Middlemarch: Three Love Problems

Love problem number one: Mr. Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy. Short of money, Rosamond’s father is grumbling about her engagement, warning that he can give them no money. She is quietly obstinate, however, in keeping to her engagement. As she tells Lydgate, “I never give up anything that I choose to do” (ch. 36). Lydgate thinks this “constancy of purpose” is adorable — in the right place, of course. It doesn’t seem to clue him in to the fact that Rosamond might be obstinate in the wrong place on occasion. He’s not getting much study done for his life work, but he figures that, once he is married, he’ll have everything he needs at home and will thus be able to devote more time than ever to science. With this in mind, he rents an expensive house and buys expensive furnishings. After all, these things are a one time expense, he thinks. Like Mr. Casaubon, Lydgate thinks he has found the perfect woman for him. She will cheer his solitude, keep the house perfectly in order, and he’ll get more study done than ever.

Love problem number two: Mr. Casaubon, Will Ladislaw, and Dorothea. Will Ladislaw is very much attracted to Dorothea. He tells himself that he is bound to watch over her, but the simple truth is that “nothing then invited him so strongly as the presence of Dorothea” (ch. 37). Gaining a private interview with her, Will cannot resist giving “another good pinch at the moth-wings of poor Mr. Casaubon’s glory,” telling her that her husband is uncertain of himself and doesn’t like Will because he disagrees with Mr. Casaubon. Uneasy under the sense of being ungrateful to Mr. Casaubon, Will tries to justify his feelings by thinking that Mr. Casaubon never did more than pay a debt, since Will’s grandmother (Mr. Casaubon’s aunt) had been disinherited. (A position I disagree with. Mr. Casaubon had nothing to do with Will’s grandmother being disinherited. It wasn’t right for her to be disinherited, but, by the time her grandson was born, I think the time for retribution was over. It was generous of Mr. Casaubon to look for Will’s parents and help them.) Will is satisfied with the results of his conversation with Dorothea. He sees that she is “travelling into the remoteness of pure pity and loyalty towards her husband.”

Mr. Casaubon is not as satisfied with Dorothea. He feels that she is capable of judging him, and dislikes it. When she suggests that he owes Will more than he has heretofore given him because of the injustice to his grandmother, Mr. Casaubon becomes angry and tells her that, not for the first time, she has “assumed a judgment on subjects beyond [her] scope.” Dorothea has always struggled with her ignorance, wishing to be wiser that she might know better what is right. She thought that marrying such a learned man as Mr. Casaubon would give her the illumination she longed for. With that in mind, that was a particularly cutting rebuke. Instead of guiding her judgment, he simply dismisses any disagreement.


Given Will’s behaviour, Mr. Casaubon is understandably jealous of him. He has the justice not to suspect Dorothea, but he is jealous of Will’s influence over her. The idea that Dorothea thinks Will has a right to more of Mr. Casaubon’s money leads to the thought that, if he died, Will would try to get Dorothea to marry him. The thought of this man he dislikes marrying Dorothea and probably teaching her to think badly of him, despite “the prevision of his own unending bliss could not nullify the bitter savors of irritated jealousy and vindictiveness” (ch. 42). Knowing that he is sick and might die, Mr. Casaubon considers “there might be large opportunity for some people to be the happier when he was gone; and if one of those people should be Will Ladislaw, Mr. Casaubon objected so strongly that it seemed as if the annoyance would make part of his disembodied existence.” He hopes to thwart them and (for he, like Will, is capable of self-deception when it comes to his own motives) protect Dorothea from this “calamity”. Here he reminds me of Mr. Featherstone who, in imaging how he could vex his survivors “did not make clear to himself that his pleasure in the little drama of which it formed a part was confined to anticipation” (ch. 34). And, speaking of Mr. Featherstone …

Love problem number three: Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. Fred is in love with Mary and knows she won’t marry him if he becomes a clergyman (what his father has planned for him). (As clarification, Mary does not object to clergymen, but she thinks Fred would bring the profession into ridicule.) Now, as Mr. Featherstone has left him nothing, he is bound to make his own living. It was fortunate for Fred’s character that he didn’t inherit. Now, he determines to at least retake his exam and pass it. Mary feels bad because, just before Mr. Featherstone died, he wanted her to burn one of his wills and she refused to do so unless there were witnesses. However, he was dead by morning. The will Mary refused to burn was later than one which did leave a great deal of money to Fred.

Mary’s father, Caleb Garth, on the other hand, has a bit of good fortune. Sir James Chettam asked him to manage his estate. Mr. Garth loves this kind of work and they now have money to apprentice their son and keep Mary at home. Caleb thinks of doing Fred a good turn, too. He’s going to have more work than he can do alone and thinks of teaching Fred his trade. Mrs. Garth thinks Fred’s family would hate it, but Caleb doesn’t care about that. “The lad is of age and must get his bread. He has sense enough and quickness enough; he likes being on the land, and it’s my belief that he could learn business well if he gave his mind to it.” (ch. 41). I’m on Caleb’s side of the question. Fred’s family doesn’t have the right to object to any honest work Fred decides on. Right now, however, he’s gone studying for his examination.

And because Mrs. Cadwallader is not a major character, but is too humorously snarky to bypass, I’ll end with a quotation from her: “Oh, stinginess may be abused like other virtues: it will not do to keep one’s own pigs lean” (ch. 38).


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 fourth book of Middlemarch here: “Three Love Problems”.

Screencaps from the 1994 miniseries of “Middlemarch” with Patrick Malahide as Edward Casaubon, Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea Brooke, and Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw.

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