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ART. X.-Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. By
GEORGE ELIOT. London : 1871-72. WE
E do not know how far the design of the story of Middle
march’ may have affected its form of publication, nor, on the other hand, whether the appearance of the volumes at stated intervals may not have modified the structure and character of the work; but, in any case, the result has been felicitous. During very many months an agitation of interest in the personages it has created has been kept up even beyond the ordinary range of literary circles, almost equalling that with which the youth of Cambridge tore open the packets of the new volume of Clarissa' and sat down to read them on the hedge-side of the Trumpington road, and with which the bellringers rushed to the church and gave out a merry peal on the marriage of Pamela. Each volume, up to the very last, left open the question whether the real hero and the real heroine of the book could not by some means be brought together ; and we are not sure that the disappointment at the failure of this expectation will be easily got over. Acute lawyers have argued that Mary Garth was guilty, in equity, of forging her uncle's will, by refusing to assist him in accomplishing his last testamentary desires, and doctors have been recounting various suspicious family histories in which they might have been implicated in the crime of murder with quite as much justice as Lydgate in the hastened death of Raffles. Besides the amusement derived from this series of expectations, conjectures, and surprises, we believe that the readers of these separate volumes have enjoyed an advantage which, in the nature of things, cannot occur again. To them the story has never seemed to flag, nor the characters to be confused. They have assisted with deep interest in the production of a vast picture, in which figure after figure has taken its place, and gone through certain transformations, more or less interesting; but it does not follow that the impression of the whole will be quite as satisfactory. The arrangement of the groups, their mutual connexion, and their relations in perspective, may provoke criticism which we who are under the immediate influence of the gradually progressive story can hardly appreciate, and may reveal defects in the very qualities that have excited our admiration.
In following out this analogy we must remark that all observers of the progress of the art of landscape-painting in this
country must have noticed a great change of late years in the choice of its subjects, of which Mr. Millais’ “Chill October' may be taken as a decisive specimen. It is not merely the absence of any such central effect as gives to the Sun itself in Turner's greatest works a painful monotony of treatment, but it is the desire to give the impression of a simple fragment of Nature, taken out of the whole scene not for any special grace or merit, or for the purpose of leaving on the mind of the spectator any stirring particular remembrance, but to stand on its own deserts as a faithful representation of an ordinary aspect of the material world about us. With the same intention' our artist in fiction takes a quiet country-town of forty years ago, and a squire's house lying near it, with just the people whom we know were there at that time, and places them before us with very little apparatus or detail of surrounding events, and says, 'Here is my novel.' Not with descriptive minutiæ of their various manners and traits of character such as Miss Mitford delighted to draw in Our Village,' nor as manifestations of the many semi-serious, semi-comic, humours of humanity such as Mrs. Gaskell has delineated in her immortal • Cranford,' do they stand before us, but as ordinary people, whom we might have met any day,--the loquacious Squire the pompous Banker --the intelligent Agent--the rival Doctors old and young--the comfortable Manufacturer—the fast youth of the country-town, who has been at school with the sons of the neighbouring gentry —the idle scholarly artist—and the womankind naturally appertaining to each. These, and nothing more, are the actors in this literary drama. There is not one of them that has not been delineated over and over again in every costume and attitude, and with every imaginable surrounding of incident and result, but rarely, if ever, with such a skill of moral machinery and such a power of mental delineation. It is another. Chill October.'
In a few lines of prefatory matter the author gives the keynote of the sense in which he desires the book to be read. He images Santa Teresa of Avila in her childhood walking out with her little brother to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors. In outward appearance two mere children are there out-walking—in reality two creatures instinct with the highest passions that have torn and tossed, blessed and tormented, mankind. So his characters in these pages stand out first before us, ordinary parts of an insignificant society, but each with his or her varied future before them, acting on one another's mental and moral history, through circumstances yet undeveloped, as expressed in his own powerful words: • The stealthy vengeance of human lots,—the slow
preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbour. Destiny stands • by sarcastic, with our dramatis persona folded in her hand.'
It is curious that these reflective foreshadowings especially accompany the presentation of Miss Brooke to Mr. Lydgate, the characters who in their own separate lines take up
carry through the interest of the story to the very end, but whose careers have less influence on each other than any others in the book. Perhaps, indeed, our author when writing these lines intended to bring them into closer contact than the later development of the plot permitted, although there is no intimation of it in the vivid sketch of the framework in which the future picture is to be placed, which, however, seems to us to belong to a somewhat older form of our society than that of the days of the first Reform Bill, which is the supposed date of
‘Old provincial society had its share of this subtle movement: had not only its striking downfalls, its brilliant young professional dandies who ended by living up an entry with a drab and six children for their establishment, but also those less marked vicissitudes which are constantly shifting the boundaries of social intercourse, and begetting new consciousness of interdependence. Some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing: people denied aspirates, gained wealth, and fastidious gentlemen stood for boroughs; some were caught in political currents, some in ecclesiastical, and perhaps found themselves surprisingly grouped in consequence; while a few personages or families that stood with rocky firmness amid all this fluctuation, were slowly presenting new aspects in spite of solidity, and altering with the double change of self and beholder. Municipal town and rural parish gradually made fresh threads of connexion-gradually, as the old stocking gave way to the savings-bank, and the worship of the solar guinea became extinct; while squires and baronets, and even lords who had once lived blamelessly afar from the civic mind, gathered the faultiness of closer acquaintanceship. Settlers, too, came from distant counties, some with an alarming novelty of skill, others with an offensive advantage in cunning. In fact, much the same sort of movement and mixture went on in old England as we find in older Herodotus, who, also, in telling what had been, thought it well to take a woman's lot for his starting-point; though lo, as a maiden apparently beguiled by attractive merchandise, was the reverse of Miss Brooke, and in this respect perhaps bore more resemblance to Rosamond Vincy, who had excellent taste in costume, with that nymph-like figure and pure blondness which give the largest range to choice in the flow and colour of drapery.'
