Middlemarch: The Widow and the Wife

Fred Vincy has a job; Lydgate and Rosamond’s marriage is collapsing (Rosy is, I believe, the “Wife” of the book’s title); Mr. Bulstrode is threatened with exposure of past misdeeds and tries to make reparation; Will Ladislaw finds out about Mr. Casaubon’s will and finally leaves; and Dorothea (the “Widow” of the title) discovers, with joy, that Will loves her.

“The Widow and the Wife” is very neatly bookended with scenes of Will and Dorothea parting. In the first chapter (54), Will bids Dorothea farewell, not knowing of the codicil in Mr. Casaubon’s will. In the last chapter (62), he has finally gotten the push needed to make himself actually leave (knowledge of the codicil), and parts from Dorothea with that knowledge.

Fred Vincy’s storyline is refreshing because, unlike the stories of so many of the other characters, life is actually looking up for him. A chance encounter with Mr. Garth at work led to Fred assisting him (and soiling his own “perfect summer trousers” in the process). Fred enjoys the active, outdoor work and asks Caleb about learning the business. Fred is determined not to become a clergyman, but needs some way to earn a living, and Caleb is happy to help him. Despite the discouragement of finding he will have to work as an office clerk as well and that his handwriting is rubbish and must be relearned, Fred has promised himself the pleasure of telling Mary that he is engaged to work under her father and doesn’t like to disappoint himself. So, he buckles down and works. Another unpleasantness is having to tell his parents what he has decided, knowing that they will be extremely disappointed. To offset this, however, is the comfort of seeing that Mary is happy about his news.

Mr. Lydgate is in debt. Not only did he accumulate debt at the time of his marriage by expensively furnishing his house, he and Rosamond have lived well beyond his means ever since. In addition to this trouble, Lydgate is coming to realize that Rosamond’s perfect manners were not a sign of sympathetic intelligence, as he had supposed. He is slowly discovering her obstinacy. She is never loud or obvious, but quietly obdurate — even to the point of miscarrying her baby rather than giving up her own way. Rosamond, too, is becoming disillusioned. The humiliation of have to return plate and having an inventory taken of the furniture is a great trial for her, having known nothing but indulgence heretofore, “and whose dreams” in marrying Lydgate, “had all been of new indulgence, more exactly to her taste” (ch. 58).

Will seems to be the link between the “Widow” and the “Wife”, as he is in love with the former and spends a great deal of his time with the latter. Dorothea defends him when Mrs. Cadwallader suggests that Mr. Ladislaw is making a scandal by being with Rosamond so much. It is interesting that people thought Will wronged on both his parents’ sides. Will says he comes “of rebellious blood on both sides” (ch. 37). His father’s mother was disinherited because of her marriage and his mother ran away from her family to get her own living. Mr. Casaubon, as the one in possession of the fortune his grandmother was denied, provided for Will as he grew up. Mr. Bulstrode, as the not-so-innocent possessor of the fortune his mother would have had had he not concealed her whereabouts from her mother, wants to make retribution to Will. Will decided to no longer depend on money from Mr. Casaubon and he certainly wasn’t going to accept Bulstrode’s money, any more than his mother would have, but, had he chosen to, he could have made a pretty penny out of those who wanted to make up for past wrongs.

I0000P7En0g1cwGAMr. Bulstrode is a very complex man. Much of his inner life is “simply a doctrinal transaction” (ch. 61). He participated in and profited from a business selling stolen goods. He dishonestly possessed himself of great amounts of money by his first marriage. And yet, he tells himself he does it in the cause of religion. “Who would use money and position better than he meant to use them? Who could surpass him in self-abhorrence and exaltation of God’s cause?” But you can’t bribe God, who desires obedience rather than burnt offerings.1 When Raffles bring the fear of discovery into Bulstrode’s life, the latter considers that Providence is telling him that “self-prostration” isn’t enough and he must make “restitution.” In an odd gesture, he tries to do a “penitential” action by making himself look good. He emphasizes to Will that, although he is under no obligation to do so, he would like make amends for the deprivation his mother suffered. “He felt that he was performing a striking piece of scrupulosity in the judgment of his auditor, and a penitential act in the eyes of God.”

Mr. Bulstrode is crushed by Will’s repulse. Will is angry about Mr. Casaubon’s will, what he has learned of his connections, and he even has a “movement of anger” against Dorothea, who seems cold to him when they part. Lydgate is unhappy about being in debt and torn by the distance Rosamond has put between them. Rosamond is repelled by Tertius’s moods and humiliated by their money troubles. In short, half the characters in Middlemarch are currently troubled. Unlike them, however, Dorothea ends the book happy in the discovery that Will loves her.


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 sixth book of Middlemarch here: “The Widow and the Wife”.

1 “And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams.” (I Samuel 15:22)

Screencap from the 1994 miniseries of “Middlemarch” with Peter Jeffrey as Nicholas Bulstrode.

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