Wednesday, September 14, 2011


by George Eliot

A popular fiction writer like Jackie Collins or Nick Sparks could reinterpret Middlemarch as a story of the Palm Beach social scene (or Washington power politics, for that matter).  Take the main character, Dorothea Brooke, an idealistic young woman whose beauty and social position overshadow her intelligence and capability.  To achieve her desire of doing meaningful work, she marries an older man who is writing an “important” book on religious philosophy, thereby rejecting the shallow values of her small town socialite friends and family.  Edward Casaubon, it turns out, is a fraud and he knows it; moreover, he realizes that his naive but brilliant young wife will soon see him for what he is.  Out of anger and resentment, he ensures that Dorothea will have to choose between loneliness and poverty after he dies.  In Ms. Collins’ or Mr. Sparks’ version, there would be a prenuptial agreement which Dorothea, blinded by her innocent optimism, would gladly sign as a down payment on achieving a greater glory through helping her husband publish his transcendent book.

The town’s most prominent politician, Nicholas Bulstrode, is a man with a past he is trying to forget.  His own brand of cognitive dissonance is to hide behind his religion and to impose his strict moral code on the entire society.  In an effort to tout his “holier than thou” Christianity, he decides to fund a hospital for the poor which he has no intention of building.  To give this project legitimacy, he brings in a young doctor from a good, but not socially connected family.  This doctor, Tertius Lydgate, immediately becomes the target of Rosamond Vincy, a gold-digger and social climber who mistakenly believes that he can support her in the lifestyle to which she feels she is entitled.  Soon after marrying, Rosamond realizes that Tertius has no family money and, in a prolonged fit of passive-aggression, drives him into financial ruin in order to keep up the appearance of wealth and high social standing.  In the end, Tertius’ financial dependence on Nicholas Bulstrode results in his being linked to a scandal involving Bulstrode’s shady past, and having his own innocence and idealism shattered in the process.

In an updated reimagining of this classic novel, the male romantic lead, Will Ladislaw, would probably not keep his clothes on and neither would Dorothea.  He would also feel considerable heat from the frustrated and insatiable Rosamond Vincy Lydgate.  It is also likely that Edward Casaubon would not have to die in order for Dorothea to be free to marry Will.  She can simply divorce him.  Casaubon's lawyers will make sure that she leaves the marriage with nothing more than the clothes on her back.  Dorothea won’t mind this, of course, because she and Will won’t have much use for clothes as they begin their beautiful new life together, riding off to Key West on a borrowed Harley, while Casaubon sits alone with his bitter and empty self.   

Hypocrisy and self-delusion are two important themes of this timeless novel written by George Eliot, as are questions about appropriate roles for women.  It is this deeper analysis of the human psyche that differentiates Middlemarch from the typical novels written by and for women in Victorian England, as well as today.  Middlemarch is a provincial village in the midlands, and representative of small towns everywhere.  The novel takes place in the 1800s, during a time of political reforms aimed at allowing new groups of voters, but not women, to have a voice in governance.  Dorothea’s uncle, Arthur Brooke, joins the cause and runs for a seat in Parliament even though his own tenants live in deplorable conditions.  With the exception of Will Ladislaw and one or two others, every character suffers from varying degrees of at least one personal weakness.  Will is the outlier, someone who lives by a different set of rules and therefore represents freedom from the stranglehold of social convention.  Dorothea, having realized that her marriage to Casaubon was a mistake, finds Will’s authenticity compelling, but dares not act on their mutual attraction. 

Living unconventionally is perhaps the most important theme of Middlemarch because the author, like Will Ladislaw, was an outlier.  George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, was an extremely unattractive but highly intelligent woman who had access to education and a vast library in her youth.  Her parents had little hope of finding her a husband and so Mary Anne was trapped by family obligations until the age of 30.  While caring for her aging father, Mary Anne became friends with Cara and Charles Bray, a wealthy couple who cultivated a free exchange of ideas and radical thinking.  Through this friendship she met Ralph Waldo Emerson, Harriet Martineau, Herbert Spencer, and others who helped broaden her understanding of the world.  It was only after her father died that Mary Anne Evans was free to develop her talents. 

When the Brays travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, Mary Anne accompanied them and ended up staying for a year, during which time she decided to become a writer.  Upon returning to England, Mary Anne found work in newspaper publishing with John Chapman, a friend of the Brays who had recently taken over The Westminster Review.   She fell in love with Chapman, who was married and not interested in her, and like Dorothea devoted herself to his success.   Her pieces for the newspaper were well received despite her unprecedented role as a woman working among men and she began forming ideas for a novel.  In the Victorian era, a woman writing anything other than romantic fiction was unheard of, so Mary Anne hid behind a male name in order that her work be taken seriously.   

At the age of 39, Mary Anne Evans published Adam Bede under her male pen name.   The novel was an immediate success and her readers became increasingly curious to know more about the reclusive author.  An imposter claiming to be George Eliot forced Ms. Evans to reveal herself and her unconventional lifestyle to the public.  She was, at the time, living openly with a married man and while her readers disapproved, they continued to purchase her novels.   In total, Mary Anne Evans/George Eliot wrote seven novels, 12 poems, and numerous essays, book reviews, and feature articles for The Westminster Review.  This body of work reveals a great intellect and an astute observer and chronicler of human society.  Mary Anne Evans knew how easily we believe those who tell us what we want to hear and how often we see the world through the lens of our own myopic belief systems.  

Today, women enjoy many of the privileges and perquisites of their male counterparts.  For some women, since the advent of in vitro fertilization, men have been relegated to mere sperm donors.   In the United States of America and much of Europe, “lifestyle choices” have replaced once closeted sexual relationships.  Without regard to gender orientation, however, relationships continue to perplex us.  Mary Anne Evans knew that there would always be marriages entered into for the wrong reasons, with unhappy consequences.  Middlemarch is a cautionary tale for us all to be true to ourselves first and foremost rather than looking for someone else to define who we are.

Copyright 201, Teresa Friedlander,  all rights reserved

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