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Epigraphs and Mirrors 



Epigraphs and Mirrors 

Adam Roberts 


a 8 

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Eliot’s Double Mirror 

Sappho’s Apple 

Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 
Hypocrisy and the Judgment of Men 


Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 
Epigraphy: Beginnings and Ends 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 

DS. She oN 

List of Illustrations 





This short book aims to turn a modest, one might even think trivial, 
literary labour into something more substantial, going beyond one 
particular novel into broader questions of novel-writing, character 
and narrative. My starting point is tracking down those allusions and 
quotations in Middlemarch that have hitherto gone unidentified by 
scholars. Most of these quotations are located in the chapter epigraphs 
that George Eliot provides throughout, citing other writers or confecting 
her own pastiche blank verse or prose. Unpacking these epigraphs as 
well as the other quotations, and exploring their relationship to the body 
of the text, frames or grounds a broader discussion of the novel. It seems 
to me that these epigraphs, taken as a distinctive part of a larger network 
of quotations and allusions in the text, contain important resonances for 
the way Eliot’s novels generate their meanings. For, indeed, the way the 
novel as such generates its meaning. 

It may be that my opening paragraph comes across as defensive. 
We wouldn’t want that. It was Eliot’s practice in all her novels to 
add epigraphs to her chapters, some quoted from and identified as 
by particular authors, others created by herself in the style of a poet 
or an ‘Old Play’. She was by no means the first author to do this, of 
course; popularised by Walter Scott, it is a practice that goes back into 
the eighteenth-century. It could be argued that the textual practice 
of heading a chapter with a short quoted text apes the practice of the 
popular sermon, just as the related habit of larding the novelistic text 
with quotations apes a conversational practice that does the same 
thing, one widespread enough that it could itself be satirised—by 
Scott, and others—as a mode of pretentious pedantry indicative of a 
lack of imagination, or even of an overcompensation for discursive 
unconfidence. Abel ‘Dominie’ Sampson in Scott’s second novel Guy 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // 

2 Middlemarch 

Mannering (1815)—one of the most popular individuals from Scott’s 
vast gallery of characters—is a key figure here. Sampson is a man ‘of 
low birth’, whose capacity for learning was encouraged by parents (who 
hoped ‘that their bairn, as they expressed it, “might wag his pow in a 
pulpit yet”’) prepared to scrimp and save to secure their son’s education. 
But he proves too shy and awkward to be a preacher—a ‘tall, ungainly 
figure, [with] taciturn and grave manners, and some grotesque habits 
of swinging his limbs and screwing his visage while reciting his task’, 
he ends up as tutor in Godfrey Bertram’s stately home, Ellangowan. The 
point is that there is something simultaneous creditable and ridiculous 
in Sampson’s learning, laughed at as he is by his fellow university 

Half the youthful mob of ‘the yards’ used to assemble regularly to see 
Dominie Sampson (for he had already attained that honourable title) 
descend the stairs from the Greek class, with his lexicon under his arm, 
his long misshapen legs sprawling abroad, and keeping awkward time 
to the play of his immense shoulder-blades, as they raised and depressed 
the loose and threadbare black coat which was his constant and only 
wear. When he spoke, the efforts of the professor (professor of divinity 
though he was) were totally inadequate to restrain the inextinguishable 
laughter of the students, and sometimes even to repress his own. The 
long, sallow visage, the goggle eyes, the huge under-jaw, which appeared 
not to open and shut by an act of volition, but to be dropped and hoisted 
up again by some complicated machinery within the inner man, the 
harsh and dissonant voice—all added fresh subject for mirth to the torn 
cloak and shattered shoe, which have afforded legitimate subjects of 
raillery against the poor scholar from Juvenal’s time downward.’ 

We're at the other end of the scale, here, from Thomas Hardy’s Jude the 
Obscure, and not only because Scott styles his character as a comic rather 
than a tragic figure. Jude’s learning proves useless to his life, where 
Sampson at least finds a social niche as an (admittedly overqualified) 
tutor. His speech is a mixture of simple Scots idioms and learned 
allusions, his, as we would say nowadays, catchphrase ‘Prodigious!’ and 
various Latin tags: ‘as he shut the door, could not help muttering the 
varium et mutabile of Virgil’.” Scott, with nice irony, sometimes uses these 

1 Walter Scott, Guy Mannering, or the Astrologer (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1893), ch. 
2, /files/5999 /5999-h/5999-h.htm 
2 Ibid., ch. 15. 

Introduction 3 

as markers of Sampson’s educational limitations, as when, encountering 
Meg Merrilies unexpectedly in Edinburgh he reveals his superstitious 
primitivism: ““Get thee behind me!” said the alarmed Dominie. “Avoid 
ye! Conjuro te, scelestissima, nequissima, spurcissima, iniquissima atque 
miserrima, conjuro te!!!’ Meg, with less book-learning, has more common- 
sense: ‘“Is the carl daft,” she said. “What in the name of Sathan are ye 
feared for, wi’ your French gibberish, that would make a dog sick?”’* 

Scott’s next novel, The Antiquary (1816), tackles this same business 
of the allusiveness of discourse from the other side of social hierarchy. 
Jonathan Oldbuck, gentleman-antiquarian, embodies an obsession with 
the textual and material past, at once fussy and gullible. His speech is 
larded with Latin and he orients himself in all respects with reference 
to a notional past. Scott is laughing with rather than laughing at (but 
laughing nonetheless) when he has Oldbuck seek to reassure the 
unlettered beggar Edie Ochiltree: ‘don’t suppose I think the worse of 
you for your profession [...] you remember what old Tully says in his 
oration, pro Archia poeta, concerning one of your confraternity—quis 
nostrum tam animo agresti ac duro fuit—ut—ut—lI forget the Latin’.* The 
point of these allusions is not that we the reader should recognise them, 
nor even that we should chase them up (of William Lovel, also present, 
and also a gentleman, Scott notes that these words reach his ears ‘but 
without conveying any precise idea to his mind’). Rather the point is 
that, by their very opaqueness, they signify to us the character’s comical 
pedantry, as well as his blindness to his own ridiculousness. They are a 
kind of phatic articulation of dead learning rather than an invitation to 
recontextualise the passage in which they occur.° 

Perhaps we readers and critics of Eliot ought to treat the epigraphs 
and allusions in Middlemarch, and her other novels, in a similar manner; 

3 Ibid., ch. 17. 

4 Walter Scott, The Antiquary (Boston: Estes and Lauriat, 1893), ch. 4, https://www. 

5 Itis perhaps fitting that I use a footnote to identify a third means by which Scott adds 
specific allusion to his texts, beyond chapter epigraphs and characters quoting old 
authorities—footnotes themselves, a mode Eliot herself very rarely deploys. There 
have been several studies of the influence of Scott on Eliot, most often concentrating 
on her more manifestly ‘historical’ writing: see for instance Andrew Sanders, The 
Victorian Historical Novel 1840-1880 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1979), Harry E. 
Shaw, Narrating Reality: Austen, Scott, Eliot (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999) 
and Miriam Elizabeth Burstein, Narrating Women’s History in Britain, 1770-1902 
(Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate, 2004). 

4 Middlemarch 

that is to say, as meta-indicators rather than as Ariadnean threads 
to follow, or miniature windows to peer through. The content of the 
various quotations and allusions are always clear enough, and there 
is always a comprehensible relationship between what the epigraph 
says and the content of the chapter it heads-up. Perhaps I out myself as 
merely a Sampson or an Oldbuck by refusing to let things go at that. Of 
course we make an exception for the editor of a scholarly edition of the 
novel; she would, amongst her many textual duties, be expected to look 
into such things. But for a regular reader, or a critic with an eye on the 
larger significations of the novel, to get bogged down in such minutiae 
looks, surely, like a misapplication of energy, as liable only to clog and 
impede the larger flow. 

Clearly, given the book I have here written, I don’t believe so. On the 
contrary, it is my argument that exploring these various allusions and 
epigraphs unimpedes the rich flow of significations the novel generates— 
that these potsherd texts-within-the-text are keys that unlock new 
rooms or, to shift metaphors (and in doing so to anticipate the larger 
thesis of this book) mirrors that refract back upon our experience the 
textual vistas opening to us. Such a claim can only be evidenced by the 
actual work this study undertakes, and perhaps you will conclude by 
the end that such a claim stands unsupported. I must, at the very least, 
concede that the joy a scholar finds in exploring these questions may 
strike a less Casaubonic individual as both arid and—which is worse, in 
this context—atomising, disconnecting, a key to no mythologies. 

That, though, is precisely the point. In her earlier novels, as in her later, 
Eliot weaves her text out of descriptive prose, dialogue, observations 
from life, data from her research, literary allusion, quotation and often 
obscure epigraphs. In this novel she does all that and also includes a 
character for whom abstruse allusion and obscure epigraphs are his 
life’s passion. This situates Middlemarch as, amongst many other things, 
a novel about epigraphy, about identifying and deciphering quotation 
and allusion, as well as a novel constituted by those things. 

There is a related question to do with, precisely, obscurity. When 
Scott’s Oldbuck quotes a bit of Cicero so abstruse even he, it turns out, 
can’t remember it, we’re on safe ground reading the allusion in terms of 
its inaccessibility. But when Eliot cites, indirectly or otherwise, Sappho 
and Pascal, Homer and Lucretius, perhaps the intertexts are offered in 

Introduction 5 

the tacit belief that readers will recognise and understand without the 
need of a prompt from an editorial footnote. Perhaps Eliot assumes an 
audience sufficiently au fait with their own reading as to be able to walk 
with her, hand in hand, through her own richly informed allusiveness. 
This seems unlikely, and not only because Eliot’s own reading was 
capacious beyond most people’s. Still, it may be. I’m reminded of 
Virginia Woolf's first broadcast by the BBC—on 29 April 1937, as part of 
a series called ‘Words Fail Me’, the only recording of her voice to have 
survived—in which she observed: 

Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations— 
naturally. They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, 
in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. And that is one of the 
chief difficulties in writing them today—that they are so stored with 
meanings, with memories, that they have contracted so many famous 
marriages. The splendid word ‘incarnadine’, for example—who can use 
it without remembering also ‘multitudinous seas’?° 

Though we are, I think, entitled to wonder what kind of person drops 
words like ‘incarnadine’ into everyday speech, Woolf’s point is a sound 
one. Some allusions tap into a common reservoir of collective reference 
and understanding. That context used to include much of Shakespeare, 
the more famous English poets and even a fair bit of Latin. For most 
of Eliot’s first readers, in the 1870s it also included Scott. Nowadays a 
reduced set of Shakespeare quotations might still function as common 
cultural currency, together with a wider range of references to film and 

6 Fiona Macdonald, ‘The Only Surviving Recording of Virginia Woolf’, BBC Culture (28 
March 2016), 

7 Howard Erskine-Hill makes a related point with respect to epigraphs: ‘In a little 
noted epigraph Pope quotes an ancient authority as saying that poetry is no obstacle 
to entering into the wider world. But today an inscription of verse, or indeed prose, 
at the head of a wider work may seem an impediment, rather than an incitement 
to read on. Where learned or foreign languages are used what was once a spur has 
become a clog. The impatient eye glances over the bit of Latin (as it may be) with 
the reflection: “Oh, yes, a Latin tag; that was the old practice”. The time is past when 
a writer might quote quantum mutatus ab illo and expect the reader to recognise the 
author, the work, the speaker and the situation’. ‘Pope’s Epigraphic Practice’, The 
Review of English Studies, 62.254 (2011), 261-74 (p. 261), 
res/hgq027. The Latin—taken from Aeneid 2:274-5—makes his point for him. 

6 Middlemarch 

So, yes: there are a number of ways we, as readers and critics, might 
‘take’ an allusion or epigraph in a novel like Middlemarch. Since such 
items have, without wishing to sound merely utilitarian, a textual 
function, it is only courtesy to the reader that this function is still operable 
in the instance that said reader is not Casaubon. ‘It is tactful’, as William 
Empson once wrote, ‘when making obscure references, to arrange that 
they shall be intelligible even when the reference is not understood’. 
He gives an example, from a lesser-known poem by Marvell (‘The 
brotherless Heliades/Melt in such amber tears as these’), and adds: 

If you have forgotten, as I had myself, who their brother was, and look it 
up, the poetry will scarcely seem more beautiful: such of the myth as is 
wanted is implied.* 

This is fair enough, and certainly describes Eliot’s way with quotation 
and epigraph. But Empson goes on: 

But something has happened after you have looked up the Heliades; 
the couplet has been justified. Marvell has claimed to make a classical 
reference and it has turned out to be all right. This is of importance, 
because it was only because you had faith in Marvell’s classical references 
that you felt as you did, that this mode of admiring nature seemed witty, 
sensitive and cultured. 

This is a deeper point, and one equally applicable to Eliot. Her 
extraordinary learning—all the more extraordinary given that so much 
of it was autodidactic—stands as a kind of pledge to her allusive textual 
praxis. We believe her, and when a mini-Casaubon such as myself 
burrows into the specifics, what we uncover, without (I think) exception, 
shows that our faith is justified. Christopher Ricks, quoting this passage 
from Empson, adds that a text ‘without being dependent on our knowing 
certain things, yet may benefit greatly from our doing so’.? That’s a very 
to-the-point statement of one of the rationales of the present study. 

To separate out chapter epigraphs from ‘allusion and quotation’ 
more broadly is to touch on a slightly different question. For one thing, 
the question of ‘weight’ enters the frame. Theodore J. Ziolkowski recalls 

8 Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, rev. edn (New York: New Directions, 1947), pp. 

9 Christopher Ricks, Allusion to the Poets (London: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 

Introduction 7 

In the original typescript for The Waste Land T. S. Eliot cited a passage 
from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—the one ending ‘The horror! 
the horror!’—because he found it ‘much the most appropriate’ and 
‘somewhat elucidative.’ But when his mentor, Ezra Pound, doubted 
that Conrad was ‘weighty enough,’ Eliot omitted those words and 
chose instead the more ostentatious quotation, in Latin and Greek, from 
Petronius’s Satyricon that now adorns the title page. In her anthology, 
The Art of the Epigraph, Rosemary Ahern cites over two hundred further 
examples, mostly but not exclusively from fiction in English.’ 

I’ve never really understood why Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot believed the 
ludic decadence of Petronius’s Satyricon counted as ‘weightier’ than Joseph 
Conrad’s diamond-hard articulation of existential despair. Although, in 
saying so, I suppose I’m being a little obtuse: Pound’s point is specific not 
to this particular text but to the larger cultural idiom. Classical literature 
trumps a novella published only a few decades earlier simply by virtue 
of its ancientness. George Eliot is not immune to this bias, such that we 
may intuit that for her an epigraph from an ‘Old Play’ outweighs one 
from a newer drama. It implies, at least in potentia, a deep-time three- 
dimensionality that offsets and so adds perspective and richness to the 
more historically specific and limited—1829-32—story being told. 

The illusion of depth is part of the function of epigraphs and allusions. 
This is a separate matter from the more commonly perceived work of 
epigraphs ‘to mark an aim, or strike a keynote’, as Howard Erskine- 
Hill puts it." There are other contexts to the tracing of unidentified 
quotations than pure Casaubonism, and there are other ways of 
conceptualising what an epigraph is. For example, we might take it as 
the text from which specific chapters develop a core idea, as a sermon 
expands homiletically upon a Biblical text—a Dorothean, rather than a 
Casaubonic way of treating them. Then again, we might see an epigraph 
as something tiny that contains, when magnified, beautiful or important 
microscopiana—a Lydgatean perspective. These three perspectives are 
not proposed merely to be facetious. Since Middlemarch, as a novel, 
remains one of the great fictional portraits of barren scholarly pedantry, 
and given the dangers a study such as this present one runs in trudging 

10 Theodore J. Ziolkowski, ‘The Craft(iness) of Epigraphs’, The Princeton 
University Library Chronicle, 76.3 (2015), 519-20, 

11 ‘Pope’s Epigraphic Practice’, 261. 

8 Middlemarch 

a similar dry-as-dusty path, it is important to keep in mind that, for 
Eliot, a quotation could be something other than an iteration of abstruse 
learning. To remember that it could be a germ. A seed. 

More recent Eliot scholars who have explored this question have, by 
and large, generally thought so too. But it didn’t used to be that way. 
David Leon Higdon’s fine essay ‘George Eliot and the Art of Epigraphs’ 
argues that ‘the epigraphs form a continuous commentary defining 
and shaping the chapters. They are foreshadowing what follows, and 
to some degree shape, control, and condition the reader’s reaction to the 
chapter’. But he also notes how rarely (this, in 1970) Eliot’s epigraphs 
have been considered by critics at all, and quotes a couple of negativities 
of judgement: 

Only Henry James and J. R. Tye have considered the epigraphs in terms 
of conscious artistry. James dismisses them as ‘a want of tact,’ and Tye 
concentrates on the epigraphs George Eliot wrote herself. Although 
he concludes that they frequently make ‘an illuminating adjunct to the 
text of her novels,’ he appears mildly irritated with her for using them 
at all and dismisses them somewhat hastily. If in fact the epigraphs 
are decorative, they may be dismissed as a literary counterpart to the 
‘gingerbread’ of Victorian architecture." 

I do not, any more than does Higdon, consider Eliot’s epigraphs 
‘gingerbread’, although I’m also attempting here something rather 
different to his reading of epigraphs and main text in terms of ‘organic 
form’."* It is a larger argument than can be fully accommodated here, but 
‘organic’ seems to me exactly the wrong word to apply to an art form as 
consciously worked, as mannered and textual, as the novel; and doubly 
unfitting when applied to what are (by and large) some intricately meta- 
textual and intratextual patternings. If we take ‘organic’ as a synonym 
for ‘functionally intrinsic’ or ‘non-arbitrary’ or something along those 
lines, then it would describe better what’s happening in Eliot’s art 

12 David Leon Higdon, ‘George Eliot and the Art of the Epigraph’, Nineteenth-Century 
Fiction, 25.2 (1970), 127-51 (p. 131). 

13 Ibid., 19-30. 

14 ‘The epigraphs have an organic function in her novels. This theory provides a 
coherence for the various artistic effects they create individually. Four major 
tendencies-structural allusion, abstraction, ironic refraction, and metaphoric 
evaluation—may be delineated. She also uses epigraphs to describe characters, to 
present a character’s unconscious thoughts, and to argue for realistic presentation, 
but these epigraphs are few in number’. Ibid., 134. 

Introduction 9 

(although these are not, after all, what the word actually means). Then 
again nobody would accuse Eliot of scattering epigraphs randomly 
through her fiction. We can, I think, take her artistry as axiomatic. 
And since my focus is on the way the ‘small’ text of the epigraph (or 
quotation) interacts with, illuminates the ‘large’ text of the chapter (and 
the novel)—which is to say, the formal relationship between small and 
large textualities inherent in the mode—I make little distinction between 
those places where Eliot is quoting somebody else and where she is 
confecting her own faux-motto or quotation." 

I’ve already quoted from Christopher Ricks’ Allusion to the Poets, 
and it is worth touching on another point from that subtle, insightful 
book. For Ricks, literary allusion is always more than a matter of barren 
source-hunting—always more than mere scholarship for the sake of 
scholarship. It is, rather, a question of inheritance. His chapter on William 
Wordsworth (himself an important writer for Eliot) opens with the 
question: ‘what for Wordsworth is the central or essential inheritance? 
And how might this validate the inheritance that is allusion?’ The same 
question stands to be answered for Eliot, and her own allusively rich 
fiction. That Middlemarch is centrally about inheritance in a legal and 
(as we would now say) genetic or hereditary sense is not irrelevant to 
this question, of course. Indeed the way Eliot’s novel negotiates its own 
multiple textual inheritances, and the way it explores the problematics 
of (for instance) Dorothea’s compromised inheritance from her dead 
husband, are, I would argue, complexly interwoven one with the other. 
Going back to the work of unpicking the specifics of allusion and 
epigraph in the novel is a way of elaborating this matter. 

What remains to be seen, I think, is whether these epigraphs, and 
these myriad embedded nuggets of quotation and allusion in the 
body of the text, figure predominantly as Casaubonic, Dorothean 

15 For a contrary view see Michael Peled Ginsburg, who finds a kind of conceptual 
short-circuit in Eliot’s self-authored epigraphs: ‘when an author writes his own 
epigraphs he [sic] presents a text (the epigraph) as a text which precedes him and 
the insights of which his story in some way repeats. At the same time he subverts 
this assertion because the epigraph is his own. Thus, by creating pseudo-epigraphs 
the author presents himself as his own origin and himself generates the truth which 
he later repeats or puts into question’. ‘Pseudonym, Epigraphs, and Narrative Voice: 
Middlemarch and the Problem of Authorship’, ELH, 47.3 (1980), 542-58 (p. 548), /2872795 

16 Ricks, Allusion to the Poets, p. 83 

10 Middlemarch 

or Lydgateian entities. Of course, were it only the first of these, and 
neither of the other two, there would be little point in writing this 
book. But it seems to me that Dorothea’s scholarphilia, her sense of 
herself as defined not by the quotidian logic of the other people in 
her ambit but by her connection with learning and theology of the 
past—the ground of her attraction to Casaubon—is a humanising"’ of 
Casaubon’s drier, more cerebral passion for epigraphy and quotation. 
What lifts the novel, the stroke of structuring genius that makes 
Middlemarch so marvellous a piece of writing, is the way Eliot balances 
this world against Lydgate’s approach. For him the natural world is 
a text to be interpreted in the light of science, rather than literature, 
mythography or religion. It is true that Eliot traces the diminution in 
his ambition from achieving significant medical breakthroughs, to a 
society doctor ‘alternating, according to the season, between London 
and a Continental bathing-place’ who has done nothing more to 
advance medical science than written a treatise on gout (‘a disease 
which has a good deal of wealth on its side’, as the narrator waspily 
notes), this shrinkage is neither an altogether reprehensible, nor a 
textually irrelevant, business. We are first introduced to Lydgate as a 
‘scientist’ as someone interested in the very small, and the very small 
is wholly the tenor of Eliot’s type of realism. Epigraphs are small, but 
they bear close attention, not in terms of Casaubonic pedantry but in 
terms of Lydgatean microscopy. So although the novel’s final chapter 
records that Lydgate ‘always regarded himself as a failure’ since ‘he 
had not done what he once meant to do’, we as readers might wish 
to console him that he at least showed the way. The paragraph from 
which I’ve just been quoting concludes with the novel’s last mention 
of Lydgate, that 

[his] temper never became faultless, and to the last occasionally let slip a 
bitter speech which was more memorable than the signs he made of his 
repentance. He once called [Rosamond] his basil plant; and when she 
asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished 
wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains. Rosamond had a placid but 
strong answer to such speeches. Why then had he chosen her? It was a 

17 Indeed, though we are perhaps disinclined to accept that this is also part of 
Dorothea’s reasons for marrying her first husband, we can also read it as an 

Introduction dT 

pity he had not had Mrs. Ladislaw, whom he was always praising and 
placing above her. And thus the conversation ended with the advantage 
on Rosamond’s side.'® 

This is elegantly oblique, the closest the novel comes to conceding what 
many readers, surely, have thought—that Dorothea and Lydgate ought 
to be together. That, in other words, there are two ways in which Lydgate 
‘had not done what he once meant to’: the way of scientific research and 
the way of finding a mate worthy of him, as he of her. This is more than 
merely romantic daydreaming, since Eliot reverts the disconnection 
back upon Dorothea, whose yearning for a husband with a great mind 
was misdirected towards a man whose mind was in thrall to a dead past, 
rather than a man whose mind was open to the exciting possibilities 
of a scientific future. As between these two options Eliot brings-in a 
third—Ladislaw’s politics—but although Middlemarch is fascinated by 
the ‘realism’ of scholarship and by the ‘realism’ of science, it has little to 
say, actually, about the ‘realism’ of politics (unlike, let us say, Felix Holt). 
This is not to say that party politics is irrelevant to either the novel’s plot 
or its design; but that myth and science are two modes Eliot finds more 
eloquent for articulating her theme.” 

Iam going to argue, in this study, that Eliot’s epigraphs are, textually 
speaking, kinds of glasswork, like the lenses and mirrors that render a 
microscope or a telescope operable. By looking with them and through 
them, we see greater detail and greater scope in Eliot’s novel. Mirrors 
are a way in which we ‘look back’, and this is a novel deeply fascinated 
by ‘looking back’, as engagement with tradition, as scholarship, as 
tracing inheritance and also as regret. And in another sense mirrors 
(and lenses) facilitate the work of science, and the work of science is also 
the work of realism. Or to be a little more precise, what distinguishes 

18 George Eliot, Middlemarch (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1871), ‘Finale’, files /145/145-h/145-h.htm 

19 On the novel’s use of science, see in particular Michael York Mason, ‘Middlemarch 
and Science: Problems of Life and Mind’, The Review of English Studies, 22.86 (1971), 
151-69, https: // /res/xxii.86.151; Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and 
Nineteenth-Century Science. The Make-Believe of a Beginning (Cambridge: Cambridge 
University Press, 1984); Lawrence Rothfield, Vital Signs: Medical Realism in 
Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994). On religion 
in the novel, see T. R. Wright, ‘Middlemarch as a Religious Novel, or Life without 
God’, in Images of Belief in Literature, ed. by David Jasper (London: The Macmillan 
Press 1984), pp. 138-52. 

12 Middlemarch 

Eliot’s humanist realism from the kinds of le naturalisme being practised 
on the Continent, is her resolution to balance the scientific (microscopic, 
or telescopic) observation of the world with the literary, mythic and 
spiritual apprehension of the same object. The differences between Eliot 
and a writer like Emile Zola are instructive in this context. Zola also 
grounds his realism in a particular iteration of a medical-scientific idiom: 

To the second edition of his first major novel, Thérése Raquin, Emile Zola 
added a famous preface in which he sought to make his intentions clear 
against accusations of immorality: ‘my objective was first and foremost 
a scientific one. I simply carried out on two living bodies the same 
analytical examination that surgeons perform on corpses’. To those who 
claimed he had an unhealthy interest in moral and human decay, he 
retorted that he had become ‘engrossed in human rottenness, only in the 
same way as a doctor lecturing to students about disease’. These medical 
images persist right through his accounts of his own work; over twenty- 
five years later, he would say of Doctor Pascal (1893), the last volume 
of his epic Rougon-Macquart novel sequence, ‘it is a scientific work, the 
logical deduction and conclusion of all my preceding novels’, adding 
that his aim has always been ‘to show all so that all may be cured’. The 
protagonist of that novel, Dr Pascal, is clearly modelled on Zola himself, 
from his obsessive tracing of the Rougon and Macquart families’ genetic 
inheritance to his passionate relationship in middle age with a much 
younger woman. Doctors play pivotal—and generally positive—roles in 
A Love Story (1878), Nana (1880), Pot Luck (1882), The Bright Side of Life 
(1884), The Earth (1887), and The Debacle (1892). When Zola publishes 
his collection of essays arguing for Naturalism, his title The Experimental 
Novel (1880) refers not to artistic but to medical experiments.” 

But despite writing a doctor as a major character, Eliot’s approach in 
Middlemarch is considerably less surgical than this. She does not want to 
cut open or eviscerate, but she does want to observe, to gather and to sift 
data, and that’s the kind of physician Lydgate is. The microscopic focus 
is fitting, the epigraphs and quotations appended to this great novel 
are mirrors, and can be read as mirrors, and can shine lights on Eliot’s 

To those who think it strange to construe Eliot’s realism through 
epigraphs and quotations, rather than through (say) the accumulation 

20 Dan Rebellato, ‘Sightlines: Foucault and Naturalist Theatre’, in Foucault’s Theatres, 
ed. by Tony Fisher and Kélina Gotman (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 
2019), pp. 147-59 (p. 148), 

Introduction 13 

of pseudo-documentary representations of aspects of life as it is lived,” 
I could make the perhaps over-obvious rebuttal—that for Casaubon, 
epigraphs are his lived experience—in order to expand upon it. After 
all, our lives are not some string of purely-accessed pearls of Dasein, or 
are not only that. Our lives are also not only determined but to an extent 
constructed by the texts we read and remember, the plays we have seen, 
the poems we have read. Wisdom is lived, but also mnemonised as 
proverbs and quotations. Any strategy of literary realism that did not 
include quotation and epigraphy would be jejune. 

We might say that books (like Middlemarch) are texts, whereas 
human beings are texts only by analogy. But several of the epigraphs 
of Middlemarch return to the idea of people as books. The first chapter 
of Book 2, ‘Old and Young’, begins with an Eliotic pastiche, a snatch of 
dialogue from an ersatz Elizabethan or Jacobean play: 

1st Gent. How class your man?—as better than the most, 
Or, seeming better, worse beneath that cloak? 
As saint or knave, pilgrim or hypocrite? 

2d Gent. Nay, tell me how you class your wealth of books 
The drifted relics of all time. As well 
Sort them at once by size and livery: 
Vellum, tall copies, and the common calf 
Will hardly cover more diversity 
Than all your labels cunningly devised 
To class your unread authors. 

There’s something odd about this epigraph. On its face, it seems 
straightforward. The First Gentleman poses an important question: how 
do we judge human beings? Indeed this is, arguably, the key question, 
for Shakespeare who returns to the disjunction between seeming and 
being over and over (‘there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in 
the face’ and so on)—and of course for Eliot too. But Eliot’s phrasing in 
this confected epigraph is strangely ambiguous between ‘how do you 

21 There has been a good deal of scholarship that has taken this approach of course. 
See for instance Anna Theresa Kitchel, ed., Quarry for Middlemarch (Riverside: 
University of California Press, 1950); Lilian R. Furst, ‘Not So Long Ago: Historical 
Allusion in Realist Fiction’, in Through the Lens of the Reader: Explorations of European 
Narrative (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992), pp. 133-48; Kate Flint, 
‘The Materiality of Middlemarch’, in Middlemarch in the Twenty-First Century, ed. by 
Karen Chase (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 65-86. 

14 Middlemarch 

judge men in general?’ and ‘what is your judgment with respect to this 
specific man?’ ‘He’ dresses in fine clothes, but does his character match 
his outward array? When rephrased that way the answer is obvious: of 
course not. It would be as ridiculous, as the Second Gentleman says, in 
words that glance at the old proverb about not judging books by covers, 
to arrange one’s library by size, or binding. Different books bound in 
the same kind of covers will of course contain many different kinds of 
content. Indeed, it’s an observation so facile that it must send us back to 
the original epigraph. Is that all it’s saying? Well, no. For one thing, there 
is the—strange, surely—styling of books in a library as ‘the drifted relics 
of all time’. Not living things, brought alive with every reader, but inert 
fossils. A ‘relic’ is something left behind, something we have left behind: 
the Latin reliquiae, ‘remains, relics’, is from relinquo, ‘I leave behind, 
abandon, relinquish’. Books are here relinquished as texts with which 
to engage—‘unread authors’—whilst simultaneously being assembled, 
collected, sorted into library shelves. When we think of it like that, the 
point of the epigraph shifts ground. It becomes not about how we ‘read’ 
people (indeed, it is very specifically about how we don’t ‘read’ people), 
but instead how we dispose of them after we have ‘collected’ them. 

What kind of person ‘collects’ other people? It speaks, perhaps, 
to a particular, objectionable kind of character: the sort of person 
who assembles friends and acquaintances not for the sake of those 
relationships, or out of genuine interest or affection, but because those 
friends and acquaintances are (perhaps) famous, wealthy, or aristocratic, 
as social adornments or for their social utility rather than as people. 
Whether we would necessarily call such a person a hypocrite (although 
they might, of course, be a hypocrite) is uncertain. But perhaps their 
‘problem’ is rather the reverse of this, a too bald acceptance of the 
conventions of society on their own terms, a position pharisaical rather 
than common-garden hypocritical perhaps. This is because Eliot is using 
this epigraph to set-up the first meeting of Lydgate and Bulstrode, and 
therefore to foreshadow the banker’s eventual fall. It is Bulstrode, in this 
exchange, who seems better but is worse beneath his cloak. 

The banker’s speech was fluent, but it was also copious, and he used 
up an appreciable amount of time in brief meditative pauses. Do not 
imagine his sickly aspect to have been of the yellow, black-haired sort: 
he had a pale blond skin, thin grey-besprinkled brown hair, light- 
grey eyes, and a large forehead. Loud men called his subdued tone 

Introduction 15 

an undertone, and sometimes implied that it was inconsistent with 
openness; though there seems to be no reason why a loud man should 
not be given to concealment of anything except his own voice, unless it 
can be shown that Holy Writ has placed the seat of candour in the lungs. 
Mr. Bulstrode had also a deferential bending attitude in listening, and an 
apparently fixed attentiveness in his eyes which made those persons who 
thought themselves worth hearing infer that he was seeking the utmost 
improvement from their discourse. Others, who expected to make no 
great figure, disliked this kind of moral lantern turned on them [...] Mr. 
Bulstrode’s close attention was not agreeable to the publicans and sinners 
in Middlemarch; it was attributed by some to his being a Pharisee, and 
by others to his being Evangelical. Less superficial reasoners among 
them wished to know who his father and grandfather were, observing 
that five-and-twenty years ago nobody had ever heard of a Bulstrode in 
Middlemarch. To his present visitor, Lydgate, the scrutinizing look was 
a matter of indifference: he simply formed an unfavorable opinion of the 
banker’s constitution, and concluded that he had an eager inward life 
with little enjoyment of tangible things.” 

Lydgate, immune to the moral lantern, makes a judgement based on 
medical (‘the banker’s constitution’) rather than social or conventional 
grounds. Nonetheless his assessment is not so far removed from that 
of wider Middlemarch opinion. Bulstrode performs acts of charity, and 
collects friendships—’”I shall be exceedingly obliged if you will look 
in on me here occasionally, Mr. Lydgate,” the banker observed, after a 
brief pause’—not for their own sake but for the lustre they cast upon his 
reputation. He does not enjoy the things in themselves, he bolsters his 
own ego, knowing as he does his own fundamental unworthiness. 

