Thursday, September 10, 2009

Middlemarch Revisited: Rosamond and Dorothea

Shallow, self-centered Rosamond fantasizes that Will Ladislaw is hopelessly in love with her. When Dorothea finds them together, in what appears to be an attitude of some intimacy, Rosamond thinks the situation is entirely to her advantage, never imagining that Will is in fact devoted to Dorothea. Eliot writes:
Shallow natures dream of an easy sway over the emotions of others, trusting implicitly in their own petty magic to turn the deepest streams, and confident, by pretty gestures and remarks, of making the thing that is not as though it were. She knew that Will had received a severe blow, but she had been little used to imagining other people's states of mind except as material cut into shape by her own wishes... (834).
"Making the thing that is not as though it were." It sounds, for one thing, like a definition of what a novelist does. It also sounds like Dorothea herself, who, as Celia says, sees only what isn't there. But Dorothea's imagination has been shaped by sympathy, and by knowledge gained through her own suffering. When Dorothea reflects on the scene she's witnessed between Will and Rosamond, Eliot writes: "It was not in Dorothea's nature...to sit in the narrow cell of her calamity, in the besotted misery of a consciousness that only sees another's lot as an accident of its own" (845). How different from Rosamond, who imagines "other people's states of mind...as material cut into shape by her own wishes." As Dorothea reflects, she asks herself: "Was she alone in the scene? Was it her event only?"

"She forced herself to think of it as bound up with another woman's life."

Dorothea has gained "emotional intelligence." As Eliot says: "[A]ll this vivid sympathetic experience returned to her now as a power: it asserted itself as acquired knowledge asserts itself and will not let us see as we saw in the day of our ignorance" (846).

Feminists have always objected to Dorothea because, after asserting her maturity and power as a woman, she settles for becoming a wife and mother. In Sexual Politics (1970), for example, Kate Millett writes: "[Eliot] stuck with the Ruskinian service ethic and the pervasive Victorian fantasy of the good woman who goes down into Samaria and rescues the fallen man—nurse, guide, mother, adjunct of the race. Dorothea's predicament in Middlemarch is an eloquent plea that a fine mind be allowed an occupation; but it goes no further than petition. She marries Will Ladislaw and can expect no more of life than the discovery of a good companion whom she can serve as secretary" (139).

Eliot herself anticipated this criticism. "Many who knew her," she writes, "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..." (894). Eliot, though she was able to choose a different life, was keenly aware of the limitations placed on women in Victorian society. And she was ambivalent about the alternatives. Her letters, for example, reveal a brilliant and independent-minded woman who signs herself "Mrs. M.E. Lewes" and who has strong maternal feelings. Although she moved as an intellectual equal in a world dominated by men, Eliot seemed to find value in the traditional sphere of women, in what she saw as women's greater sympathy, care and sense of justice. Perhaps, she seems to say, feminism shouldn't only be about women gaining an equal footing with men in the traditional spheres of male activity. Perhaps it should also be about valuing what women have always done, such as raising children and making a home.

Eliot wants to see a sympathetic partnership between men and women, based on shared knowledge and values, rather than the independence and rampant individualism that men have traditionally pursued. In her perceptive biography of Eliot, Jenny Uglow writes:
The message for the lives of women seems to be that although change must come (preferably gradually rather than suddenly), it must not be at the expense of traditional female values. Although it is wrong for women to be excluded from access to common culture and common stores of power, they should demand them for the sake of partnership with men and for the good of society, not just for their own separate fulfillment... The vital thing is not to launch women into a masculine sphere, but to "feminise" men, because the feminine strengths have for so long been trampled underfoot and undervalued.
As a former stay-at-home father, who spent years working within the traditionally feminine sphere of domesticity, I sympathize with Eliot. I'm reminded of a passage in Rosemary Radford Ruether's ecofeminist book Gaia & God that had a profound influence on my thinking as, like Dorothea, I abandoned a life of pure scholarship for a life of domesticity:
The "liberation of women" cannot be seen simply as the incorporation of women into alienated male styles of life, although with far fewer benefits, for this simply adds women to the patterns of alienated life created by and for men... Rather, what is necessary is a double transformation of both women and men in their relation to each other and to "nature." Women certainly need to gain some of the individuality that has been traditionally purchased by men at their expense. But this individuation should not be based on exploitative domination (of other women or subjugated men), but needs to remain in sustaining relation to primary communities of life. The ways of being a person for others and of being a person for oneself need to come together as reciprocal, rather than being split between female and male styles of life (265).
With this, I think George Eliot would have agreed enthusiastically.

In Dead from the Waist Down: Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination (2003), A.D. Nuttall writes of Middlemarch: "The slow accumulation of asphyxiating, counter-heroic ordinariness in nineteenth-century middle-class life has produced, very naturally, a nineteenth-century three-decker novel ending in marriage and a baby." But for me, Middlemarch celebrates that "counter-heroic ordinariness" as much as it finds it suffocating. When I read about Dorothea, early in the novel, wanting to arrive at "the core of things" through Casaubon's scholarship, I recall its distant echo in Barbara Pym's No Fond Return of Love (1961). Early in that novel, Dulcie Mainwaring, an academic indexer, is attending an academic conference and finds herself at church on Sunday morning with a congregation full of fellow academics:
The lay reader gave a short address. He tried to show how all work can be done to the Glory of God, even making an index, correcting a proof, or compiling an accurate bibliography. His small congregation heard him say, almost with disappointment, that those who do such work have perhaps less opportunity of actually doing evil than those who write novels and plays or work for films or television.

But there is more satisfaction is scrubbing a floor or digging a garden, Dulcie thought. One seems nearer to the heart of things doing menial tasks than in making the most perfect index. Again her thoughts wandered to her home and all that needed to be done there, and she began to wonder why she had come to the conference when she had so many better ways of occupying her time (emphasis added).
Although Dulcie is not concerned with building improved peasant cottages, as Dorothea was, she is concerned with practical, day-to-day domestic arrangements. These simple domestic tasks are what give her a grounding in reality. Dorothea, in another life, is one of Pym's "excellent women" whose lives are simple but whose influence is, as Eliot says, "incalculably diffusive."

It is not far to travel from the end of Middlemarch to the middlebrow and middle-class pleasures of Barbara Pym, or Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, with their frank celebration of ordinary middle-class life and the role ordinary people have in sustaining the world.

"For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

2 comments:

kimberly smith said...

Hi, I'm a graduate student in Vancouver, Canada, and have just discovered your blog, via your comment on Dr. Rolleston. What a lovely job you've done in your discussion of MM--I really appreciated the thoughtfulness of your commentary. I'm presently working on an MA thesis proposal in which I plan to argue for a reassessment of Lydgate. What's your background? Many thanks, kim smith

Rob Hardy said...

Thank you for the kind comment, Kim. You can find out more about my background here, along with a list of my publications.

Two New Online Publications

Two of my very brief essays were published online this summer. The first was the essay " Telephone ," which appeared in June in t...