f all the characters in Middlemarch, Rosamond Vincy, who marries Dr Lydgate, is the one that, according to Cross, George Eliot found the most difficult to sustain (Cross 3: 425). This is confirmed by Beaty’s close analysis in Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel: the chapter in which Rosamond tells Dorothea of Will Ladislaw’s feelings “and thereby insures the happiness of the hero and heroine,” is full of “frequent, extensive, and significant revisions” (Beaty 118). Up to this point in the novel, Rosamond has acted with undiluted egoism, the object, as Beaty puts it, “of our blame and hatred” (112). Only in Chapter 81, under the influence of Dorothea’s extraordinary goodness, does she act – albeit briefly – with selflessness, a volte-face that George Eliot found hard to pull off. Readers have reacted to Rosamond in widely different ways. In “The Three Voices of Poetry,” T. S. Eliot confessed that she “frightens me far more than Goneril or Regan” (93) and Mary Ellmann considered her as “the daemonic centre” of Middlemarch (Thinking about Women, 194). In The Madwoman in the Attic, on the other hand, Gilbert and Gubar align Rosamond with George Eliot herself as “a spinner of yarns, a weaver of fictions” (520) and see in her “Eliot’s most important study of female rebellion” (514). For them, she illustrates “the heroism of sisterhood within patriarchy” (517) – “in spite of the narrator’s condemnation of her narrow narcissism” (516). Let us take a closer look at Rosamond’s narcissism and see whether we can gain a clearer view of her.
We all know the myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own image and we are generally aware (although we sometimes fail to recognize it) that a degree of narcissism is essential to psychic health. It keeps our self-esteem intact, protecting us from damage inflicted by others. Moreover, without sufficient narcissism, there is a risk of self-hatred and even self-mutilation (if only through plastic surgery). But few people are aware of the extreme form that, since the 1980 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) has been called the Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). Unlike Narcissus, persons suffering from NPD do not have a beautiful self whose reflection they can fall in love with but rather a false self constructed from the admiration and flattery (termed Narcissistic Supply) that they elicit from others. Their strategy can be reduced to: “Tell me how wonderful I am!” and then, “Since everyone says so, I must be wonderful.” Consequently they are forever in search of fresh supplies of praise and adulation. They profess love only in order to be loved back, the love object being perceived as useful only to the extent of its ability to aggrandize the false self (Manfield, 1992). Clinical Narcissists (distinguished in this article by the use of the capital letter) are relatively rare and female sufferers constitute only about one third of them. Not a great deal is known about Narcissists because they rarely consult – they deny that they have a problem – and when they do they are extremely difficult to deal with. That said, I propose to examine the extent to which Rosamond, albeit a fictional character, exhibits a Narcissistic Personality Disorder as defined in the DSM, having “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:
1. The Narcissist “has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements).”
Her snobbery and self-importance are implicit in everything that Rosamond Vincy says and does. Consequently she “disliked anything which reminded her that her mother’s father had been an innkeeper” (Ch. 11). She wants (and obtains) the best quality goods for her trousseau and insists on living in the best available house in Middlemarch, for she is “alive to the slightest hint that anything was not . . . in the very highest taste” (Ch. 27). When Lydgate gets into debt and she countermands his order to the estate agent to seek a fresh tenant for their house, so that they can move somewhere less expensive, she thinks that her action is praiseworthy. Typically for a Narcissist, “It was part of Rosamond’s cleverness to discern very subtly the faintest aroma of rank,” (Ch. 16). Having a baronet’s son staying in her house,
she imagined the knowledge of what was implied by his presence to be diffused through all other minds; and when she introduced Captain Lydgate to her guests, she had a placid sense that his rank penetrated them as if it had been an odour. . . . It seemed now that her marriage was visibly as well as ideally floating her above the Middlemarch level. [Ch. 58]
The “it seemed” in the final sentence translates Rosamond’s perception of her elevated status.
