[This essay was originally written for Dr. Calovini's English 552D: Seminar in Victorian Novel, fall 2001, at AP State University.]
I pronounce you man & wife, or wife, you are hired.
any Victorian novels are driven by the prospect of marriage, and George Eliot's masterpiece, Middlemarch, embodies through its various couples a nuptial kaleidoscope not matched since Chaucer's Wife of Bath. Conditions surrounding marriages in Victorian times for women were considerably different from what modern readers would surmise. Partly due to the deprivation of an equal opportunity to education, Victorian women were confronted with limited survival tactics. Richard Altick reminds readers in his Victorian People and Ideas that women could enter the female colleges of Cambridge and Oxford in 1869 and 1879 respectively but could not take degrees until 1920-21 (55). Middlemarch takes place in the years leading up to 1832, the year of the Reform Bill, and this bill was for the benefit of middle class men. Without an education women were subjected to vocations, actually jobs, not callings, that could hardly be called careers. The male defense of this narrowing of options was simply "the female brain was not equal to the demands of commerce or the professions, and women, simply by virtue of their sex, had no business mingling with men in a man's world" (Altick 54). Competing with men and male-indoctrinated commerce without the added benefit of a formal education caused many Victorian women to seek the only alternative available, marriage as a vocation.
In Middlemarch Dorothea Brooke, the community's do-gooder, a virtual St. Theresa, longs to perfect amelioration for the entire town by architecturally improving housing. Her initial chance for this improvement comes in the person of Edward Casaubon though she could have been courted by Royalty in Sir James Chettam. In her attempts to fulfill her marriage career, Dorothea was more captivated by the vast library learning of Casaubon, and she exclaimed "what a lake compared with my little pool" (Carroll 24). Her sense of fulfillment in this boring but learned man was vested in her hope to become educated, to have her curiosity nurtured, and to be of constant usefulness to a man of sixty who really needed her nineteen year old eyes for reading. It is doubtful that modern readers would consider the above adequate reasons for marriage, but Dorothea "retained very childlike ideas about marriage" (Carroll 10). Part of Dorothea's naive formula for marriage stems from her bachelor uncle's Protestant upbringing.
Mr. Brooke, Dorothea's uncle, was well connected though not aristocratic and possessed property. He had acted as guardian for Dorothea and her younger sister Celia since the girls lost their parents at age twelve. The girls came to him with an inheritance of "seven hundred a-year each from their parents", but Dorothea's religious notions and her intensity given to causes might keep suitors at bay (Carroll 9). Whether Uncle Brooke or the girls' parents were responsible for Dorothea's fanatical flares, Eliot did not make clear. The evidence readers do know about is vested in the uncle, a man who reigns in his "Puritan energy" and is somewhat stingy with his wealth and estate: ". . . he would act with benevolent intentions, and that he would spend as little money as possible in carrying them out" (Carroll 8).
The conservative uncle was criticized by many neighbors of Middlemarch for not introducing a new 'mother' to his nieces that might better prepare them for marriage. In the absence of the female perspective on the topic of marriage, Dorothea and Celia are still orphans to the selection process of good husbands. Whereas Mr. Brooke would consider religion "the dread of a Hereafter", Dorothea was in need of "the bridle" of motherhood, sadly lacking on Mr. Brooke's estate (Carroll 19). Perhaps "bridle" should be bridal.
Had Dorothea had a mother's advice, she might have made some changes to Mr. Casaubon's Lowick Manor, her future home, to accomplish two things minimally: first, she would have made her feminine mark on her own environment which would have psychologically sent a message to her husband that life is to be shared; and secondly, by altering the drapes, for instance, to allow more light into her world and his, she could have made her world more conducive to her own preferences — those of enlightenment. Instead, Eliot chooses to have Miss Brooke deny even the advice of the narrator.
A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards. (Carroll 71)
Dorothea's first opportunity on that "grey but dry November morning" even in the company of her uncle and sister to Lowick Manor failed to alter the "small-windowed and melancholy-looking" home she was to share with her dismal husband (Carroll 71). Eliot forecasts the punishing tuition Dorothea is to experience for her education, for her vocation, and she does it eloquently with setting, mood, and character, but Dorothea, "on the contrary, found the house and grounds all that she could wish" (Carroll 72). DoDo's obsequiousness remains her helpmate to duty, and she treats her duty like an apotheosis to the exclusion of her own emotional well being.
