Middlemarch opens with a reflection on Teresa of Avila:
Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.”What’s noticeable here is that unlike Edith Stein, who upon reading the same work had the reaction “This is truth,” Eliot’s reaction here is to distance herself from any of the religious implications of Teresa’s Life, and to situate it within a mythic context by referring to her epos. Teresa’s work is thus despiritualized in a way that is somewhat analogous to the demythologizing of the “Higher Criticism.” So we already have that ironic undercurrent regarding religion and spirituality that it appears will play out throughout the novel. The demythologizing links it to Casaubon, and his Key to All Mythologies.
Eliot’s spiritual character, Dorothea Brooke, is presented in a way that suggests that she has an ideal image of herself as a spiritual woman, an intellectual woman. There does not necessarily have to be anything to back up her pretensions, but that is the way that she sees herself. One indication of her spirituality, and one which I see as particularly arrogant, is her plan for the renovation of the cottages. It is noteworthy that the plan, which will be tried on a small scale beginning with two cottages, calls for the tenants to be displaced while the renovations or new construction is in process. No mention is made in the first part as to whether the tenants ever return to their property. In this we have, whether Eliot intended it or not, a precursor of all those liberal slum clearance programs that merely shift slums from one blighted area to another, or that take people’s homes from them on dubious grounds (cf. Kelo v. City of New London).
Casaubon, the minister whom Dorothea marries, seems to point back to Jane Austen’s Anglican ministers, who all seem to have “livings” of relative wealth without having any vocation to the church, and forward to D. H. Lawrence’s Clifford Chatterley, the impotent intellectual. Almost every clergyman in Austen seems to be a second son. Now second sons, under the rule of primogeniture, are pretty much worthless. They don’t inherit, and they won’t run the estates, so they’re packed off to the church, the army, or maybe the law regardless of whether they have any desire or any actual vocation for these professions. You find these characters not only in Austen, but also in something like Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh. Ernest has no vocation for the church, but is more or less forced into the profession. Even the current Archbishop of Canterbury seems to be a man of limited intellect, little or no spirituality, and no vocation to the church. That has probably been true, with a few possible exceptions, since Cranmer’s day.
As to the comparison with Clifford Chatterley, Casaubon is a bit of a cold fish. He has no emotional life, what little he has is sublimated in the direction of his Key to all Mythologies, which, if I recall correctly from a previous attempt to read Middlemarch, is based on the outdated idea that everything revolved around solar worship. Casaubon’s knowledge is outdated. He is unable to respond to Dorothea, and he is unable to ever get started on writing his masterpiece because he wants everything to be perfect. In this respect he resembles many graduate students who never complete their dissertation because rather than getting it “good enough,” they insist on getting it perfect. He also resembles Joseph Grand, the perfectionist writer in Camus’ The Plague who can never get the first sentence of his novel exactly right.
Casaubon’s efforts are fruitless, and his learning, because of his refusal to keep up with German scholarship is largely outdated and outmoded. He hopes to have Dorothea continue his work, but those hopes never come to fruition as Dorothea realizes his folly.
Fred Vincy is a familiar type from many British novels and plays, the young man who is more interested in pleasure and sport than in study and work. His salvation comes about because he is denied the inheritance that he had expected, had he received it, he would, in all probability have wasted it.
Dorothea too has an inheritance, but it is conditioned upon her not marrying Will Ladislaw. Should she marry him, she will lose Casaubon’s property.
Dorothea chose Casaubon because he represents an ideal that she is unable to realize in herself. He is an intellectual, with a knowledge of Latin and Greek, which she has not learned. As a minister he is supposed to be spiritually inclined. She mistakes this pursuit of the ideal through Casaubon for love. She makes a similar mistake in her love for Will Ladislaw. Between Casaubon’s death and the end of the novel she has little contact with him, even in the form of letters. Her love is founded on the mental image, the idealization of Ladislaw. Her brother-in-law, and her other relatives, while they may object to Ladislaw on class grounds, are correct, in my view, as seeing him as an unsuitable match for Dorothea.
The interested reader may wish to pursue the topic of science in George Eliot. An excellent place to start is with Gillian Beer’s Darwin’s Plots. There is an Amazon link to the right.
Tomorrow is Christmas, and I’ll be blogging about any Christmas gift books for the next several weeks or months.