Their father is in trade, and is attempting to bring up his children as gentry – not easy when rank is as jealously guarded as we see it in Middlemarch.

Rosamund. Now there’s a creature, more conventionally beautiful than Dorothea and… more conventional in every way, in fact. By the end of Chapter 12 Eliot has dropped enough dark hints to let us know that barring some catastrophe she’ll get Lydgate pretty damn quick, despite his resolution not to marry until he’s got himself properly established. She’s the one Eliot holds up as a kind of opposite to certain other characters. She’s a sort of Ginevre Fanshawe to Dorothea’s Lucy Snowe in Villette, which I’ve just finished re-reading, although neither of Eliot’s young women is as extreme as Bronte’s. Rosamund, like Ginevre, is fond of mirrors, and in Chapter 12 sees her reflection wonderfully contrasted with that of the dowdy Mary Garth, perhaps more of a Lucy Snowe than Dorothea is, although less self-effacing. (Sorry to do this comparison thing – but it helps me to see the novelistic patterns these Victorian writers set up.)

Eliot and her dark hints. Just before Lydgate is properly introduced to Rosamund, in a meeting she skilfully engineers to show herself to her best advantage, Eliot comes out with one of her gnomic warnings. The ‘stealthy convergence of human lots… tells like a calculated irony on the indifference… with which we look on our unintroduced neighbour. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.’ That’s Eliot for you, setting out her stall quite explicitly. She’s reminding us this is a fiction, and that there’s an intelligence in charge. She calls it Destiny, but we know which other venerable lady is really pulling the strings: people come up against one another and there’s nothing they can do to stop Eliot doing whatever she wants with them, so long as she can make it convincing.

Who have I missed? The middle-aged characters, mainly. There’s Mr Brooke, who mistakes a passing acquaintance with famous men at university with an understanding of them and their ‘ideas’. For Brooke, ideas are something you have a look at in your youth before you get on with the realities of life, and now he doesn’t appear to have a single one in his head. He lets Dorothea make the biggest mistake of her life because… well, because he doesn’t think anything through. And there’s another thread connected to him: public life. He is thinking of standing as an Independent in the coming elections, and the consensus is he’ll make a fool of himself, although he won’t be able to do any real damage. Other public figures are Bulstrode, Vincy – he’s the mayor – and, in a different way, Mrs Cadwallader. She’s the voice of public opinion, a useful spokeswoman for Eliot. (I’ll come back to the politics of this determinedly society-based novel when we know more about it.)

One other tiny thread: the Jewish question. Fred (I think) blithely uses a phrase like ‘rich as Jews’; and Solomon is a character mentioned by Mrs Waule in relation to the debts Fred is running up. I can’t imagine Eliot setting that hare running without the intention of following it later.

8 March
Book 2: Chapters 13-22
This is the section in which Eliot is as unswerving in her dissection of Lydgate and his motives as she was of Dorothea and hers in Book 1. Not that every chapter in either Book is devoted to a single character: we’re two chapters into this one before Eliot carries on with Lydgate where she left off at the end of Book 1. First she has the matter of Fred’s embarrassment to deal with, and she does it via a set piece scene between Bulstrode and Mr Vincy. We see exactly how sanctimonious Bulstrode can be whilst dispensing favours – he does eventually send the letter Fred needs, after letting him stew – and, in Vincy, the kind of ordinary Joe who can hope to become mayor in this sort of provincial backwater. It leads to another set piece: Fred and old Featherstone. The moment when Fred realises he’s only getting half what he hoped for from the old man is wonderful…. And we find out at the end of the chapter that the guarantor for the £80 he still owes is Mary Garth’s father who, we guess, can’t afford it. Oh dear.

Then we get the next stages of the exquisite dance between Lydgate and Rosamund. What’s exquisite is the way Eliot has each of them doing a different dance – so, a few chapters into this section, we get ‘poor Rosamund’ and ‘poor Lydgate’. Like the newly married Mr and Mrs Casaubon, they’re gravitating towards one another without any understanding of what the other needs and expects. At different times we’re inside each of their heads in turn, but it’s Lydgate that Eliot really focuses on, particularly in the complacent way he thinks he’s safe from danger. Eliot endows him – she’s good at endowing – with several varieties of small-scale arrogance, resulting from either his relatively easy life so far on the periphery of a good family or, simply, his inexperience. He has high ideals and high principles, but is unaware that these things come at a price: so far, they’ve come fairly easily to him because he’s never had to fight for them.

And, all along, Eliot keeps reminding us of this. She never comes out with it and says, Look at Mr Complacency riding for a fall… but we get the message. Having shown us how captivating he continues to find Rosamund – and exactly how she contrives to captivate him – Eliot presents us with the back story that gives him the mistaken faith in his own immunity. It’s the little melodrama of his brief infatuation with an actress in Paris. She turned out to be (gulp) murderously hostile to long-term commitment, and Lydgate thinks he’s learnt a lesson to last him all his life. Except Rosamund is unlike the actress in every way, so full of graces and accomplishments…. This thread doesn’t reach a crisis in Book 2, because Eliot leaves it alone after the seeds of Lydgate’s doom have been sown. However…

… Lydgate’s complacency gets shaken up a bit in a storyline concerning the wider community, the election of a chaplain for the hospital he’s hoping to assist in creating. It’s a little taster for this innocent (who, of course, has no idea how innocent he is) of the kinds of consideration that someone hoping to make his way has to face up to all the time. Eliot has created Farebrother, entirely likeable but no model of clerical dutifulness, as the candidate for the hospital chaplaincy that Lydgate gets to know. But Bulstrode, who Lydgate is going to have to work with, wants Tyke, altogether more suitable and altogether more boring. What to do? Eliot doesn’t let Lydgate off in the way he’d hoped: he’s late, and ends up with a casting vote. If he votes for Tyke, some will say he’s Bulstrode’s poodle. And Farebrother needs the money…. At the end of the chapters Eliot devotes to Lydgate in Book 2, he votes for Tyke. The behaviour of a poodle? Or a careless disregard for those who indulge in such childish name-calling? The latter – or so he wants to believe.

One last thing before we leave Lydgate: money. He’s by no means rich: he has enough to get by on comfortably, and Eliot is careful to tell us that he has never needed to worry about where his next pound is coming from. (This is in marked contrast to Farebrother, who has to provide for his mother, aunt and sister and is forced into playing whist and billiards for money.) He has no intention of getting married, is perfectly happy to spend his evenings reading medical books – he has a genuine interest in improving medical practices in the town – and… and, well, he has no intention of starting to think about money now. Eliot twists the knife and he doesn’t even know there’s a knife in him yet.