What newsworthy worldly conditions existed at the time of Eliot's writing Middlemarch? After 1850 wage earners' income improved allowing them to purchase "penny dreadfuls" and "shilling shockers," a sort of dime novel, to tease a reading public (Altick 61). Serialized fiction, such as Middlemarch initially was, became a serious art form (Altick 63). The middle class became a reading class, and the written word was not the only area of change. Railroads connected smaller towns allowing a competitive commerce and more jobs. The support industries of hotels and added health care advanced the population. Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, which changed the way the medical profession viewed genetics, and upset a many religious beliefs. It was an age of industrial revolution and reform that had a sweeping cadence that caught everyone in its rhythm, trumpeting the offer of new jobs and careers for everyone except women. The effect of political reform and laws favoring women that inevitably follow change would take place early in the next century. For women "marriage is the only conceivable career" (Bennett 165).
As the Victorian world was a complex, multifaceted fast-paced arena, powered by industrial innovations and sweeping reforms that added many threads to the fabric of society, so, too, were novels that attempted to weave the spin-offs from the reforming blanket of Victorian England and cover the feelings and philosophies of that time period. Eliot's concept of marriage in Middlemarch is showcased through many couples. Readers will form their own opinions about what makes a mutually beneficial marriage, but Eliot peels away the layers of trust in Dorothea and Edward as Mr. and Mrs. Casaubon. If trust is the cornerstone of a sound relationship, then its eroding would certainly collapse a marriage. Erosion occurs with the Casaubons. Edward's jealousy and insensitivity, along with his selfish compulsive drive to finish and publish his gargantuan treaty, "Key to All Mythologies," prevents him from loving Dorothea romantically, a need that she has. Her choice in Casaubon is met with askance by modern readers even from the moment of Casaubon's letter of engagement and, consequently, Dorothea's three-time written response. Though Mr. Casaubon writes flatteringly only of Dorothea's cerebral qualities and her "devotedness", the engagement letter reads like an employment contract for a secretary (Carroll 42). Disappointment and unhappiness surrounds Dorothea's career. And precisely this is what Eliot is indicating when she portrays marriage vocation for girls like Dorothea and Celia. England was full of such girls in Victorian days; their choices already narrowed for living a fulfilled life by virtue of their sex, what were the alternatives? They could serve as maids, work in a textile factory, or teach school provided they had a modest education. Old maids could remain in their father's home but would endure unfavorable treatment by parents or guardians, mocked for being childless, thus, becoming the topic of the town's gossip. Their best choice was to marry well, but there they are at the mercy of the novelist.
Unlike Edward's failure to inform Dorothea of his work, which was his life, the Garths of Middlemarch are touchingly communicative and share everything with each other. When Fred Vincy was on the verge of losing Mary Garth due to his clerical vocation, he proposed to Caleb Garth employment within the Garth business, which Caleb thought was a practical option. Caleb's habit was to "take no important step without consulting Susan," his wife and mother to Mary (Carroll 554). The Garths communicate everything to each other and enjoy the most blissful marriage in Middlemarch. Susan even knows when to "make herself subordinate" to Caleb, which the narrator declares is only one percent of the time (Carroll 555). Fred apparently reminds Caleb of himself when he was courting Susan, for Caleb fell short of the matrimonial measure as well, and Mrs. Garth knows her daughter could be engaged to a man "worth twenty Fred Vincys" (Carroll 555). Caleb affirms his daughter through loving her mother dearly and is rewarded with Susan's reciprocal feelings:
She rose and kissed him, saying, "God bless you, Caleb! Our children have a good father." (Carroll 556)
On another occasion with Fred still the focus of Caleb's heart, Caleb proposed to Mr. Bulstrode, Middlemarch's prosperous banker with a dubious past, that Fred serve as tenant at Bulstrode's Stone Court and to enjoy the option of buying stock when he could afford it. Caleb would still be responsible for its management. As always Caleb let his dear wife in on the plans immediately taking her into his confidence and giving credence to her suggestions. Caleb can wave his hand, and the sign is not misinterpreted by his wife. Susan knows "a sign of his not intending to speak further on the subject" (Carroll 685). Susan, unlike Dorothea, made wiser choices in her matrimonial career or at least made the necessary changes to become a happy marriage partner. The Garth marriage of communication is enjoyed by readers especially by contrast to others less communicable.
