Middlemarch: Old and Young

“One would know much better what to do if men’s characters were more consistent, and especially if one’s friends were invariably fit for any function they desired to undertake!” (ch. 18)

1008078.jpgOne of the strengths of George Eliot’s writing, as with that of all the greatest novelists, is her ability to create well-rounded characters, neither perfect nor completely evil. The good characters have flaws and the disagreeable ones have realistic motivations.

Will Ladislaw is a much more interesting person than Sir James Chettam whose excessive agreement could be quite irritating (though he is a kind man). I can see why Dorothea liked Will. However, it was extremely unkind of him to tell her that her husband’s life work was “thrown away”. Not the sort of thing you tell a wife, particularly if she’s only newly married. I also think that Will’s attraction to Dorothea is great enough that he should have avoided being with her, especially alone — seeing as she’s married and all.

A couple of passages in the second book of Middlemarch reminded me strongly of Felix Holt. In detailing Mr. Lydgate’s passion for his profession, the author lists one of its attractions for him: “it wanted reform, and gave a man an opportunity for some indignant resolve to reject its venal decorations and other humbug” (ch. 15). Felix Holt was also trained to be a doctor, getting far enough to decide that the medicines his father sold were quackery. Felix decided not to follow the medical profession and, as his contribution to reforming it, stopped his mother from selling drugs which “might as well be bottled ditch-water” (Felix Holt, ch. 5).

MIDDLEMARCH 1994 TV seriaThe fact that Lydgate momentarily reminded me of Felix Holt was strengthened by the description of Rosamond Vincy’s feelings towards him. After meeting Lydgate, she was more than ever active “in being from morning till night her own standard of a perfect lady” (ch. 16). This is so much like Esther Lyon, who was also devoted to being her own conception of a lady and is “well satisfied with herself for her fastidious taste” (FH, ch. 6). Having read Middlemarch before, I know that Lydgate marries Rosamond and comes to regret it. He has the fate Felix was determined to avoid for himself: “I had a fine purpose once … but pray excuse me, … [m]y wife is nice, she must have her bread well buttered, and her feelings will be hurt if she is not thought genteel” (FH, ch. 5). Lydgate and Rosamond’s story plays out rather like: what if Esther didn’t change, or Felix was mistaken in her and married her anyway? Only Lydgate is a bit more like Harold Transome in his attitude towards women, though similar to Felix in his desire to do great, good things for the world.

I think Dorothea should hang out with Miss Noble, Mr. Farebrother’s aunt. Mr. Farebrother is not rich and has his mother, sister, and aunt to support. Still, Miss Noble saves bits of sugar and such things to take to the children of her poor friends, delighting in “fostering and petting all needy creatures” — “One must be poor to know the luxury of giving!” (ch. 17). Dorothea thinks that she must do something great, must have great wisdom and learning, to do good. You don’t need a lot of money to do good, and little acts of kindness, like Miss Noble’s, can make a very real difference.

938884698Dorothea tells Will, “I should like to make life beautiful — I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.” Will suspects her of having “some false belief in the virtues of misery” and tells her that “enjoyment radiates” (ch. 22). Dorothea thinks, “[I]t must be very difficult to do anything good.” Of course, it is not wrong to want to do great things to help others, but the small things, simple acts of kindness and simply being happy, are not to be despised.

Mr. Bulstrode is a nasty man. Putting Lydgate on the spot like that, with the voting for a chaplain for the hospital was just plain mean. His love of power not only makes him unpopular, but casts doubts over the genuineness of the “religion” he claims to be serving with it.

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This is part of the Eliot Project which “Sophie” of A Reasonable Quantity of Butter and I are doing. Read “Sophie’s” notes on the second book of Middlemarch here: “Old and Young”.

Screencaps from the 1994 miniseries of “Middlemarch” with Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw, Douglas Hodge as Dr. Lydgate, and Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke.

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