Time for a trip to Rome. As Casaubon spends his days doing what he wants – when has he ever done anything else? – Dorothea castigates herself for being selfish enough to feel bored and useless. She is noticed, looking meditative, by a German artist in conversation with – guess – Will Ladislaw. So Eliot has given herself a neat way to do two separate things together: show up the thinness of Casaubon’s regard for his new wife in sharp contrast to the young man’s awe-struck passion – and have the fatal narrowness of his scholarship described for us by this man we might have taken for an intellectual butterfly. Eliot makes it clear in these two or three chapters in Rome that we need to start taking Ladislaw more seriously – she’s making him the most likeable of the three young men in the novel – and his opinion of Casaubon sows a seed of doubt in Dorothea. The young man might not yet have ever settled to anything, but he’s learnt enough to know that the older man’s got himself trapped in the corridors and anterooms of a fatally insular programme of study.

Corridors and anterooms. That’s where Eliot places Dorothea, literally and metaphorically. After Eliot has reintroduced her via the sight Ladislaw catches of her with his artist friend, she backtracks to that morning, five or six weeks into the ‘marriage journey’. There’s been a crisis: Dorothea has begun to realise how thin a time she’s going to have. By referring to the volumes of notes he’s got back in England, and how she’d like to make herself useful, she’s accidentally said exactly the wrong thing. Eliot makes it clear that these shapeless notes are the thorn in Casaubon’s side: we realise he’ll never be able to face the next step, the one Dorothea wants to help him with… so they have rowed, and Dorothea has been crying. She blames herself, and performs those mental gymnastics of hers to reach the conclusion that she’s the one who is in the wrong…

…and that’s when Ladislaw calls, unsettling her even more with his talk of wide vistas of thought that are entirely closed to Casaubon. (Later, Eliot sets up a thread concerning the art Casaubon is ignorant of, a sort of metaphorical commentary on his ignorance in other fields.) As these two young people talk, Eliot reminds us how beautiful Dorothea is, how much passion there is beneath the self-effacing surface – and how besotted Ladislaw is by everything about her. Meanwhile she lets Casaubon dig his own grave: he only has to open his mouth – which Eliot lets him do, a lot – for it to be confirmed that he is an emotional black hole sucking all Dorothea’s life out of her. It’s easy for Ladislaw to seem like a refreshing stream after all the dryness, especially when he makes the resolution – which we’d like to believe – that it’s time for him to stop living off Casaubon and start making his own way in life. Casaubon hates him, obviously, so we wonder how things will shape up back in Middlemarch….

Eliot has a last joke at Casaubon’s expense before they leave Rome: the German artist wants to use a study of his head as a model of St Thomas Aquinas. Casaubon is flattered, as the artist knew he would be, and buys the finished picture, as he knew he would. Yet the whole thing is a pretext: Ladislaw gnashes his teeth, almost literally, as the German manhandles Dorothea into position for the ‘quick sketch’ he pretends is an afterthought, but which he’s intended to do all along. Casaubon isn’t interested in that at all. In Book 1, Eliot had been careful to remind us that Casaubon is as human as everybody else – she’s good at these fair-minded asides, as though to deny her own judgmental motives – but in these Rome chapters she leaves us, really, nothing to like.

11 March
Book 3: Chapters 23-33
My favourite metaphor in the book – Eliot calls it a parable – is the one in which the tiny scratches on polished steel ‘will seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles’ around the reflection of a candle placed nearby. The candle is ‘the egoism of any person now absent – of Miss Vincy, for example.’ You bet. It could as easily refer to almost any character in the book, but for Rosamund it’s spot-on. This is the opening of Chapter 27, and it’s not all we get in Book 3. There’s a lot of plot, and the requisite plot devices to go with them. That’s ok: I suppose it’s part of Eliot’s job to make the hurdles she sets up for her characters appear as if by magic. It wouldn’t do for us to notice her sneaking up from the side of the road and planting them…. And how many plot-threads has she got running now? I’ll have to think about that one.

First she has to teach Fred Vincy a lesson. We get one (or two) of those Dickens-like chapters in which the road to ruin, good intentions and all, is described as though it’s not only excusable but, somehow, respectable. For instance, Eliot doesn’t spell out for us Fred’s cowardice in applying to Caleb Garth for the £160 instead of to the people who would give him a harder time: it’s what anybody would do. And the sorry story of his bad bargain at the horse fair – anything to do with horse-trading being a synonym for perdition among Eliot’s readers, obviously – is told by a narrator who is suddenly full of as much sympathetic understanding of his foibles as any of the people cheating him. It’s irony bordering on sarcasm on Eliot’s part, and it’s our job to pick up on the (somewhat broad) hints that his plans are doomed. I hated it: I can never stand to read about the individual steps on someone’s road to ruin and I had to keep stopping.

When he realises what an idiot he has been, Fred has to tell the Garth family – including Mary, who will have to make up the amount not supplied by Mrs Garth’s hard-earned apprenticeship fund for her one reliable son. She spells out for him exactly what his behaviour means for them – I suppose Eliot would have felt it too crude to have to spell it out herself, although we know she’s perfectly capable of it – and Fred is suitably chastened. And yet… Eliot keeps the door open: Mary still likes him, or would if he’d stop behaving like a spoilt kid.

And then… along comes the first of Book 3’s medical interventions. Fred gets ill – which a) shuts him up for a bit and b) introduces the Lydgate thread again. (He just happens to be standing outside the house when the Vincys start to panic.) Eliot can now get him into Rosamund’s company legitimately and dangerously – whilst at the same time having him, unintentionally but not apologetically enough for the other doctors’ taste, wind up the Middlemarch medical establishment. This continues with his next call-out: Casaubon isn’t well, and Lydgate is called for because amongst the non-idiots in the town (i.e. not that many) he’s acquiring a reputation for competence. He’s on an altogether subtler road than Fred’s, but we know it won’t be any more comfortable in the end….

Eliot back-tracks to another set piece conversation between Dorothy and Casaubon. Along the way, following one of those look-at-me authorial asides (‘Dorothea – but why always Dorothea…?’) we get a chapter from the inside of Casaubon’s head. Eliot is as full of understanding as she was in a similar exploration in Book 1, and Casaubon comes off just as badly. He’s hopeless. And during the conversation, brought about by a letter from Will Ladislaw, Dorothea gets an even clearer insight into her husband’s small-mindedness. He’s about to make a start on one of those pamphlets that have always provided him with the illusion of working whilst not getting on with the real job at hand, and he demands a kind of monkish seclusion. But what stings Dorothea is his assumption that she would not take his wishes into account – Ladislaw wants to come and stay, and Casaubon shrinks from the idea in exactly the way you’d expect him to – and she lets him know how unjust he is. Oh dear. All he sees is temper, and he is shocked. Later that morning he has a kind of seizure….