As Mary Garth would never engage herself "to one who has no manly independence," Rosamond Vincy did marry Mr. Lydgate, an innovative surgeon, a man of "good birth", most important to Rosamond, and a man who unfortunately Eliot gives poor political skills and a failing practice at least initially (Carroll 164). Mr. Lydgate is an outsider to Middlemarch, which causes the town's doctors to distrust his modern notions of medicine. As a newcomer, Mr. Lydgate is building his practice and does not consider marriage from romantic interests but from practical ones; perhaps marrying would increase his clientele, and he shallowly wants a wife for ornamentation. Rosy's motivations for marriage and her future vocation as wife also deserve close scrutiny. Her prescription for marital vocation did not include "the inward life of a hero, or his serious business in the world," but rather she just wanted to climb the social status ladder and find a seat among the aristocracy (Carroll 164). This element of Victorian snobbery was critical to middle-class women seeking to advance to the next level (Newton 81). Rosamond's first hint of being found attractive by Lydgate causes her to groom herself as an upper-middle-class lady, playing the piano, sketching, considering her wardrobe, reading novels and poetry, and "having an audience in her own consciousness" (Carroll 165). Despite the fact that she could afford and did attend the best preparatory school for young ladies (Mrs. Lemon's establishment), she would soon waste her education when taking Lydgate as her husband (Carroll 165) — wasted in the sense that what came after her wedding has little to do with thre skills she learned at Mrs Lemon's. What has Rosy absorbed through her upbringing and education that prepare her for the hardships of marriage distress inevitably to be experienced by all couples at one time or another? And, furthermore, what has Mr. Lydgate developed in his character traits that will spare the storm of threatening divorce? They will both rethink their vocations before Eliot introduces the St. Theresa rescue.
Lydgate felt sure that if ever he married, his wife would have that feminine radiance, that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music, that sort of beauty which by its very nature Virtuous, being molded was only for pure and delicate joys. (Carroll 162)
Eliot's words certainly bear fruit near the conclusion of her novel when Mr. Lydgate and Rosy by proxy suffer social shame, unjustly, but shame nonetheless. Of all the things to befall "poor" Rosamond with her superficial importance on what others believe or perceive about her station in life, financial shame and a husband's darkened reputation certainly depicts poetic justice (Allen 158).
If it were a known fact that daughters advance their lives by the marriage vocation, why did not Mr. and Mrs. Vincy school Rosamond in the art of selecting a suitable husband? Eliot knows the human factor that enters the marriage equation can not be interpreted by anyone other than the bride. Rosy is given to readers with a shallow outlook on life indicative of the importance she places on appearances. Even her premature baby born dead by the tragic disobedient horse ride has unused "embroidered robes and caps" signifying membership and ownership of the Lydgate Crest, something Rosamond esteemed worthy, not her husband (Carroll 571). Furthermore, it was Rosy who believed the visit by "Captain Lydgate, the baronet's third son," would be pleasantly interpreted by the public with amplified implication as to her station in life (Carroll 571). In the Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, Rosy could have been the daughter of the Veneerings. The marriage of openness and consultation enjoyed by the Garths was a road seldom traveled by Rosamond. Her "aloof and independent" nature that the doctor found attractive from the beginning was now a source of aggravation and sorrow in the Lydgate marriage (Carroll 576). She was not practical, and he was in debt.
