February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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What is a woman to do with herself?

That question has inspired probably hundreds of thousands of novels over the past 200 years, but never with more triumphant result than in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Middlemarch is a stupendously great book, one of the supreme masteworks of English literature. And yet I sadly realize as I type those words how very offputting they sound. They summon up high-school literature classes, and term papers, and all the dull obligations of reading for credit rather than for pleasure.

So let me put it a different and I hope more exciting way – the 30-second “elevator pitch” that screenwriters are taught to prepare to sell their work in the time it takes to rise from the lobby to the studio executive’s office:

It’s the story of four women, their choices and love affairs, kind of a “Sex and the City” set in England on the verge of economic and social revolution – only it tries to be true rather than to indulge in semi-pornographic shopaholic fantasy … and phhhhht … the elevator doors have shut.

Maybe, reader, you are already gone too? But if not –

Dorothea and Celia Brooke are sisters, born to a landowning family in a Midlands county. Their parents died early, leaving them to the care of a kindly but rather foolish uncle. He educates them in a haphazard desultory way, and now not yet 21 each of them is about to inherit 700 pounds a year – the equivalent, in very rough modern terms, of more than $100,000 in after tax income. Not stupendous wealth, but comfort and security.

Celia the more practical sister, chooses the easiest and most obvious path for a girl like her. Not as beautiful as her older sister Dorothea, but more charming, Celia marries the richest man in the vicinity, the baronet who owns the lands neighboring her uncle’s. The marriage is harmonious, and Celia promptly has a healthy son and heir. Celia gains happiness at the price of the extreme narrowing of her world and mind. She is untroubled by the loss; she does not even notice that it has occurred. She lives happily ever after, as any reasonable person would understand happiness.

Dorothea is not a reasonable person. She craves meaning and purpose, knowledge and understanding. Yet her shoddy education has left her very nearly as ignorant as her husband’s illiterate tenants. She cannot even begin to imagine what a larger life would look like. And even if she could imagine it, she could never attain it: She is constrained by an inescapable lattice of rules and customs that tightly limit the freedom of a woman of family and property. At various points in the novel we catch glimpses of women who did rebel and of the isolation, impoverishment, and ruin with which they were punished.

Dorothea chooses the only career open to her : marriage. She refuses the good-natured baronet, accepting instead a learned clergyman, much older than herself, Mr Casaubon. Dorothea imagines herself helping Casaubon in his work and gaining from him the knowledge she was denied as a girl. The marriage immediately proves an utter catastrophe. Casaubon, one of the most brilliantly conceived and delineated characters in English literature, is not only emotionally frigid but also an intellectual fraud. As the marriage freezes, Dorothea becomes friendly with Casaubon’s handsome and passionate young cousin and dependent, Will Ladislaw. Casaubon becomes passionately jealous, and when he mercifully dies, it is revealed that he has left a will that disinherits Dorothea from his substantial wealth if she should ever marry Will.

The novel’s shrewdest and most cynical character, the wife of the rector of the parish that encompasses the Brooke estate, immediately discerns that this humiliating and groundless posthumous accusation will bring about the exact consequence Casaubon feared. After some plot twists, Dorothea repudiates Casaubon’s fortune, marries Will, leaves the county, and moves to London.

Happy ending? Sort of. I certainly thought so when I read the novel for the first time 20 years ago. On rereading in midlife (it’s rather arresting to discover that I am exactly the same age that Casaubon was when he dropped dead – the world was a very different place before the invention of the StairMaster, treadmill, and personal trainer), I had a very different reaction. The novel offers a valedictory sketch of Will’s and Dorothea’s future together: They will have physical ardor, and children, and the security provided by Dorothea’s 700 pounds. But Will really is a rather insubstantial and aimless person. Dorothea’s passion for him seems not much more justified than her admiration for Casaubon, despite Will’s curly hair and slim figure. In her afterword, Eliot makes clear that marriage to Will extracts from Dorothea as much self-abnegation as her marriage to Causobon ever did. The second marriage may be more fulfilling – but it is no less annihilating under the options available to her.

Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substafntive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done ….

And what better choice could Dorothea have made? During the interval between her two marriages, she was rich and powerful. She attempted to use her money to do good – but failed again and again. She lacked the knowledge and worldiness necessary to deploy Casaubon’s legacy productively. There was no way for her to obtain that knowledge. And the relatives on whom she had inevitably to rely for guidance – her uncle, her rich brother-in-law – hemmed her in so successfully that even if she had had the knowledge, she would have had the most extreme difficulty in acting upon it.

Perhaps if the local baronet had been charismatic and intelligent as well as good-natured – perhaps if Will were more talented and had found work in which Dorothea could have helped him – perhaps some other perhaps, perhaps then her life would have lived up to Dorothea’s hopes. But none of those “perhaps” were in any way influenceable by Dorothea herself. As much as her more accommodating sister, Dorothea in the end was also reduced to selecting from options presented by others.

Yet to give Dorothea her due: She does in the end marry to please herself, she does enjoy the marriage, and she does in the end emancipate herself from at least some of the restrictions that choked and diminished her.

None of this is true of the third of the novel’s women, Rosamund Vincy.

It has to be said that Eliot over-indulged herself with the character of Rosamund. Eliot was very far from a beautiful woman herself, but most of the time she respected the convention that required beauty of her literary heroines. Dinah Morris, with whom Adam Bede finds happiness after his calamitious engagement to Hetty Sorrel, is beautiful. So is the otherwise highly autobiographical character of Maggie in The Mill on the Floss, and ditto Esther Lyon in Felix Holt. Gwendolyn Harleth in Daniel Deronda is of course ultra-beautiful, but equally so is the Mirah Lapidoth whom Deronda marries instead. Dorothea Brooke is stately rather than beautiful, and near-sighted into the bargain, but still for the story to work Eliot has to represent her as attractive to men.