The thing is, a doctor is another kind of person who ‘collects’ 
or assembles people. Physicians collect patients in order to attend to 
their health (and in order to earn money) but also less for their own 
sakes and more as iterations of medical symptoms. The question for 
such a collection becomes not ‘is this person a saint, knave, pilgrim 
or hypocrite?’ but ‘what is their pathology and how might I address 
it?’ with, in the case of many doctors, Lydgate included, ‘how shall 
I turn this person into a data-point in my research?’ I am the son of 
two doctors. I know from personal experience the extent to which they 
observed people, and chatted to one another, in terms of a congeries of 
potential symptoms. Family journeys by car would be the two adults 

22 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 13. 

16 Middlemarch 

in the front saying things like: ‘what about her, by the roundabout? A 
thyroid complaint, do you think?’ ‘Hashimoto’s disease, perhaps? But 
what about him? Ehlers-Danloss, maybe?’ They were, I believe, typical 
of their profession in this regard. 

And, of course, there is a third kind of person who ‘collects’ people: 
the novelist, that individual whose friendship is always compromised, 
to one degree or another, by observational apprehension of real people 
as a resource for future writing. 

The larger point, it’s worth drawing out, is that if all of our 
relationships with other people are as instrumental as this—as denuded 
as this—then we are not living as full a human life as we could, or should. 
Such people are living smaller than they should, and are missing the 
chance to enlarge their lives. It is one of Eliot’s great themes, of course: 
Silas Marner, by limiting his life to gold, endures a pigmy existence; 
and when he loses his gold and gains Eppie his life enlarges in all the 
important ways a life can enlarge. I do not suggest the comparison out 
of mere facetiousness when I say: precisely this step-up from small to 
large, from suggested-at potential to expansive experiential fulfilment 
is enacted by the shift from epigraph to actual chapter, and more fully 
from epigraph to whole novel. The really significant thing is that this 
dynamic, this small reflection to larger reality, also describes the way we 
can turn from novels—even great and profoundly insightful novels like 
Middlemarch—to life as it is lived. We do not, or at least (Eliot is saying) 
should not, live only in books. The idea that art is a kind of mirror is 
the fundamental of literary mimesis as such. Eliot’s mirrors are usually 
small, and are often coded for narcissism—Rosamond’s existential 
smallness, Eliot implies, is a function of such narcissism. We may use 
mirrors only to admire ourselves, but equally we may use mirrors for 
more admirable purposes, and the smallest of Eliot’s mirrors is also one 
of the most revealing, in her beautifully compacted metaphor for the 
writer’s art with which Adam Bede opens: 

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes 
to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is 
what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end 
of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, 
carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 
eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” 

23 George Eliot, Adam Bede (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1859), ch. 1, /files/507 /507-h/507-h.htm 

Introduction 17 

Indeed, mirror and admirable are, marvellously enough, versions of the 
same word (they both descend etymologically from the transitive Latin 
verb miror, ‘Iam astonished at, marvel at, admire, am amazed at, wonder 

Mirrors distort of necessity, by giving us a smaller, inverted 
simulacrum in place of the larger, richer reality; and some mirrors 
distort—through spotting on their surface, or curves in their shape— 
more than others. Then again, for some people precisely those distortions 
are what make mirrors valuable: as (two topics to which I return in 
the book that follows) telescopes, or microscopes. And if Eliot is quite 
properly suspicious of distortion in her art, she is not so dogmatic a 
mimetic artist as not to realise how worthwhile it can be, in the right 
circumstances. Early in Middlemarch, Dorothea believes herself the mere 
distorting mirror of a world that Casaubon apprehends in toto: 

‘He thinks with me,’ said Dorothea to herself, ‘or rather, he thinks a 
whole world of which my thought is but a poor twopenny mirror. And 
his feelings too, his whole experience—what a lake compared with my 
little pool!’** 

By the end of the novel, Dorothea’s twopenny mirror is, we realise, 
a better lens—more like Eliot’s own drop of mirroring ink—than 
Casaubon’s desiccation. The final gesture of the novel, when it abdicates 
representation of Dorothea and Ladislaw’s life altogether, replaces the 
representation through a glass, darkly, with a nothingness that allows 
us to imagine their face-to-face. The epigraph to the chapter in which 
Dorothea’s tuppeny mirror is mentioned is interesting too. It takes its 
lines from Paradise Lost, book 7: 

‘Say, goddess, what ensued, when Raphael, 
The affable archangel . . . 

The story heard attentive, and was filled 
With admiration, and deep muse, to hear 
Of things so high and strange’.”” 

Admiration again: linked with muse. By ‘deep muse’, John Milton 
presumably means deep thought, pondering and considering the 

24 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 3. 
25 Ibid. 

18 Middlemarch 

angel’s words; but we can perhaps take the words, as recontextualised in 
this novel, at this point, as saying something more. Because it does not 
stretch matters, although it does entail a rather striking gender inversion 
from the literary norm, to see Casaubon as Dorothea’s muse: as the 
figure whose idealised form inspires her to her characteristic action, and 
so imparts motion to the whole of Eliot’s story. Milton reoccurs in the 
novel’s next mention of a mirror; this time not Dorothea’s tuppeny glass 
but Casaubon’s spoon. Eliot, adopting the narrator’s voice, cautions her 
readers against any ‘too hasty judgment’ with respect to the old scholar: 

If to Dorothea Mr. Casaubon had been the mere occasion which had set 
alight the fine inflammable material of her youthful illusions, does it follow 
that he was fairly represented in the minds of those less impassioned 
personages who have hitherto delivered their judgments concerning him? 
I protest against any absolute conclusion, any prejudice derived from 
Mrs. Cadwallader’s contempt for a neighbouring clergyman’s alleged 
greatness of soul, or Sir James Chettam’s poor opinion of his rival’s 
legs,—from Mr. Brooke’s failure to elicit a companion’s ideas, or from 
Celia’s criticism of a middle-aged scholar’s personal appearance. I am 
not sure that the greatest man of his age, if ever that solitary superlative 
existed, could escape these unfavourable reflections of himself in various 
small mirrors; and even Milton, looking for his portrait in a spoon, must 
submit to have the facial angle of a bumpkin.*° 

The mirror here is both spoon-small and as large as society as such: we 
see ourselves mirrored in the opinions of others, and one of the things 
Eliot offers here is a psychologically plausible reason for Casaubon’s 
withdrawal from the larger world. Then again, the comparison with 
Milton—a man intimately engaged in the great events of his time, after 
all—undercuts Casaubon’s rather ridiculous amour propre. It is very 
delicately done by Eliot, I think. 

The claim that mimetic art is a mirror of life veers, by its generality, 
towards platitude. Eliot is always interested in the particular, and 
her mirrors—her tall standing mirrors in wealthy Middlemarchers’ 
houses, her tuppeny hand-mirrors, her spoons and drops of ink—are 
all specifying and individuating, even in their distortions and creative 
rescopings. It is in such terms, I think, that we had better think of the 
kinds of mirrors, or lenses, that Eliot’s epigraphs are. 

26 Ibid., ch. 10. 

Introduction 19 

One last point, here about epigraphy and the use of quotation 
and allusion more broadly, concerns originality. How to be original is a 
challenge modern writers face in a way older writers did not. Walter 
Jackson Bate’s venerable study remains a valuable account of the large 
shift in aesthetic philosophy, from a pre-Romantic belief that the artist 
was to be judged by its fidelity to a set of canonical prototypes, to a 
Romantic and post-Romantic valorisation of ‘originality’. From, that 
is, an understanding of art as essentially emulative and determined 
by tradition to one that prizes progress and novelty. By the end of the 
eighteenth-century, according to Bate: 

The whole concept of ‘originality’ had both deepened and spread— 
deepened as a hold on the conscience and spread horizontally among the 
literate, and the peripheries of the literate, as something desired per se. 
Back in the 1730s and 1740s, when the neoclassic had begin to reconsider 
its own self-limitations, the idea of ‘originality’ had understandably 
been plucked out into prominence [...] it meshed with some many other 
things in life aside from the arts (especially the concept of progress in 
the cumulative sciences, social and historical as well as physical) that 
the conscience was trapped by it, as it had earlier been trapped by the 
neoclassic use of the classical example.” 


Bate notes that 
or even openness of mind—or power of language or anything else of 
a qualitative nature.’ What it does, he thinks, is ‘lift the burden of the 
past’, or at least attempt to do so. 

Do we think of Middlemarch as an ‘original’ novel? Let’s say: yes in 

originality” in the arts need not imply vigour, range, 

terms of its scope and achievement, for there had been nothing like it in 
English before. Then again, perhaps we run the risk of undermining the 
work’s own textual commitment to fidelity by putting too much emphasis 
on originality, for the counter-argument would be: Middlemarch takes its 
places gladly in a tradition of novel-writing, aiming not at newness for 
the sake of newness but on the contrary excavating the past, working 
older modes of wisdom—it is, according to its own logic, a history. And 
certainly Middlemarch is not ‘original’ in the way that (say) James Joyce’s 
Ulysses is—although Ulysses is also, in its way, profoundly imbricated 
in the logic of realism. Nonetheless, it is hard to think of a novel more 

27 The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (London: Chatto and Windus, 1971), pp. 

20 Middlemarch 

concerned with ‘the burden of the past’ than Middlemarch, conceived 
in political, religious and scientific terms, and actualised emotionally 
in the plot via Casaubon’s mortal attempt to control Dorothea from 
beyond the grave. 

The fabric of Eliot’s novel is pinned to its board by a large number of 
meaningful quotations and epigraphs. We could read these as gestures 
towards regrounding Eliot’s stories in the past from which those micro- 
texts are sourced; as, that is to say, a strategy at odds with the modern 
will-to-originality. The claim that Eliot has here written a traditional novel 
does not, on its face, do any violence to common sense. Nonetheless, 
the alternative is more compelling, even including the counter-intuitive 
claim that these epigraphs and quotations are themselves markers of 
originality, rather than the reverse. 

The contrast with Ulysses might look forced, but it is worth 
remembering that not everybody greeted the publication of Joyce’s 
novel gladly. D. H. Lawrence famously, or notoriously, dismissed the 
novel in a letter to Aldous Huxley in pungent terms: 

My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags 
and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest, stewed 
in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness—what old and 
hard-worked staleness, masquerading as the all-new!” 

What's interesting here is that Lawrence uses the fact that Ulysses is 
an intensely allusive, quoteful text—which it certainly is—to rebut the 
notion that it is ‘all-new’ and original. The one, it seems, negates the 
other. Never mind the formal, stylistic and mythographic innovation 
of the novel, Lawrence is saying: how can a work so comprised of fag- 
end, cabbage-stump quotations pretend to newness? The rhetoric shows 
Lawrence’s thumb in the balance, of course: not quotations as such— 
which might be fragrant yet-to-be-smoked cigarettes, or fresh cabbage 
leaves ready for cooking—but the leftovers of quotations, the unusable 
portions here added to the book’s metaphorical ‘recipe’ from sheer 
perversity, or dirty-mindedness. Even if this were true of Joyce (and I 
don’t think it is) it would not apply to Eliot, whose ‘traditional’ formal 
and stylistic textual strategies are enhanced by her epigraphy—much of 

28 Quoted in Anthony Beal, ed., D. H. Lawrence: Selected Literary Criticism (New York: 
Viking Press, 1956), p. 148 

Introduction 21 

which is original writing by Eliot herself—in a way that discloses, rather 
than encloses, meaning. 

Colin Burrow argues that ‘what has tended to be marginalised in the 
more recent history of imitation is the aspect of it that was most central to 
the rhetorical tradition’, namely ‘that is the view that the imitator learns 
from an exemplum: a practice rather than a series of texts or a sequence 
of words, and that the end of imitation is the acquisition of a habituated 
skill, rather than a specific set of actions or phrases’. He is less interested 
in imitatio, the strict or even slavish copying of some old master, and 
more in what he calls hexis, the kind of spontaneous skill that comes 
after long practice and imitation: the way years of scales and laboriously 
worked-through practice of Beethoven and Chopin finds fruition with 
the pianist who can so fluently, and seemingly effortlessly, move her 
hands over the piano keyboard; the expert judgement of the experienced 
surgeon’s cut, or the perfect in-the-moment contact between striker’s 
foot and football to score a goal.” Burrow does not discuss Middlemarch, 
though the terminology seems peculiarly fitting to Eliot’s mature fiction. 
On the one hand, Eliot draws, in a distinctly post-Romantic manner, on 
what we might call ‘nature’. Walter Jackson Bate imagines Romantic 
artists, compelled by a nagging sense that imitation was mere plagiary, 
despairing of ever being able to free their texts from intertextuality: 
‘nature—life in all its diversity—is still constantly before us. Cannot 
we force ourselves to turn directly towards it?’*° There’s no question 
but that Eliot, in writing her novel, drew on her own experience of life 
in the Midlands, and the people she had encountered. But of course 
she also drew deeply on literature and literary convention. In part this 
was a matter of reading novelists themselves informed by the complex 
Romantic shift from a broader aesthetic of imitation to originality: 
Goethe, Scott, Austen, Dickens, De Staél, George Sand and the like. 
But she tends to draw her epigraphs, and to make specific intertextual 

29 Burrow adopts the term from Aristotle, who describes hexis as ‘an entrenched psychic 
condition or state which develops through experience rather than congenitally’, 
glossing: ‘the successful imitator does not simply learn rules or vocabulary from 
his master, but acquires through imitation the ability to speak with an instinctive 
appropriateness’. Imitating Authors: Plato to Futurity (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 2019), pp. 5-6, /oso/9780198838081.001.0001 

30 Bate, Burden of the Past, p. 111. His own answer to this rhetorical question is, of 
course: no—though in the case of Wordsworth, his main focus, a compelling and 
revolutionary kind of poetic no. 

22 Middlemarch 

reference, less to these figures than to an older pre-Romantic tradition, 
older English poetry, Elizabethan-Jacobean drama, Classical literature. 
In this she is not being derivative so much as she is crediting the larger 
school at which she honed her hexis. Later in his study Burrow defines 
hexis as a ‘habit of healthy fluency’ and ‘a stably possessed power and 
disposition to do.’*! This neatly encapsulates the end-product of Eliot’s 
immersion in literary antecedence. She works her originality (and for 
the avoidance of doubt, let me say I believe Middlemarch is a profoundly 
original novel) through her intertextual inhabitation of imitatio of the 
classics. The latter informs the former. 

What we call ‘originality’ in literature, we call in politics ‘revolution’, 
or at the very least ‘reform’; and in science we call ‘progress’, an advance 
in efficacy or accuracy upon what has gone before. In these senses 
Middlemarch not only works originally, it leverages its originality through 
its metatextual concurrences. It is a cleverly self-referential meditation 
upon the very notion of originality itself: originality in religion, in 
science, in politics and, ultimately, in love. 

Adam Phillips quotes Jean Cocteau: ‘true originality consists in 
trying to behave like everybody else without succeeding’. His point, 
a pertinent one for a novel like Middlemarch (although that’s not what 
Phillips is discussing), is that originality is actually a function of a 
kind of community, or more specifically as a kind of falling away from 
community: ‘it was once,’ he argues, ‘characteristically modern to 
idealise originality, and to conceive of it as a form of failure. The fittest 
as those who didn’t fit’. He continues: 

The Romantic concept of genius, after all—the apotheosis of originality— 
wasitselfa kind of elegy foralost community. All the solitary, disillusioned 
moderns—Baudelaire, Kafka, Eliot, Beckett—are preoccupied by their 
sociability: its impossibility, its triviality, its compromises, its shame. For 
these writers ambition without irony flies in the face of the evidence; 
a successful life was a contradiction in terms, because the Modernist 
revelation was that lives don’t work. A certain revulsion was integral to 
their vision.” 

Revulsion overstates Eliot’s approach, of course; but she certainly shares 
this insight that the opposite of originality is not ‘tradition’ so much as 

31 Burrow, Imitating Authors, p. 92. 
32 Adam Phillips, ‘Getting Ready to Exist’, London Review of Books, 19.4 (1997), https:// /getting-ready-to-exist 

Introduction 23 

social conformism. As a novel Middlemarch construes what another writer 
might portray as stifling and procrustean about the restrictive dynamics 
of polite Middlemarchian society in warmer, often comic ways. But that’s 
not to say there’s any mistaking them for the claustrophobia-inducing 
limitations that they are. 

The most acute ‘originality’ in this novel, then, is not Lydgate’s 
failures as a medical researcher, nor Casaubon’s failures to revolutionise 
the study of comparative mythology, both of which lead both men 
further into the thickets of social conformity and convention. It is rather 
the way Dorothea and Ladislaw are able, at the end, to slip out of the 
net of the novel’s textual society, and therefore out of textuality itself, 
altogether. It is an original way to end a novel in the bald sense—in the 
sense that no other writer had thought to in-effect erase their protagonist 
as the denouement of their story—but more than that, in a deeper sense, 
it achieves originality through a kind of fidelity, or at least through the 
assertion of such: for all we are told about Dorothea is that she lives 
faithfully a hidden life, and rests in unvisited tombs. The fidelity is itself 
pointed up by a literary allusion, to Herodotus, that is as much mythic 
as it is historical, an allusion discussed below. The larger point is that 
such quotation and epigraphy are not merely recidivist. On the contrary, 
they construe a path into a kind of newness, as I argue in what follows. 

1. Eliot’s Double Mirror 

Many of the chapter epigraphs in Middlemarch are quoted from 
specifically attributed sources: ‘Shakespeare’, ‘Old Song’ and so on. 
Others come without attribution, and in these cases Eliot herself is the 
author—a snatch of poetry, or an excerpt from an Elizabethan-sounding 
play, which she is passing-off as a ‘quotation’.! Take, for instance, the 
epigraph to Part 8 Chapter 72, near the end of the novel: 

Full souls are double mirrors, making still 
An endless vista of fair things before, 
Repeating things behind. 

These words are Eliot’s own work. The image of the ‘double mirror’, 
though, is not original to her. It comes from Blaise Pascal, via George 

This is interesting for several Eliot-related reasons. Take Sand, for 
example: George Henry Lewes championed the French novelist, met 
her in person and encouraged Eliot to read her (in 1842, Lewes wrote 
that Sand was ‘the most remarkable writer of the present century [...] 
infinitely more than novelist, she is a Poet, not of the head alone, but of 
the heart’), advice Eliot certainly followed.* Indeed, it became something 
of a commonplace in contemporary critical reactions to Eliot to equate 
her with Sand. 

When Sidney Colvin, in his discerning review of Daniel Deronda, 
remarked, ‘the art of fiction has reached its highest point in the hands of 

1 Surveying Eliot’s complete works, David Higdon tabulates all the epigraphs (‘or 
mottoes as George Eliot chose to call them’) and arrives at the following numbers: 
‘There are 225 of them in her works—96 of them original and 129 drawn from the 
works of fifty-six identified and eight anonymous authors’. ‘George Eliot and the 
Art of the Epigraph’, p. 128. 

2 Lewes’ assessment is quoted in Valerie Dodd, George Eliot: an Intellectual Life 
(Macmillan 1990), p.213 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // /OBP.0249.01 

26 Middlemarch 

two women in our time’ he was merely echoing a sentiment which had 
been expressed many times in the preceding fifteen years.* 

But while there have been journal articles and even whole PhDs, written 
on Eliot and Sand, there has been, to my knowledge, very little on Eliot 
and Pascal.* This is strange, since we know that Eliot read Pascal’s 
Pensées avidly from a young age. Pascal provides the epigraph to both 
Middlemarch’s 33rd and 75th chapters: ‘Qui veut délasser hors de propos, 
lasse’ and ‘Le sentiment de la fausseté des plaisirs présents, et l’ignorance 
de la vanité des plaisirs absents causent l’inconstance’, respectively. 
One of the first things we learn about Dorothea, at the beginning of the 
very first chapter, is that she ‘knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensées’ 
by heart, passages which illuminated for her ‘the destinies of mankind 
[...] by the light of Christianity’. And one of the reasons she considers 
marrying Casaubon is that she is able to persuade herself ‘it would be 
like marrying Pascal. I should learn to see the truth by the same light as 
great men have seen it by’.° So what of that epigraph to Chapter 72, with 
its comparison of ‘full souls’ to ‘double mirrors, making still/an endless 
vista of fair things before,/Repeating things behind’? 

We know that Eliot read Sand’s Lettres d’un voyageur (1837). Here’s a 
relevant passage from the English version of that novel: 

I do not exactly know what Pascal meant by those ‘pensées de derriére la 
téte,’ which he reserved as a reply to polemical objections, or for denying 
in secret what he feigned to accept openly. This was most probably, the 
Jesuitism of intellect, forced to bend to outward duty, but nevertheless 
involuntarily rebelling against the absurd decision. To me, the expression 
seemed a terrible one. It has not only been met with amongst his ‘Pensées,’ 
but written separately on a piece of paper, and conceived somewhat in 
this way: ‘And I also, I shall have my “thoughts from the back of the 
head.”’ Oh! mournful words, drawn from a desolate heart! Alas! there 
are days when the human heart is like a double mirror, where one 

3 Patricia Thomson, ‘The Three Georges’, Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 18.2 (1963), 
137-50 (p. 137), /ncl.1963.18.2.99p0183d 

4 See for example Alexandra K. Wettlaufer, ‘George Sand, George Eliot, and the 
Politics of Difference’, The Romanic Review, 107.1-4 (2016), 77-102, https://doi. 
org /10.1215/26885220-107.1-4.77; Daniel Vitaglione, George Eliot and George Sand: 
A Comparative Study (unpublished PhD thesis, University of St Andrews, 1990), 
http: // 

5 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 3. 

1. Eliot’s Double Mirror 27 

surface sends back to the other the reverse of those objects it has received 
in front.® 

Sand’s image of the human heart as a ‘double-mirror’ (the original is: ‘le 
cerveau humain est comme un double miroir dont une glace renvoie a 
l'autre le revers des objets qu’elle a recus de face’) implies facing mirrors 
each reflecting the other in a kind of mise-en-abime—Eliot’s ‘endless vista’ 
brings this out. It’s clear that Sand’s image riffs, explicitly, on Pascal’s 
idea of ‘thoughts from the back of the head’,’ and that’s an idea that has 
a manifest resonance for what Middlemarch is doing as a novel. 

What is at the back of Dorothea’s head, so late in the novel as chapter 
72? Life has finally freed her from Casaubon, and she is independent and 
wealthy. ‘A husband would not let you have your plans’, Celia rebukes 
her, to which Dorothea snaps: ‘As if I wanted a husband!’ What plans? 
To aid Lydgate, caught-up in the scandal of Bulstrode’s fall, and widely 
thought guilty-by-association or perhaps even a co-conspirator, although 
believed by Dorothea blameless (as, actually, he is). Her brother-in-law 
and uncle, over dinner, rebuke Dorothea’s naivety, but presumably that’s 
not what is referred to by the ‘foil or shadow acting like an iron spring 
within the brain’ here. Presumably there’s something else going on. The 
forward part of her head is sure she wants no husband, but the back of 
her head knows better, and between these two mirrors her soul is cast 
into its amoureuse, or malamoureuse, mise-en-abime. Dorothea wants 
her independence, and that independence means the power to choose 
the partner her heart desires, but choosing Ladislaw means sacrificing 
her financial security and therefore her independence just as it means 
acquiring, for a second time, a husband. As if I wanted a husband! 

Pascal’s 72nd pensée, ‘On Man’s Disproportion’, includes his 
celebrated thoughts on the ‘double infinity’ that frames the human 
condition, caught as we are between the infinitely large and the infinitely 
small. Of these ‘deux infinis’ Pascal insists: 

If we are well informed, we understand that, as nature has graven her 
image and that of her Author on all things, they almost all partake of 
her double infinity [...] We naturally believe ourselves far more capable 

6 George Sand, Letters of a Traveller, trans. by Eliza A. Ashurst (London: Churton, 
1847), p. 142 

7 Blaise Pascal, Pensées, introduction by T. S. Eliot (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1958), /files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm 

28 Middlemarch 

of reaching the centre of things than of embracing their circumference. 
The visible extent of the world visibly exceeds us; but as we exceed little 
things, we think ourselves more capable of knowing them. And yet we 
need no less capacity for attaining the Nothing than the All. Infinite 
capacity is required for both, and it seems to me that whoever shall 
have understood the ultimate principles of being might also attain to the 
knowledge of the Infinite. The one depends on the other, and one leads to 
the other. These extremes meet and reunite by force of distance and find 
each other in God, and in God alone. 

The ‘middle’ of Middlemarch is, as we first take it, a place, a geographical 
locator: a town in the Midlands, the central territory of this British 
island. Then, as we read, we understand that the middle of this novel 
is its subject: neither the aristocracy nor the very poor, neither the 
extraordinarily virtuous nor the melodramatically wicked. The novel 
as an aesthetic project calibrated carefully to walk a middling path 
between fantasy and documentary. But there is, I think, another sense in 
which the novel middles its vision. In tacit answer to Pascal’s question 
‘Qu’est-ce qu’un homme dans l’infini?’ Eliot says: infinite greatness and 
infinite divisibility both would annihilate us, and so it must be that we 
are where we are, in the middle between these two things. Middlemarch 
is neither concerned with infinitesimals and trivia, nor does it have 
pretensions to talk in windily cosmic terms. It is a novel about ordinary 
people and the ordinary things that happen to them, and in this is, 
precisely, its knowledge of the infinite. It has to be, as the narrator notes 
in one of the novel’s most famous passages, since either of Pascal’s 
infinities could collapse our minds: ‘if we had a keen vision and feeling 
of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and 
the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die of that roar which lies on the 
other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded 
with stupidity’.® 

Pascal finds in our middle-ness a sign of divine providence: ‘Car 
enfin qu’est-ce que l’homme dans la nature?’ he asks. What then is man 
in nature? And he answers himself: ‘un néant a l’égard de J’infini, un 
tout a l’égard du néant, un milieu entre rien et tout’; he is nothing in 
relation to infinity, and he is everything in relation to nothingness, he 
is the midpoint between nothing and everything. We are where we 

8 — Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 22. 

1. Eliot’s Double Mirror 29 

are, says Pascal, because that is where God has put us: ‘la nature ayant 
gravé son image et celle de son auteur dans toutes choses, elles tiennent 
presque toutes de sa double infinité’.’ Nature has engraved its image 
and that of its Creator in all things; almost everything derives from its 
double infinity. 

Moreover, in arguing that humanity is strung between ‘two infinities’ 
Pascal also means that we exist between the infinite stretch of time before 
our birth and the time that stretches out, infinitely far, after our death. 
‘When’, he says in the Pensées 

I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity 
before and after, the small space which I fill, or even can see, engulfed 
in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which 
know nothing of me, I am terrified, and wonder that I am here rather 
than there, for there is no reason why here rather than there, or now 
rather than then. Who has set me here? By whose order and design have 
this place and time been destined for me?—Memoria hospitis unius diei 
pretereuntis. It is not well to be too much at liberty. It is not well to have 
all we want.!” 

‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces alarms me,’ shudders Pascal. 
Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie. Eliot, however, is not afraid. 
And that, I think, says something important about her art. As a writer 
she’s really not very interested, as a Joseph Conrad or an Emil Cioran 
might be, in existential dread and terror. On the contrary: Eliot’s ‘middle’ 
inverts the Pascalian framing—not, as it might be, a little life surrounded 
on either side by terrifying infinities of lifelessness, but a little death, 
Casaubon’s, bookended by two zones of life, love and hope. Perhaps 
it looks odd to describe Dorothea’s starting point, back in the novel’s 
early chapters as being one of love. I suppose it’s more conventional 
to think of her as just misguided (although it’s pretty condescending 
to Dorothea as a person to tell her, ‘no my dear you're not really in love 
with Casaubon, you're just casting around for some way to express your 
nascent spiritual yearning’). But what if—she isn’t? Is it so impossible to 
believe she actually did love Casaubon? Perhaps, for all her austerity of 
manner, what most defines Dorothea is precisely a kind of spontaneous 
excess of love. 

9 Pascal, Pensées, 72. 
10  Pensées, 205. The Latin is from the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon [5:14]: the King 
James Version translates this line as ‘the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day’. 

30 Middlemarch 

With this Pascal-via-George-Sand verse epigraph to the first chapter of 
Book 8, it is instructive to look at the epigraph to Book 8’s (and the 
novel’s) very last chapter. From the soul as a double-mirror we shift to 
the heart as preserved in a miraculous supersaturation of love: 

Le cceur se sature d’amour comme d’un sel divin qui le conserve; de 1a 
incorruptible adhérence de ceux qui se sont aimés des I’aube de la vie, 
et la fraicheur des vielles amours prolongés. II existe un embaumement 
d’amour. C’est de Daphnis et Chlée que sont faits Philémon et Baucis. 
Cette vieillesse 1a, ressemblance du soir avec l’aurore—VICTOR HUGO: 
Lhomme qui rit. 

The heart is saturated with love as with a divine salt that preserves it; 
there is an incorruptible coherence to those who have loved in the dawn 
of their life that brings freshness to old, long-lasting loves. It is, as it were, 
an embalming of love. It is out of Daphnis and Chloe that Philemon 
and Baucis are made. In such an old age, the evening harks back to the 
dawn.—VICTOR HUGO: The Man Who Laughs. 

This is Eliot’s inversion—her mirror image, we could say—of Pascal’s 
two, terrifying eternities of blankness: a life bookended by love and 
preserved by the connection, the reflection, of the one in the other. 
It’s a heartening way of looking at life, and long-term relationships; 
but it is also the way Eliot has chosen to frame her novel. The shape of 
Middlemarch is a death between two loves. 

The novel’s ‘Finale’, Eliot’s epilogue, presents itself to the reader 
without any epigraph. But it still, by way of concluding Dorothea’s 
story, or more precisely by way of declining exactly to conclude her 
story, manages to strike a beautiful, plangent note. Ends, says Eliot, 
are beginnings, and neither is the terrifying eternity of silence that so 
affrighted Pascal. ‘Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending [...] 
marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a 
great beginning’. Dorothea cannot live as a grand heroic Theresa or 
Antigone, Eliot tells us, because ‘the medium in which their ardent 
deeds took shape is forever gone’—but a new, quotidian medium has 
come about, just as dramatically and morally engaging. ‘Medium’ in the 
sense of environment becomes medium in the sense of middle. 

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not 
widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the 
strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. 

1. Eliot’s Double Mirror ok 

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: 
for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; 
and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, 
is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest 
in unvisited tombs." 

So I revert to my earlier question—in the middle of what?—by picking 
up the suggestion that one of the things this great novel mediates is 
a kind of mutual doubled speculum. I have already touched upon 
the commonplace by which ‘the mirror’ has long been a trope of art 
as such, and ‘realism’, that complicated term, such as Eliot writes is 
supposed precisely to hold, as it were, the mirror up to nature. Eliot’s 
self-reflexive textual mirrors, though, tend to be more complex than a 
simple foursquare reflection. And I have already quoted Adam Bede’s 
Escher-like opening image: 

With a single drop of ink for a mirror, the Egyptian sorcerer undertakes 
to reveal to any chance comer far-reaching visions of the past. This is 
what I undertake to do for you, reader. With this drop of ink at the end 
of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, 
carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the 
eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.” 

But the Middlemarch-ian mirror, via its Pascalian doubling, involves a still 
more complex narrative strategy, because it is deliberately self-reflexive. 
Eliot’s novel is both a reflection, scrupulously researched, of an English 
Midlands town in the late 1820s and 1830s, and a self-reflection, a 
meditation on the scope and nature of Eliot’s own art—as in the novel’s 
famous last paragraphs. The impossible Pascalian ‘infinity’ that frames 
the project of realism (what George Henry Lewes pegged as ‘Truthism’, 
and which he opposed ‘not to Idealism but to Falsism’)’* is, surely, the 
idea of total vision. 

The perfect mirror would reflect everything, just as the perfect realist 
novel would capture everything. Impossibilities, both, of course. Eliot’s 
double mirror, though, by turning on itself shrinks that bad infinity 
down into itself. Eliot achieves her total vision by not attempting totality, 

11 Eliot, Middlemarch, ‘Finale’. 

12 Eliot, Adam Bede, ch. 1. 

13 George Henry Lewes, ‘Realism in Art: Recent German Fiction’, Westminster Review, 
70 (1858), 493-94. 

32 Middlemarch 

as when she so elegantly and deliberately steps away as narrator from 
the latter phase of Dorothea’s life. Fredric Jameson wonders whether 
‘the bad totalization projected by Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies’ 
isn’t ‘the caricature and distorted mirror image of Eliot’s own achieved 
totalization in Middlemarch itself’."* It’s an argument with some appeal, 
except that a key is a different kind of thing to a mirror. 

It has to do, I think, with Eliot’s deftness, the way her writing both 
convincingly ‘reflects’ the world she is describing (in the sense that she 
compels readerly belief in that world) and ‘self-reflects’ on her own 
practice as she goes along. Her praxis becomes part of her world, and the 
world becomes part of her praxis. It is a complex mimesis, I think, and 
richer and more compelling than the plainer Zola-esque or Gissing-y 
realism discussed above. 