The sacrifice of selling furniture and jewelry to live responsibly was not part of Rosamond's marriage formula. Her first response to the news of living within one's means was to suggest getting the money from "papa" so as to continue to live impractically (Carroll 585). Her next suggestion centered on their leaving Middlemarch which Rosy calculated would require less money, but more importantly would rid her of imagined gossip and shame, and perhaps she could still live as a queen among the imagined aristocratic Lydgates of London. When her suggestions were negated and trumped by her wiser and more practical husband, "the thought in her mind was that if she had known how Lydgate would behave, she would never have married him" (Carroll 587). After Rosy leaves her husband's negotiation table without resolution or partnered comfort, readers anticipate a Victorian divorce, perhaps a first in Victorian literature. The real laws did not favor women in divorce court. Fortunately for this pair, Eliot had a more benign treatment in mind. In fact she constantly has a compassionate "feeling expressing itself in knowledge" with all of her couples (Newton 52). Eliot's depth of understanding of human frailty is paramount to her characterization in all of her novels. The fatal marriages that occur in Middlemarch are at times temporary due to one of its members dying. It is not the efficaciousness of the death tactic that demonstrates Eliot's genius but rather her sensitive suffering treatment during the couples' trying times that captures the attention and sympathy of readers. There are many egregious marriages today just as in Victorian times, but the marital fallout during Victorian times left women without any options other than to suffer. Their job was marriage. Consequently, in the absence of divorce "yoked lonliness" ruled their lives for worse, having once enjoyed the better (Pinney 304).
As Eliot used Eppie, the "golden-haired child" that Silas adopted in Eliot's novel, Silas Marner, to win this miser back to society, so did the author use Dorothea to "warm" the cold Middlemarch marriages facing fatalistic demise (Ashton 48). Confessions by Tertius Lydgate to Dorothea that he had no knowledge of Raffles' secrets and that his medical treatment of Raffles was within practical and reasonable limits was communicated to Rosamond by Dorothea. Readers know through the narrator that Bulstrode was responsible for the aborted recovery and consequential death of Raffles, but Dorothea's intimate conversation with Rosamond and the latter's character development are some of literature's most touching moments:
But you will forgive him. It was because he feels so much more about your happiness than anything else — he feels his life bound into one with yours, and it hurts him more than anything, that his misfortunes must hurt you. (Carroll 781-2)
It is Dorothea through her own pain of unrequited love for Ladislaw, fearing his affection for Rosamond, and Lydgate's confessions that lead her to rectify the damaging misconceptions choking Rosamond's marriage. Dorothea convinces Mr. Brooke, Mr. Farebrother, and Sir James Chettam, the town's strata of nobility and whose opinions Rosy holds dear, of Lydgate's innocence. Had the town's opinion not been reversed, it is doubtful that Rosy would have been obliging to her husband even knowing herself that he was innocent. Yet, she does break down in this scene and confesses to Dorothea that the Ladislaw/Rosamond togetherness the previous day was "not as you thought" (Carroll 784).
'He was telling me how he loved another woman, that I might know he could never love me,' said Rosamond . . . He has never had any love for me . . He said yesterday that no other woman existed for him beside you. (Carroll 785)
The soul purging that takes place in this scene not only remedies Middlemarch rumors but also brings to the surface Rosamond's previously latent strength of character, the kind that provides the basis for rebuilding a marriage. Dorothea tells her: "Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings" (Carroll 784). Dorothea's remarks to Rosamond enable her to repair her marriage and enjoy "solid mutual happiness" (Carroll 816). Dorothea's truthful benevolence helps Will Ladislaw as well.