Some days or weeks later Lydgate tells her he needs to steer clear of too much unstinting hard work, and any kind of stress – and suddenly Dorothea’s life, which was already shrinking before her eyes, narrows down another couple of notches. She blames herself, of course, but we look on aghast at the prospect of her having to look after an invalid for anything up to the next 15 years. It’s no accident that earlier in these chapters Eliot has had her looking at the miniature of Ladislaw’s grandmother and recognising the sheer vivacity of the look of it. Eliot makes it an ambiguous moment: the liveliness reflects back Dorothea’s own – but this is also the ancestor of the most interesting man she’s ever met. Eliot isn’t saying a word, just using the portrait as a kind of metaphor for the instinctive bond between these two people separated by the insurmountable barrier of her husband. Except… in writing to Ladislaw, at Dorothea’s request, to explain that he can’t go to Lowick, Mr Brooke invites him to his place instead. I suppose that’s an example of Eliot niftily taking away one of those hurdles: Dorothea will be able to meet him again.

Next. Eliot uses all the resources she has to make Lydgate’s capitulation before Rosamund as convincing as she can. Gossip reaches him, via Mrs Bulstrode (nearly as sanctimonious as her husband) and Mrs Vincy, that tongues are wagging about him and Rosamund. And Mrs B tells him that if he’s not serious about Rosamund, all he’s doing is getting in the way of other suitors. He’s as impressed with this as you’d expect, but he stops going to visit. Bad move: when he does eventually visit after ten days – which seems a lot longer to Rosamund – he’s blithely secure in his belief that the old easy rapport will simply carry on. Wrong. He’s so nonplussed by her awkwardness he becomes awkward himself, picks up the chain she accidentally drops, looks at the tears in her eyes…. And as the engagement is declared, Eliot doesn’t need to mention anything about the unworldliness of this pair who expect to dress well and live well but who know nothing of money because they’ve never had to think about where it comes from.

Book 3 finishes with the death that everyone’s been waiting for. The arrival of Peter Featherstone’s family is so like that of Martin Chuzzlewit’s in Dickens’s novel that I wondered if Eliot expects us to notice the link. (There’s even an unspeakable character called Jonah, to chime with Jonas in the earlier novel.) There’s plenty of broad comedy as Featherstone’s sister, Mrs Waule, and his brother Solomon try to prise the Vincy family away from the dying man and Mary Garth. There’s all the talk you’d expect about these interlopers who doubtless expect to take what isn’t rightly theirs – somebody will have done a study of this sort of gruesome dance of the ghouls in 19th Century novels, and I bet they number in the hundreds – and Featherstone, a grotesque bag of bones, shoos his relatives away.

But Eliot has saved her most outlandish plot device for the end. Featherstone has left – wait for it – two wills, and as he feels his last hours approaching he tells Mary which one of them she must burn. She refuses, fearing the accusations that would follow her around if she did anything of the sort (and, I suppose, having no idea of the complications her refusal will lead to). There’s just enough animation left in the old git for him to show how desperate he is… and there’s nothing he can do. Book 3 ends with him dead and the two wills still in the iron chest where he locked them away. Gulp.

14 March
Book 4: Chapters 34-42
In a long Victorian novel it’s impressive how sure-footed the author always seems about when to focus on a storyline and when to leave it alone. In Book 3, for instance, the Lydgate/ Rosamund thread had reached a climax, and she’d got him. What we get in Book 4, in a few short scenes bubbling up between other storylines, are ever stronger warnings that Rosamund is going to be able to do exactly what she wants in this marriage. It’s easy for her to get Lydgate to accept the idea of the comfortable middle-class lifestyle: he buys an expensive dinner service on his own initiative and starts negotiations for the spacious house he knows she fancies because he unthinkingly takes these things for granted as much as she does. But when he starts to make assumptions about what a supportive, understanding and resourceful wife she’s going to be, well, Eliot has revealed more than enough for us to know he’s got no chance. And as for him following the career of his choice in Middlemarch… she can’t wait for him to move on to something better – not that she knows what that might mean – somewhere a long way from there.

Eliot gives the Dorothea/Casaubon storyline a lot more space, and by the end of Book 4 Dorothea is painfully dragging herself out of the deepest pit of depression he’s yet managed to push her into. As she has done from the start, Eliot forces us into accepting that this man is not a villain, that everything he does is understandable. We get the longest exploration so far of the inside of his head just before the rebuff that causes Dorothea so much anguish (Eliot’s word), and it’s an ugly place. Without using the word – because it was decades before Freud himself used it – Eliot shows us how fixated he is on Ladislaw and of how close he (mistakenly) thinks he is to Dorothea.

The thought-process Eliot takes us through is a tour de force in about three different ways. For a start, it’s psychologically painstaking and entirely convincing. And, as she sets out Casaubon’s stall on his behalf, we buy into it: we don’t loathe him for the loathsome suspicions he has. Then there’s the echo that she quietly sounds for us of another character focusing on his own mortality: Featherstone. The denouement of the sorry tale of the two wills (tell you later) comes early in Book 4, and now, nine or ten chapters later, we get another man who has the ‘imagination’ to obsess about what will happen after he’s gone. He can’t stand the idea of Ladislaw in his nest (Casaubon’s word) and married to Dorothea. He hasn’t done anything with his will yet, but ‘That will I hinder!’ is how Eliot sums up his thoughts about their probable life together after his death. (Eliot also has some fun at the expense of this cleric who, whilst you’d expect him to be focusing on the next life, can’t stop thinking about his own property in this one. Who does that remind you of?)

We’ve seen the reality of the relationship between Dorothea and Ladislaw. They are two young people, enthusiastic about the possibilities of life, and they like each other’s company. But Casaubon assumes, wrongly, that Dorothea suggested to Brooke that he should invite Will to stay with him… and, although he instinctively knows they wouldn’t dream of doing anything wrong, he sees Ladislaw as having a corrupting influence on her. So, according to his own lights, his cold treatment of Dorothea is perfectly right. In his mind it’s his ‘duty’ to save her from her dangerous enthusiasms, now linked inextricably with Ladislaw. What becomes hard for her to bear is the way that Casaubon seems to regard any show of feeling on her part as a kind of insult. So, when he’s just been talking to Lydgate – who has told him how ill he really is and can’t promise he’ll have enough time to write his book – he brushes aside her loving attempt to comfort him. It smacks of pity, and he didn’t marry her just to be pitied. Poor Dorothea, as Eliot says, not for the first time. She spends a long afternoon and evening alone, cries out against the injustice of her husband… and bites it back. Even he is impressed by the simplicity of the gesture she makes by waiting outside his library until he is ready to go to bed.

Other storylines. Featherstone and his will, for a start. It carries on as these things usually do: venality, envy, general unpleasantness. The second will – the one we have to assume Featherstone wanted Mary to burn – leaves Fred with nothing. The first one gave him £10,000, and the awful relatives around £100 each, with the land and everything else going to – wait for it – the frog-faced ‘love-child’ there’s been some gossip about. In the second will, Frog-face gets it all, except for whatever is needed to build some alms-houses for the sake of the old git’s immortal soul, or some such tongue-in-cheek nonsense. So Fred is penniless and Mary needs to be reassured, by her family and Farebrother, that she did the right thing.

