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Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. By George Eliot. New York: Harper and Brothers.
title could be more accurate than that which calls this
book a study of life. It is evident from every page that the author has the conscientiousness as well as the genius of her calling, and that she has bestowed upon this work the most careful intellectual labor. While the leading characters are wrought out with a care and insight almost unequalled, personages of the second, and even of the third order of interest, are struck out at once for us clear and sharp by a few masterly touches.
The style has been not less carefully elaborated. Every word seems to have been especially chosen for its place, and with an eye to the effect to be conveyed, as an artist selecting his particles of bright or pale color to work into his mosaic.
As we may conclude that the book itself will be in the hands of all our readers, we shall give no sketch of plot or exposition of the personages, but confine ourselves to a few observations on George Eliot's mode of handling the various characters she introduces.
In regard to the personages of this story, we may divide them into two groups : those in which
character is shown in process of development, or otherwise affected by exterior circumstances, and those in which the character, however displayed by circumstances, is fixed and stereotyped. The former will of course be the most interesting, such as Dorothea, Casaubon, Lydgate, Bulstrode, and Ladislaw: the rest, such as the Garths, Sir James Chettam and Celia, Mr. Brooke, the Cadwalladers, etc., etc., are shown to us as being, not as becoming
Dorothea is, of course, the most careful study in the book. There is, perhaps, a faint reminiscence of the author's earlier creation, Romola, in the design ; but Romola was phantom-like compared with the living truth of this enthusiastic English girl, with the vague noble aspirations, who wastes her young life upon the cold and really shallow scholar, Casaubon, because she believes him great, wise, and full of noble purposes. Step by step we are shown the process of her painful undeception : how she learns that he is arrogant, narrowminded, unreasonable, and capable of that meanest form of revenge – that of punishing another for the self-reproach we feel at having done them wrong,
But even those faults her enthusiastic temperament might have come to regard as spots on the sun, had his “soul” been really as “great," and his intellect as grand as she believed ; and the cruellest parting from her illusions is where she comes to see that he is a mere plodder and groper, without even a clear definite purpose, and that his life has been spent in gathering useless rubbish, of which even she can discern the futility. Then to crown all, comes
his attempt to harness her to the chariot of his reputation after he is dead, by extorting the promise that she will give her life to continuing his futile work.
There is perhaps no more striking passage in any fiction, than that where, after his death, she takes the “Synoptical Tabulation" which he had drawn up for her guidance, and seals it up, first writing within the envelope, as if replying to the dead, “I could not use it. Do you not see now that I could not submit my soul to yours by working hopelessly at what I have no belief in ?- DOROTHEA."
And yet when we look at Mr. Casaubon's character as a whole, it is really tragic. Conscientious, upright, ambitious, laborious, he has given his whole life for a purpose in which he could not but fail, and now that it is too late for him to begin anew, he has to close every avenue by which might enter the suspicion that his life is a failure. In Dorothea, for awhile, he has the wondering unquestioned homage he craved; but no sooner does he discover that she too can think and question, than she becomes to his mind a critic weighing his work and finding it wanting, and he closes his heart against her and is more solitary than before. Far sadder than the prisoner in his cell of stone is he who moves where he will, yet whose soul is in a dungeon from which there is no escape.
An exact contrast to this is the married life of Lydgate and Rosamond. The pathos of Dorothea's situation lies in her husband's cold repulsion of her ardent sympathy ; that of Lydgate's is in the refusal or incompetence of Rosamond to sympathise with his hopes and aims. When he would speak of what he meant to do or had done in science, if in her better mood, she listens with mild disgust and tacit mental protest; if in her worse, she coldly reminds him that his practice is falling off. this, though it is the slow death of a soul, is not the sorest part of his trouble. It is cruel pain to a manly spirit to think that he has, however blamelessly, brought the woman who trusted in him and placed her life in his hands, to suffer privation and sorrow. This is sharp pain, even when the wife is one of those earthly angels who bear such hardships as if they were a wreath of flowers. But when the wife, strong in her conscious propriety, and in her want of love, turns upon him with pathetic reproach which he can not answer, and regrets which he can not say are unjustified — if he still loves her, it is a torture to wring the stoutest heart.