Wth the other two female characters in Middlemarch, however, Eliot for once let her innermost feelings rage.

Rosamund Vincy is the daughter of a manufacturer in the town of Middlemarch – a great social step down from the gentry of the surrounding county, the milieu in which Dorothea moves. Rosamund’s father has risen in the world to become mayor of the town, but her mother’s rustic manners show the family’s humble origins, and the decline of her father’s business carries a warning that they may soon revert to the station whence they sprang.

Rosamund is the great beauty of the area: blonde, blue-eyed, seductive. Every local man wants her, but she refuses them all. Her governing emotion is snobbishness. She deploys all her sexual allure, all her implacable will, all her ruthless manipulation to the great goal of her life: escaping her middle-class origins.

For Rosamund even more than the Brooke sisters, marriage is the only possible route to her goal.

She identifies as her marital target a new entrant into town life, a young doctor named Lydgate. Lydgate is brilliant, idealistic, and intensely committed to a career of medical discovery and compassionate cure. None of these qualities interest Rosamund at all. She fixes upon him because he is the nephew of a baronet, and a man whose own talents offer hope of reward and recognition.

Rosamund maneuvers Lydgate into marriage, and then proceeds to spend him into ruin, in serene certainty that his grand relations will rescue him – ideally by redirecting him away from the research that he loves into some more lucrative and prestigious line of work: a colonial appointment or at least a medical practice in more aristocratic surroundings.

Money trouble leads Lydgate into personal humiliation, moral compromise, and the destruction of early hopes. Lydgate ends just as Rosamund could have wished: a highly paid attendant upon the grand, who dies at an early age leaving Rosamund a wealthy widow able to remarry her way into a yet higher social circle. At one point Lydgate compares Rosamund to an herb reputed to grow out of the brains of murdered men, but the reference is lost upon her.

Rosamund upheld her end of the bargain, bestowing her sexuality upon Lydgate. It was he, she believed, who had attempted to renege on her until finally brought to heel.

The fourth of the four women in this Victorian “Sex and the County” is Mary Garth, the homely daughter of a less successful Middlemarch businessman. Plain Mary is clever, witty, capable and generous – one sniffs here another bit of revenge on the Rosamund Vincys who must have embittered Eliot’s early life.

Mary’s unlovely face and stout figure deprive her of almost all male attention, but she has one persistent suitor: Fred Vincy, Rosamund’s scatter-brained brother. Mary and Fred had known each other from childhood, and he has lived all his life in abject emotional dependence upon her. Mary does not return his love – or rather, she loves him the way she might love a half-witted child, protectively but without respect. But she must marry and there is nobody else for her. When later a more promising man does show interest, it is too late.

By overwhelming effort, Mary is able to drag Fred into something like responsible adulthood. Fred’s incapacities enable her to do what Dorothea would have dearly wished to do, and what Rosamund delusively imagined she was doing by redirecting Lydgate away from research: participate in the world by aiding a man who needed aiding. Mary is as constrained by her ugliness as Dorothea is by her ignorance, Celia by her narrowness and Rosamund by her snobbishness and avarice. Mary must work through a man she does not respect, to whom she committed herself less out of love than out of gratitude.

It’s a harsh picture, but one in which every pen stroke carries truth. Embedded in the story is an appeal for social reform – for more opportunities for women, certainly for more education. Many of these reforms have been made in the century and a half since Eliot’s time, and surely they have done tremendous good.

And yet the predicaments so carefully delineated in Middlemarch have not been banished by the advance of progress. Woman’s search for fulfillment and happiness remains more daunting and difficult than man’s – and in some ways indeed has become more daunting and difficult than ever. Education and work are available on more equal terms, and the restrictions once imposed by propriety and morality have considerably relaxed. But new dilemmas have replaced the old, and dilemmas that once seemed socially created now look more inherent and intractable than ever.

Our modern world offers unparalleled scope to a Rosamund Vincy, whose beauty would find a better market, as she moved from bed to bed in pursuit of the social status she craved.

But what of the others?

If Dorothea lived today, she would have found some cause to hurl herself into – one sees her working in some high-minded NGO devoted to the environment or the world’s poor. Yet how many of the causes that attract our modern Dorotheas in fact do any real good? How many offer opportunities for the extreme unselfishness that Dorothea wished to offer? And is it not still true that a woman with an instinct for self-abnegation remains as likely to find herself in a car pool lane at soccer practice rather than a Third World famine relief shelter?

There’s probably no shortage of women in 2008 who would happily accept Celia’s choice of marriage to the local baronet and a quiet family life. And yet this choice can no longer be made straightforwardly made or enjoyed unself-consciously. Nor is it any less a struggle to escape the narrowing of the mind that besets a mind that makes the choice that Celia did.

As for Mary Garth, well here we come to the verge of what social change can do. Eliot’s portrait of Mary and Rosamund, vivid and real as they are, amount to more than just a narrator’s device: They are her own howl of pain at her unbeauty, and we have as yet found no social change that can reduce that pain. In many ways, if anything, it has become worse. Mary’s was very likely the only nude female body that Fred would ever see. Today, every billboard, every magazine cover proclaims an ideal that Mary could never attain.

There is more to be said about Middlemarch, vastly more, essays and books worth in fact. In its scope, ambition, and truth, this great novel exemplifies what literature at its best can do. Why would anyone want to waste time reading or watching anything less?

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