The Garths get some good news – the first time we’ve seen virtue rewarded in this novel – when Sir James and Mr Brooke engage Caleb as their joint estate manager. So Mary won’t have to go away to work, and – because this is the way these innocents think – Fred can stop feeling guilty. The reason an estate manager is needed, in one of those neat tie-ins between a personal storyline and the wider social context, is Brooke’s foray into politics. This has been little more than a marginal note to the main stories so far, but now, as a good 19th Century liberal, Eliot has decided to have a look at how the lifestyles of the middle classes really impinge on the lives of others.

The Middlemarch world – Mrs Cadwallader is in there, and so are Sir James Chettam and Reverend Farebrother – decides Brooke needs to be made to realise what he’s really taking on. He’s bought a local newspaper (edited by Ladislaw), and thinks political debate is simply about writing cleverer leading articles than his rivals. When Sir James reads out an attack on Brooke as a landlord, all the poor man can do is criticise its poor satirical style. But he’s brought face-to-face with the reality – literally – when he goes to see one of his tenants. The man has drunk too much at market and, for the first time, he lets Brooke know what they all think about his poor management. It’s mortifying: until then Brooke had assumed everybody liked him despite the fact that he never spares them a thought. It’s no wonder he is persuaded to employ Caleb Garth again. (Sir James is genuinely a far better landlord than Brooke, and he still wants to use Dorothea’s ideas for improving the cottages. And it’s a good job he has a few admirable qualities: he got engaged to Celia in Book 3 and now they’re married.)

What else? Eliot makes Frog-face, real name Rigg and now known as Rigg Featherstone (as stipulated in the will) as unattractive as she can. He’s selling the land off to Bulstrode, who’s always wanted it, and that’s the end of that. Except… an oleaginous acquaintance of Rigg’s comes sniffing around for a few quid – and ends up, in one of those freakish coincidences you get in novels (Eliot spends the first page of the chapter apologising for it in advance) picking up a folded paper from the fireplace to wedge the cover of his hip-flask. Later, on the way home with a single sovereign for his pains, he still doesn’t know that what he’s got is a note, signed by Bulstrode. But we know, because Eliot tells us. Sometimes this book is like a Victorian novel.

17 March
Book 5: Chapters 43-53
Eliot sets aside the storyline of Bulstrode’s note until the last chapter of Book 5. Maybe her editors told her that as she was publishing this novel in sections it might be quite a good idea to keep people guessing about something at the end of each one. The oleaginous one is Raffles, and he comes back after some months to blackmail Bulstrode. It turns out our banker friend is an old stereotype: the complacent, holier-than-thou creep with a past. We don’t know exactly what the past is yet, but it’s shady enough for Bulstrode to hastily buy Raffles off – for now – with a £200 payment. And this thread really is becoming more like a Victorian novel all the time, because before he leaves, Raffles tries to remember the name of the man somebody called Sarah married. What was it? (Not that it matters, but he’d like to remember so he can annoy Bulstrode with the name at some time in the future.) It started with an L…. Reader, it’s Ladislaw. I can’t work out all the shady details of the relationships, but I’m sure we’ll find out later on.

I’m not surprised Eliot left us with a plot-twisting treat at the end of Book 5: up to then she has a lot of business to get through. First she needs to update us on Lydgate and Rosamund, starting with, for me, an over-elaborate chapter on how Lydgate’s enlightened approach upsets absolutely everybody in the local medical establishment. Her suggestion is that the methods of most practitioners in the 1830s are little better than mumbo-jumbo, and patients choose doctors through a choice of different superstitions. Lydgate, as Eliot is happy to show us, has no chance in this environment.

The question of money raises its head – as we knew it would, because it does that in every thread in the novel. During the medical chapter we find out that prescribing drugs is a way for doctors to make money. Lydgate doesn’t do this, of course – which the others take a implicit criticism of them, and which also makes you wonder how Lydgate will ever earn anything. Later, at the end of a chapter in which we’ve seen Rosamund slowly nibbling away at his resolve, she asks him why he came home in a bad mood. He doesn’t tell her it’s because he’s getting pressed for an unpaid bill…. Rosamund is superb. She’s never a caricature like Ginevre in Villette, and when there’s another of those standing side-by-side moments, this time with Dorothea, Eliot’s descriptions are at least as admiring as they are ironic. She’s a quietly relentless force of nature – we remember how she got her way with her father over the marriage – and rather than consider Lydgate weak we’re supposed to understand exactly how, drip by drip, she wears him down.

But the title of Book 5 is The Dead Hand, and it’s Casaubon’s. There’s one of those chapters I find so hard to read, where it looks as though Dorothea is about to promise to make her life after his eventual death as tightly bound to his futile project as it is now. But – well, who’d have thought it? – as she approaches his slumped figure to sign away her soul it turns out he’s already dead. Phew. She’s so overwrought – she really has been to a dark place during her short marriage, and especially since he realised he might not have long to live – she collapses… which allows Eliot to feed the real significance of the ‘dead hand’ to us gradually, in a conversation between the seething Sir James and the mildly uneasy Brooke. Dorothea is recuperating with Celia, and doesn’t yet know that in a stipulation made in his will Casaubon has allowed his own fixation to get in the way of any consideration of how it might look to outsiders. She can have everything – so long as she doesn’t marry Ladislaw.

Well. Early on I talked about what Eliot does with our expectations of romantic fiction. Before Casaubon’s death, Ladislaw is feeling optimistic enough – not of any romantic attachment, but of merely making contact – to go to their church at Lowick. Dorothea’s frozen response – he has no idea of what she’s fruitlessly put herself through on his behalf – makes him question his own feelings. He decides he doesn’t have any for her, never has in that way, and obviously we don’t believe him. But after the death, and after the conversation we’ve heard, Sir James and Brooke keep him away from her. Soon Ladislaw thinks she’s avoiding him, thinks… he doesn’t know what he thinks. If this was a conventional rom-com we’d know where this was going… but it isn’t, and we don’t.

Eliot has wanted us to take Ladislaw seriously, up to a point, ever since the chapters in Rome. Now, through his association with Brooke, she’s got him involved in the political upheavals of the early 1830s. Brooke is a buffoon – he lasts about five minute at the hustings before being booed off and giving it up forever – but that doesn’t stop Ladislaw creating a mental image of a future for himself as – well, what? Some sort of agent or speech-writer. This isn’t Fred Vincy-style castles in the air: he seems to be gaining something of a reputation. Or am I taking Brook’s opinion too seriously? Anyway, as doors in Middlemarch seem to be closing for him he thinks about leaving… but he doesn’t. Watch this space.

What have I missed? Well, for a start, Fred Vincy and Mary Garth, with a side order of the Rev Farebrother. With these three, Eliot keeps her eye on the Garth family thread (they’re the only verifiable good ‘uns in the book), the young people setting out on the difficult road to adulthood thread, the status of the clergy in middle-class society thread, the hospital politics thread, the youth and (middle) age thread and, not doubt, plenty of others. Basically, Mary’s thoroughly sensible awareness of what Fred is like doesn’t stop her liking him and declaring to Farebrother, when pressed, that she’s not going to be looking at anybody else. Fred’s charged the Reverend to ask her what she thinks of him going into the church, now that he’s gone back and finished his degree. She says she’ll finish with him forever if he does: she’ll only hang about for him to give him the chance to find something more suitable. And the Reverend thinks, Rats: he’d been wondering whether he might have had a chance with her now he’s chaplain at the hospital and doesn’t need to play cards to scrape together enough to live.

