Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand

Dear George,

george eliot

Feminist critics were angry with you in the 1970’s, and perhaps some of them still are: your Dorothea remains firmly grounded on the very rules you broke, one by one, in your youth. She channels all her talents and aspirations into marriage, and never strays very far away from what was accepted for a woman of her time and place.

How could she do it? Dodo is surely a talented girl, but you were an even rarer bird – a genius. From the Prelude you alert us that your book will not be threading in such extreme, exceptional paths: instead, you chose to march in the middle – “this petty medium of Middlemarch“, a narrow horizon of possibilities into which your every girl has to fit her dreams and her potential. As Virginia Woolf once wrote, your women “do not find what they seek, and we cannot wonder.

Does your narrative choice reinforce the prevailing values of Victorian culture? Well, perhaps not quite: it’s all in the eye of the beholder. Like a trick of light: if your average Victorian reader keeps his eyes glued to your heroine, you will spare him his outrage, and he will be given his due in self-assurance and satisfaction.

However, once your reader strays from the middle path and trains his ears to the voice leading him through the way, he will notice the white noise: your Dodo is surely moving within a well-known frame, but your narrator is doing something slightly different – he is taking the frame apart.

From all the questions within what was then known as The Woman Question, the institution of marriage and the demand for equal access to education are the two most clearly explored in chapters 7 to 12. While Casaubon, rather than feeling elated, sees courtship as a hindrance to the progress of his book – his unfinished (and never to be found) Key to All Mythologies -, Dorothea sees marriage as her only means of access to education: she justifies to herself her longing to learn Greek and Latin, by dressing it as a form to prepare herself to be more useful to her future husband. “Those provinces of masculine knowledge seemed to her a standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly (…). And she had not reached that point of renunciation at which she would have been satisfied’ with having a wise husband: she wished, poor child, to be wise herself.”

The dialogue between Mr. Brooke and Casaubon on Dodo’s studies is also very illuminating about this particular aspect of the frame she is made to move within: “”Well, but now, Casaubon, such deep studies, classics, mathematics, that kind of thing, are too taxing for a woman — too taxing, you know.” “Dorothea is learning to read the characters simply,” said Mr. Casaubon, evading the question. “She had the very considerate thought of saving my eyes.” “Ah, well, without understanding, you know — that may not be so bad. But there is a lightness about the feminine mind — a touch and go — music, the fine arts, that kind of thing — they should study those up to a certain point, women should; but in a light way, you know. A woman should be able to sit down and play you or sing you a good old English tune. That is what I like; though I have heard most things — been at the opera in Vienna: Gluck, Mozart, everything of that sort. But I’m a conservative in music — it’s not like ideas, you know. I stick to the good old tunes.”

Stick to the old tunes: they go up to a certain point, and no further. In Casaubon, it is funny how you subvert a common criticism held against a woman who took to writing. The prevailing mode of thinking was that she should get married instead; when it comes to Casaubon, however, the position is inverted, and everyone seems to think he should publish his book first: “Why does he not bring out his book instead of marrying?”, remarks Sir James at one point.

We are introduced to another male character for whom common sense advises against a hasty marriage: Lydgate, the talented physician who “believed that he should not marry for several years: not marry until he had trodden out a good clear path for himself away from the broad road which was quite ready made.” Like Dodo, he has a fervent, passionate mind; unlike our heroine, however, he has a promising career ahead of him, and the possibility of choosing not to marry.

Dorothea and Lydgate seem to be doubles, but with a twist: “(…) anyone watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand”.

Here you seem to be interested in the different ways the Victorian gender ideas and the institution of marriage could constrain men as well as women: Lydgate will also be made to fit his potential to “this petty medium of Middlemarch“. As talented as he surely is, he is unable to go beyond Middlemarch’s idea of what a woman (and a marriage) should be: “”She is a good creature — that fine girl — but a little too earnest,” he thought. “It is troublesome to talk to such women. They are always wanting reasons, yet they are too ignorant to understand the merits of any question, and usually fall back on their moral sense to settle things after their own taste“, Lydgate muses on Dorothea. “To his taste, guided by a single conversation, here was the point on which Miss Brooke would be found wanting, notwithstanding her undeniable beauty. She did not look at things from the proper feminine angle. The society of such women was about as relaxing as going from your work to teach the second form, instead of reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes, and blue eyes for a heaven.”

The “proper feminine angle”, needless to say, is that of a nonentity – a woman who, in Mr. Chichely’s words, “lays herself out a little more to please us”; or who, according to Fred Vincy, you don’t see “objecting to everything except what she does herself. She is my notion of a pleasant woman.” Or a woman who bends the rules by following them to the letter, and thus merely plays to be a nonentity – such as Lydgate’s belle, Rosamond Vincy, a woman who “even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own”.