How isa key different to a mirror? Critics have explored the extent to 
which Eliot based her Casaubon upon her contemporary Mark Pattison, 
the brilliant intellect and Rector of Lincoln College Oxford whose 
sexless, miserable marriage and ultimate failure to capitalise upon his 
youthful scholarly potential find parallels in Eliot’s character. Among 
the harder to ignore parallels between Pattison and Casaubon is that 
Pattison actually published a book on Casaubon—Isaac Casaubon, 
that is, the sixteenth-century Swiss theologian.’ Pattison’s Casaubon, 

14 Fredric Jameson, The Antimonies of Realism (London: Verso Books, 2014), pp. 133-34 

15 See for instance, H. S. Jones, Intellect and Character in Victorian England: Mark Pattison 
and the Invention of the Don (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), https:// and A. D. Nuttall, Dead from the Waist Down. 
Scholars and Scholarship in Literature and the Popular Imagination (New Haven: Yale 
University Press, 2003). ‘Early in 1869 Frances Pattison was introduced to George 
Eliot. Their friendship blossomed and by late summer they were on intimate 
terms. In November 1870, five months after a memorable visit to the Pattisons in 
Oxford, Eliot began work on the story of Dorothea Brooke. Since the publication 
of Middlemarch, readers and critics have speculated about the extent to which 
Dorothea’s arid union with Casaubon was modelled on the failed marriage of Mark 
and Frances Pattison. The relative ages of the partners, the husband’s prematurely 
withered appearance (“his deep eye-sockets, those two white moles with hairs on 
them, a bitterness in the mouth and a venom in the glance”), and of course the 
name Casaubon itself, all suggest a deliberate likeness. In public, Frances Pattison, 
who remained on good terms with Eliot, always denied having read the book, but 
Dilke stated plainly, on his wife’s authority, that “the religious side of Dorothea 
Brooke was taken by George Eliot from the letters of Mrs. Pattison,” and that 
Casaubon’s letter proposing marriage to Dorothea “at the beginning of the fifth 
chapter in Middlemarch, from what George Eliot herself told me in 1875, must have 
been very near the letter that Pattison actually wrote, and the reply very much the 
same”’. Peter Thonemann, ‘Wall of Ice’, London Review of Books, 30.3 (2008), 23-24. 

1. Eliot’s Double Mirror oie) 

not unlike Eliot’s Casaubon, hesitated in the face of the attempt at 
systematic or complete knowledge, and if the historical Casaubon, at 
least according to Pattison, did so for reasons of more spiritual cogency 
than either intellectual timidity or lack of subject knowledge, the final 
result is not all that different. 

The depreciation of his own performance, which was one of Casaubon’s 
mental habits, was founded on the disparagement of secular knowledge 
in comparison of piety. But it was further connected with that oppression 
of mind, which the infinity of knowledge lays upon its votaries. [...] 
The thought quantum est quod nescimus [‘how small the amount we can 
know’ |—Heinsius’ motto—keeps him not only humble, but despondent. 
Even in science, some of the greatest men have shared the sense of baffled 
endeavour. Newton's pebbles on the sea-shore are become proverbial. 
Laplace’s dying words were, ‘l-homme ne poursuit que de chiméres’ 
[‘mankind pursues nothing but chimeras’] [...] Research is infinite; it 
can never be finished.'® 

This glosses the nature of research, but it does more: it construes the 
character of the researcher, and as such it speaks to another of Eliot’s 
prime concerns in this novel: character. In her account of the novel, 
Gillian Beer stresses how ‘Eliot emphasises the congruity between 
all the various processes of the imagination, the novelist’s and the 
scientist’s’, adding that she articulates an ‘imagery of transcendence’: 
‘the microscope and the telescope, by making realisable the plurality 
of worlds, of scales and existences beyond the reach of our particular 
sense organisation were a powerful antidote to that form of positivism 
which refused to acknowledge possibilities beyond the present and 
apparent world’.”’ It is an insight that leads nicely into an examination 
of the microscopic potency of Eliot’s characterisation in this novel. A 
key opens a door, a linear operation; a lens opens in a more fractal 
mode, whole new vistas and worlds: the connection not of finitude to 
finitude, but our mortal limitation to something infinite. A fragment is 
an incompleteness, but ‘it can never be finished’ is not the same thing as 
‘it is mortal’, and Eliot’s focus is always on this latter and never on the 
potsherd, the remnant, the eighteenth-century folly. The past, for her, 
lives in the present, or else it is a kind of inertness. 

16 Mark Pattison, Isaac Casaubon 1559-1614 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 
1875), p. 59 

17 Gillian Beer, Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and 
Nineteenth-Century Fiction (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983), pp. 151-52 

2. Sappho’s Apple 

To step back from the last book of Middlemarch to the first. Eliot’s story 
opens with the general expectation among her friends and family that 
Dorothea will marry Sir James Chettam, the eligible and hearty if 
rather dim young baronet. This, of course, does not happen. Instead 
she becomes betrothed to Casaubon. But if Dorothea and Casaubon are 
mismatched, Dorothea and Sir James would have been just as ill-suited 
to one another, if in a different way, and surely everybody in the novel 
knows as much. Still, matchmaker Mrs. Cadwallader is not thereby 

It followed that Mrs. Cadwallader must decide on another match for 
Sir James, and having made up her mind that it was to be the younger 
Miss Brooke, there could not have been a more skilful move towards 
the success of her plan than her hint to the baronet that he had made 
an impression on Celia’s heart. For he was not one of those gentlemen 
who languish after the unattainable Sappho’s apple that laughs from the 
topmost bough.! 

We take the point of her allusion: Sir James is a down-to-earth fellow, not 
the sort to go mooning after unattainable women. 

Where did Eliot come across the ‘Sappho’s apple’ reference? It is 
from Karl Otfried Miiller’s History of the Literature of Ancient Greece to the 
Period of Isocrates, which had appeared in English in 1840—translated 
by the man who was, a few years after its publication, to become Eliot’s 
lover, and whom she considered her husband, George Henry Lewes. 
This is what Lewes’s Miiller says: 

In a fragment lately discovered, which bears a strong impression of the 
simple language of Sappho, she compares the freshness of youth and the 

1. Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 6. 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // 

36 Middlemarch 

unsullied beauty of a maiden’s face to an apple of some peculiar kind, 
which, when all the rest of the fruit is gathered from the tree, remains 
alone at an unattainable height, and drinks in the whole vigour of 
vegetation; or rather (to give the simple words of the poetess in which the 
thought is placed before us and gradually heightened with great beauty 
and nature): ‘like the sweetapple which ripens at the top of the bough, 
on the topmost point of the bough, forgotten by the gatherers—no, not 
quite forgotten, but beyond their reach’. 

Miller adds a footnote: ‘the fragment is in Walz, Rhetores Graeci, vol. viii. 
p- 883’ and quotes the Greek: 

oiov TO yAUKUUGAOV épvEbeTat dxpw ér baw, 

aKkpov émt AKpoTATW, AEAGBovToO SE UAAOSpOrNEs, 

Sappho may have written as many as 10,000 lines of poetry, although 
today fewer than seven hundred lines survive. Despite her once 
widespread popularity, she fell out of favour in the centuries after her 
death, either because the Aeolic dialect of Greek in which she wrote came 
to be considered ugly, or else because of disapproval by the Christian 
church at her bisexuality. For most of the last thousand years Sappho 
has been known only by those poems and fragments that happened 
to be recorded by other writers: one whole poem, three partial poems 
and various shorter fragments and pieces, down (sometimes) to single 
words. Sappho’s poems had been extracted from these sources and 
published in separate volumes as early as the 1550s, and in 1681 the 
French scholar Anne Le Févre published an edition of Sappho that made 
her work more widely known across Europe. Then, in 1879, a papyrus 
containing a new fragment of Sappho was discovered at Faiyum in 
Egypt. Many more papyri have been discovered since that date, and 
our knowledge of Sappho is more extensive nowadays than at any time 
since classical antiquity. But such ‘new’ Sappho poems lay in the future 
as Eliot wrote Middlemarch. 

Nonetheless, Miiller in the 1840s describes Sappho’s apple poem as 

‘a fragment lately discovered’. He does so, despite the fact that he was 
writing long before the discovery of any new Sappho papyri. How so? 

2 Karl Otfried Miiller, History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, trans. by George 
Cornewall Lewis (London: n.p., 1840), 178-79. 

2. Sappho’s Apple 37 

Because another scholar, Christian Walz, had worked through collections 
of unpublished manuscripts kept in various libraries and private 
collections in various European cities and in doing so had discovered 
a number of previously unknown words, lines and passages quoted by 
the manuscripts’ authors. Walz published these in a book called Rhetores 
graeci, ‘Rhetoricians of Greece’, a work which appeared simultaneously 
in Stuttgart, London and Paris. Much of what Walz had discovered was 
fairly dull, but some bits and pieces were more exciting—for instance, 
the three-line poem Miller quotes, which Walz had found in Syrianus’s 
commentary on Hermogenes’ On Forms (4 century BCE). Walz does 
not specifically identify this verse as being by Sappho (hence Miiller’s 
caution: ‘a fragment which bears a strong impression of the simple 
language of Sappho’) although modern scholars are happier to make 
the attribution on the grounds of its dialect and closeness to the other 
things we know Sappho wrote. 

When, precisely, was this ‘fragment lately discovered’ discovered? 
You can see for yourself with Walz’s title page (see Fig. 1) 

1832: just the period in which Middlemarch is set. This reference to 
‘Sappho’s apple’, which Eliot came across in the book her lover had 
translated into English, could hardly be, in terms of the imagined world 
of Middlemarch, more up-to-date. A brand-new portion of Sappho had 
come into the world just as Eliot’s story is unfolding, and her narrator 
knows all about it. 

It is, in other words, another instance of the scrupulousness and 
precision with which Eliot undertook the research that undergirds her 
novel. This aspect of her creative praxis has become, for good reason, 
one of the axioms of Eliot scholarship.’ And if part of that labour 
was in the service of what we might call, though it is a slippery term, 
‘verisimilitude’—creating the textual conditions into which readers 
might safely suspend their disbelief in a positive sense, with precisely 
observed detail, and in a negative by avoiding the kinds of errors that 
‘bounce’ a reader out of her faith in the story—another part consisted 
in assembling a matrix of textual reference, like this Sappho allusion, 
in which the story of Middlemarch itself might be situated and fortified. 

3 See for instance, Meg M. Moring, ‘George Eliot’s Scrupulous Research: The Facts 
behind Eliot’s Use of the “Keepsake in Middlemarch”, Victorian Periodicals Review, 
26.1 (1993), 19-23 and Jerome Beaty, Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel: A Study of 
George Eliot’s Creative Method (Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1960). 

38 Middlemarch 









PROrEsson atmoEners 

YOoL. I. 

sumtibus 3% 6 COTTAE 
apud BLACK, YOUNG et YOUNG. Tavistock Street. 
1h apud FIRMIN DIDOT. 

Fig. 1 Christianus Walz, Rhetores Graeci, vol. 1 (Stuttgart and Tubingen: J. G. Cotta, 
1832), title page, 
Graeci_ex_codicibus_Florentinis /KzTGebC5F6gC?hl=en&gbpv=1. 

Public domain. 

The apple, here, is Dorothea Brooke (it is perhaps not coincidental 
that the ‘west brook’ is a variety of hard, speckled apple popular in 
the nineteenth-century), but also it is Eliot’s particular correlative for 
human love, not as a heavenly ideal, and neither down in the dirt, or too 
easily apprehended. Later in the novel, in another of the story’s three 
love stories, Fred Vincy rides to the house of Mary Garth, whom he 
loves. The occasion for the visit is that, having misjudged the sale of a 
horse, he is out of pocket. He owes a debt of £160 which Mary’s father 
has co-signed, and he can only pay back £50, even though the shortfall 
might ruin Mr. Garth. ‘But for Mary’s existence and Fred’s love for her’, 
Eliot tells us, ‘his conscience would have been much less active both 
in previously urging the debt on his thought and impelling him not to 
spare himself after his usual fashion by deferring an unpleasant task, 
but to act as directly and simply as he could’. So he rides out: 

2. Sappho’s Apple 39 

The Garth family, which was rather a large one, for Mary had four 
brothers and one sister, were very fond of their old house, from which 
all the best furniture had long been sold. Fred liked it too, knowing it by 
heart even to the attic which smelt deliciously of apples and quinces, and 
until to-day he had never come to it without pleasant expectations.* 

Apples (plus quinces) are again elevated asa sign of the not-immediately- 
accessible love object, here located in the bourgeois comfort of a 
spacious house (such material considerations also being part of Mary’s 
appeal to Fred). First, though, he must ‘make his confession before Mrs. 
Garth, of whom he was rather more in awe than of her husband’—and 
whom, significantly, he encounters in the kitchen ‘her sleeves turned 
above her elbows [...] pinching an apple-puff’—although she is herself 
described in terms of a different fruit, or fruit product: ‘the passage from 
governess into housewife had wrought itself a little too strongly into 
her consciousness [...] the exemplary Mrs. Garth had her droll aspects, 
but her character sustained her oddities, as a very fine wine sustains a 
flavour of skin’. Apples more than once symbolically situate the Edenic 
possibilities offered, for Fred and also for Farebrother, represented by 
marriage to Mary and a place in amongst the Garths: 

Caleb, rather tired with his day’s work, was seated in silence with his 
pocket-book open on his knee, while Mrs. Garth and Mary were at their 
sewing, and Letty in a corner was whispering a dialogue with her doll, 
Mr. Farebrother came up the orchard walk, dividing the bright August 
lights and shadows with the tufted grass and the apple-tree boughs.° 

Farebrother, when he recognises that Mary loves not him but Fred, 
eventually does the decent thing. Still, one of the things Eliot is doing 
here is contrasting the elevated Sapphic of Dorothea with the more 
figuratively and literally down-to-earth apple of Mary Garth. 

Mr. Farebrother left the house soon after, and seeing Mary in the orchard 
with Letty, went to say good-by to her. They made a pretty picture in 
the western light which brought out the brightness of the apples on 
the old scant-leaved boughs—Mary in her lavender gingham and black 
ribbons holding a basket, while Letty in her well-worn nankin picked 
up the fallen apples. If you want to know more particularly how Mary 
looked, ten to one you will see a face like hers in the crowded street 

4 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 24. 
5 Ibid., ch. 40. 


Farebrother takes the apple, but Fred, Mary’s old playfellow, gets the 
girl. And when Fred calls, later in the novel, to plight his troth, it will not 
surprise us that he encounters the Garths, ‘the family group, dogs and 
cats included, under the great apple-tree in the orchard’.’ Eliot provides 
us with one last twist on this fructal theme. In her epilogue, by way of 
gratifying her reader’s curiosity as to what has happened with her main 


to-morrow [...] some small plump brownish person of firm but quiet 
carriage, who looks about her, but does not suppose that anybody is 
looking at her. If she has a broad face and square brow, well-marked 
eyebrows and curly dark hair, a certain expression of amusement in her 
glance which her mouth keeps the secret of, and for the rest features 
entirely insignificant—take that ordinary but not disagreeable person for 
a portrait of Mary Garth. [...] Mary admired the keen-faced handsome 
little Vicar in his well-brushed threadbare clothes more than any man 
she had had the opportunity of knowing [...] it was remarkable that the 
actual imperfections of the Vicar’s clerical character never seemed to 
call forth the same scorn and dislike which she showed beforehand for 
the predicted imperfections of the clerical character sustained by Fred 
Vincy. Will any one guess towards which of those widely different men 
Mary had the peculiar woman’s tenderness?—the one she was most 
inclined to be severe on, or the contrary? ‘Have you any message for your 
old playfellow, Miss Garth?’ said the Vicar, as he took a fragrant apple 
from the basket which she held towards him, and put it in his pocket. 
‘Something to soften down that harsh judgment? I am going straight to 
see him.” 

characters, Eliot confides: 

There were three boys: Mary was not discontented that she brought forth 
men-children only; and when Fred wished to have a girl like her, she said, 
laughingly, ‘that would be too great a trial to your mother’ Mrs. Vincy 
in her declining years, and in the diminished lustre of her housekeeping, 
was much comforted by her perception that two at least of Fred’s boys 
were real Vincys, and did not ‘feature the Garths.’ But Mary secretly 
rejoiced that the youngest of the three was very much what her father 
must have been when he wore a round jacket, and showed a marvellous 
nicety of aim in playing at marbles, or in throwing stones to bring down 
the mellow pears.® 


Ibid., ch. 57. 
Ibid., ‘Finale’. 

2. Sappho’s Apple 41 

The shift from apples to pears marks the natural development from 
generation to generation. There is, I suppose, some piquancy in the 
allusion to Lady Macbeth (in the reference to exclusively male children) 
there; although we can take this as a kind of irony. Few characters in 
literature are less Lady-Macbeth-like than Mary Garth, after all. At the 
same time there is something more than adventitious in the juxtaposition 
of Sappho and Shakespeare in Eliot’s textual matrix. The out-of-reach 
apple of Sappho stands for potential, for the start (perhaps) of something, 
just as the Edenic apple stands at the mythic start of everything. But 
Macbeth telling his wife that she should bring forth men-children 
only’ looks forward to an eventuality that the play closes-down. It is, 
in other words, the end of something—an end in which Lady Macbeth 
leaping to her death from the castle battlements, like Sappho leaping 
to her death from the cliffs of Lesbos, identifies as having to do with 
despair, derangement and femaleness. Or to put it a slightly different 
way, Macbeth is a play about the consequences of our actions. That looks, 
perhaps, like an over-facile summary of Shakespeare’s great drama, but 
it need not. Lady Macbeth, to a much greater extent than her husband, 
believes her actions will be both beneficial to her and consequence-free. 
Accordingly it is Lady Macbeth who proves haunted by the fallout of 
her choices. Middlemarch avoids, of course, the grand guignol of Macbeth 
in terms of bodily violence, but it is just as tightly focused on moral 
violence, and reputational violence, as Shakespeare’s play. 

There’s another layer here, which has to do with the larger enframing 
assumptions different modes bring to a novel like Middlemarch. It is a 
mode of documentary verisimilitude, and it is an exemplary drama, a 
myth. Fruit imagery in this novel might be read ‘mythically’, via Biblical 
narratives of the fall of man, or Greek-mythological narratives (Atalanta’s 
golden apple, Sappho’s high-growing apple, Hesperidean treasure), 
or ‘scientifically’, as the mechanism by which trees make more trees, 
the vehicle of inheritance as such. The cultural—and, as we'll see with 
other epigraphs and allusions, spiritual—inheritance of Middlemarch is 
located in a web of intertextuality. 

9 William Shakespeare, Macbeth, I. 7. 73. 

3. Lydgate Winces 

Character and Realism 

I would like to talk a little more about middles. Middlemarch is a 
medium place, and Middlemarch a medium novel. ‘Medium’ means both 
middle (in a statistical, but also a general sense) and also environment, 
surround, that inside which we subsist. For biologists a medium is a 
nutrient solution for the growth of cells in vitro, which growth might of 
course be observed through a microscope. For plankton, brine is their 
medium. In a different sense, for human beings, as social creatures, 
society is our medium. For chemistry and physics ‘medium’ refers to the 
surrounding environment (solid, liquid, gas) or to the vacuum through 
which signals, waves or forces pass. 

The second book of Middlemarch is about, amongst other things, 
Lydgate settling himself into his new life. He has grand ambitions for 
his medical research, looks forward to establishing the new hospital and 
is generally restless. 

But whichever way Lydgate began to incline, there was something to 
make him wince; and being a proud man, he was a little exasperated at 
being obliged to wince. He did not like frustrating his own best purposes 
by getting on bad terms with Bulstrode; he did not like voting against 
Farebrother [...] he, with his unmixed resolutions of independence and 
his select purposes, would find himself at the very outset in the grasp of 
petty alternatives.’ 

Why does he wince? In this specific case, itis because he has asay in whom 
should be chaplain of the new hospital, and he is torn between voting 
for his friend, Farebrother (and so alienating the powerful Bulstrode) 
or voting for Bulstrode’s preferred candidate, Tyke, and disappointing 

1 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 18. 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // /OBP.0249.03 

44 Middlemarch 

his friend. In the end, Lydgate succumbs to the larger social forces and 
gives up his purely personal preference in favour of Tyke. But as the 
novel goes on we will see that Lydgate, despite his pride, intelligence 
and drive, often winces. 

One of the reasons Lydgate likes Farebrother is that the two men 
share a passion for amateur science. In Chapter 17 Farebrother shows 
Lydgate round his collections of biological specimens, insects and the 
like. Lydgate takes a liking to an item in the vicar’s collection and offers 
to swap it for something from his own: 

‘T have some sea-mice—fine specimens—in spirits. And I will throw in 
Robert Brown’s new thing—‘Microscopic Observations on the Pollen of 
Plants’—if you don’t happen to have it already.’ 

This is the pamphlet he’s talking about. 

i. A 



Made in the Months of June, July, and August, 1827, 






F.RS, Hox, MSE. & RT. Acan., V.P.LS. 


[Not Published.] 

Fig. 2 Robert Brown, A Brief Account of Microscopical Observations on the Particles 
Contained in the Pollen of Plants; and On the General Existence of Active Molecules 
in Organic and Inorganic Bodies ([n.p.], 1828), title page, https://www. 

bz8-AAAAcAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1. Public domain. 

2 Ibid., ch. 17. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 45 

As you can see from the title page, this pamphlet was never published. 
Brown had it privately printed (in 1828) and distributed copies to his 
friends. Eliot is once again precisely situating her book in its time. If 
Lydgate has a copy of Brown’s ‘new thing’ it must be because he is a 
friend of Brown’s, or otherwise in Brown’s circle. 

It is, nonetheless, an extremely famous work. This pamphlet contains 
important and influential observations concerning the medium through 
which we all, speaking physically, move. Even though he did not press 
them upon the public, Brown’s ideas were widely discussed and proved 
profoundly influential through the century. It concerns what we now 
call, after its author, ‘Brownian motion’: the agitation of pollen particles 
as visible under magnification. Lots of us have done this experiment 
at school (I certainly did): watch through a microscope as individual 
pollen grains jiggle and tremble. They move because they are being 
continually struck on all sides by the much smaller nitrogen, oxygen 
and carbon-dioxide molecules that constitute the air, and which are 
themselves in constant motion. 

When Brown first observed ‘Brownian motion’ he could not explain 
the agitation of the pollen grains he was observing. Indeed, it was not 
until the beginning of the twentieth century that the real reason was 
uncovered. All Brown knew is that pollen grains, observed through 
a powerful microscope, shimmered with movement. The Edinburgh 
Journal of Science, reviewing Brown’s pamphlet in 1829, speculated as to 
the causes of ‘the phenomena of motion, which Mr. Brown left enveloped 
in a sort of mystery, by representing them as inherent in the molecules 
of organic and inorganic bodies’? Various explanations were proposed, 
including the theory that the pollen was alive (like spermatozoa), that 
the motion was electrical in origin, or else that it represented some 
process of evaporation or other agitation in the medium. The question 
was energetically debated through the century, although it wasn’t until 
long after Eliot’s death that the true cause of Brownian motion was 
definitively established, by Albert Einstein in 1904. 

3M. Raspail, ‘Note on Mr Brown’s Microscopical Observations on the active 
Molecules of organic and inorganic bodies’, Edinburgh Journal of Science, 10 (1829), 
106-08 (p. 106). 

4 For those interested: the true cause has to do with the kinetic nature of temperature. 
What we perceive as heat and cold are substrates of atoms moving more or less 
rapidly. The agitation of pollen grains (tiny to us, but vastly larger than the atoms 
that make up the air) is them being struck on all sides by these moving and 
ricocheting atomic particles. 

46 Middlemarch 

What Brown showed was that individual miniscule pollen grains are 
in constant motion, jiggling from side to side—continually wincing, we 
might say. He wasn’t able to show why they were. That was enough for 
the phenomenon to be named after him. Darwin’s achievement later in 
the century was similar: he argued that evolution happened, but, lacking 
any knowledge of genetics or the existence of DNA, could not say how 
hereditable traits were passed down. 

Eliot includes this reference to Brown’s pamphlet partly because it 
is chronologically on-point for the 1828-32 timeline of her novel. But I 
think she is doing something more. It is not just period specific window- 
dressing: this pamphlet speaks to the way Eliot conceives of character 
as such. Consider Lydgate. He has grand ambitions, a moral compass 
and a sense of duty, he is clever and energetic, but he is, for all that, a 
strangely passive individual, knocked back and forth by the miniature 
forces of this miniature society. The novel does not pretend to explain, in 
any radical sense, why this is the case, but it observes that it is the case, 
for him, and also for almost all the people whose stories it tells. 

This is, I think, the best way of approaching the rather garish inset 
story from Lydgate’s past, narrated in chapter 15. In France, we’re told, 
young Lydgate fell in love with a beautiful, married actress, Mme Laure: 
‘a Provengale, with dark eyes, a Greek profile, and rounded majestic 
form’. We’re told that ‘Lydgate was in love with this actress, as a man is 
in love with a woman whom he never expects to speak to’ until one day, 
on stage in Paris, she stabs her actor-husband to death in front of the 
audience. This action follows the playscript and Laure is not prosecuted: 
the legal authorities decide that she slipped and accidentally killed her 
husband when she was supposed to be only pretending to do so. Since 
he happens to be present in the audience at this death, Lydgate leaps 
onto the stage and cradles Mme Laure (she has fallen and hit her head). 
Afterwards he pays suit to her, eventually proposing marriage. But she 
refuses him: 

‘T will tell you something,’ she said, in her cooing way, keeping her arms 
folded. ‘My foot really slipped.’ 

‘Tknow, I know,’ said Lydgate, deprecatingly. ‘It was a fatal accident—a 
dreadful stroke of calamity that bound me to you the more.’ 

Again Laure paused a little and then said, slowly, ‘I meant to do it.’ 

Lydgate, strong man as he was, turned pale and trembled: moments 
seemed to pass before he rose and stood at a distance from her. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 47 

‘There was a secret, then,’ he said at last, even vehemently. ‘He was 
brutal to you: you hated him.’ 

“No! he wearied me; he was too fond: he would live in Paris, and not 
in my country; that was not agreeable to me.’ 

‘Great God!’ said Lydgate, in a groan of horror. ‘And you planned to 
murder him?’ 

‘T did not plan: it came to me in the play—I meant to do it.’ 

Lydgate stood mute, and unconsciously pressed his hat on while he 
looked at her. He saw this woman—the first to whom he had given his 
young adoration—amid the throng of stupid criminals. 

‘You are a good young man,’ she said. ‘But I do not like husbands. I 
will never have another.’ 

This gruesome narrative inset comports oddly, I think, with the carefully 
proportionate psychological and practical verisimilitude of the rest of 
Middlemarch. It is a little islet of melodrama in an Eliotic sea of more 
scrupulous literary realism. But it says something interesting about 
character, and more specifically about the sorts of characters that more 
usually inhabit Eliot’s universe. Mme Laure is a creature driven by a 
will strong enough to commit murder. She acted not (which Lydgate 
could have understood and condoned) by accident, nor because she 
had been driven to murder by an abusive husband—two versions of 
character passivity—but, on the contrary, because she wanted to act, out of 
a perfect and pitiless agency. She was no pollen grain, jiggled around by 
mysterious forces, but rather a nexus of volitional action. It is this fact, 
as much as the crime she has committed, that repels Lydgate I think. 
And there is a canniness in Eliot’s vision here too: looking forward 
to Lydgate’s (at this point) in-the-future falling in love with another 
woman as implacably wilful and—crucially—as psychologically opaque 
as Laure. 

But, Eliot is saying, these are the exceptions in humankind. Most 
people exist primarily in ways defined by the networks of other people, 
and are subject, as Lydgate himself is, to the buffeting forces of other 
people’s energies: their desires, their pressures and anxieties and angers, 
the push-me-pull-you of mutual obligations and gratifications that are, 
in Eliot’s artistic vision, the predominance of human existence. Most of 
us are small beings in a big world, visible to the novelist’s microscope as 
oscillating grains in the medium. 

5 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 15. 

48 Middlemarch 

At the time she was writing Eliot didn’t know for sure (any more 
than did the world’s scientists) what caused Brownian motion. But 
she knew theories were divided between those that argued the pollen 
moved because of some motile agency or power or its own, and those 
that argued the pollen was a passive object being moved by forces 
around it—electrical, atmospheric or something else. It is not that I’m 
suggesting that she has written Lydgate as a merely passive individual, 
only acted upon and lacking all independent will or spirit—he would be 
avery dull character in such a case. But it is, I think, part of Eliot’s genius 
to understand that our will is, by and large, unequal to the various, 
systemic and complex pressures of our environments. The heroes of 
epic, romance or melodrama—like Mme Laure—act to a greater extent 
than they are acted upon: they manifest a commanding will, they cut 
their various Gordian knots and master, or mistress, their destinies. 
The heroes and heroines of the Realist Novel, though, find life more 
complicated and restrictive, because actual life, such as we all live it, is 
more complicated and restrictive. The step from the little inset story of 
Mme Laure to the larger unfolding of Lydgate’s story in Middlemarch is 
a shift in mode, from one kind of story to another. 

And in this latter sense, of what it is Eliot brings to the ‘realist’ 
mode of novel-writing, I do think there is something distinctive in her 
as a realist that has to do with her conception of character. We could 
compare what another giant of ‘Literary Realism’ does with character: 
Leo Tolstoy. We know Tolstoy had a high regard for Eliot’s writing: in 
1891 he wrote to his publisher, Mikhail Lederle, with a list of forty-five 
books that impressed him ‘most of all’, and alongside Homer, the Bible 
and various others he listed ‘novels by the English writer George Eliot’— 
all of them, perhaps. Early in Anna Karenina, Anna is travelling by train 
and reading ‘an English novel’; she imagines herself living the life of 
the heroine ‘caring for a sick man, making speeches in Parliament and 
riding to hounds’*—I’ve always assumed that she’s reading Middlemarch, 
and mixing up in her imagination Dorothea, Ladislaw and Rosamond. 

My point here is that Tolstoy is a very different sort of realist to 
Eliot. Here, I am not simply referring to the scope or scale of a novel 

6 Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. by Constance Garnett (New York: Random 
House, 1939), Part 1, ch. 27, /files/1399 /1399-h/1399-h. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 49 

like War and Peace when compared to Eliot’s more modest panoramas. 
That obviously is a difference, but a more important one, I think, is that 
Tolstoy conceives of character as more radically passive than did Eliot. 
Part of the point of War and Peace is to show History steamrollering over 
all its characters, whether or not they think they are ready. Nobody acts 
in that novel, everybody reacts: the large dramatis personae is spread 
out on a continuum between, on the one hand, the hapless, likeable and 
fundamentally passive Pierre and, on the other, Napoleon, the closest 
the novel comes to a villain. Napoleon thinks he is the embodiment of 
Hegel’s ‘World Spirit’, but he is not: he is as much swept along by the 
vastly larger, suprahuman forces of history as anybody else. Indeed, 
when he’s finished telling his story Tolstoy adds a massive appendix 
detailing his idiosyncratic Theory of History, which is, in a nutshell, that 
nobody, no matter how grand or apparently powerful they are, has any 
power over History. We are all helpless pollen-grains in Tolstoy’s vision 
of things: buffeted by the forces of love and sex (in Anna Karenina), of 
society, history and war (in War and Peace) and of God (in Resurrection). 
One of Tolstoy’s most powerful works, 1886’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 
tells the story of a man who does nothing at all except lie on his bed 
dying, enduring the passage and finally passing on. Ivan Ilyich may be 
the most strictly passive fictional character ever written. 

It seems to me that, by comparison, Eliot reserves more of a place 
for will and indeed for wilfulness in her conception of the human 
character. Not all the people in her fiction simply and passively wait: 
some act rather than react, and some of those who act do so against the 
strong current of societal disapproval. At the same time Eliot does not 
see the world as a melodrama inhabited by Mme Laures, forever on the 
verge of plunging a knife into their husbands’ hearts. Most of us are 
carried along by life, and deal with things as best we can. One way we 
can engage with Eliot’s fiction is as an exploration of the mix between 
activity and passivity in the human soul. These are, after all, genuinely 
enduring questions. To what extent are our lives defined by our action, 
and to what extent by reaction? Are we agents or patients, forceful focal- 
points of will and agency, or pollen-grains jiggling and trembling from 
a thousand invisible and often contrary forces? Middlemarch gives us the 
chance to peer through the glass of Eliot’s crisply focalising prose at, 
amongst others, Lydgate. See: he winces! 

50 Middlemarch 

I am, here, tacitly contrasting ‘Literary Realism’ with ‘Melodrama’, 
imputing to the former term a connotation of greater restraint and a 
finer-grained mode of mimesis, and the latter a more histrionic and 
more caricatured one. Alternatively ‘realism’ might be contrasted to 
‘idealism’, in which the latter term speaks to a refusal to be bogged- 
down by merely material, quotidian concerns of the former.’ To describe 
‘melodrama’ as histrionic dallies, perhaps, with tautology, since a drama 
performed upon the stage is necessarily that; and it isa common enough 
assumption that the players in such on-stage dramas, like Mme Laure, 
carry away some of the heightened, self-dramatising and intensified 
being-in-the-world of their jobs into their private lives. Middlemarch, 
as a novel, certainly suggests so. That said, these two scales, realist- 
melodramatic and realist-idealist, themselves cross-over one another in 
unexpected ways. 

Characterisation, in a novel as in a play or film, relies to a significant 
extent on the author’s audience importing, and in some cases actively 
cathecting, their own priors (assumptions and desires or dislikes) into 
the wire-frame figure the author lays down. This co-creation is not 
entirely a free-for-all, of course; the specifics of the text provide guide 
rails, as do our broader contextual assumptions about human nature, 
social mores and so on. The point is that these contexts themselves exist 
in a relationship with the textual representations of those contexts, like 
novels. They are, indeed, nothing but textual. We might think of our 
own actual lived-experiences as ‘realist’, and might therefore consider 
‘melodrama’ to be a mode that formally misconstrues ‘reality’. But to 
put it in these terms is already to be complicit with a set of assumptions 
that le naturalisme has already framed in particular ways. We draw some 
of our beliefs about how we can and should act from our upbringing and 
our peer groups, and some we decide upon for ourselves, but we draw 
much also from the culture we consume. Indeed these three disciplines, 
or discourses, are all complexly interconnected. 

