'It's rather a strong check to one's self-complacency to find how much of one's right doing depends on not being in want of money,' says Mr Farebrother in chapter 63. Middlemarch, masquerading as a provincial Trollope-style novel, is strikingly political. Previously, in chapter 60, Eliot satirises the parochialism of the Middlemarchers, 'who sneered at [Will's] Polish blood, and were themselves of a breed very much in need of crossing'. I can think of nothing so Left-leaning (even in Dickens) elsewhere in Victorian fiction.
'[Bulstrode] went on with the same interrupted enunciation - as if he were biting an objectionable leek' (ch. 67). Earlier in the chapter Lydgate privately objects to a 'broken metaphor' used by Bulstrode. But what are we to make of Eliot's leek simile? Is it meant to be funny? This isn't a humorous scene. When exactly does anyone bite into a leek, and what would an objectionable leek be like?
Middlemarch is indeed political throughout. Even in the personal it is political. The perfectibility of human nature is a matter of debate between Farebrother and Dorothea in chapter 72. Farebrother, we know from an earlier scene, is Whiggish, but his views are jaundiced, almost Tory, and he gives a jaundiced view on this topic. But ultra-progressive Dorothea rejoins, 'Then [character] may be rescued and healed'. No one could mistake her for a Tory.
*A young Henry James, reviewing Middlemarch in 1873, found it a 'treasure-house of details, but [...] an indifferent whole'. He thought Dorothea a magnificent but wasted figure. Casaubon dies too early; Dorothea's story stagnates. It all becomes a matter of whether she will or won't marry Will Ladislaw, whom James dismisses as a dilettante.
Eliot is certainly good with working-class characters - but not with servants. There's a Master Bunney, Dorothea's gardener, and there's Tantripp, her faithful housekeeper or lady's-maid. Both are presented either comically or rather like children. Trantripp is the classic household 'treasure', beloved of the conservative imagination.
But at least we have chapter 76, Dorothea and Lydgate's meeting, in which the nobility of Dorothea is able to bloom without check: 'a noble nature, generous in its wishes, ardent in its charity'.
It's a mark of Eliot's judgement that the novel's final chapter, prior to the magisterial Finale, focuses on Mary and Fred. The Olympians have left the stage, and the story ends sweetly in comedy.
Anyone who has ever wandered the art museums of Germany and Austria will be familiar with the work of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller. It probably says rather too much about my views and tastes that I gravitate towards the stagnant bourgeois world of the Biedermeier period. But I finish my rereading of Middlemarch with an indulgent look at some Waldmüller paintings that might easily illustrate Eliot's novel - not exactly, but perhaps in terms of tone.
Prince Esterházy’s Councillor Mathias Kerzmann
with his second wife and daughter, 1835
|(Detail of above)|
|Seated girl in white satin dress, 1839|
|Woman in iridescent green and|
salmon-pink gown, 1837