Narcissists can work quite hard in order to justify the admiration they crave, but they generally lack originality; so they brilliantly copy the skills of other people, producing simulacra without true feeling. As soon as Rosamond meets Lydgate, she imagines visiting his titled relatives, “whose finished manners she could appropriate as thoroughly as she had done her school accomplishments” (Ch. 12). And she does just this, copying the “quite agreeable” style of his cousin Captain Lydgate, for he “talked with a good accent, and [she] caught many of its phrases” (Ch 58). Those accomplishments, which had made her “the flower of Mrs Lemon’s school,” included “getting in and out of a carriage” (Ch. 11) and music: singing and playing the piano. Her teacher was one of those excellent musicians . . . worthy to compare with many a noted Kapellmeister. . . . Rosamond, with the executant’s instinct, had seized his manner of playing, and gave forth his large rendering of noble music with the precision of an echo. It was almost startling, heard for the first time. A hidden soul seemed to be flowing forth from Rosamond’s fingers. (Ch. 16) As George Eliot implies, the hidden soul is not Rosamond’s, for she has no depth, and it is this borrowed skill that captivates Lydgate, leading him “to believe in her as something exceptional” (Ch. 16).
2. The Narcissist “is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.”
Eliot refers frequently to the unreality of Rosamond’s dreams, the “fancied “might-be” such as she was in the habit of opposing to the actual” (Ch. 12). They “presented marriage as a prospect of rising in rank and getting a little nearer to that celestial condition on earth in which she would have nothing to do with vulgar people” (Ch 16). As she does not “distinguish flirtation from love, either in herself or in another” (Ch. 27), she is “preparing herself for vaguer elevations’ within minutes of meeting Lydgate; she judged it “natural that [he] should have fallen in love at first sight of her” (Ch. 12). She is “one of those women who live much in the idea that each man they meet would have preferred them if the preference had not been hopeless.” After a year or two of marriage, She constructed a little romance which was to vary the flatness of her life: Will Ladislaw was always to be a bachelor and live near her, always to be at her command, and have an understood though never fully expressed passion for her, which would be sending out lambent flames every now and then in interesting scenes. (Ch.75)
The terms that Eliot employs – “celestial condition” in particular – are characteristic of the vocabulary of Narcissists. When reality breaks in on these fantasies, as it must from time to time, the Narcissist suffers what is known as a narcissistic injury, which is characterized by rage or, in the case of the passive type of Narcissist like Rosamond, by sudden emotional withdrawal, giving the offending person “the silent treatment.” When Will Ladislaw abruptly tells Rosamond his true feelings for Dorothea and reveals his indifference to her, “She became suddenly quiet and seated herself. . . . Her little hands which she folded before her were very cold. . . . Her little world was in ruins, and she felt herself tottering in the midst as a lonely bewildered consciousness” (Ch. 78). This is about as close as anyone can get to knowing what a Narcissist experiences.
3. The Narcissist “believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions).”
Typically for a Narcissist Rosamond seeks out men with a high social profile – doctors (her second husband is also a physician), politicians and editors – who will enhance her self-esteem. Her social aspirations are clear from the start. “She had been at school with girls of higher position, whose brothers, she felt sure, it would have been possible for her to be more interested in, than in these inevitable Middlemarch companions” (Ch. 11). She “innocently” marries Lydgate “with the belief that he and his family were a glory to her!” (Ch. 75). Eventually, she persuades him to acquire “an excellent practice, alternating, according to the season, between London and a Continental bathing-place” and provide her with a lifestyle “all flowers and gilding, fit for the bird of paradise that she resembled” (Finale).