Hmm…. There’s only just enough plot in Book 5 to keep it from becoming just too focused on a forensic scrutiny of everyone’s behaviour. It’s a good job Eliot has that superb line in similes and aphorisms – I love the opening paragraphs of some of the chapters as she goes for a stroll before working her way towards a guiding principle of life or a sly verdict on the behaviour of a character – because otherwise it might all get a bit, well, heavy. What I said about Book 1, that Eliot sets up a kind of heavenly court of judgment, is really a statement about what the best 19th Century novelists do – but she really ought to have borne in mind the limited attention-spans of 21st Century readers.

15 May
Book 6 (first half) – Chapters 54-58
These five chapters are all about the young men. And, sometimes, the young women: it starts with Dorothea and her sister, with Dorothea finding life with a young mother insufferable. This being George Eliot, nothing’s black and white: while her sarcasm reveals her sympathy with Dorothea’s point of view and the limits to the enjoyment to be had in celebrating the achievements of the young Arthur, Dorothea’s own life, once she returns to Lowick, is painfully thin. She’s thrown back on the miniature portrait of Ladislaw’s grandmother, which she clutches to her….

Perhaps the arrival of Ladislaw himself will bring some relief? No chance. Through the continuing trick of keeping Ladislaw unaware of Casaubon’s will, Eliot is able to make their meeting almost a torture: he can only perceive Dorothea’s manner as cool, whereas all she feels is a kind of exquisite embarrassment. When he says he wants to find a useful role for himself in society, and that he’s going to leave Middlemarch, what’s a girl to do? Sir James arrives, Will’s pride is stung, and off he goes.

Next. A chance encounter brings Fred Vincy and Caleb Garth together. Fred ends up helping Caleb out – and suddenly there’s hope for him: he could work for the man who might one day be his father-in-law. Ok, so he’s useless at the office work… but he’s willing to learn and a respectable, scaled-down future suddenly seems possible. Eliot has him almost growing before our eyes: he comes to understand that now his gentlemanly aspirations have come to nothing, he’ll even have to get used to walking. However… he’s got to tell his parents – so now it’s his turn for a chapter of embarrassments. His father isn’t pleased that he’s throwing away his expensive education – Vincy’s business isn’t thriving, so the news smarts – but he’s ok about it really. (In passing, to remind us of another thread, Eliot has him talking about Rosamund: there’s talk of Lydgate getting into debt, but she’d better not think about asking for any money.) Then Fred has to face his mother, and she’s mortified.

How many embarrassing conversations has Fred had to endure in this novel? And it isn’t over: Mrs Garth is not impressed by Caleb’s decision, and she doesn’t hide her feelings from Fred when he calls. And she doesn’t hide the fact that Mary could probably have done better if Farebrother had been able to talk to her on his own behalf instead of Fred’s…. The only relief he gets, a kind of reward meted out by a discriminating Providence (i.e. Eliot), is that he gets to see Mary to tell her of the new situation. At least she’s pleased – and seems genuinely unaware of any hopes Farebrother might ever have had. So that’s all right.

Had enough squirming yet? Hah – Eliot’s only just got started. Chapter 58 is one of those where I have to keep stopping: the conversation with Rosamund that Lydgate needs to have is no easier for the reader than it is for him. It’s a long chapter. First, Eliot gives us about 17 insights into Rosamund’s mind-set, based on the visit of her husband’s cousin the baronet. She married into this family, and she’s going to be seen – and just because her husband, the doctor, tells her she mustn’t go out riding again (she didn’t bother asking the first time) she is determined to do as she pleases. When she falls and loses the baby she’s expecting she realises she’d better start listening to Lydgate. As if.

In fact, this chapter is full of doom-laden little hints of what is to come. His profession, which he had expected to fill her with admiration and respect, is of no more interest to her than if he was a dealer in some ‘ill-smelling oil’ so long as it keeps her comfortable. When he looks worried – as he does, often, because of the disappointments in his practice and the expenses he’s running up – all she sees is ‘moodiness’. So when Eliot tells the exquisite story, which we’ve been waiting for all along, of how Lydgate has sleepwalked his way into dire financial straits, we know he’s going to have a terrible time reining things back. The dark clouds roll ominously as Eliot reminds us that when a man feels himself trapped, he can think of nothing else ‘though he had a scheme of the universe in his soul.’ Ouch.

He’s put off telling her because she’s been ill following the miscarriage. So he tells himself – but we know the real reason: it’s going to be appalling. But eventually he does speak, and it leads to one of the best set piece scenes in the book. Rosamund is no villain and, as with Casaubon, Eliot assiduously shows us her point of view alternately with Lydgate’s as he draws her attention to some of the ways they will have to economise. It’s psychologically compelling. Eliot describes how Rosamund’s scrupulously understated obstinacy – basically, her life so far has not equipped her for this – makes Lydgate feel like a complete heel. At first she assumes that somehow his friends and family will come to the rescue – she has no idea – then suggests going to her father. This is out of the question, obviously, and eventually she dutifully brings in her jewellery box for him to choose what they should return along with the plate. As she no doubt expected – she always gets her way – Lydgate can’t be so cruel: he hasn’t learnt a great deal more than she has about how disciplined they are going to have to be. Gulp.

18 May
Book 6 (second half) – Chapters 59-62
Ladislaw is central to the two main threads of these remaining chapters: finally, he is leaving Middlemarch. Eliot seems generous in her understanding of why he would delay his departure for something like two months: he’s comfortable with his life, comfortable in the company of Lydgate and, more especially, Rosamund – and, well, Middlemarch is where Dorothea is, however remote. Of course, when Eliot is generous there’s usually some kind of sting, and there are plenty for him to endure before she’s finished with him.

The kick he needs comes when he finds out about Casaubon’s will. He finds out from Rosamund – and while piling on the mortification for Will, Eliot is able to reveal Rosamund’s small-mindedness. It’s a tiny chapter – less than three pages – but in it we find out not only that Rosamund has no tact, but that she routinely does the opposite of what Lydgate advises her. All that fair-minded balancing of her viewpoint with Lydgate’s in the previous chapter is a kind of authorial sleight of hand: we might understand Rosamund, just as we might understand Casaubon, but Eliot goes on to show us behaviour we can’t forgive. To her, it’s light-hearted banter to cheer up a dull afternoon.