The relationship between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw has been regarded by many of Eliot's readers "as one of the artistic weaknesses of Middlemarch" (Newton 134). The grounds for this criticism lie in the beklief that "Ladislaw is too idealized or too lightweight to be worthy of Dorothea" (Newton 134). After all, he is a romantic character despite — or perhaps because of — his dilettante nature. He has been educated at Heidelberg, one of the centers of German Romanticism (Newton 135). Mr. Brooke compares him to Shelley twice, and Mrs. Cadwallader, a wise but town gossiper, described him as "a sort of Byronic hero" in Chapter 38 (Carroll 375). Eliot uses 'pride', 'defiance', and 'rebellion' to describe Ladislaw — all of which words have a Byronic connotation (Newton 135). Dorothea's prescription for a marriage partner would certainly take these attributes into consideration, especially after she experienced essentially the opposite as Mrs. Casaubon. In addition, Ladislaw is an outsider to Middlemarch though is connected to Mr. Casaubon as his cousin. He is as ardent as Dorothea in his feelings which is significant for her. They feel passionately about life and share the power that 'passionates' emanate. A qualifying question asked by Dorothea to Ladislaw in her quest for vocation and his response indicates the romanticism Eliot develops:
What is your religion? I mean not what you know about religion, but the belief that helps you most? [Dorothea]
To love what is good and beautiful when I see it. But I am a rebel: I don't feel bound, as you do, to submit to what I don't like. [Ladislaw] (Carroll 387)
Eventually, Dorothea molds this romantic 'Byron' into doing much more good for Middlemarch society than he ever could with his rootless existence. The shaping of men's character by women is a favorite theme in many of Eliot's novels. Silas Marner's love for Eppie and her refusal to live with her biological father, Godfrey, is but one example where feminine love brings about change in the men of Eliot's novels. Silas, like Ladislaw, is brought back to a social nucleus where "an ardent public good" can be harvested (Newton 137). Dorothea's garden for this harvest, like Eppie's actual garden, is her soft criticism of Will which brings forth his change for the better. Only Dorothea knows that Will could be strong by her idealistic conception of him, and he draws strength by measuring up to this concept. Will has a need "to earn her respect," and this need "brings out tendencies in himself that might otherwise have been overwhelmed by his attraction to egotistic Romantic attitudes" (Newton 137). Dorothea is the lamp for most of Middlemarchers, holding up an ideal for others, which is the cornerstone of her womanhood. Being helpful to her friends and loved ones is far more important than her Casaubon inheritance which she ultimately sacrifices in her marriage to Ladislaw. Her vocation of marriage which yielded a son by Ladislaw seems to some readers a mild concession when considering Dorothea's full potential. However, this son does inherit Mr. Brooke's estate upon his death, and Dorothea's second marriage proved infinitely happier than her first. Since Sir James "never ceased to regard Dorothea's second marriage as a mistake," then most Middlemarchers thought the same way (Carroll 821).
Society's judgment whether a couple's marriage will succeed when their engagement is known sometimes hinges on that couple's collective income. Sometimes it hinges on valid parentage. Other times it might be the age difference that casts dispersion upon the couple's uniting. Dorothea's ability to select a good husband and fulfill her vocation seems suspect when her only income in the absence of Casaubon dollars is derived from her parents, 700 pounds yearly, still a considerable sum but not enough to own a coach and carriage. As an editor of The Pioneer, Ladislaw has no real income. And Will's parentage makes him despised by society. After Rosamond's disclosure to Dorothea that Will loved her and not Rosamond, nothing now prevented honest communication between Will and Dorothea. Eliot's "Sunset and Sunrise" chapter finds Dorothea and Ladislaw alone in the Lowick library illuminated by lightening when Dorothea declares: "I don't mind about poverty — I hate my wealth" (Carroll 798). Without an estate or family approved bloodline, Dorothea and Will sealed their engagement. She has found a new vocation, one where she will be loved, and Middlemarch opinions can be damned, especially those from nobility like Sir James, her new brother-in-law via Celia.
Certain sacrifices occur when Victorian women choose a husband for their career. Celia reveals Dorothea's sacrifices when she says:
— you never can go and live in that way. And then there are all your plans! You never can have thought of that. James would have taken any trouble for you, and you might have gone on your life doing what you liked. . . . to think of marrying Mr. Ladislaw, who has got no estate or anything. (Carroll 806)
Celia's concern for her sister stems partly from the fear of never seeing Dorothea if she movesw to London. Dorothea, who does not feel the sting of those sacrifices at first, continues to educate her worried sister about how fond she is of Ladislaw, telling her, "you would have to feel with me, else you would never know" (Carroll 807). Eliot emphasizes the importance of feelings as a way of knowing. Knowledge comes to Dorothea through her feelings, and she causes all those around her to come to grips with theirs. Eliot concludes that Dorothea's marriage to Ladislaw is not totally triumphant as there was always "something better she might have done" (Pangallo 167). It seems a sacrifice to some readers that Dorothea, a woman of extraordinary breath and character, should "be absorbed" into a man's vocation and "be known in certain circles as a wife and mother" (Pangallo 167). How does one applaud the millions of women who do just that?
