Anyone who reads this and is interested in reading Middlemarch has probably already done so, and I don’t think plot is the reason to read Middlemarch anyway, but just in case, consider yourself warned of spoilers herein.
Book I of Middlemarch, “Miss Brooke,” focuses mainly on the courtship of Dorothea Brooke and Mr. Casaubon. Given that so much of my reading lately is genre romance, as I read this section I thought about how it differs from the typical romance novel courtship–and indeed, from many of the nineteenth-century narratives whose “bourne,” as Eliot puts it, is marriage.
I’ve read the novel before, so I know that their marriage doesn’t end happily, a basic requirement of the romance novel, which according to the Romance Writers of America must have “an emotionally-satisfying and optimistic ending [in which] the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.”
But I think even a Middlemarch newbie would know that this marriage is doomed. Eliot lets us see that through the complex way she plays with and against the conventions of the courtship narrative. Despite her disdain for “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists,” her own novel relies, I think, on her readers having some familiarity with how those novels work.
Eliot’s narrator frequently prompts readers to think beyond our conventional views of courtship. When Casaubon says something ponderously “romantic” to Dorothea, for instance, the narrator comments,
No speech could have been more thoroughly honest in its intention: the frigid rhetoric at the end was as sincere as the bark of a dog, or the cawing of an amorous rook. Would it not be rash to conclude that there was no passion behind those sonnets to Delia which strike us as the thin music of a mandolin?
Dorothea’s faith supplied all that Mr Casaubon’s words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.*
*Did Eliot know some Lora Leigh fangirls?
This passage does a couple of contradictory things. On the one hand, Eliot makes a characteristic move: she asks us to look past our surface judgements and sympathize with someone we might be inclined to dismiss. Just because Casaubon doesn’t express himself in a vivid, impassioned way doesn’t mean he feels nothing. On the other hand, the very unromantic language used–“frigid rhetoric” like the barking of a dog or the cawing of an “amorous rook”–mocks his sincerity, or at least suggests that sincerity is not enough in a lover. And in fact, it soon becomes clear that whatever he intends, Casaubon can’t summon passion, or even much affection, for his bride to be.
Many of the people around Dorothea are upset by her choice of husband. That in itself doesn’t invalidate her choice, because we know that these conventional thinkers–Mrs. Cadwallader, the rector’s wife; her sister Celia; her rejected suitor Sir James Chettam–don’t really understand Dorothea, and thus might not understand what she needs from her marriage. Celia’s trivial objections that Casaubon has a mole and slurps his soup are easy to dismiss.
Sir James’ might initially seem equally trivial: “He must be fifty, and I don’t believe he could ever have been much more than the shadow of a man. Look at his legs! . . . He has got no good red blood in his body.” What the sturdy, ruddy, youthful Sir James means is that Casaubon is not sexy. (The Little Professor has a great post on Victorian code words for sex). And Dorothea is sexy, despite her Puritanism. She might channel it into her inchoate desire to be and do good, but her love of riding and of “feeding her eye” by gazing on the beautiful colours of her mother’s jewels reveals the sensuous side of her nature, something which could be chanelled into sexuality if she had a husband to show her the way.
It would be an exaggeration to say that there’s no difference between Middlemarch and the kind of contemporary genre romance in which the hero’s instant erection and heroine’s damp panties reveal their rightness for each other. But Victorian-coded as the expression of it is, the idea that a lasting marriage requires physical passion is clear here, and it isn’t just Sir James’ idea. Just in case we doubt the force of their passion for each other, Eliot has Dorothea and Will Ladislaw confess their love (and kiss) during a violent thunderstorm, and mentions the “small row” of children they produce.
Marriage (i.e. a wedding), Eliot notes, is only the beginning of “the home epic.” There’s a long journey before the couple makes either “the gradual conquest or irremediable loss of that complete union which makes the advancing years a climax, and age the harvest of sweet memories in common.” Passion or attraction isn’t all a couple needs to get there, of course; affection and respect are important too. Dorothea’s loss of respect for Casaubon’s scholarly project contributes to the failure of their marriage, just as Lydgate’s recognition of his beautiful wife Rosamund’s vain and mercernary nature contributes to theirs.
I think passion in marriage matters to Eliot because marriage is the only outlet most women had for their passions, of every kind. The narrator remarks at the novel’s end that “Many who knew [Dorothea], thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.” All of Dorothea’s passionate desire to live a good and meaningful life must be poured into her role as wife and mother; passion from her husband, then, seems important to equalizing their marriage in some way.
Middlemarch is very aware of the power dynamics of marriage. When Dorothea, during her courtship, goes to see Casaubon’s house and suggest any changes to its decoration, the narrator wryly remarks, “A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards.” This, again, is a kind of conventional thinking, and it’s thinking Casaubon shares. He tells Dorothea, “The great charm of your sex is its capability of an ardent self-sacrificing affection, and herein we see its fitness to round and complete the existence of our own.” Casuabon sees self-sacrificing affection as his due, not as something he owes a return for. He expects to dictate in their marriage and sees Dorothea as simply an ornament or adjunct to his life, not as a separate being with a life and desires of her own.
The happiest marriage in the novel, for my money, is that of Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. Mary’s love may be “unconditional,” as the RWA demands–she loves Fred even when, and maybe because, he isn’t worthy of her. But she has no illusions about him (as Dorothea does about Casaubon, or Lydgate about Rosamund) and thus their marriage is conditional: Fred must grow up and learn to deserve her before she will trust him with that power over her life. Their marriage seems like emotional justice because they have worked and struggled to make it possible.
Middlemarch is the ultimate example of nineteenth-century high realism, while genre romance is often dismissed as trashy fantasy. Yet in its multiple courtship and marriage plots, Eliot’s novel suggests that the RWA knows something about what makes a real happy ever after.