The first book of Middlemarch is, as its title suggests, mainly about Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea is nineteen years old, ignorant and ardent. She wants to cure the world’s ills, but doesn’t know how to go about it. In the meantime, she is impatient with the petty thoughts of those who do not think as she does. She reminded me a little of Emma Woodhouse1 in her refusal to see that Sir James Chettam is in love with her and not her younger sister, Celia. Though often impatient and impulsive, Dorothea is also actively good with a desire to do right. She is also quite naive. She becomes engaged to Mr. Casaubon, a man “towards fifty”, who she believes has a great soul. He is a learned man, devoting his life to writing a Key to all Mythologies. Through devotion to and learning from him, Dorothea hopes to become wiser. Learning Latin and Greek, she thinks, will give her a “standing-ground from which all truth could be seen more truly. … Perhaps even Hebrew might be necessary—at least the alphabet and a few roots—in order to arrive at the core of things, and judge soundly on the social duties of the Christian.” (Ch. 7).
As for Mr. Casaubon, though the author does her best for him by assuring us that Dorothea is not necessarily mistaken in him, one has to wonder about a man who proposes to a girl by telling her that he has become conscious of a need which she is eminently, and perhaps exclusively, fit to supply. At least he goes on to offer her “an affection hitherto unwasted” (ch. 5).
Celia, as pointed out, though not as clever with learning and great ideas as her sister, is a better judge of character. It was amusing when Celia looked at paintings of Mr. Casaubon’s family, silently observing that the women were wearing necklaces. Earlier, when dividing up their mother’s jewelry, Dorothea had refused to wear any trinkets (like others of George Eliot’s heroines before her, Dorothea’s religious views run towards asceticism), and yet had taken a necklace, “[a]ll the while … trying to justify her delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy” (ch. 1).
Mrs. Cadwallader and the girls’ uncle and guardian, Mr. Brooke, are comic characters. Mrs. Cadwallader is consciously comic, while Mr. Brooke does not realize how funny he is. He has “gone into” just about everything at one time and, if nothing else, has “certainly an impartial mind” (ch. 9). The book ends introducing us to an entirely separate (at this point) group of characters: the Vincys, Bulstrodes, Garths, Featherstones, and the new doctor, Mr. Lydgate. “But any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.” (Ch. 11).
1 In Jane Austen’s Emma, the heroine persistently misinterprets Mr. Elton’s attention to her as being directed at her naive friend, Harriet Smith.
Illustration: Miss Brooke.