Middlemarch: Two Temptations

The seventh book of Middlemarch is not cheerful. In it, the Lydgates’ marriage continues to disintegrate and Mr. Bulstrode shamefully rids himself of his persecutor, Raffles.

While reading “Two Temptations”, the thought popped into my head that Rosy and Esther Lyon both disliked lingering food smells, and I began comparing them again. I compared Rosamond and Esther (the heroine of George Eliot’s Felix Holt) before, when writing about Book 2 of Middlemarch. They both begin as self-absorbed young women dedicated to being ladylike and with a certain veneration for rank. They thought little of anything larger than themselves and were apt to regard things only as they affected themselves. Then, they both fell in love with highly idealistic men. For one young woman, this love changed and exalted her. For the other, this love led to circumstances that cemented all of the littleness in her.

Esther was originally offended by Felix’s rudeness to her, but he thought her worth trying to “save”, entreating her to be better than she was. As a result, Esther came to admire him and to be better herself. At the beginning of Lydgate and Rosamond’s relationship, he is invariably polite and even flirtatious with her, but speaks of nothing greater than her own little interests. In Felix and Esther’s situation, Felix thinks her worth the trouble of lecturing. Lydgate admired Rosamond, but considered her greatest mental strength to be the facility to appreciate a man such as himself. Despite similarities between Felix and Lydgate, they had very different attitudes towards women.

I wonder how it would have been if Lydgate had treated Rosamond as his equal before they married and spoke to her of serious things. At the least, even if he did not enlarge her mind any, their true characters would not have been so thoroughly hidden from each other before they married — possibly even preventing the marriage. When Lydgate began to worry about being able to pay the debts incurred when he married, he “generously but mistakenly” (Book 6, ch. 58) avoided telling Rosamond, lest she be disturbed while she was pregnant. It is not strange that his devotion to his profession and their being in debt came as disagreeable surprises to Rosamond. The division between them only grows from there. The prospect of having to borrow money to pay his debts, and the distraction from his research and profession which this caused, drove Lydgate into “a bitter moody state which was continually widening Rosamond’s alienation from him” (ch. 64).

On her side, I don’t know that, even if Lydgate had treated her as an equal, Rosamond would have become any better. She is utterly selfish and narrow-minded. Lydgate tries to prevent division between them by being as tender as possible to his wife. She accepts his tenderness, “but in her secret soul she was utterly aloof from him. The poor thing saw only that the world was not ordered to her liking, and Lydgate was part of that world” (ch. 64). Even as their money troubles grow worse and worse, Rosamond resists any plan for economy. She is miserable and humiliated and blames her husband, his family, the creditors, her father — anyone who is so selfish as to not consider how their actions might annoy her.

“In fact there was but one person in Rosamond’s world whom she did not regard as blameworthy, and that was the graceful creature with blond plaits and with little hands crossed before her, who had never expressed herself unbecomingly, and had always acted for the best — the best naturally being what she best liked.” (Ch. 65)

Despite his mistakes with money and his wife (two subjects on which Lydgate shows a remarkable lack of intelligence in sharp contrast to his professional ability), Lydgate does his best to do right. He tries to economize and to be kind and loving to Rosamond. Eventually, he is so hounded by his creditors that he tells Mr. Bulstrode of his situation in the hopes of getting money from him. Mr. Bulstrode, however, refuses, pointing out that “trial, my dear sir, is our portion here, and is a needed corrective” (ch. 67).

Mr. Bulstrode is much less willing to welcome “trial” and “correction” in his own case, however. His refusal to lend Lydgate any money occurred during a lull in Raffles’ tormenting of him. The lull does not last long, however. Raffles always returns, delighting in threatening Bulstrode with exposure — enjoying tormenting him even more than extracting money from him. This time, though, Raffles arrived seriously ill. Bulstrode called in Lydgate to attend him. Lydgate was hopeful that Raffles would recover, but, for Bulstrode, “Raffles dead was the image that brought release” — that he “might be freed from the threat of an ignominy which would break him utterly as an instrument of God’s service” (ch. 71). It is a pity that Bulstrode’s faith did not keep him from doing wrong to begin with or, having done wrong, to at least not look down on those who were no worse than himself. Past sin should not keep anyone from being effective as “an instrument of God’s service.”

Instead of accepting his “trial” or humbling himself and confessing his wrongdoing, Bulstrode rids himself of Raffles. At no point does he plan to allow Raffles to die, but, with two very decisive choices he seals Raffles fate and his own guilt. First, Bulstrode forgot to tell the housekeeper when Lydgate said to cease giving Raffles opium. After going to his room, Bulstrode remembered this instruction, but chose not to rectify his omission. Then, when the housekeeper came to Bulstrode’s room and asked if she might give the patient some brandy, instead of telling her that the doctor had strictly forbidden any alcohol whatsoever, Bulstrode, hands her the key to his wine-cooler. He struggled first, but ultimately made a choice which made him morally responsible for Raffles’ subsequent death.

Unknown to Bulstrode, Lydgate’s prescribed regime differed from generally accepted treatments of such cases. Raffles’ sudden demise puzzles Lydgate, but he feels unable to put any questions to Bulstrode without insulting him — and, after all, the man is already dead and he might have been wrong himself. Adding to his reluctance to investigate is that fact that, shortly after Raffles’ return, Bulstrode had changed his mind and lent Lydgate the thousand pounds he needed to completely free himself of debt.

Just as Bulstrode feels finally secure, the truth of his past becomes known, along with the hold Raffles had over him. It is quickly noted that Raffles died in Bulstrode’s home under Lydgate’s care. It is also known that Bulstrode paid Lydgate’s debts. The money is looked upon as a bribe — even if for nothing worse than holding his tongue about Bulstrode’s past — and evil tales circulate of both Bulstrode and Lydgate. When Bulstrode is confronted with the rumors about him and asked to deny or admit his past wrongdoing, he loses the strength even to leave the room. Lydgate sees his trouble and assists him — “yet this act, which might have been one of gentle duty and pure compassion, was at this moment unspeakably bitter to him” (ch. 71), for Lydgate immediately recognizes how his own involvement will be viewed.

Really, the only bit of hope in this book is in the last lines, in which Dorothea, told of the accusations against Lydgate, declares, “I will not believe it. Let us find out the truth and clear him!”

__________________________

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 seventh book of Middlemarch here: “Two Temptations”.

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