Throughout history, marriage has been central to the lives of both men and women – from the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Tales to Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, the question of matrimony has always been a pervasive theme in the trajectory of literature. It is no surprise, then, that marriage is the most ubiquitous subject of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, with five marriages taking place during the novel and other relationships being analysed. But whilst many female novelists at the time would use marriage to bring their novels to joyful conclusions – Austen’s Emma and Bronte’s Jane Eyre are clear examples – Eliot was more interested in exploring the realities of matrimonial life. In so doing, Eliot distanced herself from the tropes of conventional romance derided in her essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists. Eliot opposed the falsely-romantic and idealized view of life and of love, and so her novels adopt a realist approach to nuptial union. Her protagonists do not always end their trials and tribulations ‘with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever’. This essay shall discuss the marriages of Rosamond and Dorothea to show how Eliot not only rejects idealistic views of marriage and of femininity, but also how she criticises marital conventions in a patriarchal and class-obsessed society.
The marriage between Rosamond and Lydgate exemplifies the problems caused by ideals of romance and femininity. Lydgate wants a wife with ‘that feminine radiance, that distinctive womanhood which must be classed with flowers and music.’ This description embodies the conventional model of womanly beauty, and so we see how Lydgate has been manipulated by ideals, leading him to choose a wife for the wrong reasons. It is no wonder, though, that having adopted this interpretation of femininity, Lydgate falls for Rosamond. Owing to her education at Mrs Lemon’s school, Rosamond represents the supposedly perfect lady: she has ‘excellent taste in costume’ and a ‘nymph-like figure’ accompanied by ‘pure blondness’. Lydgate has been deceived into believing that Rosamond would be the best wife for him, simply because she fulfils a societal stereotype, rather than because her personality suits his. But Rosamond is also deceived by ideals and conventions – she is obsessed with appearances, and she arguably chooses her husband because of his aristocratic connections. In fact, she is so concerned with impressing Lydgate’s upper-class relatives that she wants him to get a ‘first-rate position elsewhere than in Middlemarch’ so that they are not shocked by her family. Again, this idea of marrying into the aristocracy is typical of ‘silly novels’, which have clearly influenced Rosamond. Hence, she estimates her interaction with Lydgate as ‘the opening incidents of a preconceived romance’.
Despite the fact that, according to the narrator, ‘Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing,’ and even though she has only known him ‘through the brief entrances and exits of a few imaginative weeks called courtship’, Rosamond convinces herself that meeting Lydgate is ‘the great epoch of her life’. Because of the brevity of their acquaintance, and because they are misled by ideals of femininity and of love, their marriage fails. They do not actually know each other (Rosamond is ‘by nature an actress of parts’), so Lydgate is forced to admit that ‘the tender devotedness and docile adoration of the ideal wife must be renounced, and life must be taken up on a lower stage of expectation.’ Society, along with the ‘Many-volumed romances of chivalry’, has created false ideals, and both Rosamond and Lydgate suffer for it. Their marriage is rife with conflict, with neither husband nor wife accepting the judgements of the other, leading to a stale-mate. Rosamond is not the ‘docile’ or ‘devoted’ wife that Lydgate desired, and she even begins to think that ‘if she had known how Lydgate would behave, she would never have married him.’ It’s clear, then, that Lydgate and Rosamond, conditioned as they have been by society, married for the wrong reasons, and so they writhe under the failure of ideals and conventions.
Dorothea’s marriage to Casaubon is similarly driven by dishonest ideals and flawed conventions. Of course, neither Dorothea nor Casaubon resemble the heroine or hero of a Victorian romance novel. And yet, both still cling to certain ideals of femininity, concerned not so much with beauty or taste, but with the patriarchal stereotype of submissive women (which Lydgate also seems to uphold). Casaubon thinks that Dorothea ‘might really be such a helpmate to him as would enable him to dispense with a hired secretary’, showing the lack of equality in his marital expectations. Dorothea, though ambitious in what Rosemary Ashton calls her ‘idealistic attempt to find a role’, feels similarly. She finds her role in the vocation of wife and, in the words of Cara Weber, ‘internalises the ideal of wifely duty’. Hence, she often compares her ideal relationship to that between a father and daughter. She wishes for the ‘freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path.’ This ideal of wifely duty, combined with her Theresa-like ‘passionate, ideal nature’ which ‘demanded an epic life’, leads her to marrying Casaubon, with whom she is utterly incompatible. We only have to compare the speech of the two to see how very different they are. Derek Oldfield argues that, whilst Casaubon’s speech is characterised by intricate constructions and subordinate clauses (as in his proposal letter), Dorothea’s speech is constituted of simple sentences and childish exclamations (“Oh, how happy!” she says to her uncle).