Belief in their uniqueness leads Narcissists to hold that they occupy a moral sphere of their own, far above the rules and conventions that “ordinary” people are subject to. Typically, “Rosamond was convinced that no woman could behave more irreproachably than she.” Lydgate could complain of her behavior for all he liked, “she was quite sure that no one could justly find fault with her” (Ch 58). This makes Narcissists extremely obstinate: “Rosamond had that victorious obstinacy which never wastes its energy in impetuous resistance. What she liked to do was to her the right thing, and all her cleverness was directed to getting the means of doing it” (Ch. 58). And she says so with disarming frankness: ““I never give up anything that I choose to do,” said Rosamond” (Ch 36). This helps us to understand the terms with which she reproaches Lydgate when he finds himself obliged to move to a cheaper house: “I never could have believed that you would like to act in that way,” she says (Ch. 64). As she does only what she likes, she assumes that others act from the same motivation. Lydgate protests that “it’s not a question of liking. Of course, I don’t like it; it’s the only thing I can do,” but she is incapable of understanding this. Similarly, she tells Will Ladislaw that he can say “what he pleases” to Dorothea (Ch. 78). Eliot shows how she “reasons” on the occasion of her intervention at the estate agent’s:
It was the first time in her life that Rosamond had thought of doing anything in the form of business, but she felt equal to the occasion. That she should be obliged to do what she intensely disliked, was an idea which turned her quiet tenacity into active invention. Here was a case in which it could not be enough simply to disobey and be serenely, placidly obstinate: she must act according to her judgment, and she said to herself that her judgment was right – “indeed, if it had not been, she would not have wished to act on it.” [Ch. 64]
Later Eliot observes that Rosamond “had no consciousness that her action could rightly be called false” (Ch. 65). Belief in their moral superiority blinds Narcissists to what others call “the truth”: they are inherently dishonest and masters of duplicity. This is one of the very first things we learn about Rosamond, although Eliot proceeds obliquely by contrasting her first with her brother Fred (who “piqued himself on keeping clear of lies, and even fibs; he often shrugged his shoulders and made a significant grimace at what he called Rosamond’s fibs”), and then with Mary Garth, who is characterized by “honesty, truth-telling fairness.” Unlike Rosamond, “she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof” (Ch. 12). Later, Eliot uses irony: Rosamond, she observes, “was not in the habit of devising falsehoods, and if her statements were no direct clue to fact, why, they were not intended in that light – they were among her elegant accomplishments, intended to please. Nature had inspired many arts in finishing Mrs. Lemon’s favourite pupil, who by general consent (Fred’s excepted) was a rare compound of beauty, cleverness, and amiability”. (Ch 27). In a word, Rosamond excels in the art of lying.
4. The Narcissist “requires excessive admiration”.
Narcissists are indifferent to sincerity; what matters is the frequency and volume of the compliments and flattery that they crave. Consequently a Narcissist is never without an adoring partner. It is easy to see why Rosamond chose Lydgate; he knows how to supply “the inevitable amount of admiration and compliment which a man must give to a beautiful girl” and she hopes to “find in him a more adequate admirer than she had yet been conscious of” (Ch. 16). Naturally she is disappointed: “her married life had fulfilled none of her hopes, and had been quite spoiled for her imagination. . . . What she regarded as [Lydgate’s] perverse way of looking at things . . . made her receive all his tenderness as a poor substitute for the happiness he had failed to give her” (Ch. 75). Narcissists are always disappointed; they can never get enough adulation. As soon as one source begins to dry up, they seek others. Dissatisfied with Lydgate, Rosamond turns first to his cousin – and “delight[s] in his admiration” (Ch. 58) – then to Will Ladislaw. “He would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband” (Ch. 75). Narcissists are incapable of “self-suppression.”
The partner of a Narcissist finds himself in the position of the eternal victim. As George Eliot points out, “In Rosamond’s romance it was not necessary to imagine much about the inward life of the hero” (Ch 16); she is “entirely occupied not exactly with Tertius Lydgate as he was in himself, but with his relation to her” (Ch. 23). So “she welcomed the signs that her husband loved her and was under control. But this was something quite distinct from loving him” (Ch. 64). He was to be adoring, submissive, available, and self-denying at the expense of his own wishes, hopes, dreams, aspirations, and of course psychological and material needs. Rapidly he lapses into “what she inwardly called his moodiness – a name which to her covered his thoughtful preoccupation with other subjects than herself” (Ch. 58). Lydgate realizes what has happened to him only slowly. He
secretly wondered over the terrible tenacity of this mild creature. There was gathering within him an amazed sense of his powerlessness over Rosamond. . . . He had regarded Rosamond’s cleverness as precisely of the receptive kind which became a woman. He was now beginning to find out what that cleverness was. . . . No one quicker than Rosamond to see causes and effects which lay within the track of her own tastes and interests: . . . for her, his professional and scientific ambition had no other relation to these desirable effects than if they had been the fortunate discovery of an ill-smelling oil. And that oil apart, with which she had nothing to do, of course she believed in her own opinion more than she did in his. (Ch 58)
To the end, Rosamond “simply continued to be mild in her temper, inflexible in her judgment, disposed to admonish her husband, and able to frustrate him by stratagem” (Finale). Lydgate has to acknowledge that he has lost contact with that “grand existence in thought and effective action lying around him, while his self was being narrowed into the miserable isolation of egoistic fears” (Ch. 64), so “he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do” (Finale). In bitterness, “He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains” (Finale). Some readers object that this is excessive on his part, yet it closely resembles what Dr Sam Vaknin writes on the fate of the Narcissist’s victims: “The narcissist drains them, exhausts their resources, sucks the blood-life of Narcissistic Supply from their dwindling, depleted selves” (faq38). The Narcissist is an emotional vampire.
