Perhaps we don’t always discriminate between sense and nonsense,

Dear George,

george eliotYours is an odd Prelude: already in its first paragraph, it refuses to give us an easy key to your Middlemarch (1871-72). It goes on a tangent, it circumvents a blind spot, it seems not to fit our expectations. We hardly notice that your refusal may be a key in itself.

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? (…) Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self.”

Experiments, time, a woman’s lot, a demand for an epic life, self-despair and its reconciliation with the consciousness of a life beyond the self. From here, we can go anywhere – all roads will lead to Middlemarch.

Then, you put the epic aside, and choose the dim lights and tangled circumstance. You are more interested in the many Theresas who found themselves no epic life, only spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity. You take upon yourself to sing the Theresas who found no poet and sank unwept into oblivion. You are courting the borders, the marches and shared frontiers, the unsung middling lives rubbing off each other; you are setting up your experiments in life, tracing back the invisible connecting threads between the whole and each of its parts; you are marching through the middle of a muddled web.

It is about a small community, it is about ourselves, and it all begins with the epic fall of a single woman: Miss Brooke. “She was enamoured of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractations, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.”

She is clever, she is passionate, she even reads Pascal – but, when it comes to common sense, it is better to listen to her sister, Celia. They live with their uncle, a man of “miscellaneous opinions” and a “rambling habit of mind”: “Mr. Brooke’s conclusions were as difficult to predict as the weather: it was only safe to say that he would act with benevolent intentions, and that he would spend as little money as possible in carrying them out.”

Dorothea’s love of extremes may make her less marriageable than one would expect of a girl of her class. She is a woman of strong opinions and, as your narrator is quick to remind us: “Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on. Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.”

Misunderstandings and false impressions play an important role throughout the book, and with the Brooke sisters is no different: the villagers see the amiable Celia, for instance, as the most innocent of the two, but, when compared to Dorothea, she is in fact much more “knowing and worldly-wise.” Our narrator also reminds us that Dodo (as Celia calls her sister) can be as self-admiring as she is (or believes to be) self-sacrificing.

Our Dodo has great aspirations in life, but nowhere to put them besides marriage. To make matters worse, she has very childlike notions of what a marriage is or should be: “The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it.” Enter the Reverend Edward Casaubon, “a man of wealth enough to give lustre to his piety”, and we have a recipe for a mild disaster.

The warm wit of the narrator in these first six chapters, combined with their illuminating epigraphs, are a delight. Chapter II, for instance, where our rara avis Dodo falls for her own distorted, quixotic image of Casaubon, is headed by a quote from Cervantes’ Don Quixote: what for the famous hidalgo appears as a cavalier with a golden helmet, is for his faithful squire, Sancho, “nothing but a man on a grey ass like my own (…).” When Casaubon pedantically describes himself, his words, flavoured by the wise, expansive eyes of our witty narrator, ring to us with a delicious double meaning that, alas, neither the Reverend nor Dodo can hear: “I live too much with the dead. My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient (…).

Meanwhile, Sir James Chettam is unsuccessfully hitting on Dorothea, making a wrong estimate about his prospects, and toying with some unoriginal ideas about a man’s mind (after all, “a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gum or starch in the form of tradition”); our clear-eyed Celia is looking at the humans around her “as if they were merely animals with a toilette”; and Mr. Brooke is exposing one of his miscellaneous opinions about everything and nothing: “(…) that the Reformation either meant something or did not, that he himself was a Protestant to the core, but that Catholicism was a fact (…).”

This whole scene is a brilliant exercise in wit, but also warmth: when our Dodo mistakes Casaubon’s dry pedantism for a lively form of spiritual communion, our narrator does poke fun at her, but also never shies away from empathizing with her all-too-human naiveté: “Dorothea’s inferences may seem large; but really life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusions, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization.”

And, later, in chapter III: “Signs are small measurable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky, and coloured by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge. They are not always too grossly deceived; for Sinbad himself may have fallen by good-luck on a true description, and wrong reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions: starting a long way off the true point, and proceeding by loops and zigzags, we now and then arrive just where we ought to be. Because Miss Brooke was hasty in her trust, it is not therefore clear that Mr. Casaubon was unworthy of it.

It would be like marrying Pascal”, muses Dorothea. She is delusional, and you make us have a laugh at it. But you also bring her closer to us, to the point where it feels almost as if we were laughing at ourselves. Given conditions such and such, perhaps we could have been Dodo, too. Just imagine!, you nudge us in, and we take a leap of faith into empathy: “For a long while she had been oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like a thick summer haze, over all her desire to made her life greatly effective. What could she do, what ought she to do? — she, hardly more than a budding woman, but yet with an active conscience and a great mental need, not to be satisfied by a girlish instruction comparable to the nibblings and judgments of a discursive mouse. (…) and with such a nature struggling in the bands of a narrow teaching, hemmed in by a social life which seemed nothing but a labyrinth of petty courses, a walled-in maze of small paths that led no whither, the outcome was sure to strike others as at once exaggeration and inconsistency. The thing which seemed to her best, she wanted to justify by the completest knowledge; and not to live in a pretended admission of rules which were never acted on. Into this soul-hunger as yet all her youthful passion was poured (…)”.