Perhaps Dorothea thinks that, in helping Casaubon with his ‘Key to all Mythologies’, she will achieve the ‘epic life’ she so desires, cultivating her intelligence towards some higher end. But there is a tension here: Dorothea’s energetic personality is surely incompatible with her religious commitment to subservience, arguably influenced by the inequality of Victorian society. She has attempted to conform to a stereotypical role she simply cannot play. This is why ‘the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind’ become ‘anterooms and winding passages’ leading ‘nowhither.’ The metaphorical ‘anterooms and winding passages’ seem an apt description of her married life, trapped as she is in Casaubon’s ‘small windowed and melancholy-looking’ abode. In this sense, her confession to Celia that she is “rather short-sighted” is symbolic of her illusions about the virtues of marrying a secluded old man. It is when she is in Rome, confronted by the ‘ruins and basilicas’ that she realises her mistake. Rather than being charmed by the city’s antique beauty, she is shocked by a ‘vast wreck of ambitious ideals’ and ‘a glut of confused ideas’. Here she comprehends the foolishness of her marriage with Casaubon and her desire to be a submissive wife – her marriage is a ‘wreck of ambitious ideals’. Things worsen when she returns to Middlemarch from her lonely honeymoon only to be even more separated from her husband: they inhabit different spheres within the house, Casaubon’s domain being his library, Dorothea’s being her blue-green boudoir. This separation arguably reflects the 19th Century distinction between masculine and feminine spheres, which Dorothea fights against in other ways (planning housing and trying to set up the hospital).
The other problem in the Dorothea-Casaubon marriage is that, as with Lydgate and Rosamond, their courtship is extremely short. Dorothea meets Casaubon in chapter two, and after ‘three more conversations with him,’ she is ‘convinced that her first impressions had been just.’ Dorothea receives Casaubon’s engagement letter in chapter five, and they are married five chapters later. As Bernard Paris argues, ‘Dorothea is a victim of the conditions of civilised courtship, which do not allow the parties to gain much knowledge of each other.’ And so we see again how dangerous these conventions can be. It is because they hardly know each other that they fail to trust one another properly – hence Casaubon’s ‘disgust and suspicion’ about Ladislaw. Moreover, their lack of closeness as a couple is evident throughout (‘She was as blind to his inward troubles as he to hers’), especially when compared to the Garth relationship, who are touchingly communicative – Caleb’s habit is to ‘take no important step without consulting Susan’. And so, Eliot is not just pointing out the failings of ideals and feminine stereotypes – she also condemns the brevity of modern courtship, since it deceives expectations. After embarking on the voyage of marriage, we discover ‘that the sea is not within sight – that, in fact, you are exploring an enclosed basin.’ This is why the marriage between Mary and Fred is a ‘solid, mutual happiness’ – they have known each other from childhood, and as Fred says, “I have never been without loving Mary.”
So what, in Eliot’s view, constitutes a successful marriage? Romantic idealism and societal conventions certainly do not – we see from the Cadwalladers that marriages across social classes can still succeed, even if they are unorthodox. It’s clear from the above examples that the happiest marriages follow on from lengthy courtships and also some sort of mutuality. Mary and Fred become published authors later in life, both giving credit to the other for their help – this alone demonstrates the value of mutuality. The Garth’s are also mutually happy, both working to provide for the family (Susan is a teacher). Susan Garth feels she married the cleverest man she has ever known whilst Caleb thinks he has a woman he is not worthy of. This illustrates the importance of mutual admiration and love in a marriage, something that can only be certain after a long courtship. This love is clear in Dorothea’s marriage to Will – as she tells her sister, “you would have to feel with me, else you would never know,” showing how ineffably strong her love is. The problem with her first marriage was its lack of love, and as we discover later, ‘No life would have been possible to Dorothea which was not filled with emotion’. Moreover, she has something worthwhile to do in her second marriage: she lives ‘a life filled… with beneficent activity’ helping Will in his political work. This explains the historical placing of the novel, since we might argue that the passing of the Great Reform Bill was directly influenced by Will Ladislaw and Dorothea’s help.
And yet, as aforementioned, Eliot’s novels do not end in idealistic perfection. There is still much unhappiness and ambiguity in the Finale. Harriet Bulstrode is martyred in her extreme loyalty to her husband, and we see her at the end of the novel with greying hair and black clothing. Rosamond and Lydgate’s marriage continues turbulently until Lydgate dies at 50, having achieved none of his great ambitions. Even the happiness of Dorothea and Will seems uncertain. The narrator makes a particularly sarcastic comment about Dorothea’s loss of agency in life: ‘she had now a life filled… with a beneficent activity which she had not the doubtful pains of discovering and making out for herself.’ She may be doing great things, but she is only doing them in terms of ‘wifely help’ rather than making independent changes, as the novelist herself has done. She has sadly been ‘absorbed into the life of another’ and is ‘only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother’. But perhaps this is unfair: after all, Dorothea’s influence is clear in that, in the Finale, her epithet is used to describe Will as an ‘ardent public man’. Moreover, as Kathleen Blake argues, ‘the novel’s focus on the disabilities of a woman’s lot’, and thus Eliot is showing that, despite all of her ambitions, the best Dorothea could hope for was a productive and happy marriage to the man she loved. To suggest her marriage is a submission to patriarchy is to miss the point – she has done the best she could within societal restraints, refusing to consider Will’s ‘low-birth’ and instead marrying for love.