The banker Bulstrode, again, is a tragic character, most skilfully drawn. The man is no hypocrite : his prayers are genuinely contrite, and his belief sincere. He believes that by upholding, through his acts, example and influence, the cause of religion, he will atone for that secret crime of his. He believes that the general good he does, and which his ill-gotten wealth enables him to do, compensates for that special wrong. His dread of detection is caused less by the apprehension of disgrace, than by the conviction that it would be a sign that Heaven had not accepted his expiation. His better nature shows itself in his unvarying kindness and real, if undemonstrative, affection for his wife; and it is rewarded at the moment when all others had forsaken him, and when, as the consummation of his punishment,
he knows that she knows the truth. We extract the scene which follows Mrs. Bulstrode's discovery of her husband's guilt.
“ She locked herself in her room. She needed time to get used to her maimed consciousness, her poor lopped life, before she could walk steadily to the place allotted her. A new searching light had fallen on her husband's character, and she could not judge him leniently. The twenty years in which she had believed in him and venerated him, by virtue of his concealments, came back with particulars that made them seem an odious deceit. He had married her with that bad past life hidden behind him, and she had no faith left to protest his innocence of the worst that was imputed to him. Her honest ostentatious nature made the sharing of a merited dishonor as bitter as it could be to any mortal.
“But this imperfectly-taught woman, whose phrases and habits were an odd patchwork, had a loyal spirit within her. The man whose prosperity she had shared through nearly half a life, and who had unvaryingly cherished her - now that punishment had befallen him, it was not possible to her in any sense to forsake him. There is a forsaking which still sits at the same board and lies on the same couch with the forsaken soul, withering it the more by unloving proximity. She knew when she locked her door that she should unlock it ready to go down to her unhappy husband and espouse his sorrow, and say of his guilt, I will mourn and not reproach. But she needed time to gather up her strength; she needed to sob out her farewell to all the gladness and pride of her life. When she had resolved to go down, she prepared herself by some little acts which might seem mere folly to a hard on-looker; they were her way of expressing to all spectators, visible or invisible, that she had begun a new life in which she embraced humiliation. She took off all her ornaments and put on a plain black gown, and instead of wearing her much-adorned cap and large bows of hair, she brushed her hair down and put on a plain bonnet-cap, which made her look suddenly like an early Methodist.
“It was eight o'clock in the morning before the door opened and his wife entered. He dared not look up at her. He sat with his eyes bent down, and as she went toward him she thought he looked smaller – he seemed so withered and shrunken. A movement of new compassion and old tenderness went through her like a great wave, and putting one hand on his, which rested on the arm of the chair, and the other on his shoulder, she said solemnly but kindly,
“Look up, Nicholas.'
“He raised his eyes with a little start and looked at her half amazed for a moment. Her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, 'I know;' and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying, and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing with him, or of the acts which had brought it down on them. His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent. Open-minded as she was, she nevertheless shrank from the words which would have expressed their mutual consciousness, as she would have shrunk from flakes of fire.
She could not say, 'How much is only slander and false suspicion?' and he did not say, 'I am innocent.""
In truth, full of rare humor as this book is, the ground-coloring is deeply tragic. It would seem as if, in the author's view, Destiny were under some tacit pact to frustrate all high purposes, and disappoint all enthusiastic hopes. Casaubon's toilsome life, Dorothea's ardent visions, Lydgate's hope of scientific discovery and elevation of his profession, Bulstrode's scheme of personal expiation and religion helped by his example, even poor Mr. Brooke's ambition of getting into public life and doing some good there, are all disastrous failures. And these are the only ones that have anything like ideals before them. On the other hand the successes are the small material ones of a better income, a larger house, a carriage or a horse; and they fall to such characters as Celia, Fred Vincy, honest Caleb Garth, or worthy Mr. Farebrother, who, with all his merits, is not in the least “apostolic.”
As for Dorothea's second marriage, it certainly seems to us — though the author may not so Mave intended it - as scarcely less a failure than the first. Bright and airy as Will is, with his glittering hair, and beaming smile, and boyish ways, one can not feel that his nature was the rock to which such a woman as Dorothea could make fast her affections, or on which any one could build any considerable superstructure of confidence. Mrs. Cadwallader's sarcasm of the “ Italian with white mice," never entirely quits our memory.