In this novel there are characters who are in a kind of moral Premier League – the one I’d recognised first was Caleb Garth – and we come to realise that Ladislaw is in there. He might be impetuous, proud, muddle-headed, but he’s also determined to do the right thing: ever since Casaubon’s death he’s been scrupulously not pursuing the rich widow. Part of his motive, of course, is to avoid the taunts of small-minded people – which is why news of the will is so humiliating – but he’s genuine in his desire to behave properly. Ditto Dorothea, obviously, and Book 6 ends with an even more tortured meeting than the one it began with. It’s part of the torture, for the reader as much as for them, that their Premier League behaviour is beyond the understanding of all those who think the worst of them. I.e. almost everybody.

There’s only one tiny glimmer of hope at the end, after they’ve parted. There’s a bit of novelistic circumstantial business (Dorothea has heard he spends rather too much time alone with Rosamund) that leads her to believe that Will is referring to Mrs Lydgate when he comes out with his tortured admission that the only love he feels for anyone is forbidden. It’s only after he’s left that she realises this is nonsense, that it’s she who, for the first time in her life, can feel loved. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help poor Will, overtaken by her carriage as he trudges towards the town and out of her life.

There’s another thread, and it also involves him. Bulstrode’s murky past jumps out to bite him again – Raffles is back – and we find out the connection with Will that we first got an inkling of at the end of Book 5. Eliot gives us one of those chapters in which, whilst giving us the seedy details, she is scrupulous in seeking to convince us how a God-botherer like Bulstrode could allow himself to become embroiled. He manages to convince himself that he’s no hypocrite, even though he denied Ladislaw’s mother the fortune she should have received by pretending she couldn’t be found. She would have only spent it on dissipation that would have been an insult to God – whereas he, he could do so much good work with it. Etc.

There’s a marvellous set-piece scene between him and Ladislaw. Raffles has already told Will there’s a link, and he’s disgusted by the idea – so he’s set against anything Bulstrode might say before he even starts. Bulstrode wants to do the right thing at last. As if. What he really wants is to feel less terrible about what he’s done, and Will is having none of it. He throws Bulstrode’s offer of £500 a year back in his face, because he wants to be above any taint the money has (he’s already forced Bulstrode into admitting how dirty it is). So he remains poor – this all takes place before his final meeting with Dorothea, so the case really is hopeless when he speaks to her – and Bulstrode is left to feel ill. He pretends to himself that he simply wants to do right, but really he knows – and we know – that he is only concerned about what people will think. He likes to believe they’ll be wrong to think so badly of him, but they’ll think it anyway – and the contrast with Ladislaw’s genuine wish to behave properly could not be more complete. When he meets Dorothea we really are on his side.

How does Eliot get away with it? How does she raise her authorial self up to stand in judgment on these characters in such a way that we’re happy to go along with it? God knows. Part of it is that it’s entertaining. When we follow the contortions Bulstrode takes himself through in order to justify his own behaviour – so that we can see, according to his own lights, he really isn’t a hypocrite – or when the tide of Lydgate’s will crashes against the immovable rock of Rosamund’s, well, you have to rejoice. And at the same time Eliot, more than any other author I can think of, goes into the deepest recesses of her characters’ psyches to make their behaviour seem plausible. It doesn’t matter if it’s a trick – and it’s sometimes so good you forget that this little microcosm is no more real than Dickens’ schematic versions of London – you buy it, because so much of it is recognisable. It isn’t reality but, at a psychological level, it feels like it.

19 May
Book 7 – Chapters 63-71
At the end of Book 6 I was referring to the crash of Lydgate’s will against Rosamund’s…. Reader, what we’d seen by then was nothing. For chapter after relentless chapter at the start of Book 7 we get to see Rosamund’s will in all its innocent, quietly spoken monstrousness. Innocent? In her outlook there’s something wide-eyed and, basically, lacking the faintest scrap of any knowledge of the world – but in these chapters a wilful nurturing of innocence has never seemed so terrifying. Lydgate can’t tell her anything because she doesn’t want to know.

We’ve seen it before, of course. It was clear in Book 1 that Rosamund was going to win this man who didn’t even realise he was in the market, just as it was clear in Book 3 (I think) that any resistance from her father was futile and in Book 6 that she wasn’t going to give up riding during her pregnancy, whatever Lydgate might say. In her universe – Eliot is explicit about this in these chapters – nothing means anything if it doesn’t match her own desires. This goes for anybody’s opinions or wishes, including Lydgate’s – in fact, especially Lydgate’s now that he has to keep confronting her with everyday realities. If he says things to her that she doesn’t like, she behaves as though he hasn’t said them.

Now I get it. Eliot has been softening us up for what might otherwise have seemed too grotesque: Rosamund has an almost pathological egocentricity, and blocks out anything that impinges upon the reality she has made for herself. It wasn’t risky to go riding while pregnant, and the miscarriage hasn’t changed her mind. And it isn’t necessary to make economies just because someone says he wants to. Eliot the pioneer of a ground-breaking early version of feminism has created a girl-woman incapable of rational thought. So, in these chapters, she rescinds Lydgate’s instruction to the auction-house to put the house on the market, tells Lydgate that the prospective tenants have found somewhere else, appeals (again) for help from her father and, most disastrously (and, for Lydgate, most mortifyingly) writes to Lydgate’s aristocratic former guardian for the £1000 they need.

It’s all awful, obviously, but for me this particular thread stopped being plausible before things reached this pass. I even started looking back on the way that Lydgate got himself into such debt in the first place: basically, in the middle section of the novel, Eliot has to persuade us that a man who spends his time at he hospital working within strict budgets – Bulstrode is no more generous than his perceived duty necessitates – really could in a year or so sleepwalk his way into debts that in modern terms would come to about a quarter of a million. I believed it at the time, but by Book 7 it’s beginning to look a bit over-constructed. All Eliot’s powers have been brought to bear on persuading us that Lydgate’s quietly cosseted unworldliness and Rosamund’s doll-woman obtuseness have culminated in the single fact that she states as baldly as she can at the end of Chapter 65: ‘she had mastered him.’

[Later] I’m over-stating it. Anyway, what Eliot wants to show is us isn’t only a battle of wills, it’s the crashing of these two individuals’ separate dreams against the reality of what the other person really offers. Rosamund’s dream was always childishly limited: a continuation of comforts she has known, of people in her life being nice to her. She withdraws into herself as Lydgate remonstrates with her because he becomes a nasty man shouting at her about what she can’t have. And, despite what I wrote earlier, we believe it. Meanwhile, in these chapters, we are there as the realisation is forced upon Lydgate that his own dream was never more substantial than hers. He assumed she was passive, biddable – and full of a womanly admiration of his scientific work. Wrong, wrong and wrong – and he has to find strategies for living not only with this egoistic baby but for living with his own dismay. Like so many things in this part of the novel, it’s torture. But in a good way.

We don’t hear much about Rosamund after this, except for once when she takes to her bed to avoid the creditors marauding over the house – and elbowing her way into Lydgate’s thoughts as a kind of threatening presence whenever he finds himself contemplating his home life. It’s Lydgate we follow; even when Eliot makes the occasional foray into some other character’s story, he’s there in the background. The other characters are Fred Vincy, whose half-chapter peels off from the story of Lydgate’s only (failed) attempt to win money at billiards, and Bulstrode’s, whose story ends in disaster for both of them.