5. The Narcissist “has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.”
Rosamond’s unreasonable expectations are evident throughout Middlemarch, from her demand that her brother abstain from eating herrings (to spare her delicate nose) or from playing the flute (because “a man looks very silly playing the flute” – Ch. 11) all the way through to the end, by which time she has “concluded that [Lydgate] had learned the value of her opinion” (Finale). She expects special treatment from her parents, her husband, and his family, and can never understand why Lydgate will not obey her. The truth is that “in her secret soul she was utterly aloof from him. The poor thing saw only that the world was not ordered to her liking, and Lydgate was part of that world” (Ch. 64).
6. The Narcissist “is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends.”
Rosamond’s manipulative behavior is evident from the first. To obtain her father’s consent to her marrying Lydgate, she threatens him: “You would not like me to go into a consumption, as Arabella Hawley did. And you know that I never change my mind” (Ch. 36). A fine example of her technique can be found during her pregnancy. Lydgate wants her to promise not to go out riding; she is “determined not to promise. She meant to go out riding again” without him knowing. She is “arranging her hair before dinner”:
“I wish you would fasten up my plaits, dear,” said Rosamond, letting her arms fall with a little sigh, so as to make a husband ashamed of standing there like a brute. . . . He swept up the soft festoons of plaits and fastened in the tall comb. . . . Lydgate was still angry, and had not forgotten his point.
“I shall tell the Captain that he ought to have known better than offer you his horse,” he said, as he moved away.
“I beg you will not do anything of the kind, Tertius,” said Rosamond, looking at him with something more marked than usual in her speech. “It will be treating me as if I were a child. Promise that you will leave the subject to me.” There did seem to be some truth in her objection. Lydgate said, “Very well,” with a surly obedience, and thus the discussion ended with his promising Rosamond, and not with her promising him. [Ch. 58]
Narcissists are highly skilled in manipulating other people. It is a survival mechanism; in order to obtain their supply of adulation, they lull their victims into the belief that they are exactly the kind of partner they seek. Not for nothing does Eliot use the metaphor of the web and associate Rosamond with sirens and serpents.
7. The Narcissist “lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”
Her lack of sympathy for others is Rosamond’s defining characteristic. Even Lydgate “was always to her a being apart, doing what she objected to” (Ch. 75). (However, he is not much better than her in this respect – “Poor Lydgate! or shall I say, Poor Rosamond! Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing” (Ch. 12). The scene between her and Dorothea that gave George Eliot so much trouble is the moment when Rosamond acts completely out of character; Eliot’s aim was to show the transforming power of Dorothea’s goodness, how Rosamond is “taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own – hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect” and “delivered her soul under impulses which she had not known before” (Ch. 81). More typical of Rosamond is her behavior that makes this encounter possible. She learns before Will Ladislaw does that Dorothea will inherit nothing if she marries him. Lydgate warns her, “Take care you don’t drop the faintest hint to Ladislaw, Rosy. He is likely to fly out as if you insulted him.” She says nothing, looking the image of placid indifference. But the next time Will came when Lydgate was away, she spoke archly about his not going to London as he had threatened.
“I know all about it. I have a confidential little bird,” said she. . . . “Great God! what do you mean?” said Will, flushing over face and ears, his features seeming to change as if he had had a violent shake. “Don’t joke; tell me what you mean.”
“You don’t really know?” said Rosamond, no longer playful, and desiring nothing better than to tell in order that she might evoke effects. (Ch. 59)
Later Eliot tells us that Rosamond “knew that Will had received a severe blow, but she had been little used to imagining other people’s states of mind except as a material cut into shape by her own wishes” (Ch. 78). For all their inability to empathize, Narcissists are expert in psychological penetration; they use it, often with a degree of sadism, to control other people and produce emotional reactions in them. At the conclusion of the dramatic exchange just quoted, Will leaves the room like a somnambulist, but instead of feeling for him, all Rosamond can say is: “There really is nothing to care for much” (Ch. 59). Her words are typical of a Narcissist. They tend to experience life as long, burdensome and sad, and they do not change.