We can not but fancy that she clung to him more from revulsion of feeling than deliberate and well-grounded choice.
And it is for these failures, these lost ideals, that the author has the deepest sympathy, and when she refers to them it is often with words that tremble with pathos — not the loud outcry which writers of her sex usually give, but the strong repressed feeling that gives a quiver and vibration to words otherwise calm.
Nor are her sympathies deep only, but they are broad. The narrow consciousness, the petty life of the Featherstones, the Waules, the gossips of Middlemarch, and the lower depth of the Dagleys and the Fords, who scarcely know anything but that they are poor and suffer, while others are prosperous— she enters into them all, not only with a keen sense of humor, but with unspoken pity, almost love.
In truth, it is her vivid sympathy that makes her humor so fine and true. What can be more life-like than poor Mr. Brooke, rich, goodnatured, well-meaning, with his mild ambition to get into Parliament, and his chaotic mind like a bundle of loose thrums, where pulling at one drags out a dozen tangled together, but never any continuous thread. Hear him make an attempt to speak from the hustings:
“I am a close neighbor of yours, my good friends - you've known me on the bench a good while — I've always gone a good deal into public questions - machinery, now, and machine-breaking - you're many of you concerned with machinery, and I've been going into that lately. it won't do, you know, breaking machines: everything must go on-trade, manufactures, commerce, interchange of staples — that kind of thing — since Adam Smith, that must go on. We must look all over the globe : -'Observation with extensive view' must look everywhere, 'from China to Peru,' as somebody says — Johnson, I think, The Rambler, you know. That is what I have done up to a certain point - not as far as Peru; but I've not always stayed at home - I saw it wouldn't do. I've been in the Levant, where some of your Middlemarch goods go — and then again in the Baltic. The Baltic, now.
“That reminds me, if I wanted a precedent, you know — but we never want a precedent for the right thing — but there is Chatham, now: I can't say I should have supported Chatham, or Pitt, the younger Pitt – he was not a man of ideas, and we want ideas, you know.”
How finely is this contrasted with the sharp-tongued Mrs. Cadwallader, who is the very embodiment of keen-eyed common-sense, and always hits the very bull's-eye of the subject. She remarks, on hearing of Dorothea's intended marriage :
“We are all disappointed, my dear. Young people should think of their families in marrying. I set a bad example — married a poor clergyman, and made myself a pitiable object among the De Bracys obliged to get my coals by stratagem, and pray to heaven for my salad oil. However, Casaubon has money enough ; I must do him that justice. As to his blood, I suppose the family quarterings are three cuttle-fish sable and a commentator rampant. By-the-by, before I go, my dear, I must speak to your Mrs. Carter about pastry. I want to send my young cook to learn of her. Poor people with four children like us, you know, can't afford to keep a good cook. I have no doubt Mrs. Carter will oblige me. Sir James's cook is a perfect dragon."
Sir James speaks of Mr. Brooke's being perhaps deterred from his Parliamentary schemes by the prospect of the expense. She rejoins :
" That is what I told him. He is vulnerable to reason there always a few grains of common-sense in an ounce of miserliness. Miserliness is a capital quality to run in families : it's the safe side for madness to dip on. And there must be a little crack in the Brooke family.”
Sir James suggests that Mr. Cadwallader might remonstrate with. Mr. Brooke about Dorothea's engagement.
“ Not he! Humphrey finds everybody charming: I never can get him to abuse Casaubon. He will even speak well of the bishop, though I tell him it is unnatural in a beneficed clergyman : what can one do with a husband who attends so little to the decencies? I hide it as well as I can by abusing everybody myself. Come, come ; cheer
, up: you are well rid of Miss Brooke ; a girl who would have been requiring you to see the stars by daylight. Between ourselves, little Celia is worth two of her, and likely, after all, to be the better match. For this marriage to Casaubon is as good as going to a nunnery.”
Again, quite a different type, but as carefully drawn, is Mr. Borthrop Trumbull, the eloquent auctioneer.
Surely, among all men whose vocation requires them to exhibit their powers of speech, the happiest is a prosperous provincial auc- ! tioneer keenly alive to his own jokes, and sensible of his encyclopædic knowledge. Some saturnine sour-blooded people might object to be constantly insisting on the merits of all articles from boot-jacks to