Mme Laure and Dorothea, for instance, might seem very different 
individuals. The one kills her husband in plain view; the other is so 
intensely morally and spiritually scrupulous that such an action would 

7 The entry on ‘realism’ in Raymond Williams's Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and 
Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976) remains, half a century after it was 
published, essential. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 51 

be perfectly inconceivable to her. The one, we might say, is outré and the 
other reticent, even repressed. Yet Eliot, it seems to me, goes out of her 
way to introduce an element into her textual creation of Dorothea that 
we can also describe as histrionic. 

In Book 4 Dorothea, rebuffed yet again by the chill of her husband, 
and anxious for his health, becomes not tearful but angry: 

She was in the reaction of a rebellious anger stronger than any she had 
felt since her marriage. Instead of tears there came words:— 

‘What have I done—what am IJ—that he should treat me so? He never 
knows what is in my mind—he never cares. What is the use of anything 
I do? He wishes he had never married me.”* 

This speech by Dorothea, and especially its latter part, falls into blank 

What is the use of anything I do? 
He wishes he had never married me. 

Two perfect iambic pentameters. Nor is this an isolated instance. Even 
if we confine ourselves to Book 4, it is remarkable to note how often 
Dorothea, alone of all Eliot’s characters, speaks this way.’ 

But then perhaps it is only fitting that this happens with Dorothea, 
since she of all the main characters in the novel she is the one whose 

8 — Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 42. 

9 Idonotclaim that Dorothea always speaks in full pentameters; nor is every line that 
Eliot puts into her mouth entirely regular. But I do argue there is a distinct iambic 
pulse to the way she speaks that isn’t the case for Eliot’s other characters. Here, 
just from Book 4, are some examples of what I mean, from Dorothea’s dialogue: ‘I 
cannot bear to think that any one/Should die and leave no love behind’ [ch. 34]; 
‘T’ve often thought that I should like to talk/To you again. It seems [most] strange 
to me/How many things I said to you.’ [ch. 37]; ‘[...] Ishould have said/That those 
who have great thoughts get too much worn/In working [of] them out. I used to 
feel/About that, even [as] a little girl.” [ch. 37]; [Of Ladislaw’s grandparents] ‘I 
wonder how she bore the change from wealth/To poverty: I wonder whether she/ 
Was happy with her husband! Do you know?’ [ch. 37]; ‘Ah, what a different life 
from mine! I have/Had always too much [here] of everything. /But tell me how 
it was.’ [ch. 37]; “You must remember that you have not done/What he thought 
best for you. [...]/Perhaps my uncle has not told you how/Serious Mr. Casaubon’s 
illness was./It would be very petty of us who/Are well and can bear things, to think 
much of/Small offences [...]’ [ch. 37]; [speaking to Casaubon, regarding Ladislaw] 
‘T fear you think too hardly of him, dear./You are so good, so just—[and] you have 
done/Everything that you thought to be right.’ [ch. 37]. Even when her speech 
doesn’t fill-out into whole pentameters it’s very often strongly iambic: ‘I wish you 
could have stayed’ [ch. 37]; ‘Pray tell me what it is’ [ch. 39] ‘My life is very simple’ 
[ch. 39]. 

52 Middlemarch 

self-conception tends to err on side of histrionism, that is, of conceiving 
herself not as a simple subjectivity but a figure playing a particular 
role—at the novel’s opening, a spiritual or elevated role. Eliot is surely 
correct to intuit that such a self-conception includes a theatrical, self- 
dramatising component. 

Dorothea’s representation is a tension between what we might call 
‘melodrama’ and a more restrained, diagnostic ‘realism’. So is Lydgate’s. 
But there is an important difference. Dorothea’s desire to live a heightened 
rather than a mundane life—heightened according to a particular set 
of spiritual and scholarly criteria—is inherently self-dramatising, or so 
Eliot says. With Lydgate, by contrast, she separates out her character 
into a ‘melodramatic’ phase, disposed into his Parisian backstory, and 
a ‘realist’ phase, in which the character’s very commitment to close 
medical and scientific observation mirrors the precise realist strategies 
Eliot herself deploys. This ‘medical’ scientific realism, this microscopic 
attentiveness to the somatic particular, also derives from Lydgate’s 
Parisian backstory. But, this component of Lydgate’s narrative weave 
grows in a different direction. 

Cod-Shakespearian blank verse is not the only literary register 
deployed. The lyric that heads-up chapter 15, the portion of the novel 
that contains the story of Mme Laure, is one composed by Eliot herself: 

Black eyes you have left, you say, 
Blue eyes fail to draw you; 

Yet you seem more rapt to-day, 
Than of old we saw you. 

Oh, I track the fairest fair 
Through new haunts of pleasure; 
Footprints here and echoes there 
Guide me to my treasure: 

Lo! she turns—immortal youth 
Wrought to mortal stature, 
Fresh as starlight’s aged truth— 
Many-named Nature! 

The ‘black eyes’ connote tragic passion (Mme Laure) and the blue 
represent the more balanced and comedic possible woman (Rosamond, 
as Lydgate thinks). And indeed, this epigraph is saying that, at this 
stage in the story, Lydgate has turned away from both the dangerous 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 53 

passionate and the beautifully proper in favour of his scientific 

The poem is Eliot’s, but the trope on which it is based—the choice 
faced by a (male) narrator between the intensity of a queenly ‘black- 
eyed’ lover and the calmer English rose represented by ‘blue-eyes’— 
appears enough times in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century popular 
verse to render it almost a commonplace. Take for instance Alaric Watts, 
‘The Bachelor’s Dilemma’ (1823).'° In this poem, the narrator is torn 
between loving Fanny ‘whose form, like the willow, so slender and 
lithe /Has a thousand wild motions of lightness and grace’ and her sister 
Helen ‘more stately of gesture and mien,/Whose beauty a world of dark 
ringlets enshrouds/With a black, regal eye, and the step of a queen’. 

And when sorrow and joy are so blended together, 

That to weep I’m unwilling, to smile am as loth; 

When the beam may be kicked by the weight of a feather; 
I would fain keep it even—by wedding them both! 

But since I must fix or on black eyes or blue, 

Quickly make up my mind ‘twixt a Grace and a Muse; 
Pr’ythee Venus, instruct me that course to pursue 
Which even Paris himself had been puzzled to choose! 

The twist at the end of the poem is that the man asks for the hand of first 
one, then the other, and both turn him down, for ‘lively Fanny declared 
he was somewhat too grave,/And Saint Helen pronounced him a little 
too gay!’ The application is clear enough: light-heartedly in the case 
of the Watts poem, more complexly and with more serious emotional 
consequences in the case of Lydgate, the man who believes he has a 
free choice between two different modes of womanhood will find— 
surprise!—that he ends up with neither. In Lydgate’s case, neither the 
promise of dark passion represented by Mme Laure, nor the fantasy of 
blue-eyed complaisance and comedy he thinks, at first, is Rosamond. 

10 This poem was often reprinted and anthologised, and is here quoted from Alaric 
Alexander Watts, ed., The Literary Souvenir, or, Cabinet of Poetry and Romance 
(London: [n.p.], 1826), pp. 89-91. Watts was a very popular anthologist and writer 
in the Victorian period, and one we know that Eliot read: see for instance Avrom 
Fleishman, George Eliot's Intellectual Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 
2010), p. 19,; William Baker and Donald 
P. Leinster-Mackay, The Libraries of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes (Victoria, BC: 
English Literary Studies, University of Victoria, 1981), p. 26. 

54 Middlemarch 

Mote broadly, Watts’s coyly glancing, comic hint at bigamy (his fantasy 
of ‘wedding them both’) becomes in Eliot’s novel a sequential drama 
styling Dorothea’s choice as serious, if never quite tragic. To the question 
should she marry Casaubon or Ladislaw? the novel provides the surprising 
answer: both. This is, of course, not an easy matter, and it costs Dorothea 
materially and socially to do it, but it nonetheless points to an attitude 
towards erotic choice that is all the more potent, even true-to-life, 
because it is counter-intuitive: that the choice is not between A and B, as 
we perhaps think, but rather between A + B and neither. 

When Lydgate arrives in Middlemarch he is twenty-seven years old, 
‘an age’, Eliot observes, ‘at which many men are not quite common’. Not 
yet ‘middle-aged’ in Middlemarch, uncommon in a good as well as a 
more dubious sense. We are told he had studied medicine at Paris, and 
the novel makes the specific comparison between him and the French 
anatomist and physician Marie Francois Xavier Bichat: 

[...] about 1829 the dark territories of Pathology were a fine America for a 
spirited young adventurer. Lydgate was ambitious above all to contribute 
towards enlarging the scientific, rational basis of his profession. The more 
he became interested in special questions of disease, such as the nature 
of fever or fevers, the more keenly he felt the need for that fundamental 
knowledge of structure which just at the beginning of the century had 
been illuminated by the brief and glorious career of Bichat, who died 
when he was only one-and-thirty, but, like another Alexander, left a 
realm large enough for many heirs. That great Frenchman first carried 
out the conception that living bodies, fundamentally considered, are not 
associations of organs which can be understood by studying them first 
apart, and then as it were federally; but must be regarded as consisting of 
certain primary webs or tissues, out of which the various organs—brain, 
heart, lungs, and so on—are compacted." 

This might put us in mind of Gillian Beer’s influential reading of 
Middlemarch’s realism as a distinctively post-Darwinian ‘web of affinities’. 
As Beer notes, Eliot ‘was often taken to task by contemporary reviewers 

11 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 15. Eliot makes a rare misstep in her research here, for Bichat 
was thirty, not thirty-one when he died (he expired 22 July 1802; his birthday 
wasn’t until November). It may be that Eliot had read this accurate but confusingly- 
phrased bit of Pierre Auguste Béclard’s Additions to the General Anatomy of Xavier 
Bichat (Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1823), here translated by George Hayward: 
‘How many researches has BICHAT opened for us the way! What an immense 
inheritance he has left us to improve! Yet BICHAT died before he completed his 
thirty-second year’, p. xv. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 55 

for the persistent scientific allusions in her works’. The point is that, even 
on the most elementary level, we might complain that a scientist could 
not see—let us say—a beautiful woman in the way an artist could and 
should, and that it was the latter that readers wanted. There is a related 
issue where science is concerned, summed-up in the proverb about being 
unable to see the wood for the trees. Lydgate’s great, hopeless ambition 
is, in one sense, the opposite of Casaubon’s great, hopeless ambition: not a 
syncretic overview of everything, but a minute zeroing-in on the smallest 
element of which everything is made, that unit biologists and zoologists 
now recognise in genetic code and the building-blocks of cellular life. 
Middlemarch’s narrator ventriloquises Lydgate’s philosophy: 

No man, one sees, can understand and estimate the entire structure or 
its parts—what are its frailties and what its repairs, without knowing 
the nature of the materials. [... Even Bichat] did not go beyond the 
consideration of the tissues as ultimate facts in the living organism, 
marking the limit of anatomical analysis; but it was open to another mind 
to say, have not these structures some common basis from which they 
have all started?" 

‘Of this sequence to Bichat’s work’ we are told ‘Lydgate was enamoured 
[...] What was the primitive tissue?’ This, I think, is the crucial point. 
If Casaubon is the novel’s representative of textual, philological 
enquiry, and Ladislaw of political engagement, then Lydgate is Eliot’s 
representative of science and the scientific approach. And from the 
first his ambition is microscopic. He aims small, on purpose. His final 
diminution into an affluent society doctor specialising in gout, is in a 
sense less his failure than it is the ironic consummation of his vision. 

In this regard I part company with Beer’s celebrated analysis of this 
novel. For her, Eliot’s ‘scientific’ discourse, grounding as it does her 
specie of ‘realism’, is informed by two very large questions: throughout 
the novel, she says, ‘two precepts are persisted presented, criticised, 
celebrated: “The power of nature is the power of motion” and “Evolution 
is the universal process”.’'* A contrary argument would repudiate such 

12 Beer, Darwin's Plots, p. 149. 

13 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 15. 

14 Beer, Darwin's Plots, 155. She adds: ‘the universality of both laws and their 
preoccupation not with replication but with change are seen as mutually 
confirmatory [...] in Middlemarch the historical aspect of both laws is expressed: 
individuals are trapped in the determined pace of successive historical moments.’ 

56 Middlemarch 

Casaubonic ambition as the ‘key’ to this novel, and suggest rather a 
much more granular, close-focus model of scientific ‘realism’ at work. 
Beer quotes a passage from Daniel Deronda: 

It was impossible to be jealous of Juliet Fenn, a girl as middling as mid- 
day market in everything but her archery and plainness, in which last 
she was noticeable like her father: underhung and with receding brow 
resembling that of the more intelligent fishes. (Surely, considering the 
importance which is given to such an accident in female offspring, 
marriageable men, or what the new English calls ‘intending bridegrooms, 
should look at themselves dispassionately in the glass, since their natural 
selection of a mate prettier than themselves is not certain to bar the effect 
of their own ugliness. )' 

In this passage Beer rightly identifies a ‘harsh, awkward tone’, a ‘faintly 
facetious, orotund style’ that appears (she argues) when Eliot is 
‘driven by ideas that cause her deep disquiet and which she yet cannot 
repudiate’. But what applies to the rather darker Deronda does not, I 
think, fit Middlemarch’s less cut-throat world-picture. 

This has more to do with the realism we associate with Balzac and 
Zola than the mode Eliot developed herself. The bustling sense of 
competition, the survival of the fittest, above all the overdetermined 
representation of Rougon-Macquart bloodlines by which character traits 
are directly passed down the generation and magnified, or enormified, 
across the years. It seems unfair to call Zola’s immense, detailed textual 
canvases ‘crude’, and yet I am moved to suggest that there’s nothing so 
heavy-handed as any of this in Middlemarch. And one reason for that 
is the way Eliot’s scientific focus in this novel is not on evolutionary 
science—not on fossil hunters and palaeontology, naturalists or 
Lamarckians—but on Robert Brown’s molecular jiggling and Lydgate’s 
specifically somatic, medical ambitions. 

Dan Rebellato contextualises Zola’s medico-scientific realism in 
terms of Michel Foucault's Birth of the Clinic. Foucault posits the creation 
of a new ‘medical gaze’ across the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century, 
one that aims for a clarity so purified by science as to render the patient’s 
body, and that body’s implicature in its various matrices of relationships, 

15 George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1876), files /7469/7469-h/7469-h.htm, ch. 11. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 57 

The dominant mode of medical practice at the start of that period was 
nosology, a classificatory approach to disease. Still very much in thrall 
to the Ancients, doctors relied on pre-existing taxonomies of disease 
connected by complex interrelations and hierarchies; consultations were a 
matter of establishing those symptoms that allowed the doctor to allocate 
the patient's illness within the established classificatory system. By the 
end of that period, the doctor is required purely to observe the patient 
without the intervention of theory or language. The body becomes 
a transparent vessel through which disease can be observed and thus 
eliminated. To use Zola’s language, the nineteenth-century clinic was a 
means to show all so that all may be cured." 

The idea that we might, by seeing all (by taking in all that the writer has 
laid out for us to see) pass beyond the messy variegations of collective 
materiality into some rarified zone of transparency connects, it seems to 
me, much more resonantly with Eliot’s than Zola’s praxis.” Middlemarch, 
after all, is the novel prepared not only to close in, microscopically, on 
the mundaneness of ordinary human life, but to do so in order to invoke 
the Pascalian doubled-infinity ‘hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s 
heart beat’ beyond which is the transcendent, perhaps divine, ‘roar 
which lies on the other side of silence’. 18 

Rebellato notes how Foucault’s ‘medical gaze’ is ‘constituted by a 
“double silence”: the silence of theory and the silence of language’."” 
Critics have, I think, not paid enough attention to the valences of silence 
in Middlemarch—with the exception, perhaps, of the attention that has 
manifestly been bestowed upon this famous if, perhaps deliberately, 

16 Rebellato, ‘Sightlines’, p. 149. 

17 For a rather different reading of Middlemarch via Foucault, see Jeremy Tambling, 
‘Middlemarch, Realism and the Birth of the Clinic’, ELH, 57.4 (1990), 939-60. 

18 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 20. 

19 Rebellato, ‘Sightlines’, p. 153. He elucidates: ‘By the silence of theory, Foucault 
means that nothing can intervene between the gaze and its object. Patterns may be 
found but they may not be looked for, for fear of imposing a prior structure on the 
gaze and its objects.’ As for the second silence, the silence of language, this registers 
concerns that writing tends to ‘introduces a spatial and temporal interval into the 
gaze. Speech is to be preferred as the immediate form in which the discoveries 
of the gaze can be communicated. Tis speech neutrally reproduces what is seen, 
in “a language that is the very speech of things [...] a language without words”. 
This language is frictionless, silent, without remainder’. Rebellato’s essay seeks to 
apply these insights to the realist theatre; my focus here, of course, is to explore the 
extent to which epigraphs and quotations, as nodes of embedded writing, figure 
disruptively as this deplored Foucauldian ‘remainder’. 

58 Middlemarch 

opaque reference to the roar that lies on its far side. Even just considering 
Lydgate, we see how Eliot combines the reticence and discretion we 
expect of our doctors, with Lydgate’s habits of silence—tactful, or 
pusillanimous—in the face of his wife’s dominance and her sometimes 
bad behaviour. There is also a silence in the novel with respect to his 
erotic choices. In saying so Iam not just referring to the fact that, like any 
mainstream Victorian novelist, Eliot writes nothing sexually explicit. 
That much is obvious. What I mean is that Lydgate himself construes 
his own desire in terms of a reticence profound enough to prove, in the 
end, pathological. 

In Chapter 16 Eliot writes the scene in which Lydgate falls for 
Rosamond, and in doing so positions his burgeoning desire in relation 
not only to the melodramatic past of Mme Laure and Paris, but in terms 
of a slyly critiqued ‘normative’ model of nineteenth-century feminine 

Lydgate was almost forgetting that he must carry on the conversation, 
in thinking how lovely this creature was, her garment seeming to be 
made out of the faintest blue sky, herself so immaculately blond, as if the 
petals of some gigantic flower had just opened and disclosed her; and 
yet with this infantine blondness showing so much ready, self-possessed 
grace. Since he had had the memory of Laure, Lydgate had lost all taste 
for large-eyed silence: the divine cow no longer attracted him, and 
Rosamond was her very opposite.”” 

Divine cow strikes us, perhaps, as a less than flattering way of referring 
to feminine allure; still, we have to read the whole novel fully to 
understand that the ‘large-eyed silence’ mentioned here contains more 
than mere feminine delicacy or reticence—to begin to understand, that 
is, what manner of roar is reputed to lie on the far side of it. The pursuit 
of such noise does indeed prove fatal first to Lydgate’s self-esteem and 
finally to him as a person. 

Book 6 is called ‘The Widow and the Wife’—which is to say, 
Dorothea and Rosamond. In chapter 58 Rosamond. wants to go riding. 
Her husband forbids her, on account of her pregnancy, because he (as a 
doctor as much as a spouse) considers the risk too great to their unborn 
child. She goes riding anyway, disobeying her husband. The horse bolts 
(startled by ‘the crash of a tree that was being felled on the edge of 

20 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 16. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 59 

Halsell wood’) which causes ‘a worse fright to Rosamond’ which terror 
‘leads finally to the loss of her baby’. All the baby paraphernalia, ‘all the 
embroidered robes and caps’ have to be ‘laid by in darkness’. 

This is, we might say, a sad, even a tragic interlude in the story. But 
although Lydgate is saddened he is too decent to play the ‘I told you 
so’ game with his wife (‘Lydgate could not show his anger towards 
her’ )—another iteration of Lydgatean silence. And the whole experience 
proves water off a duck’s back for Rosamond herself: ‘Rosamond was 
soon looking lovelier than ever at her worktable, enjoying drives in 
her father’s phaeton and thinking it likely that she might be invited to 
Quallingham. She knew that she was a much more exquisite ornament 
to the drawing-room there than any daughter of the family’. 

The episode illustrates not just that Rosamond is stubborn. It says 
something about the nature of her stubbornness. Her desire to go riding, 
against her husband’s wishes, is connected with her desire to spend 
time with Lydgate’s cousin, ‘the Captain’, who lacks Tertius’s cleverness 
or moral purpose but is considerably more aristocratic and suave. 
Finding out about a first, illicit but uneventful, ride in the company of 
the Captain, Lydgate is angry, and declares he will speak to the man. 
Rosamond is not happy at this. 

‘Tshall tell the Captain that he ought to have known better than offer you 
his horse,’ he said, as he moved away. 

‘T beg you will not do anything of the kind, Tertius,’ said Rosamond, 
looking at him with something more marked than usual in her speech. 
‘It will be treating me as if I were a child. Promise that you will leave the 
subject to me.’ 

There did seem to be some truth in her objection. Lydgate said, ‘Very 
well,’ with a surly obedience, and thus the discussion ended with his 
promising Rosamond, and not with her promising him. 

In fact, she had been determined not to promise. Rosamond had 
that victorious obstinacy which never wastes its energy in impetuous 
resistance. What she liked to do was to her the right thing, and all her 
cleverness was directed to getting the means of doing it. She meant to go 
out riding again on the grey, and she did go on the next opportunity of 
her husband’s absence, not intending that he should know until it was 
late enough not to signify to her.”! 

21 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 58. 

60 Middlemarch 

It is a pinch-point in how we relate to this novel. We could put it this 
way, Via two observations with which it is hard, I think, to demur. One 
is that a good proportion of Eliot’s original readers in the 1870s would 
have read this chapter through a frame of beliefs that said, in effect: a 
wife should always obey her husband’s commands, that he stands in 
relation to her as the head to the body and so on. Such an ideological 
frame will tend to make this episode a cautionary tale about what 
happens when a wife disobeys the proper authority of her spouse. But 
the second observation is that we, twenty-first-century readers, no longer 
tend to see marriage that way. We now believe that husband and wife are 
partners and see no inherent superiority in the man over the woman— 
indeed, belief in such notional superiority is called ‘sexism’ and is to 
be deplored. When Rosamond says that Lydgate’s attempt to extract a 
promise from her not to go riding again is ‘treating her like a child’ she 
is—surely—right, isn’t she? As a grown woman she ought to be able to 
decide what she does with her time. What about her decision that the 
ride had nothing to do with her miscarriage? (‘Rosamond was mildly 
certain that the ride had made no difference, and that if she had stayed at 
home the same symptoms would have come on and would have ended 
in the same way, because she had felt something like them before’). Is 
this the heartless self-justification of a profoundly selfish, shallow and 
narcissistic individual, to be deplored because the ‘proper’ reaction to 
this event ought to be her learning to be less self-centred (which is to say 
her listening to, and obeying, her husband)? Or does she have a point? 
Miscarriage is a serious and distressing matter, and I have no desire to 
trivialise it, but: ‘being scared by a horse’ is, really, not a terribly plausible 
rationale for it. Had Rosamond fallen from her horse, it is possible a bad- 
enough impact might have resulted in miscarriage, but fright on its own 
is not a physiologically likely explanation for what happened.” 

While I appreciate that I may be making slightly heavy weather of 
my point here, this is due to my uncertainty in how to read this episode 
in Middlemarch. The first time I encountered this section of the novel, 
many years ago, I had an almost visceral reaction against Rosamond. 
She struck me as a kind of monster of self-centredness, with a near 
sociopathic disregard for the feelings of others. Re-reading it more 
recently that reaction is still there, I suppose, but ina more compromised 

22 See, e.g., https: // /miscarriage/causes/. 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 61 

and complicated way. I’m struck, for instance, how much our reaction to 
the episode is orchestrated to align our response with Lydgate’s: 

Lydgate could only say, ‘Poor, poor darling!’—but he secretly wondered 
over the terrible tenacity of this mild creature. There was gathering 
within him an amazed sense of his powerlessness over Rosamond. 

Would it be possible, I wonder, to pull together a reading of the whole 
thing from Rosamond’s point of view, to see some admirable in her tenacity 
(which only becomes ‘terrible’, surely, from a narrowly masculinist point 
of view, when it refuses to subordinate itself to the priorities of Lydgate)? 
To see the canniness with which she manipulates her marital situation 
so as to get her own way without occasioning a big stand-up row as, in 
a way, even creditable? Or is she just the monster of selfishness many 
readers take her to be? Dorothea works assiduously to subordinate her 
intellect and individuality to the needs of her husband, and look what 
that gets her. Yet we think of Dorothea as the ‘heroine’ of Middlemarch. 
What would a reading look like that put Rosamond in that role, I wonder? 

I float this notion, though tentatively and without much force. Piecing 
together the various details Eliot construes with respect to Rosamond is 
liable only to convince us of how her energy and wilfulness are only ever 
putin service of herself. Earlier in the novel Eliot has Rosamond ‘thinking 
that it was not so very melancholy to be mistress of Lowick Manor with 
a husband likely to die soon’;” a pretty heartless and materialist mode 
of empathising with Dorothea’s position. It might be that my concern, 
here, is less with the superficiality of Rosamond’s characterisation than 
with the idea that Middlemarch contains a character rendered only in 
term of its superficies. That if we put Rosamond under our metaphorical 
microscope, we wouldn’t see more granular psychological detail and 
specificity come into focus. 

I have travelled some distance from this chapter’s starting point, and 
should return to it before I conclude. Lydgate’s microscopy, in this novel, 
carries with it something of a flavour of irony. We can agree with Eliot 
that, however skilled a scientist Lydgate might be at anatomising human 
beings, there are crucial aspects of humanity invisible to even the most 
powerful microscope. Lydgate might observe a person down to the level 
of the cell, but not see (as it might be) his wife’s true nature, or the nature 

23 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 31. 

62 Middlemarch 

of love, or indeed the right way to organise one’s time and will to achieve 
one’s scientific goals. That looks a little like a cheap shot—it is in fact, a 
point both facile and obvious—but it has a larger resonance. Why, Eliot 
is tacitly saying, should a novelist, even one so clever and insightful as 
Marian Evans, be any better at analysing human beings than Lydgate? 
Isn't he as learned, as clever? His instrument, the microscope, is one that 
zeroes-in on minutiae, but does Eliot’s lens not do the same? 

Catherine Jackson has shown how the exact period Eliot is writing 
about saw a series of linked advanced in glass-blowing, that ‘between 
about 1825 and 1835’ resulted in glass being used ‘in distinctly new ways’, 
with particular consequences for developments in chemistry.™* This is 
another way in which Eliot, in Middlemarch, is being preternaturally 
attentive to the actual historical context of her imagined world. Isobel 
Armstrong notes how often, in the nineteenth-century, ‘the microscope 
and the telescope (each with different histories) were frequently 
described as forming a perfect antithesis’, before demurring: 

Their objects of study are not comparable, however: far distant bodies in 
motion seen by the light of prehistory, sub-visible entities, dissected into 
infinitesimal sections or pullulating with importunate life in a drop of 
water. Extreme nearness and endless particulars, not the dissolving view, 
are the microscopes essence.” 

Middlemarch finds middle way, fittingly, between ‘extreme nearness and 
endless particulars’ on the one hand, and a mistier ‘dissolving view’ on 
the other. But what Armstrong goes on to talk about is the inherently 
conflicted nature of the glasswork that constituted these microscopic 

Moreover [microscopy] was incorporated into glass culture with a 
degree of popular epistemophilia and scopic wonder quite unlike 
popular accounts of the telescope. Nevertheless, though for very 
different reasons, the microscope created the ungrounded perspectival 
world that emerged in astronomy and spectacle alike. Its structural 

24 Catherine M. Jackson, ‘The “Wonderful Properties of Glass”: Liebig’s Kaliapparat 
and the Practice of Chemistry in Glass’, Isis, 106.1 (2015), 43-69, https://doi. 

25 Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination 1830— 
1880 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 301. See also Mark Wormald, 
‘Microscopy and Semiotic in Middlemarch’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 50 (1996), 
501-24, https: // /10.2307/2933926 

3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism 63 

refraction organizes all its images. Additionally, under the microscope 
at this time, the object exists in atopic space, preternaturally distinct, but 
freed from relational coordinates. It has no norms. As Catherine Wilson 
has pointed out, one image is predicated on losing another. The image is 
like a metonomy where the referential term has been amputated. 

This ought to remind us of the passage previously quoted from Pascal, 
and the way Middlemarch ‘middles’ us as readers between the very small 
and the very large. Lawrence Rothfield locates Lydgate’s microscopy 
in a particular medical discursive context, the ‘long, arduous’ task of 
‘integrating cell theory into medical science’, something only ‘finally 
accomplished during the latter half of the century’. 

During the interim, medicine had to continue, even though a fissure 
began to open up between cellular and human life, between the 
innumerable activities of individual cells and the fluent progression of 
a disease through the tissues of the body, between the microscopic and 
macroscopic constituents of the self.”° 

For Rothfield, this ‘divergence of pathology from other organismic 
sciences’ presented as a problem, to which ‘Lydgate’s predicament, and 
more generally, Middlemarch as a whole, stands as a kind of response, or 
more accurately, an accommodation’.” My argument is rather different, 
more metatextual and reflexive; that Eliot is knowingly pitching her 
novel between the infinities of smallness gestured at by microscopy and 
the frightening Pascalian infinities of vastness opened-up by telescopy. 
And, more to the point, it is that the lenses slotted into the eyepiece 
are epigraphic and quotational, small forms that open when the eye is 
properly applied to them, into compelling and open-ended new vistas. 
In textual terms the epigraph is small and the novel is large, and in 
terms of the relationship between art and life the former is small and 
the latter vast; but in both (interrelated) situations there is something 
uniquely eloquent and potent inherent in the relationship between these 
smallnesses and these largenesses. In that middle. 

26 Rothfield, Vital Signs, p. 97. 

27 Ibid., p. 99. His argument is that this disparity figures Eliot’s larger social vision: 
‘if, as seems to be the case, medicine and cell theory really are incommensurable 
sciences, different species of discourse yielding unreconciled versions of the 
truth about the same object—the body—then the Comteian ideal of a social order 
crowned and informed by scientific order (an ideal cherished by Eliot and many of 
her contemporaries) may be compromised’. 

4. Hypocrisy and 
the Judgment of Men 

The middleness of Middlemarch is a moral as well as an existential 
quantity, a matter of ethics as both mediated and medial. The novel’s 
twinned mirrors situate questions of honesty or mendacity, and Eliot’s 
characters middle themselves somewhere between moral puritanism 
on the one hand—Dorothea’s over-identification with St Theresa, or 
Antigone, we might say—and active malignancy on the other (the 
melodramatic blackmailing villainy of John Raffles, say). And this 
brings me to another epigraph. 

At the head of chapter 38 we read: ‘C’est beaucoup que le jugement 
des hommes sur les actions humaines; t6t ou tard il devient efficace’. 
This means: ‘the judgement of men on human affairs is a serious 
business; sooner or later it always comes into force’. Eliot identifies the 
line’s provenance: ‘Guizot’—that is, the French historian Francois Pierre 
Guillaume Guizot. It is worth taking the trouble to locate the original 
context for this quotation in Guizot’s 1835 Course in Modern History, part 
of his discussion of the Middle Ages, an epoch in which he diagnoses 
a kind of radical hypocrisy. Medieval people, Guizot argues, possessed 
genuinely-held high and spiritual ideals, and yet nonetheless lived lives 
of remarkable brutality and venality. How to reconcile this seeming 

Mais quelle que soit la cause, le fait est indubitable. On le rencontre partout au 
moyen age, dans les poésies populaires comme dans les exhortations des prétres. 
Partout la pensée morale des hommes s’éléeve et aspire fort au-dessus de leur vie. 
Et gardez-vous de croire que, parce qu’elle ne gouvernait pas immédiatement 
les actions, parce que la pratique démentait sans cesse et étrangement la théorie, 
l'influence de la théorie fit nulle et sans valeur. C'est beaucoup que le jugement 
des hommes sur les actions humaines; tot ou tard il devient efficace. ‘J’aime 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // /OBP.0249.04 

66 Middlemarch 





susqu’en 1789. 

Srurelles , 


Fig. 3 Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot, Cours D’Histoire Moderne (Brussels: Louis 
Hauman & Co., 1835), vol. 1, title page, 
edition/_/aYNfDbifZJoC?hl=en&gbpv=1. Public domain. 

mieux une mauvaise action qu'un mauvais principe’, dit quelque part Rousseau, 
et Rousseau avait raison.’ 

But whatever the cause, the facts cannot be denied. This phenomenon 
is found everywhere in the Middle Ages, as much in popular poetry as 
in the exhortations of the priests. Everywhere the moral thought of men 
rises and aspires far above their mundane lives. But don’t be fooled into 
believing—because it didn’t directly inform their actions, because their 
practice was continually at odds with their theory—that this influence 
was nothing, or had no value. The judgment of men on human actions 
is a serious matter, and, sooner or later, it always takes effect: ‘I prefer a 
bad action to a bad principle’, says Rousseau somewhere, and Rousseau 
is right. 

This larger context is particularly interesting, speaking as it does to 
the novel as a moral as well as a physical middling: a commitment to 

1 Frangois-Pierre Guillaume Guizot, Cours D’Histoire Moderne: Histoire de la Civilisation 
en France (Paris: Didier, 1846), vol. 3, pp. 363-4, 

4, Hypocrisy and the Judgment of Men 67 

compromise and an acceptance of people as themselves always to one 
degree or another morally compromised. 

