Middlemarch Revisited, Part III: Dorothea at the Vatican

When we next see Dorothea, now Mrs. Casaubon, after an absence of eight chapters, she is on her honeymoon in Rome. A German artist named Naumann sees her standing abstractedly in front of the statue of the Sleeping Ariadne in the Vatican Museum, and rushes to find his friend Will Ladislaw: "Come here, quick! else she will have changed her pose." Ladislaw comes, and the two men contemplate Dorothea as if she were herself a work of art.

Sleeping Ariadne (Vatican Museum). Roman copy of a Hellenistic original.
Known at the time of Dorothea's visit as "Cleopatra."


The scholar A.D. Nuttall points out that this scene is echoed in a story told by Mrs. Humphry Ward about a visit George Eliot and her partner George Henry Lewes paid to Mark Pattison and his wife in Oxford in 1870 (while Eliot was writing Middlemarch). Pattison, an aging scholar who married a beautiful young woman twenty-seven years his junior, is often cited as a model for Mr. Casaubon. Here's the scene as painted by Mrs. Ward:
As we turned into the quadrangle of Lincoln [College, Oxford]—suddenly, at one of the upper windows of the Rector's lodgings, which occupied the far right corner of the quad, there appeared the head and shoulders of Mrs. Pattison, as she looked out and beckoned smiling to Mr. Lewes. It was a brilliant apparition, as though a French portrait by Greuze or Perronneau had suddenly stepped into a vacant space in the old college wall.* The pale, pretty head, blond-cendrĂ©e, the delicate smiling features and the white throat; a touch of black, a touch of blue; a white dress; a general eighteenth-century impression as though of powder and patches:—Mrs. Lewes [George Eliot] perceived it in a flash, and I saw her run eagerly to Mr. Lewes and draw his attention to the window and its occupant...
As in the fictional scene in Middlemarch, the woman—framed in the window—becomes an aesthetic object, and the aesthetic experience must be shared. But in Middlemarch, Ladislaw insists that a woman is more than a "mere coloured superficies." He asks Naumann, who wants to paint Dorothea's portrait, "How would you paint her voice?" (222).

Jean Baptiste Greuze, Ariadne (1804)

It's interesting that Mrs. Pattison (who after Mark Pattison's death remarried and became Lady Dilke) later found her own voice as a respected art critic, specializing in French art.

In Greek mythology, Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, gives Theseus the thread that enables him to emerge from the Minotaur's labyrinth. Shortly after Dorothea first meets Mr. Casaubon, Eliot writes: "Dorothea by this tiime had looked deep into the ungauged reservoir of Mr. Casaubon's mind, seeing reflected there in vague labyrinthine extension every quality she herself brought; had opened much of her own experience to him, and had understood from him the scope of his great work, also of attractively labyrinthine extent" (46). But in their honeymoon, she finds that "the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither" (227). Already, Dorothea is Ariadne to Casaubon's dull, maze-minded Theseus, and in the Vatican she is brought together with her mythological double. In the classical myth, Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus, but later becomes the bride of the god Bacchus (Dionysus). As she stands beside the Sleeping Ariadne, Dorothea's own curly-headed Bacchus is waiting in the wings in the form of Will Ladislaw.

*There is a similar conceit in George Eliot's first published work, Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), in which she gives this description of a female character: "The tucked-in kerchief, rising full over the low tight bodice of her blue dress, sets off the majestic form of her bust, and she treads the lawn as if she were one of Sir Joshua Reynolds's stately ladies, who had suddenly stepped from her frame to enjoy the evening cool..."

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