Having read Jane Austen’s novels at school, I was both prepared and yet unprepared to meet with Middlemarch, which was on the first-year course of my undergraduate degree at university. Here was another female writer adept at psychological understanding and social comedy, one who treated her young heroines with both indulgence and gentle irony, and yet from the first chapter it was clear that Eliot’s genius was different from Austen’s: less sparkling and sharp, more probing, penetrating, and sometimes difficult.

When I came to the paragraph in chapter 1 of Middlemarch which begins ‘And how should Dorothea not marry?’ it became clear that George Eliot could inhabit more than one mind – or mindset – at once, and that she could allow justice to different sides of an argument. Just as Austen opens Emma by sketching the protagonist’s family and social context and her individual traits of character, setting up the possibility of clashes and errors to come, so Eliot does the same for Dorothea. One difference is that Eliot takes more time, more room, to set up her character’s situation. She also shows understanding of points of view other than those of the heroine herself and her creator/narrator. Though on Dorothea’s side, as Austen is always on the side of her female protagonists, Eliot recognises from the start that there are complexities in human nature and in relationships which may not be resolvable to everyone’s satisfaction at the end.

The paragraph is presented as a question posed by an unspecified observer, who, it rapidly becomes clear, is a man judging Dorothea’s likely aptitude for marriage:

And how should Dorothea not marry? – a girl so handsome and with such prospects? [Dorothea is an heiress] … Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer ... [Dorothea is known for visiting the sick and poor and having a strong religious faith.] Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship.

We see that Dorothea is unusual and might indeed make an uncomfortable partner, but only for the usual kind of man who marries to be made comfortable by a woman who unquestioningly accepts his superiority. The final sentence of this sly and subtle paragraph indicates that Eliot can think along several lines at once: ‘Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.’ The point of view of this ‘one’ is simultaneously understandable and questionable. In this novel Eliot will take a wide view, will ask questions which are difficult to answer, will show human nature in all its complexity, but will do so with wit as well as wisdom.

How could I not become an enthusiast for George Eliot?

Created 6 August 2019