When Bulstrode’s story eventually unwinds he becomes, I would 
argue, less an object of readerly contumely than of readerly sympathy, 
not despite but because of the exposure his earlier altitudes of 
Methodist hypocrisy. ‘There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously 
affect beliefs and emotions for the sake of gulling the world’, is how 
Eliot puts it; ‘but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man 
whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who 
had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory 
agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which 
shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong. 
There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our 
morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling 
with individual fellow-men’. Like Rousseau, Eliot prefers bad actions to 
bad ‘doctrine’. Like him, I’d say, she is right. 

Chapter 38 itself is given over to a quartet of Middlemarchian 
eminences. To begin with, the Cadwalladers and Sir James Chettam 
discuss the political situation, deploring Ladislaw’s editorship of the 
Pioneer and the potential for radical political upheaval they believe 
this represents. They are joined later in the chapter by Mr. Brooke, 
who argues the contrary case, in favour of political reform. This party 
embodies two different valences of, more or less, political hypocrisy. ‘I do 
wish people would behave like gentlemen’, is Sir James’s essential-oil- 
of-Toryism (‘feeling’, Eliot nicely glosses her character’s statement ‘that 
this was a simple and comprehensive programme for social wellbeing’). 
‘Behaving like a gentleman’ is, it seems, a capacious enough political 
programme to encompass both nobility and venality. 

‘T thought the most expensive hobby in the world was standing for 
Parliament,’ said Mrs. Cadwallader. ‘They said the last unsuccessful 
candidate at Middlemarch—Giles, wasn’t his name?—spent ten 
thousand pounds and failed because he did not bribe enough. What a 
bitter reflection for a man!’ 

‘Somebody was saying,’ said the Rector, laughingly, ‘that East Retford 
was nothing to Middlemarch, for bribery.’ 

2. Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 61. 

68 Middlemarch 

‘Nothing of the kind,’ said Mr. Brooke. ‘The Tories bribe, you know: 
Hawley and his set bribe with treating, hot codlings, and that sort of 
thing; and they bring the voters drunk to the poll. But they are not going 
to have it their own way in future—not in future, you know. Middlemarch 
is a little backward, I admit—the freemen are a little backward. But we 
shall educate them—we shall bring them on, you know. The best people 
there are on our side.” 

The issue is not bribery as such, but only the most effective modes 
of applying inducements to the electorate to obtain one’s political 
preference. Brooke’s Liberalism only seems more idealistic and less 
hypocritical than Sir James’s Toryism. In fact, his unfittedness for 
political office is embodied in his small-scale incompetence and various 
abdications as a landlord, all satirised in Ladislaw’s paper. 

Hannah Arendt thought that ‘hypocrisy is the vice of vices’, because 
‘integrity can indeed exist under the cover of all other vices except this 
one. Only crime and the criminal, itis true, confront us with the perplexity 
of radical evil; but only the hypocrite is really rotten to the core’.* But 
Eliot doesn’t really believe anyone is rotten to the core, and whilst she is of 
course not endorsing hypocrisy in this novel she is nonetheless reflecting 
on the extent to which the various compromises humans end-up making 
with absolute virtue, absolute duty and the noblest aims ‘middle’ us all 
in the reality of social existence. Very medieval, in Guizotian terms, we 
might think. Not for nothing is that period called the ‘middle’ ages. 

There are other ways in which we might conceptualise what could 
be called hypocrisy. There is, for instance, Robert Browning’s celebrated 
insistence that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp (or what’s a 
heaven for?), the gap between reach and aim emblematising this very 
term. True, if we reach for something beyond our grasp unknowingly, 
an instinctive or unaware over-reaching, we probably wouldn’t use the 
word ‘hypocrisy’; but I wonder whether what Browning is saying is 
something more profound, that we not only do but should knowingly 
over-reach ourselves, that we should enact a kind of disingenuousness 
about what we can achieve, what can be achieved. This, it seems to me, 
is closer to hypocrisy, albeit one that Browning styles as a paradoxically 
divine one. 

3. Ibid., ch. 38. 
4 Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 103. 

4, Hypocrisy and the Judgment of Men 69 

One person’s hypocrisy might be another’s realism; it might be 
spun as honesty in a system one considers weighted against honesty 
and truthfulness. The problem with this view is that it describes all 
systems. Civilisation, as Freud so persuasively argues, necessarily 
entails its discontents; hypocrisy could be thought part of the needful 
superstructuring of the latter so as to maintain the former—the tribute, 
as the old phrase has it, vice pays to virtue. This is particularly true 
in the magisterium of politics, ‘particularly true’ in the sense that we 
all recognise that politicians are especially prone to hypocrisy. David 
Runciman has insightfully explored the way ‘politics’ is a combination 
of more-or-less calcified ritual and ceremony on the one hand, and 
pragmatic horse-trading on the other, such that the latter will in actual 
political life tend to hide behind the former. ‘Politics requires us to talk 
about complex issues as though they were simple, and to keep hidden 
from public view some of the nastier deals and compromises that enable 
us to get things done in communities made up of millions of quarrelsome, 
naive and opinionated people’.° Isn’t this also the (to fall into cliché for 
a moment) ‘journey’ Dorothea goes on?—from an unworldly idealism 
that proves harmful to her and others, towards a wiser comprehension 
of how the world, and love, actually works, and the compromises one 
must make with both. Or is this to confuse our broader tolerance for 
‘hypocrisy’ in a specifically ‘party political’ context with the ways 
hypocrisy manifests in our emotional and spiritual lives? Bulstrode is 
revealed to be a whited sepulchre; but he also committed criminal acts 
and was implicated in a man’s death. This is more than the common- 
garden hypocrisies that delineate our ordinary, sublunary humanity. 
Is it hypocritical, in any sense, for Casaubon to believe Dorothea 
could love him? Or that he could control her after his death? Is Fred 
Vincy a hypocrite for allowing his easy-going preference for pleasure 
to interfere with his sterner interpersonal duty? Hypocrisy seems the 
wrong word in this context. It’s the flipside of the Browning quotation 
I mention above. The English word derives etymologically from the 

5 David Runciman, Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and 
Beyond (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), p. 130. Runciman makes a 
distinction between this kind of ‘first order’ hypocrisy, which he thinks is baked- 
into the political process, and what he calls ‘second order’ hypocrisy, in which 
politicians cynically exploit the public’s sense that a double-standard applies. He 
deplores this second kind of hypocrisy. 

70 Middlemarch 

Ancient Greek bmOxKptotc, which means ‘answer, stage acting, pretence’, 
coming out of the broader discourse of theatrical performance. When 
we reach for something we know is beyond our grasp, we are performing 
the action, even if only for our own benefit, in the sense that being aware 
our gesture is futile does not prompt us to the honesty of giving up. 
We could go further and suggest: life, actually, is stitched-together out 
of such moments, such gestures, such forlorn hopes, essays into action, 
gambles on relationships, on work, on hope itself. 

The epigraph to chapter 10 is a quotation from Thomas Fuller: 

‘He had catch’d a great cold, had he had no other clothes to wear than 
those of a skin of a Bear not yet killed.—FULLER 

This trims the actual quotation (from Fuller’s 1662 History of the Worthies 
of England) a little: ‘But he had catch’d a great cold, had he had no other 
clothes to wear then [sic] those which were to be made of a skin of a 
Bear not yet killed’.® The fuller sentence makes the sense clearer: Fuller 
describes someone in pressing need of clothes whose only option is a 
bearskin still on the outside of a live bear. The position of someone, 
in other words, who has a good deal of dangerous work to undertake 
before his necessity can be addressed. 

Chapter 10 concerns Casaubon anticipating his impending marriage, 
and also records a dinner party in which various other Middlemarchians 
discuss the match. The application of the Fuller line to such a chapter is a 
little unclear. Does it refer to Ladislaw, whom (we are told in the opening 
paragraph) has left Middlemarch for Europe, with the implication that 
his nascent love for Dorothea has a long and arduous route to traverse, 
obstacles to overcome—her marriage to Casaubon—before it finds its 
consummation? Or does it refer to Casaubon? This is a character whom 
Eliot describes here, with nicely sensitive insight, as a man aware that he 
ought to be happy that he is going to marry this beautiful and attentive 
young woman who is nonetheless puzzled that he still experiences ‘a 
certain blankness of sensibility’ on the subject. Is his marital happiness 
his unskinned bear? Or does the epigraph relate to the later portion of 
the chapter, given over to Mr. Brooke’s dinner party attended by Lady 
Chettham, Lydgate, Vincy, Bulstrode and others? 

6 Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of England [1662], ed. by John Nichols 
(London: F.C. and J. Rivington, 1811), vol. 1, p. 208. 

4, Hypocrisy and the Judgment of Men 71 

We need a wider context. The line comes at the end of Fuller’s entry 
on ‘Mount-Edgecombe’ (now spelled ‘Mount Edgecumbe’) in Cornwall: 

MOUNT-EDGECOMBE. It was built by Sir Richard Edgecombe, 
Knight [...] In the Raign of Queen Mary (about the year 1555) he gave 
entertainment at one time, for some good space, to the Admirals of the 
English, Spanish, and Netherland, and many Noble-men besides. Mount 
Edgcombe was the scene of this Hospitality; a house new built and 
named by the aforesaid Knight, a square Structure with a round Turret at 
each end, garretted on the top. The Hall (rising above the rest) yieldeth 
a stately sound as one entereth it; the Parlour and Dyning-roome afford a 
large and diversified prospect both of Sea and Land. The high scituation 
(cool in Summer, yet not cold in Winter) giveth health: the neighbour 
River wealth: two Block-houses great safety: and the Town of Plymouth 
good company unto it. Nor must I forget the fruitful ground about it 
(pleasure without profit is but a Hower without a root); stored with 
Wood, Timber, Fruit, Deer, and Connies, a sufficiency of Pasture, Arable, 
and Meadow, with Stone, Lime, Marl, and what not. 

I write not this to tempt the Reader to the breach of the Tenth 
Commandement, ‘covet his Neighbour’s house’; and one line in the 
prevention thereof: I have been credibly informed that the Duke of 
Medina Sidonia, Admiral of the Spanish Fleet in the year 88, was so 
affected at the sight of this House (though but beholding it at a distance, 
from the Sea) that he resolved it for his own possession in the partage of 
this Kingdome (blame him not if choosing best for himself), which they 
had pre-conquered in their hopes and expectation. But he had catch’d a 
great cold, had he had no other clothes to wear then those which were to 
be made of a skin of a Bear not yet killed.’ 

The whole passage contextualises Eliot’s line as being not about an 
arduous road to eventual consummation, but, on the contrary, as a quasi- 
proverbial expression for desiring a manifest impossibility. The Duke of 
Medina Sidonia never did get his hands on Mount Edgecumbe, after all. 
So perhaps the focus of the epigraph is Dorothea herself—ironically so, 
in the sense that she does come into wifely possession of a fine house. 
Such a (material) thing was never Dorothea’s goal, of course; she hoped 
for something more refined, spiritual and scholarly, but that—Eliot is 
saying—is like the Spanish Duke lusting after this English stately home. 

The epigraph, in other words, is in its diffident way saying something 
large and profound, something with a pressing relevance to the novel. 

7 Ibid. 

72 Middlemarch 

It is saying that we cannot free our looking-forward from the shape that 
our desires (conscious or unconscious) give to our anticipations, from 
the taint of hypocrisy; because such desiring, by being future-orientated, 
becomes inevitably defined by the inconsiderable. Praxis will subvene 
upon eros. 

This is especially the case for Dorothea because her desire is 
unsimple—as our desire so often is. She does not (as it might be) simply 
desire Casaubon; she desires something larger than Casaubon, and 
believes—her heart believes, at any rate—that he is the route to reaching 
it. In the words of Patricia McKee ‘Dorothea’s desire is not a desire to 
be met but a desire to be exceeded by something larger than herself’. 
Her desire is at once a knowledge of her smallness and her ambition for 
greatness. Her desire, in other words, mediates not animal satisfactions 
nor social or material cupidity, but rather precisely the relation between 
the small and the large, between motto and majority. 

We stand, small epigraphs, at the head of a large body of unread 
text—our future. Only when we have apprehended the latter will our 
relation to it, direct or ironic, clear or complex, become evident to us. 
That’s what it means to exist in time. It may be that our desire, like 
Rosamond, or Fred Vincy, is only for material comfort and status—a 
lovely house, say—but, Eliot’s novel suggests, this is not only subject 
to the vagaries, and so obliged to pay the price, of futurity as such; it 
also tangles us in more than we think. It gives us, whether we like it 
or not, skin in the game, bearish or other. What we end up doing in 
pursuit of such desire might be less than optimal: might be selfish, or 
bring suffering to others, or put them in financial danger, or ostracise 
them. It is not that bad actions are defensible as such; rather, it is just 
(Eliot is saying) that she prefers a bad action to a bad principle. And 
Eliot is right. 

8 Patricia McKee, Heroic Commitment in Richardson, Eliot, and James (Princeton: 
Princeton University Press, 1986), p. 151. 

5. Ladislaw 

It is up to us, as readers, how we choose to pronounce Will Ladislaw’s 
surname. We might assume that it rhymes its final syllable with ‘coleslaw.’ 
Then again, we could note the clues as to his family provenance that 
unobtrusively accumulate as the novel proceeds (starting in chapter 8, 
when Mr. Cadwallader explains Ladislaw’s relationship to Casaubon: 
‘his mother’s sister made a bad match—a Pole, I think—lost herself—at 
any rate was disowned by her family’) and conclude that Will’s name 
must actually be ‘Wilhelm Ladistaw’. He has presumably Englished his 
Christian name, and it is possible the English ‘coleslaw’ pronunciation 
of ‘Ladislaw’ is the one the book’s characters use: we’re in England after 
all, not Poland (the novel is Middlemarch, not Centralnynaréd). But we 
cannot be sure, because Eliot’s novel doesn’t include a pronunciation 
guide. We can call Will ‘Ladislaw’ or ‘Ladisclav’ depending on our 

Eliot does not go out of her way to draw attention to Will’s Polishness, 
but neither does she conceal it, and in a novel like Middlemarch, which is 
centrally and persistently about how we ‘read’ other people, how much 
nuance and insight (or blindness) there can be in such human reading, 
and how much our insights can be compromised by our prejudices, our 
inertia or our fantasies—in such a novel these questions are of course 
much more important than they might be in a different kind of fiction. 
All we know of Will by the end of Book One is: he’s handsome, artistic, 
charming and something of an outsider. As the novel goes on we learn 
more. Making Will Polish makes him ‘Romantic’ in more senses than 

This was because of the status of Poland in the early decades of the 
nineteenth-century. In 1788 the Polish king Stanistaw II oversaw a new 
reformist national constitution. The country’s neighbours, Russia and 
Prussia, fearing that the success of Stanislaw’s liberalising revolution 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // 

74. Middlemarch 

might destabilise their respective autocracies, carved the place up 
between them. In 1793, after a short war, independent Poland ceased to 
exist and the country was partitioned, with Russia and Prussia taking 
the lion’s share and Austria acquiring some territory in the south. As 
you might expect Poles were not happy with this arrangement. There 
were several uprisings, some very bloody, throughout the nineteenth 
century, although in fact ‘Poland’ was not to exist again as a distinct 
nation until the twentieth century. 

The political situation meant that other European countries, not least 
Britain, became home to many exiled Polish revolutionaries. Perhaps 
Ladislaw’s grandfather fled from the initial war and partition (it is not 
spelled-out in the novel). What’s undeniable is that during the timeline 
of Middlemarch ‘Poland’ was in the grip of by another upheaval, the 1830 
‘November Uprising’. 

For many, and especially for younger Britons with radical or 
revolutionary sympathies, this uprising became a supremely Romantic 
symbol of doomed struggle against tyranny. Alfred Tennyson, twenty- 
one years old in 1830, took to dressing in the style associated with Polish 
exiles: a dark cloak and wide-brimmed floppy hat (he was still dressing 
that way in the 1890s). He wrote an epic poem about the nation’s fate: ‘a 
beautiful poem on Poland’, he later told his friend William Allingham, 
‘hundreds of lines long—but the housemaid lit the fire with it. I never 
could recover it’ (other early Tennysonian poems celebrating the 
romantic dash of Polish resurrection do survive, including 1820’s ‘On 
the Late Russian Invasion of Poland’). 

The situation had not resolved itself, four decades later, when Eliot 
was writing her novel. A year before she began publishing Middlemarch 
Jules Verne published his submarine science-fiction novel Twenty 
Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), in which a mysterious nobleman 
going by the name of ‘Nemo’ (that is, Nobody’) uses his advanced 
submarine to make war on imperialism. In the original draft of his 
novel, Verne revealed at the end that Nemo was a Polish aristocrat taking 
revenge for Tsarist atrocities in his homeland. But Verne’s publisher, 
Hetzel, conscious of how many copies of Verne’s novels were sold in 
Russia (where much of the reading public spoke French), persuaded 

1 Quoted in Norman Page (ed), Tennyson: Interviews and Recollections (London: 
Macmillan 1983), p. 141 

5. Ladislaw 75 

him to change this to something less controversial, and Verne removed 
all specific references to Poland from the work—indeed, in Twenty 
Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’s sequel, The Mysterious Island (1875) 
‘Nemo’ is revealed to be an Indian Prince with an animus against the 
British Empire. 

As Tatiana Kuzmic points out: 

The ‘Polish fever’ that swept England in the 1830s reached such a 
pitch that beggars from other countries craftily exploited the nation’s 
sympathies and, counting especially on the romantic fantasies of the ‘fair 
sex,’ managed to obtain money and lodgings by passing themselves off 
as impoverished Polish princes. Andrew Halliday, writing in the 1862 
supplemental volume of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London 
Poor (1851), recalled these events in a section on ‘Foreign Beggars,’ and 
warned his audience that ‘it will not do to mistake every vagabond refugee 
for a noble exile.’ “To be a Pole, and in distress, was almost a sufficient 
introduction, Halliday stated, as well as ‘so excellent an opportunity for 
that class of foreign swindlers which haunt roulette-tables, and are the 
pest of second-rate hotels abroad’. 

Will isn’t quite in this position. He’s no beggar, and he has his older 
cousin Casaubon to vouch for him. But some in Middlemarch regard 
him with a suspicion tainted with this kind of assumption: a handsome 
but indigent ‘foreigner’ working on the romantic fantasies of the ‘fair 
sex’ to obtain money. 

Eliot knows exactly what she’s doing by introducing this sort-of 
English, sort-of Polish character into the novel in the way she does. 
‘Ladislaw’ is not an English surname, but then neither is ‘Casaubon’—the 
famous Renaissance classical scholar Isaac Casaubon was a Huguenot 
exile in Switzerland. Eliot never makes explicit in Middlemarch if Edward 
is a scion of this notable family, but we can deduce from his surname 
that his roots are Huguenot—that is, that his ancestors were French 
Protestants who fled from Catholic France to Protestant Britain after 
the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre. Centuries separate them, but both 
Casaubon’s and Ladislaw’s forebears were refugees. That key theme of 
Middlemarch is, alas, as relevant in our twenty-first-century world as it 
has ever been. The creeping prejudice by which people who self-identify 

2 Tatiana Kuzmic, ‘“The German, the Sclave, and the Semite”: Eastern Europe in the 
Imagination of George Eliot’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 68.4 (2014), 513-41 (p. 
519), https: // /ncl.2014.68.4.513 

76 Middlemarch 

as ‘English’ view Polish people on British streets with suspicion or 
hostility could hardly, as of the 2020s, be more current. 

There is a difference, though, in the refugee ancestry of Casaubon and 
Ladislaw, even though the two men are connected by blood. Huguenots 
were refugees from specifically religious persecution; the Polish diaspora 
of the nineteenth-century were political refugees. And Eliot, carefully if 
unobtrusively, explores the consonances and differences of these two 
modes of exile as her novel goes on. It gives us, for example, one of the 
ways in which we can parse Dorothea’s dilemma: the theologian versus 
the politician, or if not quite that, the man dedicated to the theological 
and mythological past, and the man engaged in shaping the political 
and social future. That this dilemma is also construed in terms of an 
unattractive older man—dead (it seems) from the waist down—and a 
sexually compelling younger man is not arbitrary, although it perhaps 
doesn’t quite amount to Eliot’s thumb in the balance. But in addition 
to interpellating us, as readers, into Dorothea’s situation, it becomes 
another way in which Middlemarch engages its relationship to epigraphy 
and quotation—to, that is, tradition and novelty. The dynamic is 
straightforwardly established early on. It is Mr. Brooke, hardly the most 
politically engaged of Eliot’s characters, who says to Casaubon, ‘smiling 
towards’ him: ‘I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. 
There is a book, now. I took in all the new ideas at one time—human 
perfectibility, now’. His conclusion (‘we must have Thought; else we 
shall be landed back in the dark ages’) constellates thought as such and 
novelty, and he adds ‘But talking of books, there is Southey’s Peninsular 
War. I am reading that of a morning. You know Southey?’ Casaubon’s 
negative response to this question becomes a tacit linking of the old and 
the introverted: 

‘No,’ said Mr. Casaubon, not keeping pace with Mr. Brooke’s impetuous 

reason, and thinking of the book only. ‘I have little leisure for such 
literature just now. I have been using up my eyesight on old characters 
lately [...] I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with 
the dead. My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering 
about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in 
spite of ruin and confusing changes’. 

3. Eliot, Middlemorch, ch. 2. 

5. Ladislaw 77 

So far as Southey’s celebrated history is concerned, we need look no 
further than its title page, which quotes as its own epigraph a passage 
from Polybius: Iotopiag yap éav adéeAn Tig TO Sta Ti, Kai THC, Kai 
Tivos xapLy EmpayxOn, kai TO mpayBEev MOTEPA EVAOYOV EOYXE TO TEAOS, 
TO KATOAEUTOUEVOV AUTASG Aywvloua LEV, UdOnua dé ov yiyvetat: 
Kai TapauTtika WeV TEpseEt, mPdG S& TO WEAAOV OVSEV WoEAET TO 
mapamav. This means: ‘For if you take from history all explanation of 
cause, principle, and motive, and of the adaptation of the means to the 
end, what is left is a mere panorama without being instructive; and, 
though it may please for the moment, has no abiding value’. Mere 
panorama is as far as Casaubon ever gets, of course; not because he 
hasn't had time, or professional expertise, as a collector of data, but 
because he has missed this fundamental Polybian point. 

The question then is not just that Casaubon is mired in the past, 
but that his comprehension of the past is merely panoramic. Of course, 
he is mired in the past. Indeed, it’s possible that Eliot, usually more 
nuanced in her characterisation, rather over-plays this distinction. In the 
next chapter Mr. Brooke attempts to interest Casaubon in ‘documents 
on machine-breaking and rick-burning’, whilst ‘Mr. Casaubon made 
a dignified though somewhat sad audience; bowed in the right place, 
and avoided looking at anything documentary as far as possible’. Later 
in the novel, Ladislaw, famously twitting Casaubon (though not to his 
face) for his ignorance of German scholarship, lays out the case plainly: 

‘But there are very valuable books about antiquities which were written 
a long while ago by scholars who knew nothing about these modern 
things; and they are still used. Why should Mr. Casaubon’s not be 
valuable, like theirs?’ said Dorothea, with more remonstrant energy. She 
was impelled to have the argument aloud, which she had been having in 
her own mind. 

‘That depends on the line of study taken,’ said Will, also getting a tone 
of rejoinder. ‘The subject Mr. Casaubon has chosen is as changing as 
chemistry: new discoveries are constantly making new points of view. 
Who wants a system on the basis of the four elements, or a book to refute 

4 Polybius, Histories, ed. by Theodorus Biittner-Wobst after L. Dindorf (Leipzig: 
Teubner, 1893), vol. 3, ch. 31, 
b.+3.31.&fromdoc=Perseus%3 Atext%3A1999.01.0233. The translation is by Eliot’s 
contemporary Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, The Histories of Polybius (London: Macmillan 
& Co., 1889), vol. 1, p. 193. 

78 Middlemarch 

Paracelsus? Do you not see that it is no use now to be crawling a little 
way after men of the last century—men like Bryant—and correcting their 
mistakes?—living in a lumber-room and furbishing up broken-legged 
theories about Chus and Mizraim?”° 

With Ladislaw, Eliot draws on a different cultural reservoir to 
characterise his freshness and youth. For example: in chapter 37, 
Ladislaw visits Dorothea to tell her he’s taking up the editorship of the 
new Middlemarch newspaper. She is pleased, since it means he will stay 
in the area, but immediately has second thoughts: it might displease her 
husband. Accordingly she suggests he obtain Casaubon’s blessing: 

‘But my opinion is of little consequence on such a subject. I think you 
should be guided by Mr. Casaubon. I spoke without thinking of anything 
else than my own feeling, which has nothing to do with the real question. 
But it now occurs to me—perhaps Mr. Casaubon might see that the 
proposal was not wise. Can you not wait now and mention it to him?’ 

‘Tcan’t wait to-day,’ said Will, inwardly seared by the possibility that Mr. 
Casaubon would enter. ‘The rain is quite over now. I told Mr. Brooke 
not to call for me: I would rather walk the five miles. I shall strike across 
Halsell Common, and see the gleams on the wet grass. I like that’.® 

In the event, of course, Casaubon tries to forbid Ladislaw taking up 
the position. But, for the moment, what I am interested in is that lovely 
detail of the wet grass. 

Ruskin’s five-volume Modern Painters (1843-60) is, perhaps, his 
masterpiece: a sustained interrogation of aesthetics, of the artistic 
apprehension of nature, and a full-throated defence of the genius of J. 
M. W. Turner. Eliot read this work, and indeed reviewed it, or at least 
reviewed volumes three and four.’ And here is Ruskin praising Turner’s 
‘Salisbury Cathedral’: 

The plain is swept by rapid but not distressful rain. The cathedral occupies 
the centre of the picture, towering high over the city, of which the houses 
(made on purpose smaller than they really are) are scattered about it like 
a flock of sheep. The cathedral is surrounded by a great light. The storm 
gives way at first in a subdued gleam over a distant parish church, then 

5 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 22. 

Ibid., ch. 37. 

7 George Eliot, ‘Art and Belles Lettres: Review of Modern Painters’, Westminster Review, 
65 (April 1856), 625-33. 


5. Ladislaw 79 

bursts down again, breaks away into full light. The rain-clouds in this 
picture are wrought with a care which I have never seen equalled in any 
other sky of the same kind. It is the rain of blessing—abundant, but full 
of brightness; golden gleams are flying across the wet grass.° 

It is possible these Ruskinian details, the rain ‘a blessing’, the post- 
storm ‘gleams across the wet grass’, were in Eliot’s mind when she 
wrote her bit about Ladislaw. It would be a way of reinforcing that he 
has a painter’s eye, a Ruskinian capacity for fine attention to the beauty 
of nature—which is to say, another way of drawing the contrast with 
Dorothea’s myopic, dryasdust husband. Not that John Ruskin figures 
as an especially auspicious model when it comes to the case of an older 
man marrying a younger, idealistic woman, of course. Conceivably that 
particular irony was also in Eliot’s mind. 

Eliot touches on the contrast between the future-oriented visual arts, 
and the library-work of dead textual scholarship, during Dorothea and 
Casaubon’s Roman honeymoon. Dorothea is eager to help her husband’s 

In their conversation before marriage, Mr. Casaubon had often dwelt on 
some explanation or questionable detail of which Dorothea did not see 
the bearing; but such imperfect coherence seemed due to the brokenness 
of their intercourse, and, supported by her faith in their future, she had 
listened with fervid patience to a recitation of possible arguments to be 
brought against Mr. Casaubon’s entirely new view of the Philistine god 
Dagon and other fish-deities, thinking that hereafter she should see this 
subject which touched him so nearly from the same high ground whence 
doubtless it had become so important to him.’ 

We understand that ‘Mr. Casaubon’s entirely new view of the Philistine 
god Dagon’ is a dead-end. Eliot’s novel is not interested in his question. 
Its concerns are quite other, to do with the relationship between 
art and life, how love is reconciled to reality and the way life is best 
lived. Should we wish to dig down a little, we discover that Dagon is 
a pagan deity mentioned several times in the Bible." The consensus of 

8 John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 5 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1860), part 7, ch. 
4, section 19, /44329-h/44329-h.htm 

9 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 22. 

10 Judges 16.23 tells how the temple of Dagon is destroyed by Samson at Gaza 
(Samson’s last act, of course: he dies in the ruins he himself makes). Elsewhere 
we learn that King Saul’s severed head was displayed in a different temple of 



nineteenth-century scholarship was that he was, as Eliot notes, a pagan 

fish-god. John McClintock describes him as a kind of merman, ‘the body 
of a fish with the head and hands of a man’."' 

Horace’s Ars Poetica, one of the earliest and most influential works of 

aesthetic theory, opens with these lines: 

Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam 
iungere si velit, et varias inducere plumas, 
undique conlatis membris, ut turpiter atrum 
desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne, 
spectatum admissi risum teneatis, amici?’ 

If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and 
spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from 
every part of nature, so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part 
terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain 
from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight? 

Horace takes it for granted that this kind of incongruity is, simply, 

ludicrous. Art should aim for something better: paint a fish by all 

means, or paint a beautiful woman, but don’t muddle the two up. The 

Ars Poetica is a very famous piece of classical literary criticism, and 

Eliot certainly knew it: according to John Rignall, Horace is ‘the Latin 

author George Eliot refers to most frequently in her writing’.'* Was she 

thinking of the Ars Poetica, 1 wonder, when she prefaces her novel's first 

sustained discussion of the purpose and form of art with this mermaid- 

ish reference to Casaubon’s pointless researches? Horace’s whole 




Dagon [1 Maccabees 10.83; 11.4] and 1 Samuel 5.2-7 informs us the Ark of the 
Covenant was seized by the Philistines and taken to Dagon’s temple in Ashdod. The 
Philistines set a fetish of Dagon before their trophy, but each morning they discover 
it lying prostrate before the ark. They set it upright but the following morning it 
is discovered fallen over, and on the third morning it is broken into pieces: in the 
words of KJV, ‘the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon 
the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him’. 

John McClintock, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, 2 vols 
(New York: Harper, 1868), vol. 2, p. 642. 

Horace, De Arte Poetica liber, ed. by C. Smart (Philadelphia: Joseph Whetham, 1836), 
1, text%3A1999.02.0 
064%3Acard%3D1; Horace, The Art of Poetry: To the Pisos, ed. and trans. by C. Smart 
and Theodore Alois Buckley (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1863), 1, http:// 

John Rignall, ed., Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot (Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 2000), p. 166. 

5. Ladislaw 81 

point is—to repeat Dorothea’s words, quoted above—that appending 
a scaly fish tail to a human torso is ‘a consecration of ugliness rather 
than beauty’ and ‘ridiculous’. Eliot tucks the joke in at various places: 
as with Mrs. Cadwallader’s unforgiving judgement that ‘Casaubon has 
money enough; I must do him that justice’ but ‘as to his blood, I suppose 
the family quarterings are three cuttle-fish sable, and a commentator 
rampant’.'* We laugh because there is something ‘fishy’ about Casaubon. 
He’s a cold fish, in many ways neither fish nor fowl. 

Dorothea meets Ladislaw on her honeymoon, in Rome, where 
Ladislaw is improving his artistic technique by studying under the 
German artist Adolf Naumann (the Casaubons later visit Naumann’s 
studio and both sit for portraits). Will dines with Mr. and Mrs. Casaubon 
and the conversation turns to art, a topic over which he and Dorothea 
disagree. ‘I fear you are a heretic about art generally’, Ladislaw tells her 
and she replies that the important thing would be to make life itself 
beautiful, rather than make beautiful imitations of life: 

I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then 
all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life 
and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of 
anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it. 
[...] should be quite willing to enjoy the art here [in Rome], but there 
is so much that I don’t know the reason of—so much that seems to me a 
consecration of ugliness rather than beauty. The painting and sculpture 
may be wonderful, but the feeling is often low and brutal, and sometimes 
even ridiculous.” 

Dorothea adds ‘I have often felt since I have been in Rome that most of 
our lives would look much uglier and more bungling than the pictures, 
if they could be put on the wall’. It is an important aesthetic question: 
should art be ‘realist’, and serve the betterment of life, or ‘idealist’ 
adding a beautifying and ennobling sheen to the things represented? 
But this is not a question that engages Casaubon, devoted as he is to his 
myopic pedantry. When Ladislaw praises the ambition of Neumann’s art 
(“The sketch must be very grand, if it conveys so much,” said Dorothea. 
“Oh yes,” said Will, laughing, “and migrations of races and clearings 
of forests—and America and the steam-engine. Everything you can 

14 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 6. 
15 Ibid., ch. 22. 

82 Middlemarch 

imagine!”’) Dorothea suggests, ‘smiling towards her husband’ that it 
would require somebody of Casaubon’s encyclopaedic knowledge ‘to be 
able to read it’. Eliot adds: ‘Mr. Casaubon blinked furtively at Will. He 
had a suspicion that he was being laughed at. But it was not possible to 
include Dorothea in the suspicion’. 

What, then, of Casaubon’s ‘entirely new view of the Philistine god 
Dagon’? Eliot, of course, is writing about ‘real’ people in ‘real’ situations, 
and not about horseheaded men and fishtailed women of fantasy or 
(latterly) science fiction. Where Eliot’s ‘literary realism’ embodies 
a mimetic logic, whereby life is mapped onto art with a minimum of 
distortion, science fiction and fantasy are both metaphorical modes of 
art, because they aim to represent the world without reproducing it. 
The metaphors that inform science fiction sometimes calcify, through 
over-use, into mere cliché: the robot, the spaceship, the raygun. But at its 
best, science fiction estranges its reader with an eloquent and arresting 
metaphorical apprehension of life that compels us again to think about 
existence. Speaking for myself, and as a writer of science fiction, I value 
that estrangement, and consider metaphor a more expressive mode of 
art than mimesis. And under that aegis, Casaubon’s merman seems 
to me a fascinating rebus for a novel like Middlemarch—a novel, after 
all, centrally about the way human life and its relationships so often 
construe incompatible juxtapositions: Dorothea and Casaubon, Lydgate 
and Rosamond, high ideals and provincial practicalities. These are the 
petty hypocrisies of the respectable middle classes that Matthew Arnold 
so memorably called ‘philistinism’. 