But notwithstanding the progress of relations between town and country, the two groups in our story are kept distinct in the two great matters of Marriage and Inheritance which make
up the interest of the tale. There are, indeed, courtships not unlike those of other fictions, but it is a real novelty that the two marriages take place in the body of the story, and the main incidents and their consequences are constituent parts of it and do not make everybody happy ever after.' It would hardly be a misnomer if the title were a study of married' rather than of provincial' life, and it is in this character that it offers itself most distinctly to criticism. Incompatible unions form abundant food for fiction, and the disappearance or transformation of the ideal partner for life is the ordinary process of romantic chemistry. The more singular, therefore, is the excitement which the psychological discussions between these couples arouse in the reader, and the earnest anxiety with which the process of disenchantment is followed. That much of this is owing to George Eliot's fine expression and command of language is undoubted; but the inherent qualities of Lydgate and Dorothea, as developed by the unequal matches, are the main foundation of the personal interest, and worked out with infinite skill. The marriage of an attractive girl with a man old enough to be her father occurs every day, and with a result of as much happiness on both sides as could be desired in many temperaments: the filial blends easily with the conjugal relation ; and, but that the life of the mature woman often falls into the occupation of the nurse, the difference of age is no serious objection to any otherwise well-assorted union. Nor does Mr. Casaubon to the outside spectator offer any grounds for Dorothea's disillusion. She marries him knowing him to be devoted to his literary work, and therefore not likely to pursue or care for the usual interests of youth-to be destitute of the pliancy and liveliness which often enable learned men to adapt themselves to society- to be almost without any exercise of family affection, and, from the very nature of his studies, more curious about collective than individual Man; and the judgment of the world would certainly have been that she ought to have known her mind better, and must take the natural consequences of her choice. And if Dorothea had been the purely intellectual and model woman, this sentence would have been just; but we take the meaning of our author especially to be that even in the mystical imagination and the self-abnegation of the highest woman we must still take count of the common womanhood, and that a
even as that’ Dorothea, must submit to the conditions of her nature. Her husband is made jealous, even during his honeymoon, of the artist cousin, for whose education he has provided, and who, as far as appears in these pages, is his only
living relative. This feeling is excused, as 'a sort of jealousy • which needs very little fire—it is hardly
little fire—it is hardly a passion, but a blight bred in the deadly damp despondency of uneasy
egoism ;' for Dorothea, as far as we see, does nothing to encourage the suspicion. She is simply kind and appreciative to her husband's near relation, a young man in a difficult and dependent condition. She tries afterwards to get transferred to him the fortune left to her in case of her widowhood; and when that event arrives, and she finds that there is a condition in her husband's will that she shall lose all his fortune in case she marries Ladislaw, you feel that you are hardly within the range of probability, unless Mr. Casaubon was rather mad. The progress of the human and the loss of the ideal element in the mind of Dorothea is painted with a gentle irony that may be unwelcome both to earnest believers in female devotion and to decided advocates for woman's independence: for she neither contents herself with doing all she can to make her husband's life happy, nor is she able to make a life for herself independent of him. She finds a pedant instead of a sage, and is miserable at the disenchantment.
In the great crisis of her life she does exactly what a commonplace young woman would do who reciprocates a passionate attachment. It is in truth the development of a character which gains on you by its weaknesses and wins you by its decline.
Few people remember how, some thirty years since, the run of fashionable novels was disturbed by Miss Martineau's clever but too didactic · Deerbrook '(Sydney Smith christened it the 'Loves of an Apothecary'), which superseded for a time the struggles and catastrophes of amorous countesses and desperate dukes. The story of Lydgate, the young surgeon
of Middlemarch, will take a firmer hold of the public mind ; and yet here as in Dorothea too we have the romance of disappointment. • The difficulties' of the career of a young doctor, who insists on establishing in a provincial town not only new scientific theories, but new methods of professional practice, were assuredly hard enough, without linking him with a woman who provokes by her wayward charms and ruins by her best intentions. Here, in contrast to the heroine, is the enthusiast brought down to the saddest level of common life, not by the contact of an inferior intellect, but by the pressure of a lower morality. Rosamond, again, may
well seem to have no serious cause for self-reproach. She, who has refused all the good matches of the place, gives herself to a man of genius, who she might fairly expect to raise her in social station and gratify her just domestic pride. She has tastes for luxury and habits of self