8. The Narcissist “is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.”
Many characters in Middlemarch feel jealousy, and Rosamond has her share of it: “once when she had seen the Miss Brookes accompanying their uncle at the county assizes ... she had envied them, notwithstanding their plain dress” (Ch. 16). She is happy to admit to the feeling too: “‘I shall be jealous when Tertius goes to Lowick,’ said Rosamond, dimpling, and speaking with aery lightness. ‘He will come back and think nothing of me’” (Ch. 43). But she is the only character of whom it can be said that “she liked to excite jealousy” (Ch. 27). “Rosamond thought she knew perfectly well why Mr. Ladislaw disliked the Captain: he was jealous, and she liked his being jealous” (Ch. 58). Moreover, she enjoys “a delicious sense that she was the object of enviable homage” (Ch. 27) and even suspects that Dorothea “must necessarily have a jealous hatred towards her” (Ch. 81). So on this count too, Rosamond follows the pattern of the Narcissist.
9. The Narcissist “shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.”
Rosamond acts in a superior manner towards everyone except Dorothea. Lydgate’s “strong-armed comfort” she “often held very cheap” (Ch. 78). She wants to have “nothing to do with vulgar people” (Ch. 16) – the Narcissist’s favourite adjective is “common” – and she scorns creditors as “disagreeable people who only thought of themselves, and did not mind how annoying they were to her” (Ch. 65). Most striking is the fact that Narcissists are often described as acting their lives. Having crushed their true self beneath a massive false self, they are always “on stage” and it is in just these terms that George Eliot describes Rosamond: “She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique: she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own” (Ch. 12). This establishes a parallel with Lydgate’s first love, the French actress Laure who deliberately killed her husband on stage while acting the murder. Having “a great sense of being a romantic heroine, and playing the part prettily,” Rosamond is “a charming stage Ariadne” (Ch. 31).
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders requires a match on only five of these nine traits for a patient to be qualified as suffering from a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Rosamond passes on all nine counts. It is remarkable, then, and a sign of acute psychological penetration, that George Eliot should portray in such consistent detail a character whose pathology was identified only a hundred years later. It is furthermore to her credit that she should have had such difficulty in making Rosamond act out of character, for Narcissists rarely have epiphanies of this kind. Her depiction of Lydgate’s decline is also psychologically credible. As the victim of a Narcissist, he is reduced to a life without “a seed of ennobling thought and purpose within it” (Ch. 73). Moral qualities, and especially the opposition between egoism and sympathy, are central to Eliot’s fiction. In Rosamond she created a character who can empathize with no one, not even those closest to her, and contrasts her with highly moral characters like Mary Garth and the saint-like Dorothea, who has a preternatural ability to feel with both the animal and the human world around her. Here modern psychology supports the principle, derived from Feuerbach, that she was demonstrating. He maintained, in the words of Eliot’s translation of his Essence of Christianity, that “consciousness of the moral law, of right, of propriety, of truth itself, is indissolubly united with my consciousness of another than myself” (p.209). As a Narcissist, Rosamond possesses no such virtues.
American Psychiatric Association (ed.). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth Edition, Text Revised (DSM-IV). American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., 2000.
Beaty, Jerome, Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel: a study of George Eliot’s creative method. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1960.
Cross, John W. George Eliot’s Life as Related in her Letters and Journals. 3 vols. New York: Harper, 1885.
Eliot, T. S. On Poetry and Poets. London: Faber, 1957.
Ellmann, Mary. Thinking about Women. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.
Feuerbach, Ludwig. Essence of Christianity. Trad. Marian Evans. New York: Calvin Blanchard, 1855.
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. 2nd ed. New Haven and London: Yale U P, 2000
Manfield, Philip. Split self/split object: Understanding and treating borderline, narcissistic and schizoid disorders. New York: Jason Aronson Inc,1992.
Vaknin, Sam. Malignant Self Love: Narcissism Revisited (Narcissus Publications, Czech Republic, 1999) quoted from http://samvak.tripod.com 13
Last modified 1 December 2014