In the Old Testament Dagon appears as the enemy of righteousness, 
but by the time we get to the New Testament we must consider a new 
dispensation, one in which the last now becomes the first. After all, 
what is Christ himself if not a kind of fish god? He recruits disciples 
from trawlermen telling them to become fishers of men; he feeds five 
thousand, miraculously, with ‘five small loaves and two fish’. In another 
miracle he tells Peter that he will be able to pay the temple tax by casting 
a line in the water, saying that a coin will be found in the fish’s mouth, 
which it is. In Matthew 12:38-45 Jesus identifies himself with ‘the Sign 
of Jonah’, symbolic of his death and resurrection. The early church 
branded itself with a fish symbol (many modern Christians do the 
same): ICHTHUS, which means fish, and is a Greek acrostic IXOY2Z). 

5. Ladislaw 83 

Conceivably Casaubon’s key to all mythologies would, if completed, 
prove to be a way of reconciling pagan and Christian piscine symbols 
into one unified whole. 

I daresay that strikes you as fanciful. But this question of ‘Realism’ 
versus the Fantastic had important resonances for Eliot’s own religious 
faith. In 1846 she had translated David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, in its day 
a controversial book (the Earl of Shaftesbury memorably called Eliot’s 
translation ‘the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of 
hell’). Strauss conceded that Christ was a historical figure but argued that 
there had been nothing supernatural or miraculous about his ministry. 
The miracles recorded in the New Testament were, he suggested, 
mythic accretions or fanciful extrapolations added-in by the early 
Church bolster their messiah’s reputation as a wonder-worker. Eliot was 
persuaded by this argument. Then again, it is possible to disbelieve the 
miraculous events recorded in the Bible without altogether jettisoning 
one’s engagement with the orientations of faith. In the words of Sean 
Gaston: ‘Eliot rejected the supernatural trappings of punishment and 
reward, while still embracing what is in “conformity with the will of 
the Supreme” [...] though she later modified her youthful vehemence 
against orthodoxy, by and large her position appears to have remained 
unchanged for the rest of her life’.° Christianity can be a rationalist 
faith, and a believer can think of Christ as a character in, as it were, a 
realist story. Then again, Christianity can be a miraculous faith, and a 
believer can think of Christ as a practitioner of the strongest kind of 
magic. Calling Christ a kind of fish-god is to take the latter line (the 
fish stories in the New Testament all share a miraculous element). Seem 
this way, Christianity itself becomes is a kind of numinous monster, a 
combination of the ordinary and the impossible, the mundane and the 
magical. A kind of merman or mermaid system of belief. Monsters can, 
as Horace says, be ridiculous, or ugly, but they can also be marvellous. 
It is even possible that some monsters can be marvellous because they 
are ridiculous and ugly. Metaphor itself is a yoking together of apparent 
incompatibles in the service of a new eloquence. 

The truth is, critics have never quite decided on the place of 
Casaubon’s ‘Key to All Mythologies’ in Middlemarch. In one sense, of 

16 Sean Gaston, ‘George Eliot and the Anglican Reader’, Literature and Theology, 31.3 
(2017), 318-37 (p. 319), https: // /litthe/frw026 

84 Middlemarch 

course, it is obvious enough: this unfinished and perhaps unfinishable 
project is indicative of Casaubon’s unfittedness as Dorothea’s husband. 
She deserves better than this withered old pedant, wholly consumed by 
his dryasdust obsessions. From the novel’s first mention of the character, 
his project is linked to his name, as something integral to his being-in- 
the-world: ‘the Reverend Edward Casaubon, noted in the county as a 
man of profound learning, understood for many years to be engaged 
on a great work concerning religious history’.\’? The very phrase ‘Key 
to All Mythologies’ has become a shorthand for pointless and pedantic 
scholarly vanity, the academic’s ‘life project’ always doomed to failure— 
as an academic myself, I can vouch for how sharply the jibe can hit home. 

The fact Dorothea is initially won-over by Casaubon’s plan speaks 
to the naivety of her character at the novel’s beginning; and her slowly 
dawning realisation of the barrenness of her husband’s work tracks her 
own Bildungsroman narrative—that is, her growth and development. 
So, in that sense, it’s obvious enough what function the ‘Key’ has in the 

But here’s what I’m not sure about: is the problem with Casaubon’s 
‘Key’ that it is too ambitiously framed, doomed by virtue of the fact that 
it seeks to explain everything with one clef when the nature of reality— 
the reality Eliot so deftly gestures towards with her particular mode of 
literary realism—is too complex to admit of such simplistic analysis? Or 
is the idea that a ‘Key’ could be written so as to explain all mythological 
systems but that Casaubon is too disorganised, too narrow-minded and 
too lacking in necessary expertise, to do it? (Later in the story Ladislaw 
scoffs that Casaubon doesn’t even read German.) Is the novel saying 
that the ‘Key to All Mythologies’ could never be written, or is it saying 
that such a work could be written, just not by Casaubon? 

Casaubon believes his ‘Key’ will show ‘that all the mythical systems 
or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition 
originally revealed’* and though he has a relatively high opinion of 
Dorothea’s intelligence compared to other women, he does not propose 
to take her on as a partner. Her role is to be ‘helpmeet’, ‘secretary’, to 
take dictation and assist him in sorting through paperwork. In chapter 
2 we learn that the materials for the ‘Key’ are dispersed between many 

17 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 1. 
18 Ibid., ch. 3. 

5. Ladislaw 85 

pigeon-holes in Casaubon’s study, and Dorothea believes she could 
be the person to order and arrange the material. When Mr. Brooke 
complains that his pigeonholes are a mess (‘I have tried pigeon-holes, 
but everything gets mixed in pigeon-holes: I never know whether a 
paper is in A or Z’) Dorothea’s offer to him—'I wish you would let me 
sort your papers for you, uncle. I would letter them all, and then make 
a list of subjects under each letter’—is actually a coded romantic pitch 
at Casaubon, and is, in the cleverly-observed, rather strangulated idiom 
in which Eliot renders this doomed love affair, recognised as such (‘Mr. 
Casaubon gravely smiled approval’). 

We could rephrase my question this way: is Dorothea culpably 
naive for believing in Casaubon’s proposed ‘Key’? I’m not sure she 
is. Casaubon’s work is, on its face, a perfectly respectable project. As 
Colin Kidd’s recent study, The World of Mr Casaubon, shows, there was 
a rich tradition of comparative mythology through the eighteenth- and 
nineteenth-centuries—a ‘significant and variegated terrain’ rather than 
the ‘sterile, unworldly disengagement of which Mr. Casaubon has for 
so long been an emblem’."” Despite taking its name from Eliot’s famous 
scholar, Kidd’s book is not really about Middlemarch. Its three sections 
examine, first, ‘the eighteenth-century golden age’ of such research, 
second ‘the Age of Revolution and Reform down to the early 1830s, 
the period in which the novel is immediately set’ when ‘mythography 
remained an urgent calling for Anglican scholars who wished to 
conserve Christian truth against the poisons of Enlightenment deism, 
scepticism and atheism’, and finally the period from the 1830s to the 
novel’s publication 1870-71, the time ‘during which Eliot’s own views 
of mythography were formed’.” Lots of people were researching and 
writing ‘Keys’. There was, Kidd implies, nothing hubristic or outrageous 
about Casaubon attempting such a thing. 

Perhaps our mistake is focusing on the ‘Key’ part of Casaubon’s 
title. Compare the real-world Ernest von Bunsen, eminent scholar of 
comparative religion and mythology, who published his Key of Knowledge 
(in English) in 1865. His ‘Key’ is: Christ (Bunsen, an eminent Anglo- 
German writer and contemporary of Eliot’s, proposed a common origin 

19 Colin Kidd, The World of Mr Casaubon: Britain's Wars of Mythography, 1700- 
1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 2, https://doi. 

20 Ibid., p. 7. 

86 Middlemarch 

for many different religions and mythologies, including Buddhism, 
Essene Judaism and paganism: his book’s full title is The Hidden Wisdom 
of Christ and the Key of Knowledge). Were it ever finished, Casaubon’s book 
would—presumably—argue similarly that all the various mythological 
traditions derive, with varying degrees of corruption and divergence, 
from the sacred revelation of the Christian God. When the German 
painter Naumann sees Casaubon and Dorothea on their honeymoon 
together in Rome he assumes the man is a Geistlicher, a clergyman or 

Nor was such a theory eccentric by the standards of the age. 
Casaubon’s theory has the same shape, and therefore the same 
structurally explanatory power, as the theory proposed by the era’s most 
famous comparative mythographer, Max Miiller, who argued that myth 
and language could be traced back to a common linguistic and cultural 
origin-point he named ‘Aryan’ (now generally called ‘Indo-Europear’). 
So, for example: Miiller traces the word for ‘god’ back through history 
(dieu, deus, theos and so on) to a now lost Proto-Indo-European word 
*dyiw that means ‘sky, heavens, sun’. You can identify that with your 
personal God, or make an observation about humankind’s propensity 
to religiosity more generally, but either way it is a perfectly Casaubonic 
argument. And we know that Eliot read Miiller closely. 

Eliot’s critics, incidentally, have not been shy when it comes to picking 
up Casaubon’s dropped baton, offering a whole ring of keys of their 
own to the Middlemarch myth. According to Paul Milton ‘inheritance 
law’ is not just one of the novel’s various interests, it is the Casaubonic 
key to everything.*! For Lisa Baltazar, Casaubon’s project exists in the 
novel so that Eliot can undertake ‘an extremely informed debunking’ 
of infallibilist Biblical criticism.” And for Roger Travis the ‘Key’ turns 
out to be Dorothea herself. Travis argues that Dorothea resists the 
‘mummification’ implicit in husband’s struggle with Truth by stepping 
out of the textual ‘labyrinth’ into life itself: ‘Middlemarch is a labyrinth like 
the social life of Middlemarch like the Key’, he argues, ‘and Dorothea’s 

21 Paul Milton, ‘Inheritance as the Key to all Mythologies: George Eliot and Legal 
Practice’, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 28.1 (1995), 

22 Lisa Baltazar, ‘The Critique of Anglican Biblical Scholarship in George Eliot’s 
Middlemarch’, Literature and Theology, 15.1 (2001), 40-60 (p. 40), https:/ / 
1093 /litthe/15.1.40 

5. Ladislaw 87 

winding path through them makes emphatically satisfying her final 
achievement of a purity and legibility’. The Key, then, is ‘Dorothea’s 
character’: ‘with her, the reader must lay aside notions of a mythology 
that lacks animate life, an epic that fossilizes’ and instead learn ‘the art 
of living’. 

In other words, perhaps the problem with a ‘Key to all Mythologies’ 
isn’t the key part, so much as the mythologies part. Myths fascinated 
Eliot, as they do most of us. They are, after all, powerful and enduring 
stories, pitched somewhere between fiction and faith. And it goes 
without saying that stories are central to a novelist’s praxis. Generations 
of readers can confirm Eliot’s skill at telling them. At the same time, 
Eliot is fascinated by the idea that some stories can’t be told using the 
conventional or traditional forms and structures. In one sense the whole 
of Middlemarch tends to the point where Eliot says to her readers: ‘now 
Dorothea passes out of view of the kinds of stories that constitute novels 
like mine’. Earlier in the book she is compared, or compares herself, 
to figures from both religious and classical myth—Saint Theresa and 
Antigone amongst various others—but by the end her life is revealed 
to be just her life, not shaped or directed by any such template. This in 
turn might suggest another perspective on Casaubon’s notorious ‘Key’: 
not that it is too ambitious to be achieved but on the contrary that it 
is, perhaps, too facile—that it is only too easy to extract some guiding 
principle from ‘mythology’ and apply it to our lives, where the truth is 
that to live properly means not confusing such models with actuality. 
Life—as George Eliot tells us, paradoxically enough, using her story—is 
not a story. 

Casaubon’s problem is not that he is seeking an impossible key. He 
already possesses the key. His problem is that he thinks this key fits 
the lock marked ‘mythologies’ when (Eliot is saying) it actually fits the 
lock marked ‘life’. Middlemarch ends not because there’s nothing more 
for Dorothea to do, but on the contrary because she has a whole life 
to live, and because life is bent out of the true when writers try to fit it 
into those procrustean structures called ‘stories’, from myths to novels. 
Look again at the novel’s desperately famous last lines. ‘The effect of 

23 Roger Travis, ‘From “Shattered Mummies” to “An Epic Life”: Casaubon’s Key to 
All Mythologies and Dorothea’s Mythic Renewal in George Eliot’s Middlemarch’, 
International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 5.3 (1999), 367-82 (pp. 380-81), https:// 

88 Middlemarch 

her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive’ is surely a 
direct nod—Diffusionism’ is the name given to the theories of Miiller 
and his ilk, that myth, religion and culture spread and diffuse from 
one source across the world. Here Eliot revisits the governing principle 
of Casaubon’s ‘Key’ in order to relocate it from myth to life—where, 
she seems to be saying, it belongs, for life should be lived not only 
unobtrusively but faithfully. But now I am straying into the matter of 
the final chapter: the ending of this novel, and its beginning. The way 
epigraphs concertina their beginning and their end (nobody wants 
an epigraph that goes on for pages and pages; the pithier the better) 
and the way they parse this spacious novel, a work whose beginning 
and end are separated by hundreds of thousands of words, and yet are 
closely interconnected. 

Ladislaw, though, believes in art insofar as it addresses and offers 
amelioration to the age in which he actually lives. He is a realist, we 
might say, in art as in politics; although the debate he has with Lydgate 
over dinner in chapter forty-six sees him dismissed as a dreamer: ‘crying 
up a [political] measure as if it were a universal cure [...] encouraging 
the superstitious exaggeration of hopes about this particular measure’. 
To Lydgate all party politics is ‘a political hocus-pocus’. Ladislaw, 
however, considers himself a pragmatist: ‘my dear fellow, but your cure 
must begin somewhere, and put it that a thousand things which debase 
a population can never be reformed without this particular reform to 
begin with’. The novel in which he appears is a more hybrid entity: and 
one of the functions of many of its embedded quotations and epigraphs 
is to construe the novel as simultaneously (what we might call) ‘realism’ 
and something that expresses a mythic, even a monstrous truth in the 
way human lives are shaped and lived. And this brings me to the matter 
of Eliot’s allusiveness to classical legend and literature. 

24 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 46. 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill 
Out in Mid-Sea 

The epigraph to chapter 44 reads as follows: 

I would not creep along the coast, but steer 
Out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars. 

This little couplet is about Dorothea leaving behind the shore-hugging 
life she has had with Casaubon and charting a more adventurous and 
exciting (sexual) course. Or at least it is about her starting to think, 
obliquely, in these terms. In chapter 44, Casaubon is dying but not dead, 
and Dorothea, walking around the hospital grounds, is thinking about 
her future. 

Critics assume these two lines were written by Eliot herself, which 
is partly correct. In fact, ‘creep along the coast’ is a phrase from John 
Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther (1687), and the six-line passage in 
which it occurs rather looks like it has been boiled down by Eliot for her 

Why choose we, then, like Bilanders, to creep 
Along the coast, and land in view to keep, 
When safely we may launch into the deep? 

In the same vessel which our Saviour bore, 
Himself the pilot, let us leave the shore, 

And with a better guide a better world explore.' 

(A ‘bilander’ is a flat-bottomed masted Dutch ship, designed for coastal 
traffic.) This piously Christian sentiment is, at root, classical. The contrast 

1 John Dryden, The Hind and the Panther: A Poem, in Three Parts (London: Printed for 
Jacob Tonson, 1687), part 1, ll. 128-33, 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // 

90 Middlemarch 

between hugging the shore and the more dangerous but far-reaching 
tactic of heading out across open water defined classical navigation. 
The Greeks even had a particular name for the former activity. Here’s 
Nicholas Purcell in the Oxford Classical Dictionary: 

Periploi, ‘voyages around’ (i.e. around a sea, following the coastline), 
were the standard basis of ancient descriptive geography. Sequences 
of harbours, landings, watering-places, shelters from bad weather, 
landmarks, or hazards could be remembered in an oral tradition as a 
sometimes very long list, and in written culture provided a summation 
of space that could be easier to intuit, and which offered much more 
room for detail, than cartography.” 

More adventurous Greek heroes repudiate such timid periplism. Here’s 
Homer's Odyssey: 

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he 
sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall 
upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and 
the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and 
watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. For this star 
Calypso, the beautiful goddess, had bidden him to keep on the left hand 
as he sailed over the sea. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, 
and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of 
the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a 
shield in the misty deep.* 

Might Eliot have had this Homeric moment in mind in writing her 
couplet she sets as the epigraph to chapter 44? One of the (if you'll excuse 
me) oddities of the Odyssey is that its overarching storyline—a man 
travelling back through adversity to reunite with his beloved wife—is 
interrupted by stories of that same man pairing-off with women not his 
wife, and finding himself repeatedly tangled-up in the narratological 
logic of sexual romance. Item: Odysseus loiters with Circe. Item: he flirts 
with Nausicaa. Item: as the epic opens he is cohabiting with the beautiful 
nymph Calypso. Indeed, it is leaving Calypso’s island that occasions the 

2 Nicholas Purcell, ‘Periploi: Voyages around’, Oxford Classical Dictionary (2015), / 10.1093 /acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001 / 

3 Homer, Odyssey, trans. by A. T. Murray (London: William Heinemann, 1919), book 
5, ll. 270-82, 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 91 

passage quoted above, where Odysseus sets out, not creeping along the 
shore, but steering out in mid-sea by guidance of the stars. 

And where is he heading? To the land of the Phaeacians, where he 
meets the beautiful young Phaeacian princess Nausicaa and afterwards 
captivates her with stories of his many adventures. It reads as the set-up 
to a romantic story that ought to end with Odysseus marrying Nausicaa, 
although (of course) it doesn’t. Instead of that romantic ending, the story 
makes a knight’s-move into a different denouement: the Phaeacians gift 
Odysseus quantities of treasure and send him on his way back to his 
actual wife. 

One could not call Odysseus sexually faithful, certainly. There’s 
always seemed to me something ironic in the poem’s happy ending, 
predicated as it is upon his supposedly happy reunion with Penelope, 
who has gone to such extraordinary lengths to avoid cheating on her 
husband. And as Middlemarch moves into its second half it reveals itself 
as, amongst other things, a meditation on the nature of marital infidelity, 
not (of course) as actual physical adultery, but as a complication of the 
wedded heart. Casaubon, fretful at the prospect of Dorothea having sex 
with Ladislaw, decides that such a connection would constitute adultery 
even after his death; and so he arranges his posthumous testament to 
try and prevent it. We, as readers, naturally don’t see it that way—a 
widow should surely be allowed to marry again without acquiring the 
taint of adultery. And Dorothea is hardly Odysseus, jumping into bed 
with whomever she comes across. And yet she is conflicted. The story 
wouldn’t be half so interesting if she weren't. Which is to say: it’s not 
about the money that she would lose if she marries Ladislaw, or not only 
about that. There’s something else at work in her sexual conscience. 

We flatten the dramatic dilemma of the novel’s second half if we take 
an absolutist moral position with respect to it: as it might be, telling 
ourselves Casaubon is wholly irrational in demanding his widow be sexually 
chaste after his death; Dorothea is wholly within her rights to take another 
husband and should feel no scruple about desiring another man. It’s a fair 
enough position, but it runs the risk of missing what Eliot is doing. She 
is not an absolutist writer—always fonder, we might say, as per her title, 
of the middle line. Say Dorothea has been guilty, even self-deceiving, 
about her desire for Ladislaw whilst her husband was alive. Those are 
the kinds of feelings (the guilt, I mean) that don’t merely evaporate 

92 Middlemarch 

now that her husband is dead. In other words, I’m suggesting Eliot is 
saying there is something complicated in our married lives: something 
adulterated about our desire for our spouses even in the most untroubled 
of marriages (and you wouldn’t call Casaubon and Dorothea’s marriage 
untroubled). Odysseus and Penelope, we might say, are closer to the 
truth of marriage than Sir Charles Grandison and Lady Harriet. If that 
werent the case, the psychodrama of Middlemarch would be considerably 
less compelling than it actually is. 

Rosamond has no such Dorothean scruples. Indeed, immediately 
before this chapter (and its Odyssean epigraph) she, newly married to 
Lydgate, finds herself awaking into a worldly awareness of the potency 
of, precisely, extra-marital sexual allure: 

Rosamond felt herself beginning to know a great deal of the world, 
especially in discovering what when she was in her unmarried girlhood 
had been inconceivable to her except as a dim tragedy in by-gone 
costumes—that women, even after marriage, might make conquests 
and enslave men. At that time young ladies in the country, even when 
educated at Mrs. Lemon’s, read little French literature later than Racine, 
and public prints had not cast their present magnificent illumination 
over the scandals of life. Still, vanity, with a woman’s whole mind and 
day to work in, can construct abundantly on slight hints, especially on 
such a hint as the possibility of indefinite conquests. How delightful to 
make captives from the throne of marriage with a husband as crown- 
prince by your side—himself in fact a subject—while the captives look 
up forever hopeless, losing their rest probably, and if their appetite too, 
so much the better!* 

‘What cana man do when he takes to adoring one of you mermaids?’ her 
poor husband wonders, aloud, unconsciously anticipating the nautical 
metaphor. What indeed? There are a great many Victorian novels about 
the scandal of bigamous marriage, not because bigamy was a particular 
problem in the nineteenth-century, but because this was one of the 
ways authors could navigate the conventions of nineteenth-century 
respectability and representation so as to talk about a more basic, 
universal human fact: that lines of desire do not always align themselves 
with the marriage bond. 

It is worth saying a little more about the Homer to which Eliot 
alludes here. It had become well-known by the 1870s that Homer’s 

4 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 43. 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 93 

epics were stitched together from a variety of earlier myths and stories 
(although it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the full scope 
of the oral deep-history of ‘Homer’—and his likely non-existence— 
was finally established). In the case of the episode with Nausicaa 
what has happened, evidently, is that Homer has integrated into his 
epic an older ‘romance’ story, in which the beautiful princess helps 
the shipwrecked stranger who turns out to be a great prince who in 
turn wins her heart with his magnificent storytelling. Everything in 
this portion of the Odyssey points us in this direction—except that it 
doesn’t work out that way. Except that this isn’t the direction the story 
goes down (it can’t, because Odysseus already has a wife). Something 
about this implied but broken-off romantic emplotment interests me, 
and interests me especially with respect to Middlemarch. I am certainly 
not the only reader who sees, in Eliot’s twinned stories of Dorothea 
and Lydgate—originally planned as two separate novels, of course— 
an as-it-were Nausicaa/Odysseus implicit-tale of thwarted possibility, 
in many ways the perfect couple: both young, beautiful, idealistic, 
driven. Of course they can’t be together because Dorothea is married, 
and by the time she is free to marry again Lydgate is married. And 
I concede there’s nothing in the novel that explicitly reverts to any 
mutual attraction between them. 

Indeed, my point is less about the will-they-won’t-they? clichés of love 
story narrative (in this case more of a might-they-could-they-have?). Rather, 
it is about the balance of mode: just as the Odyssey contains laminations 
of romance and folk-tale in its broader matrix of ‘epic’, Middlemarch 
accommodates pockets of melodrama, as with Lydgate’s backstory with 
Mme Laure, or Dorothea’s falling into blank verse, within its defining 
logic of scientific—I am arguing, medical and microscopic—realism. 

It raises questions of how capacious the novel may be in terms 
of accommodating other modes. Maybe there are some things 
fundamentally immiscible with the form of the novel. It is a question 
particularly worth raising with respect to Eliot, since she was not only 
unusually well-read for a major Victorian novelist in the Classics, but 
she also had specific aesthetic interests in trying to recreate aspects 
of classical form in contemporary novelistic textual production. Most 
famously, she attempted in The Mill on the Floss (1860) to clothe in the 
lineaments of modern fiction the gravity, the shape and the affect of Attic 

94. Middlemarch 

tragedy. If Mill is Eliot essaying tragedy, could we describe Middlemarch 
as an attempt to head out, mid-sea, into classical epic? 

The counter-argument is easy enough to frame. ‘Prose romance’ 
stretches back to the Ancient Greeks, but ‘the novel’ is a basically an 
eighteenth- and nineteenth-century development, and although it has 
now spread globally it still manifests a particular, European, bourgeois- 
Protestant logic. Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel is half a century old now, and 
while there are good reasons to be dissatisfied with it (particularly its 
near total neglect of female writers) its core thesis still has contemporary 
critical currency: namely, that ‘the distinctive literary qualities of the 
novel’ relate directly to ‘those of the society in which it began and 
flourished’, and that it’s a form that rises in step with changes in the 
reading public, of the rise of economic individualism, and of the ‘spread 
of Protestantism, especially in its Calvinist or Puritan forms’.° The novel 
as a mode starts, in other words, as a bourgeois mode of art pitched 
to a readership largely drawn from the rising middle-class, focusing 
on things that mattered to them and reflecting their values back upon 
them. So: individualied, self-reliant characters. So: detailed descriptions 
of material possessions (houses, furniture, clothes etc), and a particular 
emphasis on courtship narratives framed in terms of prosperity. So also: 
the mode’s hospitality to Bildungsroman, a spiritualisation of economic 
growth and return on investments. 

If Watt’s thesis is correct then we might expect the novel, formally 
speaking, to work for some things better than others; and we might 
even argue that there are some things that the novel is just really poor at 
capturing. And rather than continuing to talk in windy generalisations 
I might ask a specific question, one with particular relevance to Eliot’s 
art: can the novel do tragedy? 

It is clearly, of course, possible to write a novel in which characters 
suffer and die, and even to reproduce, should an author be so minded, 
the lineaments of a Sophoclean or Shakespearian play in prose. But 
does tragedy, as tragedy, work in the novel? This seems to me at once a 
question about the specific form of the novel and a question about our 
larger cultural addiction to happy endings and disinclination to follow 
the pity and the terror to its logical catharsis-end. Disney’s The Lion King 

5 Tan Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding (Berkeley: 
University of California Press, 1957), pp. 7, 60. 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 95 

is Hamlet, yes; but it’s Hamlet-With-A-Happy-Ending, which is in a very 
large sense to miss the point of Hamlet. Terry Eagleton agrees with Henri 
Peyre that the novel as a mode simply isn’t hospitable to tragedy: 

A tragic theatre bound up with the despotic absolutism, courtly intrigue, 
traditional feuds, rigid laws of kinship, codes of honour, cosmic-world- 
views and faith in destiny gives way to the more rational, hopeful, realist, 
pragmatic ideologies of the middle class. What rules now is less fate than 
human agency [...] The public realm of tragedy, with its high-pitched 
rhetoric and fateful economy, is abandoned for the privately consumed, 
more expansive, ironic, everyday language of prose fiction. And this [...] 
is certainly a loss: some critics, as Henri Peyre suggests, blame the death 
of tragedy on the novel, which ‘captured the essentials of tragic emotion, 
while diluting and often cheapening it’. 

Eagleton thinks that tragedy qua tragedy depends upon precisely that 
public, focused, elevated authenticity that has been dissolved away by 
the privately consumed art of the novel, novels being more expansive, 
ironic, told in everyday language and concerning ordinary people. 

To test his claim we might look at a specific case study, although 
it is part of Eagleton’s argument that proper examples are thin on the 
ground. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is a twisted sort of courtship novel 
and comic in generic terms, and although his next novel Clarissa spins 
a similar story into not marriage but the heroine’s death, it is difficult to 
make the case that it generates properly tragic momentum. Leo Tolstoy’s 
Anna Karenina lacks the tragic focus of, say, the Antigone, not just 
because Tolstoy is committed to balancing Anna’s downward path with 
his account of Levin’s upward one, but because its one main purpose 
is to create a widescreen portrait of a whole society, which necessarily 
diffuses the tragic focus we find in Sophocles. Eliot’s The Mill on the 
Floss provides a clearer example, if only because in it Eliot undertook 
a deliberate exercise in re-writing Greek tragedy as a contemporary 
English novel, and because Eliot is a great writer. 

To be more specific, Eliot, the admirer of Sophocles, undertook 
several approaches by way of transferring, from Greek into English, 
from drama into this new mode of fiction, a quasi-Sophoclean heft and 
expressiveness. Above all she loved the Antigone, and we can intuit 

6 Terry Eagleton, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 
2003), p. 178. 

96 Middlemarch 

reasons for that in her private life: openly living with the already-married 
George Henry Lewes put her beyond the pale of many in polite Victorian 
society, and her own brother Issac, with whom she had been extremely 
close as a child, cut off all communication with her. After decades of 
happiness together, Lewes died in 1878. A couple of years later, in 
1880, Eliot married a young admirer called John Cross. Only then, with 
ptiggish self-satisfaction, did her brother re-open communications with 
his sister. 

So, yes: we can see why Sophocles’ great play, with its potent swirl 
of pseudo-erotic connection between sister and brother superseding the 
conventions of society at large (even unto death) and its portrait of a 
wilful individual woman following her heart rather than surrendering 
to the pressures of convention, spoke so directly to Eliot. She often wrote 
about it. In her ‘The Antigone and its Moral’, she defined the central 
problem in Sophocles’ play as lying between ‘reverence for the gods’ and 
‘the duties of citizenship: two principles, both having their validity, are 
at war with each’; the conflict between ‘the strength of man’s intellect, or 
moral sense, or affection’ and ‘the rules which society has sanctioned’. 
Her essay draws a general conclusion: ‘whenever man’s moral vision 
collides with social convention the opposition between Antigone and 
Creon is renewed’.” 

There is much we could say about Eliot’s preference for Sophocles 
over Aeschylus and Euripides, but there is one thing that’s peculiarly 
relevant to Eliot’s project as a novelist I think, and it goes back to 
Sophocles’ great innovation in the drama itself. Aeschylus, we’re told, 
was the first writer to introduce a second actor on stage (before him 
dramas consisted of a single actor interacting with the chorus). But 
Sophocles is the first dramatist to introduce a third actor and suddenly, 
we might say, things start to get interesting. George Eliot, certainly, 
was fascinated by the dramatic, ethical and expressive possibilities of 
this triangulation, and it is the fundamental interpersonal structure of 
The Mill on the Floss: Maggie Tulliver, her older brother Tom and their 
father; Maggie, Tom and little Lucy (whom, in a fit of childish jealousy, 
Maggie pushes in the mud); Maggie, Tom and sensitive, hunchback 
Philip Wakem, at least until their father’s ruination at the hands (as Tom 
sees it) of Philip’s lawyer father makes him put an end to Maggie and 

7 George Eliot, ‘The Antigone and its Moral’, Leader, 7 (March 29, 1856), 306. 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 97 

Philip’s burgeoning relationship. Then, as the novel moves into its final 
straight, the story focuses on Maggie, cousin Lucy and Lucy’s fiancé 
Stephen Guest, a more conventional love-triangle. 

This final situation brings to the fore the main (as it were) 
triangulation of the novel: one, Maggie; two, the object of her love—the 
sexual connection she has with Stephen, the spiritual and intellectual 
connection she has with Philip—and three, her larger familial and 
social context;, powerful represented by the blood connection she has 
with Tom. The main theme of the novel, of course, is that Maggie comes 
into conflict with larger, impersonal but restrictive forces, of economic 
necessity, gender oppression and, when she runs away with Stephen, of 
moral disapprobation. This latter is most forcefully manifested in Tom’s 
individual disapproval, just as the worst aspect of Eliot’s (patchy, in 
truth) social ostracism was the way her beloved brother Isaac cut her: 

At the centre of The Mill on the Floss lies the human dilemma from 
Sophocles’ Antigone that George Eliot believed to be permanent: the 
conflict between the conventions of society and individual judgment. 
An honourable but conventional person, Tom Tulliver, clashes with his 
more imaginative sister Maggie over these opposing claims [...] Tom 
seeks conventional honour in exacting middle-class conventionalism; but 
Maggie seeks honor in her ideals of love and charity. In many ways Tom 
symbolises the Old Law, Maggie the New.® 

Eliot also works structurally, as it were: setting out in this novel formally 
to reproduce the structure of a Greek drama. What I mean by this that 
Attic tragedy follows a particular formal pattern. In any given Greek 
tragedy there’s an opening speech by a character or a god, that sets the 
scene: this is called the parodos. The bulk of the play consists of stasima (a 
stasimon is a choral ode) alternating with episodes (epei(s)-odia, ‘between 
the odes’) in which two, or later three, actors interact with each other and 
with the chorus. Things end with an exodos. How many episodes should 
there be? In Greek drama there could be as few as three, or as many 
as six. In Seneca and Roman tragedy, which largely adopted its formal 
conventions from the Greek, the number of episodes was mostly five, 
which is where Renaissance theatre derives its convention that a play 
should have five acts. Eliot, however, is very particularly not copying 

8 David Moldstad, ‘The Mill on the Floss and Antigone’, PMLA, 85.3 (1970), 527-31 
(p.527), https:/ / /10.2307/1261454 

98 Middlemarch 

Shakespeare or even Seneca in her tragic novel, but instead going back to 
the Sophoclean source. What this means is that Floss has a parodos in its 
first chapter, whose narrator (‘I remember those large dipping willows, I 
remember the stone bridge...’) takes on the role of chorus. The episodes 
of the story are interspersed with stasimon-like commentary by the 
narrator and number, I would argue, six: [1] Maggie’s youth; [2] the 
family’s loss of the Mill; [3] Maggie’s friendship with Philip; [4] Tom’s 
recovery of the fortune, Tulliver horsewhipping Wakem and dying of an 
apoplexy; [5] Maggie’s affair with Stephen; [6] the Flood. In each case 
Eliot interposes narrative with observation, commentary and sections of 
what amount, almost, to prose poetry in describing the world she has 
created. The exodos is Eliot’s ‘Conclusion’. 