What would modern day readers say of Mrs. Bulstrode's loyalty to her husband? Modern critics might note that the advanced age of Mrs. Bulstrode prevented her from a successful second marriage if she chose as the younger Dorothea did. Mr.Bulstode has not passed away like Mr. Casaubon leaving few options for Mrs. Bulstrode. She, unlike her husband, was not "an object of dislike", and the townspeople considered her "a handsome comfortable woman" though some exclaimed "Ah, poor woman" (Carroll 731). Before she married, Mrs. Bulstrode was Harriet Vincy. Eliot does not consider the courtship of the Bulstrodes, but readers are reminded of duty in marriage, loyalty in marriage, and a woman's heart in Mrs. Bulstrode's commitment to her husband. She does not act upon Mrs. Hackbutt's advice: "she ought to separate from him" (Carroll 733). As Mr. Bulstrode has replaced Mr. Casaubon late in the novel as an evil character, Mrs. Bulstrode persists in trying to save what she considers a redeemable husband:
But this imperfectly-taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her — now that punishment had befallen him it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him. (Carroll 739)
Mr. Bulstrode kept his past hidden from Harriet Vincy twenty years earlier when she was receiving marriage proposals. His robbing his stepchildren's inheritance for his own selfish gain was forgiven by a loyal wife, a wife who thought better of her vocation. Eliot indicates that delayed communication in marriages can be unhealthy. Mrs. Bulstrode balances Mr. Bulstrode and "society's conflicting values regarding religion, medicine, money, status, and marriage" (Doyle 119).
When readers finish Middlemarch and its marriage narratives, they find as Dorothea did that feelings serve as both a blessing and a curse. Through them Dorothea matured and served as a catalyst for many of Middlemarch's couples including her own. Fatalistic threats to happy marriages are common place in all marriages, whether Victorian or otherwise, but the heroines of Eliot's novels prove that women more than men safeguard success in marriages. After all, marriage is a vocation, a precious business to women. Eliot sums up women vocational responsibilities of marriage in the voice of Mary when she says: "husbands are an inferior class of men, who require keeping in order" (Carroll 814). Perhaps the fact that Mary gives birth to only boy-children is Eliot's irony. Dorothea's child by Ladislaw is likewise a boy. Imaginative readers like to think that these boys will grow up to become gentlemen who will treat their wives with sensitivity, and they will respect the wifely taps of correction as husbands and as employers who stand a chance for improvement.
Allen, Walter. George Eliot. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1964.
Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas. New York & London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1973.
Ashton, Rosemary. George Eliot. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.
Bennett, Joan. George Eliot Her Mind and Her Art. Cambridge: The University Press, 1954.
Carroll, David (editor). George Eliot Middlemarch. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Doyle, Mary Ellen. The Sympathetic Response: George Eliot's Fictional Rhetoric. London & Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1981.
Newton, K. M. George Eliot: Romantic Humanist. A Study of the Philosophical Structure of Her Novels. Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble Books, 1981.
Pangallo, Karen L. The Critical Response To George Eliot. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Pinney, Thomas. Essays of George Eliot. New York: Columbia University Press, 1963.
Additional Works Consulted
Chafetz, Janet Saltzman. Sex and Advantage A Comparative, Macro-Structural Theory of Sex Stratification. Totowa, NJ: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984.
Cooper, Lettice. George Eliot. British Council & National Book League: Longmans, Green & Company, 1960.
Elson, John. "Middlemarch Madness? PBS imports a fine British adaptation of a classic." Time Domestic 11 April 1994 Vol.143 Number 15: n. pag. Online. Internet. 11 April 1994. Available http://www.time.com/time/magazine/archive/1994/940411.television.html.
Martin, Carol A. George Eliot's Serial Fiction. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1994.
Last modified 25 January 2002