I love the way you manage to be humorous by combining the uses of authorial intrusion (as in the passage quoted above) and of free indirect discourse, as you narrator enters the minds of your characters while remaining firmly anchored in the third person: “it never occurred to him that a girl to whom he was meditating an offer of marriage could care for a dried bookworm towards fifty” (here Sir James is thinking of Casaubon); “This amiable baronet, really a suitable husband for Celia, exaggerated the necessity of making himself agreeable to the elder sister.” (Dodo on Sir James); “Mr. Brooke wondered, and felt that women were an inexhaustible subject of study, since even he at his age was not in a perfect state of scientific prediction about them. (…) In short, woman was a problem which, since Mr. Brooke’s mind felt blank before it, could be hardly less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid” (Mr. Brooke’s rambling mind on Dorothea’s choice); “Celia felt a sort of shame mingled with a sense of the ludicrous. But perhaps Dodo, if she were really bordering on such an extravagance, might be turned away from it” (Celia on her sister’s choice); “When people talked with energy and emphasis she watched their faces and features merely. She could never understand how well-bred persons consented to sing and open their mouths in the ridiculous manner requisite for that vocal exercise” (Celia again, because, let’s face it, she is awesome).

Another epigraph, a quote from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, hangs like a bad omen over chapter V: it’s time for Casaubon’s dreadful marriage proposal by letter – lean, dry, ill-coloured

Throughout the letter, we only read ‘I’, ‘myself’, ‘me’, ‘my’: “I am not, I trust, mistaken in the recognition of some deeper correspondence than that of date in the fact that a consciousness of need in my own life had arisen contemporaneously with the possibility of my becoming acquainted with you. For in the first hour of meeting you, I had an impression of your eminent and perhaps exclusive fitness to supply that need (…)”.

Clearly, Casaubon, Dodo, and the readers read very different things into what is written in the unfortunate missive. As our narrator reminds us, how could it occur to Dorothea “to examine the letter, to look at it critically as a profession of love?” Instead, here is Casaubon, feeling perfectly self-satisfied in treating a girl as a means to an end; and here is Dodo, revelling in self-denial and sacrifice.

It is a melancholy moment for us, Dodo readers, and, like Celia, we may want to shake her out from this nonsense. “There was something funereal in the whole affair, and Mr. Casaubon seemed to be the officiating clergyman, about whom it would be indecent to make remarks.”

In the midst of the funeral of Dodo’s youth, Mr. Booke’s rambling, miscellaneous mind saves the day and makes us smile: “But you must have a scholar, and that sort of thing? Well, it lies a little in our family. I had it myself — that love of knowledge, and going into everything — a little too much — it took me too far; though that sort of thing doesn’t often run in the female-line; or it runs underground like the rivers in Greece, you know — it comes out in the sons.”

And, once again, Casaubon’s words later on ring to us with double meaning – but, this time, once Dodo’s youth is about to be plucked, the double meaning is drenched in melancholy, rather than wit: “I have been little disposed to gather flowers that would wither in my hand, but now I shall pluck them with eagerness (…)”.

We could not agree more, as the narrator then adds, “no speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook. (…) Dorothea’s faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon’s words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime”.

In chapter VI, we entangle ourselves in Mrs. Cadwallader’s web of gossip. She married the man she wanted (the town’s clergyman), despite her family’s best wishes, and now enjoys playing the matchmaker. She tried to set up Dorothea with Sir James Chettam, and now is furious that the girl is going to marry Casaubon – a man with “one foot in the grave”, in Chettam’s jealous words.

There may be a parallel somewhere to Dorothea, who also marries the man she chooses, despite our best wishes. Mrs. Cadwallader, a woman who does not like to be contradicted, seems to be unaware of the extent to which she, in an odd way, may or may not be Dodo’s double: “”However,” said Mrs. Cadwallader, first to herself and afterwards to her husband, “I throw her over: there was a chance, if she had married Sir James, of her becoming a sane, sensible woman. He would never have contradicted her, and when a woman is not contradicted, she has no motive for obstinacy in her absurdities.“”

And so, in a tangled web of misunderstanding, melancholy, wit, and gossip, we enter your study of provincial life through Middlemarch’s lab. “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative (…)”, wrote V.S. Pritchett in the The Living Novel (1946), “no writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.” Like your characters, we have a partial view, and, most probably, we are wrong about something that will turn out to be essential to the whole.

Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse (…)”. As your narrator has already warned us, “interpretations are illimitable.” We can go anywhere from here. We are being gifted the imperturbable spaciousness of ambiguity. It’s a difficult but precious gift.

Yours truly,


La disposizione dei fiori William McGregor Paxton - 1921
William McGregor Paxton, Girl Arranging Flowers, 1921.

“You have your own opinion about everything, Miss Brooke, and it is always a good opinion.”
What answer was possible to such stupid complimenting?
“Do you know, I envy you that,” Sir James said, as they continued walking at the rather brisk pace set by Dorothea.
“I don’t quite understand what you mean.”
“Your power of forming an opinion. I can form an opinion of persons. I know when I like people. But about other matters, do you know, I have often a difficulty in deciding. One hears very sensible things said on opposite sides.”
“Or that seem sensible. Perhaps we don’t always discriminate between sense and nonsense.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch


“We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, ” Oh, nothing!” Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts — not to hurt others.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch


“Oh, Mrs. Cadwallader, I don’t think it can be nice to marry a man with a great soul.”
“Well, my dear, take warning. You know the look of one now; when the next comes and wants to marry you, don’t you accept him.”
“I’m sure I never should.”
“No; one such in a family is enough. – George Eliot, Middlemarch

About the book

  • Penguin Classics, 2003, 853 p. Goodreads
  • First published in instalments, from 1871 to 1872
  • Discussed here: Prelude & Chapters 1-6
  • Project:  A Season in Middlemarch

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2 thoughts on “Perhaps we don’t always discriminate between sense and nonsense,

  1. This was wonderful to read! I ended up jumping into where I left off in Middlemarch last year so I’m slightly ahead schedule, but I shall enjoy your weekly deep-dives immensely – thanks for sharing your close reading of this novel with us.

    Liked by 1 person

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