The Greek element exists beneath the surface, as it were, of a 
thoroughly and minutely realised English idiom—the same idiom 
that Eliot would refine and hone, without such specific Classical 
underpinning, ten years later for Middlemarch. In this earlier novel Eliot 
does sophisticated things with the Greek mode of externalising interior 
states and the novelistic mode of internalising them. So, for example: 
Philip Wakem is physically deformed, but Mr. Tulliver is emotionally or 
psychologically deformed, a fact reflected in his surname, since the Greek 
TVALOG, tulios, from tvAy, means ‘lumpy or hunchbacked’. Eliot plays 
many such Greek games in her novel: whilst ‘St Oggs’ is a perfectly 
English sounding name, perhaps related (we might think) to the Gaelic 
‘Ogham’ we can also note that the Greek 6ykoc, ogkos, means ‘pride, 
self-importance, pretension’, as well as ‘swelling, tumour’. “The Floss’ 
is another very English sounding name, from the Old-English for ‘flow’ 
[cf. the German flosz, river]. But then we turn to the Greek verb dAUW 
to find that it means ‘to boil over, to bubble up, to overrun’, but also ‘to 
babble, to fill up with words’, both of which are peculiarly appropriate 
to this work. 

That said, not every critic has seen Maggie as a straightforward 

Clearly Maggie shares Antigone’s strong-minded rebellious spirit, and 
her ‘sisterly piety’, and she too is torn by opposing principles ‘at war 
with each other.’ But when we consider Maggie’s case she seems to be 
divided by principles of a very different kind to those exerting their 
contrary influence on Antigone. Opposing Maggie’s version of ‘sisterly 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 99 

piety’ and ‘reverence for the gods’ [...] are not the ‘duties of citizenship’ 
as for Antigone, but rather other forms of feeling, or in Eliot’s vocabulary, 
varieties of sympathy: her compassion for Philip Wakem and her passion 
for Stephen Guest.’ 

‘Maggie’s dilemma’, argues McDonagh, in a point to which I'll return 
in a moment, ‘seems reducible to a conflict not of laws or duties but of 
feelings, and indeed feelings for opposing men; the father and brother 
versus the friend and the lover’. It is interesting, and may or may not 
be significant, that Mill on the Floss contains no explicit references at all 
to the Antigone. Maybe Eliot felt she didn’t need to spell out explicitly 
what was so obvious; but that doesn’t seem to have been her practice 
elsewhere. Take Philip Wakem, the intelligent, sensitive crippled boy 
whom Maggie rejects (because he’s ugly, and then because her brother 
tells her to) but whose quiet, empathetic intellect proves essential to 
Maggie’s own spiritual growth. It seems clear to me that he is called 
Philip in allusion to Sophocles’ magic cripple Philoctetes; and it seems 
that way in part because Eliot all but lays it out. When they are still 
children, Tom injures his foot, and during his convalescence he, Maggie 
and Philip become close (although after his recovery Tom distances 
himself from Philip again): 

After that, Philip spent all his time out of school-hours with Tom and 
Maggie. Tom listened with great interest to a new story of Philip’s about 
aman who had a very bad wound in his foot, and cried out so dreadfully 
with the pain that his friends could bear with him no longer, but put him 
ashore on a desert island, with nothing but some wonderful poisoned 
arrows to kill animals with for food. 

‘T didn’t roar out a bit, you know,’ Tom said, ‘and I dare say my foot 
was as bad as his. It’s cowardly to roar.’ 

But Maggie would have it that when anything hurt you very 
much, it was quite permissible to cry out, and it was cruel of people 
not to bear it. She wanted to know if Philoctetes had a sister, and why 
she didn’t go with him on the desert island and take care of him. 
One day, soon after Philip had told this story, he and Maggie were in 
the study alone together while Tom’s foot was being dressed [...] ‘What 
are you reading about in Greek?’ [Maggie] said. ‘It’s poetry, I can see 

9 Josephine McDonagh, ‘The Early Novels’, in The Cambridge Companion to George 
Eliot, ed. by George Levine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 
38-56 (53-54), 

100 Middlemarch 

that, because the lines are so short.’ ‘It’s about Philoctetes, the lame man 
I was telling you of yesterday,’ he answered, resting his head on his 
hand, and looking at her as if he were not at all sorry to be interrupted. 
Maggie, in her absent way, continued to lean forward, resting on her 
arms and moving her feet about, while her dark eyes got more and 
more fixed and vacant, as if she had quite forgotten Philip and his book. 
‘Maggie,’ said Philip, after a minute or two, still leaning on his elbow 
and looking at her, ‘if you had had a brother like me, do you think you 
should have loved him as well as Tom?’ Maggie started a little on being 
roused from her reverie, and said, ‘What?’ Philip repeated his question. 
‘Oh, yes, better,’ she answered immediately. ‘No, not better; because I 
don’t think I could love you better than Tom. But I should be so sorry,— 
so sorry for you.’ Philip coloured; he had meant to imply, would she love 
him as well in spite of his deformity, and yet when she alluded to it so 
plainly, he winced under her pity."° 

This sort of textual specificity, though, is not something carried 
systematically through the novel. Indeed elsewhere Eliot pokes mild 
fun at Tom’s tutor, the Rev. Mr. Stelling, who ‘was so broad-chested and 
resolute that he felt equal to anything’ and who was certain he ‘would 
by and by edit a Greek play, and invent several new readings. He had 
not yet selected the play, for having been married little more than two 
years, his leisure time had been much occupied with attentions to Mrs. 
Stelling; but he had told that fine woman what he meant to do some day, 
and she felt great confidence in her husband, as a man who understood 
everything of that sort’."! This is a mild poke at scholarship, of course, 
rather than tragedy as such, but it stages the larger issue: the Rev. 
Stelling’s domestic duties, insofar as they come into conflict with his 
Attic ambition, take precedence. The novel, it turns out, is much more a 
domestic, private mode than it is a tragic, public one. 

Early in Mill Eliot is explicit on precisely this matter. Young Tom and 
Maggie are entertaining their younger cousin, pretty little Lucy (who 
will go on, when grown-up, to plight her troth with handsome Stephen 
Guest). The kids are supposed to stay in the garden, but Tom wants to 
look at the pond and leads the two girls astray to see if they can find any 

10 George Eliot, Mill on the Floss (Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1860), book 2, ch. 6, /files/6688 /6688-h/6688-h.htm 
11. Ibid., book 2, ch. 1. 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 101 

‘Here, Lucy!’ he said in a loud whisper. Lucy came carefully as she was 
bidden, and bent down to look at what seemed a golden arrow-head 
darting through the water. It was a water-snake, Tom told her; and Lucy 
at last could see the serpentine wave of its body, very much wondering 
that a snake could swim. Maggie had drawn nearer and nearer; she must 
see it too, though it was bitter to her, like everything else, since Tom did 
not care about her seeing it. At last she was close by Lucy; and Tom, 
who had been aware of her approach, but would not notice it till he was 
obliged, turned round and said,— 

‘Now, get away, Maggie; there’s no room for you on the grass here. 
Nobody asked you to come.’ There were passions at war in Maggie at 
that moment to have made a tragedy, if tragedies were made by passion 
only; but the essential Tt uéye8o0g which was present in the passion was 
wanting to the action; the utmost Maggie could do, with a fierce thrust of 
her small brown arm, was to push poor little pink-and-white Lucy into 
the cow-trodden mud.” 

The Greek, Tt ueéye8oc, means ‘that greatness, magnitude’ or ‘necessary 
sublimity’. Eliot’s point is that though little children may feel with 
heroic, or tragic, intensity, they can’t do anything very much, and that 
means that their little dramas can never be properly tragic. And what 
Eliot considers true of children, scales in her telling to adults as well. 
We are not heroes, she says; we are ordinary, middling people. Tragedy 
does not describe our sorrow, even when that sorrow is very acute. Here 
is Mill’s narrator on the plight of Tom and Maggie's father, whose pride 
and obstinacy bring him to financial ruin, and takes somatic form in an 
apoplexy that leaves him bedridden. 

Mr. Tulliver, you perceive, though nothing more than a superior miller 
and maltster, was as proud and obstinate as if he had been a very 
lofty personage, in whom such dispositions might be a source of that 
conspicuous, far-echoing tragedy, which sweeps the stage in regal robes, 
and makes the dullest chronicler sublime. The pride and obstinacy of 
millers and other insignificant people, whom you pass unnoticingly 
on the road every day, have their tragedy too; but it is of that unwept, 
hidden sort that goes on from generation to generation, and leaves no 
record,—such tragedy, perhaps, as lies in the conflicts of young souls, 
hungry for joy, under a lot made suddenly hard to them, under the 
dreariness of a home where the morning brings no promise with it, and 
where the unexpectant discontent of worn and disappointed parents 

12. Ibid., book 1, ch. 10. 

102 Middlemarch 

weighs on the children like a damp, thick air, in which all the functions 
of life are depressed; or such tragedy as lies in the slow or sudden death 
that follows on a bruised passion, though it may be a death that finds 
only a parish funeral.’ 

Poor old Mr. Tulliver, who evokes in us neither pity nor any sort of 
terror. Perhaps it’s not that Thomas Gray’s ‘mute inglorious Milton’ (to 
quote his famous ‘Elegy Written in a Country Graveyard’) is denied his 
public eloquence and glory by the mere happenstance of being born 
into ordinary parochial life, but rather that ordinary parochialism 
ontologically contradicts greatness as such—not that Gray’s villager 
might have written Paradise Lost if only things had gone a little different 
for him, but rather that a Milton who doesn’t speak gloriously isn’t 
Milton in any meaningful sense at all. Indeed, isn’t it within the bounds 
of possibility that Gray is celebrating, rather than lamenting, this silent 
ingloriousness? The next line in his poem talks of Gray’s parochial 
Cromwell as guiltless of his country’s blood. Surely it’s better to be 
laid in a country graveyard without blood on your hands than with? 
(Pericles on his deathbed declared his proudest boast was that ‘no 
Athenian ever had to put on mourning because of me’.) Maybe it’s not 
the novel form, or even the larger social ethos, that makes tragedy such 
an ill fit to Eliot’s art. Maybe it’s that the lines of force of her ethical 
imagination are always tugging her out of drama as such, away from 
the conflict, and towards something neither comic nor tragic but rather 
a sense of the fundamental undisclosure of life as it is lived, and the 
spiritual benefits of that state. Adam Mars-Jones says that ‘mourning is a 
wound that is also somehow an achievement’. He wasn’t talking about 
tragedy when he said so, but he might as well have been. Tragic drama 
stages mourning as a mode of ritualised social-religious sublimity, 
parsing its shattering absences and ruptures into a sort of transcendent 
achievement. But Eliot, however hard she tried to capture a Sophoclean 
grandeur and depth in The Mill on the Floss, was working against the 
grain of her genius. At her best she understands not that grief is not an 
achievement, but rather that achievement itself is a kind of chimera, that 
the best things we can do as human beings, things to do with kindness 

13 Ibid., book 3, ch. 1. 
14 Adam Mars-Jones, ‘Chop, Chop, Chop’, London Review of Books, 38.2 (2016), https:// 

6. Myth, Middlemarch and the Mill: Out in Mid-Sea 103 

and connection and unobtrusiveness, are actually pointed, forceful, 
marvellous unachievements. When she writes novels—even when, as in 
this case, she writes a tragic novel—her aim is to capture the wisdom of 
the sort of being-in-the-world that evades the drama of tragedy and the 
melodramatic eventfulness of fiction. 

At the end it is the river that is the uncertain quantity, flowing 
through a pastoral landscape for most of this novel only to rise up, a 
deus ex machina (or deus ex fluvio) to wrap-up the plot with preternatural 
abruptness. By the time she came to writing her greatest novel, 
Middlemarch, she knew better, and specified breaking the power of the 
river as a precondition for her heroine’s happy blankness: Dorothea’s 
energy ‘like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself 
in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her 
being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing 
good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things 
are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing 
to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited 
tombs’.'° It’s neither the first nor the last time this present study shall 
revert to these final lines of Middlemarch. 

15 Eliot, Middlemarch, ‘Finale’. 

7. Epigraphy 
Beginnings and Ends 

It might be thought perverse, in a book explicitly about the use of 
epigraphs in Middlemarch, to have waited so long to quantify the specific 
lineaments of Eliot’s epigraphy in the novel. There are, though, reasons 
why such work belongs at the end rather than the beginning. An 
epigraph precedes a chapter, of course; it comes at the beginning, or 
strictly speaking comes before the beginning. But we cannot make sense 
of the epigraph until we understand its relationship to the chapter it 
sets up, and we can only do that if we digest the whole chapter. So the 
epigraph which stands at the opening only makes sense at the close. 
Middlemarch has eighty-seven chapters, but only eight-six epigraphs, 
since the ‘finale’ floats free of one. Thirteen of the novel’s epigraphs 
are from Elizabethan/Jacobean dramatists;! and another fourteen are 
from Eliot’s own pastiche versions of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama.? 
Twenty-one are from English poets, and another fourteen from Eliot’s 
own pastiche verse in broad imitations of this tradition.* These two 
categories, real and pastiche drama from the age of Shakespeare, and 
real and pastiche English verse, constitute just under three quarters of all 
epigraphs. There are also eight epigraphs quoted from works of English 

1 1, 11, 26, 32, 33, 36, 41, 42, 60, 66, 71, 77, 78; mostly William Shakespeare, but with 
some from Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, Ben Jonson and Samuel Daniel. 

2 4,8,9,13, 18, 28, 31, 34, 43, 48, 55, 59, 64, 73. 

3 The epigraphs to chapters 3, 12, 16, 21, 24, 25, 37, 39, 44, 50, 52, 56, 58, 62, 64, 68, 
76, 80, 82, 83 and 84 are quoted variously from John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, 
Charles Sedley, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, William Blake, Edmund Spenser, John 
Donne—credited as ‘Dr Donne’—William Wordsworth, Henry Wotton, the 
anonymous author of the medieval ballad ‘The Squyr of Lowe Degre’, Daniel and 
the anonymous author of the fifteenth-century lyric ‘The Not-Browne Mayde’. The 
epigraphs of Eliot’s own ‘pastiche’ English verse head chapters 6, 14, 15, 17, 20, 23, 
40, 47,49, 51,57, 67,70 and 72. 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 

106 Middlemarch 

prose fiction or non-fiction,’ and five from various works of Continental 
prose fiction or non-fiction.® Six are quoted from Continental poets 
and two are ‘proverbs’ from the same provenance.° Two, only, are from 
the Bible [69, from Ecclesiasticus and 74 from Tobit]. Only one is an 
example of Eliot pastiche-ing English prose—chapter 53’s ‘It is but a 
shallow haste which concludeth insincerity from what outsiders call 
inconsistency—putting a dead mechanism of “ifs” and “therefores” for 
the living myriad of hidden suckers whereby the belief and the conduct 
are wrought into mutual sustainment’.” 

What this points towards is Eliot marking her novel in terms of 
timbre. Roughly a third of epigraphs style their chapters—set them 
up, encourage us to read them—in terms of Elizabethan/Jacobean 
drama, and between a third and a half style their chapters via poetry. 
This is not quite to suggest that Eliot is obliquely teasing her reader 
on the level of tone, swapping the implication that this novel will 
turn out to be a tragedy, or that it will rather tend towards a poetic 
justice. It is, though, to present us with the lenses through which, if we 
choose, we can apprehend a finer-grained apprehension of the novel’s 

Consider, for example, thenovel’s very first chapter, and Middlemarch’s 
first epigraph. 

4 5,10, 29,45, 61, 63, 79,85; Robert Burton, Thomas Fuller, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas 
Browne, Samuel Johnson and John Bunyan. 

5 2, 30, 38, 75, 86; Miguel de Cervantes, Blaise Pascal, Francois Guizot and Victor 

6 19, 22, 27, 35, 54, 81; Dante, Alfred de Musset, Hesiod, Jean-Francois Regnard and 
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The epigraph for 7 is attributed to ‘Italian proverb’ 
and 46 to ‘Spanish proverb’. 

7 This sentiment, gussied into cod-seventeenth-century prose by Eliot, is not 
an uncommon one. ‘There is such a power of what Mr. Lecky calls “localizing” 
principles and feelings, that a man will be indignant against this, or that form of a 
particular vice while he practises other forms of it without scruple. Such a man is 
flagrantly inconsistent; we should press the point of his inconsistency as a special 
argument to convince him, but we should not think of charging him with insincerity 
simply because he is inconsistent and imperfect. [...] To cases of mere inconsistency 
and imperfection, however glaring, it [the term hypocrisy] should not be applied at 
all. Strict hypocrisy, the conscious and deliberate pretence to virtues which a man 
has not and does not care to have, is, we suspect, much rarer than people commonly 
think’. ‘Hypocrisy’, The Saturday Review [1869], in The Living Age, ed. by E. Littell 
(Boston: Littell and Gay, 1869), vol. 103, pp. 279-81 (281), Age/ukKBIAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1 

7. Epigraphy: Beginnings and Ends 107 

Since I can do no good because a woman, 
Reach constantly at something that is near it. 

—The Maid’s Tragedy: BEAUMONT AND FLETCHER. 

From here we move to a description of Dorothea: ‘Miss Brooke had that 
kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress’. It 
is an opening sentence that tells us two, linked things about Dorothea: 
that she is beautiful and that her beauty is of a particular sort, not over- 
obvious or showy, not dependent upon finery or make-up, but something 
plainer and purer. A beauty serious rather than trivial or frivolous. But 
we might argue that the epigraph has already positioned us to see that 
seriousness as severity, and perhaps even to expect violence. 

The tangle of plot that constitutes The Maid’s Tragedy hints at parallels 
with Middlemarch only to tug those parallels in unexpected directions. 
Aspatia (the titular maid) is in love with, and expects to marry, the 
noble Amintor; but the King instead decrees that Amintor must 
marry Evadne, supposedly to honour the fact that Evadne’s brother, 
Melantius, has just won a famous military victory. Neither woman is 
happy about this development, and we might consider this a parallel, 
an invitation to read Middlemarch as a story about what happen when 
a young woman marries the wrong man. Aspatia and Evadne are not 
sisters, like Dorothea and Celia, and Evadne is compelled by exterior 
force rather than driven by her own spiritual and scholarly ambition, 
but the parallel is suggestive nonetheless. Then, however, we discover 
that the king has secretly forced Evadne to become his mistress, and 
is arranging the marriage to cover-up this sexual turpitude. Amintor, 
apprised of this state of affairs, does not sleep with his new bride and 
indeed, the King later instructs him not to have sex with Evadne, but 
to allow her to continue attending sexually upon the King at the royal 
pleasure. From here the play moves towards its bloody denouement: 
Amintor, Melantius and Evadne plan together to assassinate the king. 
The lines Eliot quotes come from a speech by Evadne, in conversation 
with Amintor positioned towards the end of Act 4. In it, she is full of self- 
loathing (‘My whole life is so leprous, it infects/AlIl my repentance’).® 
He, bracingly, concurs: ‘Can I believe/There’s any seed of Vertue in that 

8 Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, The Maid’s Tragedy (1619), https://www. /cache/epub/10847/pg10847.html 

108 Middlemarch 

woman|[?] [...] O Evadne!/Would there were any safety in thy sex,/That 
I might put a thousand sorrows off,/And credit thy repentance: but I 
must not’. She begs him, abjectly, to forgive her: 

I do present my self the foulest creature, 

Most poysonous, dangerous, and despis’d of men, 
Lerna e’re bred, or Nilus; Iam hell, 

Till you, my dear Lord, shoot your light into me, 
The beams of your forgiveness. 

...but Amintor cannot bring himself to do so, at least until Evadne speaks 
the monologue from which Eliot has extracted her epigraph. 

I have done nothing good to win belief, 

My life hath been so faithless; all the creatures 

Made for heavens honours have their ends, and good ones, 
All but the cousening Crocodiles, false women; 

They reign here like those plagues, those killing sores 
Men pray against; and when they die, like tales 

Ill told, and unbeliev’d, they pass away, 

And go to dust forgotten: But my Lord, 

Those short dayes I shall number to my rest, 

(As many must not see me) shall though too late, 
Though in my evening, yet perceive a will, 

Since I can do no good because a woman, 

Reach constantly at some thing that is near it; 

I will redeem one minute of my age, 

Or like another Niobe Ile weep till Iam water. 

Only after this does Amintor relent. 

It is important to retain a sense of what Evadne is talking about 
here: namely, redeeming her sexual sinfulness by murdering the King— 
something she, indeed, presently goes off to do. Having tied the king to 
his bed and stabbed him to death, Evadne presents herself to Amintor, 
holding the knife she has used. She asks him to take her now, fully, as his 
wife. When he leaves the stage without making any such commitment 
she stabs herself to death. Returning to the stage to find her dying, 
Amintor then kills himself too. 

This, frankly, is a very gnashing, bloody sort of context for the gentle 
easing-in of Eliot’s pointedly unviolent novel. But a couple of things are 
likely to strike us, if we elect to look at the work through this magnifying 
lens. One is the way Evadne’s speech anticipates, in a shamed and tragic 

7. Epigraphy: Beginnings and Ends 109 

voice, the celebrated last lines of Middlemarch, in which Dorothea too goes 

into a mode of storylessness, like, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s words, 

a tale that is told, that ‘pass[es] away,/And go[es] to dust forgotten’. 

Evadne is a crocodile-infested Nilus, where Dorothea is the forcefully 

flowing Tigris, broken into 360 channels, representative of the holy days 

of the antique calendar and therefore ‘time’ as such—as distinct from 

the temporal structures of textual narrative—by way of capturing how 

her singular will was diffused into quotidian duties and pleasures of the 


The actual river is the Gyndes, a tributary of the Tigris. Eliot’s reference 

Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent 
itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect 
of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the 
growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and 
that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is 
half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in 
unvisited tombs.’ 

here is to the account in Herodotus’ Histories 1:189: 

The Gyndes rises in the hills of Matiene, and descending through the 
Dardonians, falls into the Tigris. While Cyrus was endeavouring to 
pass this same river, which might be crossed in ships, one of his sacred 
white horses boldly plunged into the stream, and attempted to swim 
over, but the stream having violently whirled it round, carried it away 
and drowned it. Cyrus, much offended with the river for this affront, 
threatened to render his stream so contemptible, that women should 
pass to either side without wetting their knees. After which menace, 
deferring his expedition against Babylon, he divided his army into two 
parts; and having marked out one hundred and eighty channels, by the 
line, on each side of the river, commanded his men to dig out the earth. 
His design was indeed executed by the great numbers he employed; but 
the whole summer was spent in the work. Thus Cyrus punished the river 
Gyndes, by draining the stream into three hundred and sixty trenches; 
and in the beginning of the next spring advanced with his army towards 

Eliot, Middlemarch, ‘Finale’. 

Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, trans. by Isaac Littlebury (Oxford: W. 
Baxter, 1824), p. 73, 

110 Middlemarch 

Nineteenth-century commentators agreed the rationale offered here 
was too thin to explain Cyrus’s actions, since they delayed his war for a 
year. Explanation was divided between attempts at rationalisation—for 
instance, arguing that Herodotus records a garbled account of Cyrus’s 
siege-craft, redirecting rivers in the attack on Babylon—and accounts 
that parse the account in religious or mythic terms (since white horses 
were sacred to the sun, and there were 360 days in the sacred year). It is 
likely Eliot was aware of both sides of this debate. 

We need to return to the beginning of the novel, for we still have to 
navigate the pronounced divergence in tone, or mode, between Eliot’s 
opening chapter and the grisly contextual implicature of the epigraph 
she chooses for it. The lines as quoted speak to the limitations that define 
female, as opposed to male, life, and acknowledge that such restrictions 
may have deleterious moral as well as practical consequences for actual 
women. If we assume that ‘Since I can do no good because a woman 
[I will] reach constantly at something that is near it’ means something 
bland and conventional, something like: prevented as I am by (as we 
would now say) structural sexism from achieving the fullest good, I 
will nonetheless try to do the best I can—then, perhaps, clicking the 
microscope lens into our instrument and examining the actual source 
will disabuse us. Evadne, here, is not saying that because perfect good is 
beyond her she will try to live as virtuously as she can. On the contrary, 
she is telling the man she loves, a man she has married despite being in 
a sexual relationship with another (married) man, that she will murder 
that other. The ‘something near it’ of virtue, in other words, is a miss as 
good as a mile. 

Middlemarch does not tell the story of a marriage marred by a 
murderous wife of course, although it is a novel about a marriage in 
which the husband dies, unhappy in his heart with the fidelity of the 
woman he married, which is not a million miles from A Maid’s Tragedy. 
Of course, it’s possible all that’s happening here is me attempting to 
over-leverage the significance of one short epigraph, merely because it 
stands at the head of the first chapter. But I don’t think so. Look at the 
second sentence of that opening: 

[Dorothea’s] hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear 
sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin 
appeared to Italian painters; and her profile as well as her stature and 

7. Epigraphy: Beginnings and Ends 111 

bearing seemed to gain the more dignity from her plain garments, 
which by the side of provincial fashion gave her the impressiveness of 
a fine quotation from the Bible-——or from one of our elder poets,—in a 
paragraph of to-day’s newspaper." 

In other words, Dorothea is not only beautiful, with that particular 
kind of refined beauty that is offset to advantage by plainness—she is 
herself a quotation, a particular sort of literary allusion, an epigraph in her 
own right. The other women of Middlemarch are workaday journalistic 
prose and she is a richer textual inset, a few lines from one of the poets 
Eliot herself so lavishly draws upon to augment and adorn her chapter 
headings. She is textual, because she is a character is a novel; but she is 
doubly textual, a more expressive or poetic ‘text’ than her companions. 
She stands out. 

What Eliot is doing here is connecting this conceit, of Dorothea as 
an epigraph, to a related set of images to do with clothing, and more 
specifically with adornment. This brings into play another way of 
thinking of chapter epigraphs: as accessory. Clearly the main function 
of Middlemarch as a novel—the story, the characters, the descriptions and 
meditations—would be almost entirely unchanged if all the epigraphs 
were stripped out. They are not functional parts of the narrative, but 
rather they garnish, or adorn, the main text. 

The novel’s first interchange between Dorothea and her sister 
concerns them dividing up the jewels they have inherited from their 
dead mother. Dorothea agrees to this but qualifies herself by saying 
that ‘we should never wear them, you know.’ Celia replies that refusing 
to do so would indicate the girls ‘are wanting in respect to mamma’s 
memory’, and Dorothea begins to soften her puritanism: 

The casket was soon open before them, and the various jewels spread 
out, making a bright parterre on the table. It was no great collection, 
but a few of the ornaments were really of remarkable beauty, the finest 
that was obvious at first being a necklace of purple amethysts set in 
exquisite gold work, and a pearl cross with five brilliants in it. Dorothea 
immediately took up the necklace and fastened it round her sister’s neck, 
where it fitted almost as closely as a bracelet; but the circle suited the 
Henrietta-Maria style of Celia’s head and neck, and she could see that it 
did, in the pier-glass opposite. 

11. Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 1. 

112 Middlemarch 

‘There, Celia! you can wear that with your Indian muslin. But this 
cross you must wear with your dark dresses.’ 

Celia was trying not to smile with pleasure. ‘O Dodo, you must keep 
the cross yourself.’ 

‘No, no, dear, no,’ said Dorothea, putting up her hand with careless 

‘Yes, indeed you must; it would suit you—in your black dress, now, 
said Celia, insistingly. ‘You might wear that.’ 

‘Not for the world, not for the world. A cross is the last thing I would 
wear as a trinket.’ Dorothea shuddered slightly. 

‘Then you will think it wicked in me to wear it,’ said Celia, uneasily. 

‘No, dear, no,’ said Dorothea, stroking her sister’s cheek. ‘Souls have 
complexions too: what will suit one will not suit another.’? 

Souls have complexions too is a deft four-word summary of the work Eliot 
undertakes as a writer of fictional character. But this exchange not only 
establishes the differences in character of the sisters, it rehearses the 
place of epigraphs in the larger logic of the story. Are such quotations 
trinkets, trivialising the text, or adornments enriching it? The pearl-and- 
gemstone cross is too gaudy for Dorothea, but Celia wins her round, 
bringing out ‘a fine emerald [ring] with diamonds’ and comparing the 
sunlit jewels to the ‘spiritual emblems in the Revelation of St. John’. 
Dorothea, persuaded, agrees to keep the ring and its accompanying 
bracelet (‘All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in 
the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy’). So it is the 
type, not the fact, of epigraph that matters. And this returns us to the 
actual epigraphic choices Eliot has made. We might very well think that 
tragedy is serious enough, and poetry beautiful enough, to spiritually 
adorn the bald text, and so such quotations comprise three quarters of 
the whole. 

Earlier I discussed something many critics have explored: the 
autobiographical contexts and resonances of Mill on the Floss. Less is 
made of these same contexts with respect to Middlemarch, although they 
are manifestly still there. Dorothea is beautiful where Marian Evans was 
ugly—ungallant of me to say so, I appreciate, but important, since this 
adventitious and fundamentally irrelevant fact had a major impact on 
her life possibilities. Dorothea’s attraction to Casaubon, an older and 
more learned man, refracts a number of young Evans’s relationships: 

12 Ibid. 

7. Epigraphy: Beginnings and Ends 113 

with R. H. Brabant, Herbert Spencer and John Chapman most notably. 
In life the possibility of actual emotional or erotic connection with 
these clever, older men was prevented by the plain fact of their being 
already married. But the affective truth of this repeating not-quite 
relationship pattern is, we can intuit, what informs Middlemarch: 
that intrinsic, not external, factors prevented their consummation. 
Consciously or otherwise George Eliot—the writer—knew what Marian 
Evans could not allow herself to see: not just that being in love with 
the intelligence and learning of a person is not the same being in love 
with a person (that much is so obvious it’s almost facile to say so), but 
much more importantly that human desire is so constituted that it will 
cathect the former into the latter. Her love for literature, art, myth, the 
discourses of religion was so intense it carried itself through as much 
by eros as by agape and pragma, and in such a situation it’s easy to 
fool oneself, or perhaps only to distract oneself from the inevitability 
of the counterpoint, that the eros encompasses the mentor, the teacher, 
the older man. It does not, of course, and Middlemarch is, amongst other 
things, Eliot explaining to Evans that it does not. Accordingly, Marian 
Evans’s various affiliations with older scholars and editors, variously 
problematic, are here reinscribed as Dorothea actually marrying one 
such. And Marian Evans’s eventual amatory redemption, with another 
married man, George Henry Lewes, is reworked as Dorothea’s decision 
to flout both the disapproval of those older scholars and of society as a 
whole and to marry Ladislaw. Lewes was ugly and Ladislaw handsome, 
but the novel is entitled to balance out its unflinching emotional honesty 
with a little wish-fulfilment. As Marian Evans escaped Coventry to 
begin her life, so Dorothea escapes Middlemarch to begin hers. 

This is almost, but not quite, to suggest that Middlemarch is an 
autobiographical fiction. The point is not that Eliot has here written 
a Prelude or an A Ia recherche du temps perdu, for manifestly she hasn't. 
Nor has she written a David Copperfield, although this case is a little 
closer. As Charles Dickens inverts his name’s CD into his protagonist’s 

13. That Dorothea is a fictionalised autobiographical self-portrait is an idea with a long 
history. It is, for instance, asserted in Isadore Gilbert Mudge and Minnie Earl Sears’s 
A George Eliot Dictionary: The Characters and Scenes of the Novels, Stories, and Poems 
Alphabetically Arranged (London: Routledge & Sons, 1924). For a discussion of this, 
see Graham Handley’s George Eliot’s Midlands: Passion in Exile (London: Allison & 
Busby, 1991), pp. 15-40. 

114 Middlemarch 

DC, so does he invert various aspects of his actual life—killing off his 
parents, inserting fairy tale elements (adding Betsey Trotwood as fairy 
godmother, strewing David’s path with ogres and monsters, and finally 
winning his princess). The logic here is dream logic in a strict sense, 
which is to say, it undertakes the psychic work that Freud was interested 
in exploring. And, in fact, Middlemarch records a doubled inversion. 
On the one hand, beautiful Dorothea leaves Middlemarch just as plain 
Marian left Coventry (even the names invert one another: ‘Dorothea’ 
means ‘given by God’, and Mary is the woman who gave God). But on 
the other hand, plain Mary Garth does what plain Mary Ann never did: 
stays in Middlemarch, marries her love as a victory (that is: becomes 
a Vincy), has children and lives a fulfilled existence in the place she 
holds dear. Mary even becomes a published writer as Marian did, 
although this fantasy alternate George Eliot is defined by her sons and 
her heimat: a children’s book, Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch, 
printed by the significantly named ‘Gripp & Co., Middlemarch’. The 
main autobiographical ‘fantasy’ of Middlemarch is of a beautiful Marian 
Evans who leaves the claustrophobia of parochialism finally to begin 
her life with the handsome man she loves. Juxtaposed with this is a 
separate, smaller fantasy-autobiography: of the kind of woman Marian 
Evans actually was and could have stayed, gripping tight to her locale 
and putting her energies and love into her children. 

I am aware, I hasten to add, of what Colin Burrow pithily calls ‘the 
heuristic poverty of biographical explanations of works of art’.'* My 
argument here is not that Middlemarch is autobiographical fiction, but 
on the contrary that, in a crucial sense, it isn’t. Adam Phillips notes how 
hostile Freud was to biography as a whole. The mode is, he thought, 
structurally mendacious. 

