Enda O’Doherty writes: As Emer Nolan tells us in the current issue of the Dublin Review of Books (“Pulling back the curtains”) George Eliot, the bicentenary of whose birth is next Friday, is the last but by no means the least of a remarkable series of nineteenth century women authors and her novel Middlemarch (1871-72) is generally recognised to be the highest achievement of the Victorian realist tradition.
It is a book I can boast I have read several times (to make up, in some way, for the ones that sit on my shelves unread and project their disapproval onto the back of my head as I sprawl on the sofa watching murders on television). For many years I owned an old Penguin English Library edition but it must have fallen to bits or become unpleasantly grubby and been expelled from the household. What I have now is one of those fine Everyman hardback editions with a crimson ribbon to keep your place (“Everyman, I will go with thee, and be thy guide, in thy most need to go by thy side.”).
Picking it up, I find that the ribbon keeps the place at page 200, which must mean that the last time I read it that’s as far as I got. Perhaps it was at about that time that I decided to watch again Andrew Davies’s 1994 TV version, which is fine of course, but not the same thing.
Chapter XIX ends on page 200 of the Everyman with the dawning of a realisation on the part of Will Ladislaw that he cares rather strongly for Dorothea, the young wife of his middle-aged cousin Edward Casaubon.
Why was he making any fuss about Mrs. Casaubon? And yet he felt as if something had happened to him with regard to her. There are characters which are continually creating collisions and nodes for themselves in dramas which nobody is prepared to act with them. Their susceptibilities will clash against objects that remain innocently quiet.
As good a description as any of the phenomenon sometimes known as unrequited love. In Will Ladislaw’s case his feelings will not forever remain unrequited – but there’s a husband to be got out of the way first. I have never spoken to anyone, however, who cared that much for the Dorothea/Will relationship or found it very satisfying.
There are three other much more interesting liaisons in the book: Dorothea/Casaubon, Tertius Lydgate/Rosamond Vincy and Fred Vincy/Mary Garth. Dorothea’s near fatal attraction to the unattractive Casaubon stems initially from her feelings of impotence as an intellectual woman. Her only means of being connected to the world of thought and “fine feelings” and action seems to be through marriage. She must therefore find an intellectual man. Being in a hurry she takes the first one that comes along – and he is not a great specimen. Luckily, he has a weak heart, so she will not be stuck with him forever. Fred Vincy, an amiable but feckless young man, must try to become a little more serious and steady in order to be worthy of Mary Garth, who we are given to understand is far from pretty but is the novel’s wittiest and perhaps its most likeable character. Rosamond Vincy on the other hand is exceptionally beautiful; her beauty, and the wrong deductions he makes from it, constitute the idealistic Dr Lydgate’s tragedy.
Lydgate, in fact, was already conscious of being fascinated by a woman strikingly different from Miss [Dorothea] Brooke: he did not in the least suppose that he had lost his balance and fallen in love, but he had said of that particular woman, ‘She is grace itself; she is perfectly lovely and accomplished. That is what a woman ought to be: she ought to produce the effect of exquisite music.’ Plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science. But Rosamond Vincy seemed to have the true melodic charm; and when a man has seen the woman whom he would have chosen if he had intended to marry speedily, his remaining a bachelor will usually depend on her resolution rather than his.
Miss Brooke, with her ideas, Lydgate reflects, would be hard work. And who wants hard work after work? Not Lydgate anyway. In contrast, Rosamond offers the prospect of “reclining in a paradise with sweet laughs for bird-notes, and blue eyes for a heaven”.
But that of course is not how it turns out. Is the serpent in this paradise Rosamond’s shallowness and lack of character or Lydgate’s poor judgment and vulgarity? It is easier to convict Rosamond, and she is certainly neither likeable nor admirable, but the more interesting aspect of the affair is surely Lydgate’s catastrophic misjudgement, which we may take as intended to stand for a general trait among men, the confusion of beauty with good, something which George Eliot, who was herself not beautiful, must have had ample occasion to observe and perhaps, occasionally, regret.
There is of course a possible Darwinian explanation for this phenomenon – that what the male sees as female beauty is actually just a reflection of excellent health and that he is driven to seek to mate with someone in good health in order to ensure the best outcome for his offspring or the greatest possible number of offspring. This, however, seems to me a little dull; the idea that there is a huge cultural freight attached to beauty and transmitted with it is surely more persuasive: men “know” when they encounter beauty what it means, and off they go, heedless of the consequences – “War with the Greeks? You think I care?” The notion that because a woman (or indeed a man) is beautiful, or is perceived to be such, she must be “an angel” – when indeed there is not anything that she must be and nothing whatsoever about her character can be inferred from her beauty – this is what we call “falling in love”, or at least it is one common form of it. And given the greater power of the male throughout history to pursue, capture and compel it has surely often led to appalling mismatches, and consequent domestic cruelty, but that will not stop it happening again.
How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! the joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman.
Thy navel is like a round goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins.
Thy neck is as a tower of ivory: thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath-rabbim; thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus.
Thine head upon thee is like Carmel, and the hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries.
How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!
This thy statue is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes.
You know I don’t like smutty talk.
I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples;
And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly, causing the lips of those that are asleep to speak.
Could we go out somewhere nice for a meal on Saturday? Maybe that new expensive French place?
Image: Portrait of a woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia. A version of this blog post was first published in 2015.