NOTE: This is an in-depth book review and CONTAINS SPOILERS.
In the first part, George Eliot introduced us to the young Brooke sisters—sweet, simple-natured Celia and her fervently religious older sister Dorothea. The latter becomes enamored of an elderly scholar, Mr. Casaubon, while evading the advances of Sir James Chettam, a respectable but (to Dorothea) utterly prosaic gentleman. Book 2 continues this drama and fleshes out a range of other Middlemarchers, including the young and ambitious Tertius Lydgate, glamorous Miss Rosamund Vincy, and the banker Bulstrode and his associates, eager to strengthen their influence over the politics and religion of this provincial English town.
The tension Eliot built up in the first part, after Dorothea’s accepting Mr. Casaubon’s hand, is greatly let down in Book 2. It is almost as if she is starting the novel over with a new character: the new doctor Lydgate, his past, and his prospects. Indeed, we are actually given a flashback of Lydgate’s time in France, where in a half-humorous incident he falls for an actress with rather dire results. Having somewhat learned his lesson—or has he?—Lydgate, high on a wave of ideals and desired medical reforms, opts to set up practice in the countryside instead of in London. Much of this part follows his impressions of the townspeople, his introduction to Miss Vincy, and his reluctant involvement in the upcoming election of a new chaplain.
To be honest, I found Lydgate’s character painting entirely tedious and a slog to read through. Then it finally dawned on me… he is a less-interesting, male version of Dorothea. On the outside, he is amiable, intelligent, and eager to do good deeds. Yet in his heart, which Eliot reveals to us, there is a slight arrogance or “holier than thou” mentality. I am biased in that I have a vague idea of how his character progresses (from having watched the TV series years ago), but the similarity to Dorothea alone would have you anticipate Lydgate’s future downfall, not to mention his incident with the actress.
Certain scenes spare us of the doctor’s presence, fortunately. We get a glimpse of Rosamund and her brother Fred and their distant cousin Mary Garth, as well as the peculiar dynamic between the families.
Rosamund aspires to the role of a high-society lady—in spite of her dazzling looks and refined schooling, she is “only” the daughter of a manufacturer and mayor. This may not seem like a major hurdle to us modern readers, but in book 1, it was explained that she was barred even from attending Dorothea’s going-away parties, due to certain female acquaintances of the Brookes who thought it improper for the young ladies to be in the same company. It is easier to understand, then, why she sets her sights on Dr. Lydgate, who, if not wealthy, has a higher rank in the world. Rosamund, for no fault of her own, is slighted by her birth, and an advantageous marriage offers her a chance to turn the tables.
While Fred seems to fall into the trope of “gambling son,” his crush Mary at least is a bit more dimensional. Unlike Rosamund, she has no expectations or schemes of marrying up. She is plain, down-to-earth and more or less resigned to her life as companion to her uncle. However, with a witty sense of humor and no qualms about speaking her mind, Mary’s personality shines through her circumstances, and it’s easy to see why Fred likes her.
An Educational Honeymoon
When we finally return to the Casaubons, they are on a honeymoon tour of Rome, and poor Dorothea’s eyes are opened to the reality of her new life. Mr. Casaubon, though polite as ever, has really no use for her in his line of work, declining both assistance and critique alike. Worse yet, his world-weary view of Rome added to her own Puritanism makes it hard for the Dorothea to appreciate the sights she’s seeing.
It is Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s young distant cousin, who—in that happy chance you’ll find in every great Victorian novel—shows up in Rome at the same time and saves her from utter loneliness. Not that anything really happens between them except a few formal conversations, where Will treads lightly upon the subject of her husband (whom he secretly loathes). But with the help of his German artist-friend, Will gently lifts Dorothea’s spirits and forms a friendship with her that does not remove her isolation but at least softens it. He has not been so illuminated for us as Lydgate is, yet he grows more and more likeable.
This is where I was most impressed by Eliot’s skill, because she begins to paint Casaubon as a real antagonist without making it the least bit overdone. His mere coldness to Will and frequent abandonment of Dorothea show a passive aggressiveness that is masterfully nuanced. It’s chilling and plausible at the same time. Casaubon’s own short-sighted obstinacy in his research adds to his overall relevance that makes him a character for all times, not just 1800s England.
Some Things Don’t Change
Finally, I was intrigued by the political and religious conflicts described as taking place in Middlemarch. Without boring you with a full recap, it can be boiled down to something like:
- Rich people having too much influence over the democratic system
- Personal character playing a large part in voters’ perceptions of the candidates
- Diversity of strongly held theological beliefs (in spite of a state religion)
- Low church attendance
Sounds pretty familiar, huh?