In Middlemarch, Spring/Winter Marriage, not so smart

So what we have here right out of the gate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a tee-up for a good old fashioned love triangle. Our thoughtful protag Dorothea Brooke thinks, on impulse, there is nothing more she would like in the world than to be married to an older, brilliant scholar and whittle away her hours being his beloved amanuensis. But once a drip, always a drip. Her husband Edward Casaubon spends much of their Roman holiday hidden away in the Vatican libraries researching his ill-fated book.

Dorothea latches on to a second cousin of  Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, who is unsure of his future, but passionate, artistic and was at least born in the same century as Dorothea. This plot strand is only one of two that emerge in the early pages of the book (the other having to do with a young doctor who comes to town and associates with a suspect town financier) and I understand more are coming. However, what makes this first narrative compelling is the tragedy of the married couple, Dorothea and Casaubon. Casaubon, unlike some Dickens villains we know well, is not two-dimensional in his insensitivity. He has a terrible anxiety that all of his research and study is for naught. His great book will never materialize. Likewise, Dorothea is not faultless either and, interestingly, the omniscient narrator points this out in a fascinating exchange between the two.

In the scene below, Dorothea has just challenged Casaubon to actually write the book he’s always talking about and her anger, his terror, are completely missed by the other:

She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hidden conflicts in her husband which claim our pity. She had not yet listened patiently to his heartbeats, but only felt that her own was beating violently. In Mr. Casaubon’s ear, Dorothea’s voice gave loud emphatic iteration to those muffled suggestions of consciousness which it was possible to explain as mere fancy, the illusion of exaggerated sensitiveness: always when such suggestions are unmistakably repeated from without, they are resisted as cruel and unjust. We are angered even by the full acceptance of our humiliating confessions—how much more by hearing in hard distinct syllables from the lips of a near observer, those confused murmurs which we try to call morbid, and strive against as if they were the oncoming of numbness! And this cruel outward accuser was there in the shape of a wife—nay, of a young bride, who, instead of observing his abundant pen-scratches and amplitude of paper with the uncritical awe of an elegant-minded canary-bird, seemed to present herself as a spy watching everything with a malign power of inference.


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