She is grace itself; she is perfectly lovely and accomplished. That is what a woman ought to be: she ought to produce the effect of exquisite music“, raves Lydgate in the privacy of his own delusion. The narrator himself warns us of our hero’s immaturity in his judgement of our Dodo (and of women in general): “But Lydgate was less ripe, and might possibly have experience before him which would modify his opinion as to Miss Brooke.

The average Victorian reader would probably overlook your narrator’s swift criticism at the insufficiency of what was then deemed as a proper education for women – but perhaps a 1970’s feminist critic shouldn’t. It’s there, sharp as ever, in Dorothea’s “toy-box history of the world adapted to young ladies which had made the chief part of her education”, as well as in Rosamond’s part as “the flower of Mrs. Lemon’s school, the chief school in the county, where the teaching included all that was demanded in the accomplished female – even to extras, such as the getting in and out of a carriage.”

In such terms, the accomplished female has to perfect the art of pleasing men, but Casaubon can write an interminable (and pointless) book, Lydgate can start to build a career, and Will Ladislaw can shun any form of steady application, then travel to Italy, and “be tried by the test of freedom”.

Meanwhile, intelligent girls have to make do with applying their talents to the pursuit of marriage with a male public figure. Here, it is also interesting to notice that you briefly touch on the way the relationship between women and men can only expand, when marriage as a duty and the sole means of survival is taken out of the equation: once Sir James is forced by the circumstance of Dodo’s engagement to stop seeing her as marriageable material, “he found himself talking with more and more pleasure to Dorothea. She was perfectly unconstrained and without irritation towards him now, and he was gradually discovering the delight there is in frank kindness and companionship between a man and a woman who have no passion to hide or confess.”

Perspective is a chief motif in this book, as your narrator never ceases to remind us that “it is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view”; “a man may wish to do what is right, and yet be a sort of parchment code”. It’s all a matter of perspective, when Fred remarks of himself toward his sister that “disagreeable is a word that describes your feelings and not my actions”; and when even the faded Mr. Casaubon is “the centre of his own world”.

Lost “under a melancholy illusion” and granted the “perfect liberty of misjudgement”, our Dodo is not aware that she is talking about herself, when she remarks that “people may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing.” As we close Miss Brooke and head on to Old and Young, our heroine is “like a child dancing into a quick sand on a sunny morning”, in Barbara Bodichon’s words in a letter to you, from 1871.

It feels terrible, but we can rest assured that it is impossible for a human being to sink entirely into a quicksand: it’s all a matter of density. So, I turn again to the question with which I began this letter: is Dorothea just another instance of what Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar called your “feminine anti-feminism? I guess your answer would be both yes and no: it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Yours truly,


Margaret Watkins, Untitled (Verna Skelton posing for Cutex advertisement), New York, 1924
Margaret Watkins, Untitled (Verna Skelton posing for Cutex advertisement), 1924

“She was looking forward to higher initiation in ideas, as she was looking forward to marriage, and blending her dim conceptions of both.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch


“Oh, there are so many superior teas and sugars now. Superior is getting to be shopkeepers’ slang.”

   “Are you beginning to dislike slang, then?” said Rosamond, with mild gravity.

   “Only the wrong sort. All choice of words is slang. It marks a class.”

   “There is correct English: that is not slang.”

   “I beg your pardon: correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”

   “You will say anything, Fred, to gain your point.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch


“I thought it was odd his name was Tertius,” said the bright-faced matron, ” but of course it’s a name in the family But now, tell us exactly what sort of man he is.”

   “Oh, tallish, dark, clever — talks well — rather a prig, I think.”

   “I never can make out what you mean by a prig,” said Rosamond.

   “A fellow who wants to show that he has opinions.”

   “Why, my dear, doctors must have opinions,” said Mrs. Vincy. “What are they there for else?”

   “Yes, mother, the opinions they are paid for. But a prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions.” – George Eliot, Middlemarch


“Mary, you are always so violent.”

   “And you are always so exasperating.”

   “I? What can you blame me for?”

   “Oh, blameless people are always the most exasperating. There is the bell — I think we must go down.”

   “I did not mean to quarrel,” said Rosamond, putting on her hat.

   “Quarrel? Nonsense; we have not quarrelled. If one is not to get into a rage sometimes, what is the good of being friends?” – George Eliot, Middlemarch

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2 thoughts on “Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand

  1. Wonderful post. The question of her feminism (or not) remains so vexed. What I love that you’ve really showcased here is how slippery she makes our efforts to reduce it to simple pros and cons about either men or women, especially by so perpetually easing in and out of different points of view. Poor Lydgate. Poor Dorothea.

    Liked by 1 person

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