Farebrother isn’t at the top of the Premier League, but he’s definitely in there somewhere. When he hears Fred has started going to the local billiard-hall again he gives the tiller a little nudge to get him back on-track. Eliot lets tell Fred explicitly what he’s doing: it would be in his own interest to let him fail, because Mary would never marry him if he did – but he can’t do it. By the end of the chapter Fred seems to be chastened enough to pull his socks up, and we have an example of genuine Christian selflessness for our edification. Eliot seems to be reminding us that there really are people who try to do the right thing. (Later, as we follow Bulstrode for a few chapters, Caleb Garth shows why he’s unassailable as champion: he doesn’t have to think about doing the right thing because for him it’s completely instinctive.)

Bulstrode. For three or four chapters, it’s almost like being in a Dickens novel. Raffles has always been Tigg in Martin Chuzzlewit, and we all know what happens to him. Of course, Bulstrode isn’t suddenly going to turn into a murderous villain, he isn’t going to lie in wait to slit Raffles’ throat…. But Eliot the mistress of all things Providential – she even has the piously superstitious Bulstrode thanking God for the escape he couldn’t have brought about without Providential assistance – brings Raffles back, twice. The first time, Bulstrode sends him packing, defying him to do his worst – but not before slipping another £100, with the promise of more. For his second (and last) appearance, Eliot engineers the circumstances that are going to bring down Bustrode forever – and, as it appears at the end of Book 7, Lydgate with him.

What we get is plot. But we also get more of those hugely entertaining insights into Bulstrode’s mind. Eliot needs to turn up the heat: we’ve heard the old story of how he accidentally fell into a shady business practices – basically, he was a high-class fence – and, not accidentally at all, defrauded Ladislaw’s mother out of her inheritance. Fine, he’s practically a criminal and he’s a terrible fraud – but it’s a long time ago, it doesn’t feel immediate enough. What would Dickens do? I don’t know, but what Eliot does is have Raffles arrive, in an alcoholic delirium bad enough to be life-threatening, at the place Bulstrode bought from Rigg. Eliot keeps him rational just long enough for him to spill the beans to Caleb, who is about to have Fred Vincy take over the management of the place – and who immediately withdraws when he realises what Bulstrode is really like.

What’s an old hypocrite to do? He scurries along to nurse Raffles through it – and make sure he doesn’t come out with any more dangerous talk. He calls Lydgate and scrupulously follows the course of treatment he prescribes. But he manages to have the thought that Raffles’ death would be a wonderful thing because it would lift the threat from Bulstrode, and enable him to carry on with God’s work. He also thinks about how he would do nothing – nothing – to hasten such an outcome. But then… he decides he can’t watch all the time – it’s clear he hopes his housekeeper won’t be as scrupulous as he is, though he the thought doesn’t even reach his conscious mind – and he has a night off. And, oops, he forgets to mention how important it is to get the dose right. Then he remembers – but, in an echo of so many of his past transgressions, fails to put right the omission. Later, he manages to persuade himself that Lydgate’s progressive treatment might not be right anyway, so why shouldn’t he give the housekeeper the key to the wine-cupboard against the doctor’s express instructions?

It’s terrific. As always, Bulstrode is able to convince himself that he has done nothing wrong, and that nothing can be proven anyway. These two things always go together in his mind, which tells us everything we need to know. The contrast with Farebrother, who looks at temptations for what they are and turns his back on them, is unmistakeable.

So anyway, Raffles is dead, and Bulstrode assures himself that God must certainly have forgiven any hypothetical blame attaching to him. He can get back to normal life. Hah. He’s forgotten he’s in a Victorian novel, and it turns out that Raffles hasn’t only blabbed to the scrupulously discreet Caleb Garth. At a horse-fair miles away he’s revealed all to the bloke who runs the billiard-hall, and he can’t wait to tell everybody in Middlemarch. By the time Bulstrode is ready to make his triumphant return to public life – he’s been a bit quiet lately – the Middlemarch movers and shakers chuck him out of the first committee he attends.

I suppose that’s the difference between Dickens and Eliot: he has his villains spectacularly run over by trains or poisoning themselves through sheer self-disgust; she has them thrown off a committee. And this being a novel about society, her villain inevitably takes others with him. Lydgate had nothing to do with the life-threatening treatment Raffles received at the end, but nobody knows that – and even if that’s all there was to it, it would merely cast doubts on Lydgate’s competence, which is hardly worth a button anyway in this provincial backwater. However – and here’s the hand of authorial Providence adding another tasty ingredient – Bulstrode has just lent Lydgate the £1000 he needs. Lydgate has made no secret of it – why should he? – but now, as Eliot trawls through the everyday cynicism of the townsfolk’s comments, she has one of them remarking on how sometimes it’s easy to put two and two together. As he helps Bulstrode out of the catastrophic meeting – what else is a dedicated medic to do? – they present a picture of closeness and interdependence.

At the end of Book 7 there’s one tiny ray of hope: Dorothea believes in Lydgate and exhorts the usual sceptical (or fence-sitting) suspects: ‘Let us find out the truth and clear him!’ In Middlemarch? We’ll see.

20 May
Book 8: Chapters 72-85 and Finale
Eliot widens the scope in this section at the same time as she ties up the threads of all the individual stories. In the last few chapters of Book 7 we’ve heard all about the growing feeling against Bulstrode, and we’ve seen its culmination in the committee meeting. It’s as if Eliot’s been softening us up for a re-examination of a favourite theme: public opinion. Earlier in the novel she appeared to be quite tolerant of its vagaries and its arbiters – the Chettams and Cadwalladers – as though, well, it’s something you have to put up with. I can remember in Book 1 thinking how Eliot’s own pronouncements seem to mark her out, somehow, as a bit like them – and in the middle sections of the novel it’s hard to disagree, for example, with their low opinion of Brooke’s political judgment.

But Eliot wants to remind us that opinions aren’t always reached after a due examination of the facts. In Book 7 she took us into the local pub to see how quickly mud starts to get flung around – and Lydgate soon realises that whatever he does, he will never be able to clear his name. But Eliot is not only making a point about the lower classes: the middle classes are no better. Lydgate’s methods, his alleged contempt for the other doctors, his showy lifestyle – they all count against him so that mere suspicion is enough to have him regarded as guilty of having taken a bribe.

Eliot also shows us how the townspeople in general, and the Cadwallader set in particular, react to other cases. While they gleefully turn their backs on Bulstrode Eliot also shows us some of the townswomen’s reactions to his innocent wife. It isn’t pretty, and she is put through mortifications. Unlike them, of course, Eliot is always careful to use an even-handed tone, not only concerning Mrs Bulstrode but her husband as well. She is frank about his feet of clay, but she always implies a tolerance of human frailty. It’s Eliot at her most authorially god-like, being seen to be scrupulously just. Maybe she likes the idea of being a bit like Dorothea – and I’ll get to Dorothea later.

The culmination of Eliot’s dissection of Opinion comes near the end, when the Chettam/ Cadwallader set hear about Dorothea’s engagement to Ladislaw. We’ve never liked the complacent Chettam, and Eliot gives him lines that make a Daily Express leader sound measured in comparison. We’ve had chapters to get to know the scrupulous correctness of both Will and Dorothea’s conduct, and here’s Chettam banging on about how wrong it is, how the descendant of a Jew pawnbroker has no right to pull a woman down from her allotted position…. I’m paraphrasing, but, basically, we hate him because he’s using the language of bigotry to slag off characters we like.

For me, it’s Eliot setting out a stall. She must have known all about prejudice and bigotry – and she uses this set-piece scene to show us Establishment complacency about foreigners, class, the position of women and, for good measure, anti-Semitism. (I knew in Book 1 that we’d come back to that one.) If these are our ruling classes, she seems to say, God help us. Eliot makes it unmistakeable by opening the next chapter with the scene from Pilgrim’s Progress in which Mr Blindman, Mr No-good and the rest bring in their guilty verdict against their hapless victim. It’s there to re-introduce us to the Bulstrode thread, but we know what Eliot is really saying.

Anyway, plenty happens in this final section, and a lot of it is to do with Dorothea. She’s been quiet for a lot of the second half of the novel, but she isn’t quiet now, despite being discouraged by the usual suspects in the first chapter of this section. So for a while we see Lydgate going about his business as best he can, spending any spare moments examining if he’s really to blame and, inevitably, worrying about Rosamund’s reaction. We find out (after Eliot has taken us inside the head of another hapless victim, Mrs Bulstrode, humbled by the behaviour of the women she might once have counted as her friends) that Rosamund is fine, because the nasty men have stopped coming.

Lydgate still understands nothing of the way her mind works, and decides to interpret her better mood as receptiveness to a robust talk about economising. Yeh, sure. She is all reasonableness, and he settles to speak about it. She cuts him off before he starts: surely he’s given up the idea of staying in Middlemarch? Somewhere else (she means somewhere fashionable, obviously) will be ‘easier’ for them. He leaves before he does something he might regret – and Eliot has created a terrifying circle of hell for him: he’s trapped in a marriage that seems increasingly loveless, trapped in a failing medical practice, trapped in the knowledge that a loan he accepted as generosity is seen by the whole town as proof of his guilt….

Enter Dorothea in her role as ministering angel, part 1. Their conversation is ostensibly about the hospital – she needs something to spend her money on – but soon she’s telling him she has faith in him, getting him to tell his side of the story, giving him £1000 to pay off the embarrassing loan. And she’s agreed to speak to Rosamund, to try to restore in her the respect Dorothea can see he deserves. Phew.

But… Dorothea isn’t an angel, she’s the red-blooded woman she was at the start of the novel. She discards her mourning dress, sets off to see Rosamund – and, like Bulstrode in Book 7, is sharply reminded that she’s in a Victorian novel: Eliot’s readers wouldn’t expect everything to go her way when there are still eight or nine chapters to go, and they don’t. And, because it’s been so long since I read it, I couldn’t remember the eventual outcome of the little scene we get as she sees Rosamund and Ladislaw in intimate conversation and makes a hasty exit, assuming the worst.

It’s Eliot the novelist being almost formulaic, and as I read it I hated it. However. Later I began to wonder whether the rom-com crisis might be tongue-in-cheek, because the reconciliation between Dorothea and Ladislaw that eventually comes – as conventional as the misunderstanding that keeps them apart for a day or two – takes place during a violent storm that so neatly matches the ‘throbbing excitement’ of Dorothea’s own feelings that we can only suspect Eliot is having a laugh. As they look out on the darkening clouds and turbulently-tossed trees (I’m not making this up) ‘a vivid flash of lightning … lit each of them up for the other – and the light seemed to be the terror of a hopeless love.’ When they do eventually kiss, rain dashes against the windows ‘as if an angry spirit were within it’. The whole passage reads like an object lesson in how a novelist can do whatever she likes with the pathetic fallacy because, well, she just can. I loved it because it’s so blatant.

(As I was reading, I also thought about Charlotte Bronte’s Villette again. That novel contains two life-changing storms, as blatantly artificial as the one in Middlemarch: one keeps Lucy Snowe in the big house where she can be schmoozed by the priest who wants to tell her why she can’t possibly marry Monsieur Paul; the other one, as Bronte dares us to disbelieve if we choose, finishes the task the priest couldn’t manage. Famously, Eliot loved Villette, and I can’t help seeing some elements in this novel as a homage.)

But I’ve jumped the gun a bit. In order to get the reward of Ladislaw’s declaration of love, Dorothea has had to perform the role of ministering angel, part 2. After a dark night of the soul to match, say, Emma’s before the life-changing meeting with Knightley, Dorothea realises she still needs to speak to Rosamund. It’s a sign of Mrs Lydgate’s small-mindedness that she expects Dorothea to hate her. What she gets is fair-mindedness and generosity of spirit. And, Reader, it brings something out in Rosamund we haven’t seen before: a perception of her own actions on other people. She’s been mortified by Ladislaw’s reaction when he realises Dorothea’s mistake: he’s not merely punctured her fantasy, he’s shredded it and stamped on the pieces. In the only generous action she takes in the whole novel she tells Dorothea she’s the only one he has ever loved. Alleluia.

Huge swathes of Book 8 are straight out of the Victorian novelist’s handbook, and that’s fine with me. The end of the misunderstanding between Dorothea and Ladislaw represents virtue rewarded: we know about hers, but now she recognises the extent to which he’s always done the right thing. Before we read about this, Eliot ties off another storyline: Fred does get to manage Bulstrode’s place – it’s Stone Court, denied to him by Featherstone’s stupid will but now granted to him in circumstances that make him a far better person for it.

In the end we get to hear all their stories. They are unspectacular, but almost everybody gets what they want and deserve. Fred marries Mary Garth at last, who really is Lucy Snowe in one respect: she’s a far better woman than plenty of better-looking ones around her. Ladislaw becomes an earnest and capable politician, while Dorothea does what she can to be useful to society. Even Sir James is brought round, by the family-obsessed Celia, when Dorothea has her first child. The only exceptions in this feel-good Finale are the Lydgates. He becomes ‘what is called a successful man’ – but his treatment of the wealthy feels like failure to him, even as Rosamund basks in what she considers a prosperity she’s worked hard for. He dies young, and she re-marries comfortably. So it goes.

It ends with that memorable sentence which might have felt pompous but doesn’t. Dorothea, through activities whose good effects spread almost unnoticed, becomes one of ‘the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’ It’s what all the best 19th Century novelists want us to believe: if we’re a long time dead, Eliot seems to be saying, we might as well get it right while we’re alive.

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