We know that Freud, even as a younger man, didn’t want a biography 
written about him; and that he is rather terrified (i.e. mocking) of his, 
perhaps presumptuously assumed, future biographers. It is equally 
evident that in writing about biographers and biographies he is writing 
about what he doesn’t want psychoanalysts and psychoanalysis to be 
[...] When we speak about biography we speak about what we want 
lives, and life-stories, and truth-telling, to be.’ 

14 Colin Burrow, ‘Who Wouldn’t Buy It?’, London Review of Books, 27.2 (2005), https:// /n02/colin-burrow /who-wouldn-t-buy-it 
15 Adam Phillips, In Writing (London: Penguin Books, 2019), p. 62. 

7. Epigraphy: Beginnings and Ends 115 

Phillips’s point is that ‘for Freud, truth-telling about lives, such as it 
was, could be done only by the person himself, through the method of 
free-association, responded to by a psychoanalyst’. But he goes on to 
note, shrewdly, that ‘yet, in some ways like the biographer, the analyst 
is giving the fragmentary discontinuous speech of the analysand a new 
narrative coherence. A new story is told out of an old story differently 

That’s a good way of thinking of what Eliot has accomplished in 
Middlemarch: a new story being made out of an old story told differently. 
Quotation and epigraphy are linked ways of invoking old stories, of 
literally positioning markers to old stories into the body of the text; 
but Eliot uses both to remake and so build towards her new story. Her 
epigraphs (I’ve been arguing) are mirrors, which is to say, items of 
mimesis, encapsulations of literary realism. But I’ve also been arguing 
that they are lenses, which invokes a more complex mode of literary 
realism than is comprehended by more linearly reflective modes of 
what mimesis means. We are encouraged, throughout this novel, to look 
through, as well as to reflect (to reflect the beginning in the end, let’s 
say). And amongst the things we are encouraged to look through is the 
kind of process of desiring a particular life-story that motivated Eliot 

It only looks trivialising—only appears facile—to talk of Dorothea 
as Marian Evans’s ‘wish-fulfilment’ version of herself; because wish, or 
desire, is actually a much stranger and more complex dynamic than we 
generally think of it as being. We never really know why we want what 
we want. Indeed, we rarely know even what we want. We only know that 
we want. In such a condition (the human condition, the circumstance 
Freud spent his career excavating) we often misinvest our desire in 
wrongly-conceived or misapprehended targets. It’s what both Dorothea 
and Lydgate do, after all (it’s also what Casaubon does when he decides 
that marrying Dorothea is what he wants, but critics rarely talk about 
that). Indeed, their doing so is what gives this novel its extraordinary 
resonance with ordinary readers, because we all understand that 
something like this very often characterises our own desiring, and our 
own life-choices. In the case of George Eliot it doesn’t, I think, take us too 
far into mere speculation to suggest that she both wanted a life somewhat 
like Dorothea’s (to be beautiful, and spiritual, and adored by a handsome 

116 Middlemarch 

man she could adore, and most of all to escape parochial littleness) and a 
life like Mary Vincy’s: rooted in a location she loved, surrounded by her 
own children. Rationally she knew she couldn’t have both these things, 
but desire is not a rational process. This is a roundabout way of saying 
that what makes Eliot a great, rather than merely a proficient, novelist 
is her intuitive understanding not just that desire sabotages itself but 
that it is in this sabotage that art germinates. Dorothea does escape with 
the beautiful man she loves, but she publishes no books. Mary stays, 
and becomes a published writer, but a writer for children—Eliot’s way 
of saying that Mary’s story is of herself, of Marian Evans, for children, 
completed and sanctified by children. Mary takes the work of Plutarch, 
the most famous biographer of antiquity, perhaps the most famous 
biographer of all, and re-writes those biographies. She makes a new 
story out of an old story differently told. Both these fictionalised life- 
stories stand askew to the life-story of Marian Evans, plain, who did 
escape provincial littleness, who did become a published writer, who 
did not have children and did not, unlike her Ladislaw, George Henry 
Lewes, become a biographer." 

As we grow, and the reality principle intrudes increasingly upon our 
lives, we come to understand that it is infantile to believe we can always 
get what we want. In such a circumstance the reverse of this—that we 
can come, in time, to want what we get—perhaps looks like wisdom 
(hard-won, or otherwise); as it might be, the marriage of verity and 
wanting. But Eliot is interested in neither of these mutual-mappings of 
desire and lived-experience. 

It seems to me both significant and characteristic of Eliot’s strategy 
of intertextual allusion, that the last book named in Middlemarch 
(discounting Lydgate’s unnamed ‘treatise on Gout’) is Plutarch’s Lives, 
and that it appears not as itself but as reworked and retold. It is as a 
Freudian that Adam Phillips repeats Freud’s belief ‘that the best life 
stories are the ones told in psychoanalysis, in the psychoanalytic way. 
All other stories are rationalized self-deceptions’. But one need not be a 

16 George Henry Lewes’s first published book was A Biographical History of Philosophy 
(London: Charles Knight & Co., 1846) and he very often returned to biography 
across his writing career, as with The Life of Maximilien Robespierre: With Extracts from 
his Unpublished Correspondence (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1849), The Life and 
Works of Goethe (London: David Nutt, 1855) and Aristotle: A Chapter from the History 
of Science (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1864). 

7. Epigraphy: Beginnings and Ends 117 

Freudian in any doctrinaire sense to agree that when an analyst is ‘akin 
to a biographer, he is failing as a psychoanalyst’. 

The psychoanalytic method is, fortunately, easily explained. But we 
should note that there is no comparable biographical method. Nor is the 
biographer trying to cure anybody of anything; nor indeed is biography 
a mode of medical treatment.” 

This study has spent some time considering the degree to which Eliot’s 
‘realism’ in Middlemarch is a medical realism. Biography, we might say, 
is realism raised to the level of realism: an exercise in /e naturalisme 
from which the intermixture of fictional character is drained from 
the body of scrupulously recorded verisimilitude. But, of course, we 
wouldn't say anything so foolish: Freud is surely right that biography 
and autobiography both are rationalised self-deceptions. To get at the 
truth of a life, lived, means not recording verifiable exteriorities but, on 
the contrary, capturing interior myths and fantasies that are not only 
unverifiable, they are radically unfalsifiable too. At the end we come to 
understand the purpose of Eliot’s epigraphy, and the underlying logic to 
her subtle, wide-ranging and eloquent intertextuality. 

17 Phillips, In Writing, p. 56. 

The Flute inside the Bell 

Middlemarch’s thirty-first chapter opens with a conversation between 
Lydgate and Rosamond about Dorothea. 

Lydgate that evening spoke to Miss Vincy of Mrs. Casaubon, and laid 
some emphasis on the strong feeling she appeared to have for that formal 
studious man thirty years older than herself. 

‘Of course she is devoted to her husband,’ said Rosamond, implying 
a notion of necessary sequence which the scientific man regarded as the 
prettiest possible for a woman; but she was thinking at the same time 
that it was not so very melancholy to be mistress of Lowick Manor witha 
husband likely to die soon. ‘Do you think her very handsome?’ 

‘She certainly is handsome, but I have not thought about it,’ said 

‘I suppose it would be unprofessional,’ said Rosamond, dimpling.' 

There’s quite a lot going on here, and it is not especially flattering to 
Lydgate. At the heart of this brief exchange are two different modes of 
cause-and-effect. Lydgate, ‘the scientific man’, assumes a ‘billiard-ball 
striking another billiard-ball’ model, a conception of necessary sequence. 
A woman agrees to marry a man. Ergo the woman loves the man. But 
Rosamond ’s ‘of course’ is not so mechanistic or sequential as this, and 
Eliot’s point is that we, as readers, take the force of her rather than 
his understanding. Rosamond’s ‘of course’ indexes social convention, 
not the motion of the heart, and stands-in for the material rather than 
the emotional satisfactions of the union. Not that Rosamond ignores 
the way actual desire, for a person rather than for social standing or 
material wealth, factors-in to human relationships. Her next statement, 

1 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 31. 

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https: // /OBP.0249.08 

120 Middlemarch 

though styled as a question, actually figures by way of a mild accusation: 
‘you find her attractive, of course?’ Lydgate’s answer is, we presume, 
perfectly ingenuous: for his desire runs on rails in a way not true of his 
wife. His effective denial is then parried by Rosamond: I suppose it would 
be unprofessional, delivered with that tell-tale dimple, means: naturally 
you desire her—for she is, as you have conceded, attractive—but you repress 
that desire for professional and socially-conventional reasons. 

Rosamond is over-reading her more simply constituted suitor, just 
as he is under-reading his more complexly constituted inamorata. 
It is a perfect encapsulation of their relationship, a more nuanced 
psychologically-grounded portrait of marital incompatibility than the 
one offered by Dorothea and Casaubon. In their case the mismatch is 
external, something the whole world can see; where Lydgate and 
Rosamond appear, to all external observers, to be very well matched 
indeed. That glint of steel in Rosamond’s character implicit in ‘it was 
not so very melancholy to be mistress of Lowick Manor with a husband 
likely to die soon’ recruits empathy—for Rosamond is thinking herself 
into Dorothea’s situation—to a materialist ruthlessness of feeling, and 
therefore of affect. It is a little thing that resonates significantly in terms 
of our understanding of Rosamond’s character. Which is to say: it acts, 
as it were, epigraphically, smallness achieving a mode of largeness in the 
more capacious context of the novel as a whole. 

The epigraph to this chapter is a piece of Eliotic verse: 

How will you know the pitch of that great bell 
Too large for you to stir? Let but a flute 
Play’neath the fine-mixed metal: listen close 

Till the right note flows forth, a silvery rill: 

Then shall the huge bell tremble—then the mass 
With myriad waves concurrent shall respond 

In low soft unison. 

This versifies a phenomenon well-known to campanologists, and often 
discussed during this period.” Indeed, Eliot’s little section of verse 

2. ‘I was anxious to ascertain what relation the secondary tones of a large bell bore to 
its fundamental note, and for this purpose I availed myself of the excellent musical 
ear of my friend, Mr. Dodd, during his too short sojourn with me, and we went 
accompanied by a flute to the large bell of Salisbury Cathedral’. Charles Tomlinson, 
‘Mr Tomlinson’s Experiments and Observations on Visible Vibration’, Records of 
General Science, 2 (1835), 124-33 (p. 128). 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 121 

describing this acoustic peculiarity was itself widely quoted and copied, 
especially in books about bell-ringing or acoustics.* 

So widely quoted, in fact, did Eliot’s short poem become that it began 
to be discussed on its own merits. Several commentators understood 
the passage in a theological sense, as (for instance) saying that our 
individual and mortal faith, though small in an absolute sense, might 
nonetheless resonate with the vastness of the Godhead.* More recently, 
Evan Horowitz has read the epigraph as being about ‘social form’.® To 
read it as I propose here, as a more self-reflexive gesture on Eliot’s part, 
a gloss as much on the realist novelist’s apprehension of the nature of 
cause and effect in human character and interpersonal relation, is not 
to dismiss such takes, of course. Still, the epigraph in situ speaks more 
directly to questions of which effects are followed by causes, introducing 
the less obvious influences with the more direct hammer-strike—like 
Wallace Stevens’s celebrated, if perhaps rather opaque, distinction 

3. J. Solis Cohen’s The Throat and the Voice (London: Ward, Lock, & Co., 1880) 
compares human vocalisation to campanological acoustics: ‘Heavy bells are started 
by commencing with gentle impulses in rhythmic accord with the proper oscillation 
of the bell’, adding: ‘To quote from an excellent novel, Middlemarch ...’ and citing 
the epigraph (p.123). The fifth chapter of Frank E. Miller’s The Voice (New York: 
G. Schirmer, 1910), ‘The Physiology and Psychology of Voice-Production’, begins: 
‘Above this chapter I might well have placed the following lines which George Eliot 
wrote above Chapter XXXI of Middlemarch ...’, then quoting the epigraph (p.180). 
The anonymously authored article on ‘The Bell’ in The Southern Review, 22 (1877), 
372, follows a lengthy prose account of campanological acoustics with the words: 
‘this is matter-of-fact prose, dealing with bells in the rough. Now listen to this 
perfect poetry from George Eliot, which by its magic touch transforms the bell into 
a thing of life’, quoting the lines. 

4 For example, the unsigned article in The Bible Christian Magazine, 17 (1881), 60 that 
quotes Eliot’s lines and adds: ‘thus the slightest touch of faith makes the nature of 
the Godhead quiver to the centre’. Joseph William Reynolds’s The Mystery of the 
Universe, Our Common Faith (London: Kegan Paul, 1884), p. 274 and Henry Burton’s 
The Gospel According to St. Luke (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1893), p. 74 
both quote these lines, to similar purpose. 

5 ‘If it is not immediately clear that these lines are about social form, rather than, say, 
the acoustics of bells, the evidence is nonetheless there—most directly in that pointed 
word “mass”, and most profoundly in the final cadence, where the “mass” is made 
a chorus of individuals singing in “low soft unison.”’ Evan Horowitz, ‘Industrialism 
and the Victorian Novel’. Evan Horowitz, ‘Industrialism and the Victorian Novel’, 
in The Oxford Handbook of the Victorian Novel, ed. by Lisa Rodensky (Oxford: Oxford 
University Press, 2013), 
oxfordhb/9780199533145.001.0001 /oxfordhb-9780199533145-e-021373. The moral 
he draws is: ‘though the whole of society may seem overgrown or unwieldy, the 
right cause, the right ideal, the right note will show its resounding harmony.’ 

122 Middlemarch 

between the beauty of inflections and the beauty of innuendoes.® We 
are, according to the idiom ‘struck’ by another person’s beauty, like 
a bell being struck by its clapper. Rosamond and Dorothea are both 
beautiful, and Lydgate is struck by both; but, considered in terms of 
cause and effect, one has a more insinuating, resonant effect upon him 
than the other. Why might this be? To answer such questions we turn, 
perhaps, to the character, perhaps even the subconscious subjectivities 
of the individual effected; but to do so in this context is to realise how 
rich the ironies of Eliot’s characterisation are. Lydgate, who believes in 
a simple chain of cause-and-effect, is actually to be acted upon with a 
more flute-line trembling. What we feel we ought to desire and what we 
actually desire rarely align. 

That this is so is picked out in the chapter’s eighth paragraph, 
following this brief and flirtatious exchange from Lydgate’s courting 
of Rosamond. Before he leaves, Lydgate lifts and smells Rosamond’s 
perfumed handkerchief ‘as if to enjoy its scent’ (why as if? Is Eliot hinting 
at a less self-evident motive?) The narrator continues: 

But this agreeable holiday freedom with which Lydgate hovered about 
the flower of Middlemarch, could not continue indefinitely. It was not 
more possible to find social isolation in that town than elsewhere, and 
two people persistently flirting could by no means escape from ‘the 
various entanglements, weights, blows, clashings, motions, by which 
things severally go on.’ 

The line quoted is neither identified in the text, nor is its provenance 
particularly obvious.’ It is, though, germane to this question of human 
motivation, of cause and effect, that is shaping Lydgate’s personal, 
and the novel’s collective, narrative. The quotation is Lucretian, from 
a section of the De Rerum Natura describing how the primal nature of 
matter as a ‘state of discord’ led to all the atoms in the universe ‘joining 
battle, disordered their interspaces, passages, connexions, weights, 

6 For a still valuable investigation of nineteenth-century literature—though not, 
specifically, of Eliot—under this aegis, see Jerome J. McGann’s The Beauty of 
Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Oxford: Clarendon 
Press, 1985). 

7 Its source evades the editorial labour of Bert G. Hornback in his ‘Norton Critical 
Edition’ of the novel (Scranton, PA: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), although David 
Carroll correctly identifies it in his Oxford edition (Oxford: Oxford University 
Press, 1997). 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 123 

blows, clashings, motions, because by reason of their unlike forms and 
varied shapes they could not all remain thus joined together nor fall into 
mutually harmonious motions’.® It is, of course, a radically materialist 
vision of the universe, although Lucretius’s actual account of cause-and- 
effect is rather more nuanced and complex than is sometimes assumed.’ 
If Lydgate were to take fully to heart the implications of living in this 
clashing tempest of interactions he would, we can presume, be less 
complacent. There’s a leaven of humour here too, of course: describing 
this one Midlands town in the 1830s in terms of a cosmic downpour of 
clashing Lucretian atoms. But it touches on something that some critics 
of Eliot have argued persuasively: that one of her distinctive attributes 
as a writer is precisely her repudiation of linear cause and effect.'° 

To return to Eliot’s epigraphic bell: the particular phraseology in this 
short piece of verse is significant. Blow upon your flute, under the giant 
metal structure, and ‘the mass/With myriad waves concurrent shall 
respond/In low soft union’. That word—concurrent—is an important 
one for Middlemarch. It first occurs during an exchange between Bulstrode 
and Lydgate, indicative of the difference in their respective world-views. 

‘Lam aware, [Bulstrode] said, ‘that the peculiar bias of medical ability 
is towards material means. Nevertheless, Mr. Lydgate, I hope we shall 
not vary in sentiment as to a measure in which you are not likely to be 
actively concerned, but in which your sympathetic concurrence may be 
an aid to me. You recognize, I hope; the existence of spiritual interests in 
your patients?’ 

‘Certainly I do. But those words are apt to cover different meanings 
to different minds.’!! 

8 This is H. A.J. Munro’s translation, De Rerum Natura Libri Sex, 2 vols (Cambridge: 
Deighton Bell & Co., 1866), vol. 2, p. 126. The Latin is: discordia quorum/intervalla 
vias conexus pondera plagas/concursus motus turbabat proelia miscens/propter dissimilis 
formas variasque figuras,/quod non omnia sic poterant coniuncta manere [De Natura 
Rerum, 5:436-38 |. 

9 See, for instance, David Webb ‘On Causality and Law in Lucretius and Contemporary 
Cosmology’, in Contemporary Encounters with Ancient Metaphysics, ed. by Abraham 
Jacob Greenstine and Ryan J. Johnson (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 
2017), pp. 254-69. 

10 See, for instance, Sally Shuttleworth’s reading of Daniel Deronda as a novel 
demonstrating Eliot’s rejection of ‘a linear sequence of cause and effect [...] full 
authoritative knowledge, she asserts, cannot be obtained by tracing through a linear 
sequence of cause and effect’. Sally Shuttleworth, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century 
Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 
1984), p. 177. 

11. Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 13. 

124 Middlemarch 

Sympathetic concurrence, here, mediates between Bulstrode’s spiritual 
apprehension of the universe and the physical, Lucretian connections 
of Lydgate’s materialism. The word appears again at the meeting 
Bulstrode chairs to determine whether the ‘scientific’ Vicar Farebrother 
or the more conventionally religious Tyke (‘a man entirely given to his 
clerical office’) be given the lucrative position of secretary at the new 
hospital—Tyke, of course, being Bulstrode’s man: 

Lydgate was late in setting out, but Dr. Sprague, the two other surgeons, 
and several of the directors had arrived early; Mr. Bulstrode, treasurer 
and chairman, being among those who were still absent. The conversation 
seemed to imply that the issue was problematical, and that a majority 
for Tyke was not so certain as had been generally supposed. The two 
physicians, for a wonder, turned out to be unanimous, or rather, though 
of different minds, they concurred in action.” 

The Doctoris ‘more than suspected of having noreligion’ by Middlemarch 
society—though this fact is not held against him (‘it is certain that if any 
medical man had come to Middlemarch with the reputation of having 
very definite religious views, of being given to prayer, and of otherwise 
showing an active piety, there would have been a general presumption 
against his medical skill’). He and his colleagues concur in preferring 
the more scientific Farebrother. Lydgate, though it makes him wince to 
be believed to be kowtowing to Bulstrode—and although Farebrother 
is his friend—votes for Tyke. His anxieties have some grounding in 
reality. ‘Mr. Wrench and Mr. Toller’, the narrator says, ‘were just now 
standing apart and having a friendly colloquy, in which they agreed 
that Lydgate was a jackanapes, just made to serve Bulstrode’s purpose’. 
But this passage goes on to point up the mild social hypocrisy of these 
gentlemen, for ‘to non-medical friends they had already concurred in 
praising the other young practitioner’. Concurrence, once again, speaks 
not to harmonious unanimity but rather to more practically-minded 

The next use of the word is again associated with Lydgate: this time 
chapter 30’s interview between the doctor and Dorothea over Casaubon’s 
failing health. Informing her that Casaubon ‘may possibly live for fifteen 
years or more, without much worse health than he has had hitherto’, at 
which news ‘Dorothea had turned very pale, and when Lydgate paused 

12 Ibid., ch. 18. 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 125 

she said in a low voice, “You mean if we are very careful”’. Her point is 
that ‘he would be miserable if he had to give up his work’ and Lydgate’s 
reply is less lucid than it first seems: 

‘Tam aware of that. The only course is to try by all means, direct and 
indirect, to moderate and vary his occupations. With a happy concurrence 
of circumstances, there is, as I said, no immediate danger from that 
affection of the heart, which I believe to have been the cause of his late 
attack. On the other hand, it is possible that the disease may develop 
itself more rapidly: it is one of those cases in which death is sometimes 
sudden. Nothing should be neglected which might be affected by such 
an issue.’!° 

The ‘happy concurrence’ to which Lydgate here refers is a notional 
congeries of eventualities that will, somehow, protect Casaubon’s fragile 

As the story goes on, Bulstrode’s interference in the management of 
the hospital threatens to sink it (the narrator speaks of ‘the outburst of 
professional disgust at the announcement of the laws Mr. Bulstrode was 
laying down for the direction of the New Hospital, which were the more 
exasperating because there was no present possibility of interfering 
with his will and pleasure’ ),’* Lydgate gives up part of his practice to be 
able to devote more time to the project (‘I must work the harder, that’s 
all, and I have given up my post at the Infirmary’) and Bulstrode assures 
him: ‘Mr. Brooke of Tipton has already given me his concurrence, and a 
pledge to contribute yearly: he has not specified the sum—probably not 
a great one’. This concurrence is a fancy way of saying: he has agreed to 
give me some money (though not much money)—the pun on currency 
is right there—and marks a further debasement on what ‘concurrent’ 
might signify. Money also haunts the next connection of Lydgate with 
concurrence. During Rosamond’s post-miscarriage convalescence 
Lydgate finds himself ‘unable to suppress all signs of inward trouble’, and 
as her health recovers he meditates ‘taking her entirely into confidence 
on his [financial] difficulties’. There are too many tradesmen’s bills, and 
they need to retrench financially: but ‘how could such a change be made 
without Rosamond’s concurrence?’.’ By the time we get to chapter 71’s 

13 Ibid., ch. 30. 
14 Ibid., ch. 45. 
15 Ibid., ch. 58. 

126 Middlemarch 

account of Bulstrode’s downfall it is no surprise to see the same word 
utilised. Hawley addresses the meeting: 

In what Ihave to say, Mr. Chairman, Iam not speaking simply on my own 
behalf: I am speaking with the concurrence and at the express request 
of no fewer than eight of my fellow-townsmen, who are immediately 
around us. It is our united sentiment that Mr. Bulstrode should be called 
upon—and I do now call upon him—to resign public positions which he 
holds not simply as a tax-payer, but as a gentleman among gentlemen.’° 

This concurrence is a collective outflanking, and marks the end of 
Bulstrode. The other bigwigs of Middlemarch are running together, as 
a pack (the Latin concurro has the primary meaning ‘I run with others, 
I flock’, and only subsequently came to mean ‘TI concur, I coincide’: curro 
means ‘I run’). If currency is one punning association of concurrence, the 
canine or lupine curs is another. Wolves; people; money. 

It says little to note that Eliot ‘runs together’ her storylines. We could 
say the same about most writers. But Eliot has a closer eye than most 
to the way ‘running-together’ is both a kind of currency and a kind 
of influence—not a billiard ball striking another, but a more subtle 
penetration of influence from individual to individual. It is to create a 
whole world through the creation of a single flute-note, by sounding 
your finer instrument inside the canopy of the bell. Currency means 
money (hospitals don’t run without money; younger relatives’ debts 
aren't quitted without money; wives with expensive tastes aren’t 
satisfied without it). Currency also means contemporaneity (‘current 
affairs’), a more complicated relationship for this novel set pre-Darwin 
but very much written by a sensibility formed post-. And, to return 
to the beginning of this chapter, there’s a particular, quasi-musical 
concurrence chiming, or sounding, through this novel. 

Bells summon the faithful to church, and summon children to school, 
which is to say: they are instruments of congregation. In chapter 77 the 
widowed Dorothea on the pretext of attending to the donation of a bell 
to a school, calls on Lydgate—this at the time of collective suspicion 
regarding his closeness to the disgraced Bulstrode—hoping to reassure 
him. Her mind is also running on her burgeoning love for Ladislaw. This 
‘fine-toned bell’— 

16 Ibid., ch. 71. 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 127 

Dorothea had another errand in Lowick Gate: it was about a new fine- 
toned bell for the school-house, and as she had to get out of her carriage 
very near to Lydgate’s, she walked thither across the street, having told 
the coachman to wait for some packages.” 

—leads to an unexpected congregation: 

She found herself on the other side of the door without seeing anything 
remarkable, but immediately she heard a voice speaking in low tones 
which startled her as with a sense of dreaming in daylight, and advancing 
unconsciously a step or two beyond the projecting slab of a bookcase, she 
saw, in the terrible illumination of a certainty which filled up all outlines, 
something which made her pause, motionless, without self-possession 
enough to speak. 

Seated with his back towards her on a sofa which stood against 
the wall on a line with the door by which she had entered, she saw 
Will Ladislaw: close by him and turned towards him with a flushed 
tearfulness which gave a new brilliancy to her face sat Rosamond, her 
bonnet hanging back, while Will leaning towards her clasped both her 
upraised hands in his and spoke with low-toned fervour. 

‘Dorothea’, says Eliot, ‘after the first immeasurable instant of this vision’ 
retreats. She ‘walked across the street with her most elastic step and was 
quickly in her carriage again’. The shock of the encounter, the vibration 
of this suspicion, is described by Eliot in terms of a crowd, a ‘throng’ 
(‘she had seen something so far below her belief, that her emotions 
rushed back from it and made an excited throng without an object’), or 
as she later says when her sister intuits she is upset, a global population: 
in reply to Celia’s question ‘has something happened?’, Dorothea asserts 
that ‘a great many things have happened [...] all the troubles of all 
people on the face of the earth’. This abrupt erosion of lover’s faith is 
another kind of concurrence. 

That it proves a misunderstanding does nothing to defang this 
moment, a kind of second disappointment, or loss of innocence, for 
Dorothea. The failure of her marriage to Casaubon indexed her own 
naivety (for Casaubon was always exactly what he seemed to be); 
but this hints that her love for Ladislaw might have fixed itself on an 
inconstant and unworthy object. A few chapters later these feelings 
are renewed, and again Eliot connects it to the bell. At a loose end, and 
somewhat agitated, Dorothea 

17 Ibid., ch. 77. 

128 Middlemarch 

walked straight to the schoolhouse and entered into a conversation with 
the master and mistress about the new bell, giving eager attention to 
their small details and repetitions, and getting up a dramatic sense that 
her life was very busy."* 

From here to the parsonage, where Dorothea’s agitation is increased 
by the guileless Miss Noble, who has a ‘German box’, a present from 
Ladislaw, and whose ardent feelings are the subject of jolly gossip. 

‘If Henrietta Noble forms an attachment to any one, Mrs. Casaubon,’ said 
[Farebrother’s] mother, emphatically—’she is like a dog—she would 
take their shoes for a pillow and sleep the better.’ 

“Mr. Ladislaw’s shoes, I would,’ said Henrietta Noble. 

Dorothea made an attempt at smiling in return. She was surprised 
and annoyed to find that her heart was palpitating violently, and that 
it was quite useless to try after a recovery of her former animation. 
Alarmed at herself—fearing some further betrayal of a change so marked 
in its occasion, she rose and said in a low voice with undisguised anxiety, 
‘I must go; I have overtired myself.” 

That’s another function of a bell, of course: as with the tolling bell of 
Donne’s ‘no man is an island’ sermon, it recalls us to our mortality, or, 
in Dorothea’s case, the death of her hopes. That these late misdirections 
are linked by Eliot to Dorothea’s school bell is a mild irony. We could 
say: its chime is schooling her in the depth, and precarity, of her own 
feelings. Her grief after her visit to the priory rings her like a bell: ‘““Oh, 
I did love him!” Then came the hour in which the waves of suffering 
shook her too thoroughly to leave any power of thought’. Sound waves, 
emotional waves, passing out and influencing the world. 

This flute-note concurrency is illustrated by the scene that follows, 
in which Dorothea goes to Rosamond to ‘save’ her—that is, to dissuade 
her from having an affair with Ladislaw—and Rosamond, intuiting 
the direction in which her delicately circumlocutionary phraseology is 
going, steps in when the words stop coming. The moment is articulated 
in terms not only of mutual vibration, a spontaneous concurrency of 
feeling that leads to intimacy, but also of what the epigraph to chapter 
31, with which this chapter began, calls ‘a low soft unison’: 

The waves of her own sorrow, from out of which she was struggling to 
save another, rushed over Dorothea with conquering force. She stopped 

18 Ibid., ch. 80. 
19 Ibid. 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 129 

in speechless agitation, not crying, but feeling as if she were being 
inwardly grappled. Her face had become of a deathlier paleness, her 
lips trembled, and she pressed her hands helplessly on the hands that 
lay under them. Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than 
her own—hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some 
new, awful, undefined aspect—could find no words, but involuntarily 
she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and 
then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been 
in a shipwreck. ‘You are thinking what is not true,’ said Rosamond, in an 
eager half-whisper.”° 

How will you know the pitch of that great bell/Too large for us to stir? 
Breathe upon your flute, and listen close/Till the right note flows forth, 
a silvery rill: 

Then shall the huge bell tremble—then the mass 
With myriad waves concurrent shall respond 
In low soft unison. 

I have one last observation with respect to the six-and-a-half lines of 
Eliot’s bell verse. The relative eclipse of reputation of Friedrich Schiller— 
in Britain, I mean—between the nineteenth-century and the present 
day occludes the most obvious intertext for Eliot’s short ‘bell’ poem: 
Schiller’s lengthy ‘Das Lied von der Glocke’ (1798). Eliot, a dedicated 
reader of Schiller, was certainly aware of this ‘Song of the Bell’.”! Schiller 
traces the life of the bell from raw materials, through its casting to its 
transportation and hanging—this a collective activity, Tausend fleifge 
Héande regen/helfen sich in munterm Bund, ‘a thousand hands, busy in 
motion, help in cheerful union’—until the bell is finally sounded, and 
named ‘CONCORDIA’, whose chime brings all people’s together, and 
sings-out with a star-bright sound: 

20 Ibid., ch. 81. 

21 ‘As Mary Sibree, to whom she taught German, records it: ‘Placing together one day 
the works of Schiller [. . .] Miss Evans said, “Oh, if I had given these to the world, 
how happy I should be!” (Cross, p. 53). Although her reading of Schiller was at its 
most intense in the early 1840s, the ‘thrill’ she felt at the sight of his house in Weimar 
in 1854, as well as references to him as late as in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, 
show that her attraction to his work remained strong throughout her life. The impact 
of his work on her own is considerable’. Deborah Guth, ‘George Eliot and Schiller: 
Narrative Ambivalence in Middlemarch and Felix Holt’, Modern Language Review, 94.4 
(1999), 913-24 (p. ). See also Guth’s book-length study, George Eliot and Schiller: 
Intertextuality and Cross-Cultural Discourse (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2003). 

130 Middlemarch 

Soll eine Stimme sein von oben, 
Wie der Gestirne helle Schar! 

This joyous, ingenuous peroration to the ‘unison’ that Eliot’s bell also 
sounds is one of Schiller’s most famous poems. Even more famous is 
his essay Uber naive und sentimentalische Dichtung (1795-96), ‘On Naive 
and Sentimental Poetry’. And it has sometimes seemed to me that 
Eliot’s novel sets out, playfully enough but with a serious purpose 
for all that, to upend Schiller’s distinction. We could put it this way: 
Dorothea at the beginning of Middlemarch is naive, whereas at the 
end, as she realises how easily her sensibility—her genuine love for 
Ladislaw—could capsize her, she becomes sentimental. But her naivety 
is not a Schillerian unity of subject and object; it is, on the contrary, an 
intensely self-considered, self-conscious setting of herself a goal for her 
life, where her sentimentality is so spontaneous that it eventually moves 
her, and the object of her love, out of the artificiality of the fiction that is 
Middlemarch altogether. In The Book on Adler (1872), Soren Kierkegaard 
claims that ‘though it is indeed by writing that one justifies the claim to 
be an author, it is also, strangely enough, by writing that one virtually 
renounces this claim. To find the conclusion it is necessary first of all 
to observe that it is lacking, and then in turn to feel quite vividly the 
lack of it’. The coming-together of Dorothea and Ladislaw feels to some 

22 Germanoriginalavailableat,+Friedrich/ 
Theoretische+Schriften /%C3%9Cber+naive+und-+sentimentalische+Dichtung. 
James Wood prefers ‘simple’ as an Englishing of the German naive: ‘Schiller argues 
that the ancient writers, especially the Greeks, were at one with nature, combining 
thought and feeling, while the modern writer can only seek or aspire to nature, 
worshipping or elegising what he no longer possesses simply. Schiller finds in the 
Greeks “a character of calm necessity. Their impatient imagination only traverses 
nature to pass beyond it to the drama of human life.” The modern poet, by contrast, 
is always sentimental about nature, like a sick man yearning for health. Indeed, the 
sentimental poet idealises nature much as we (including, self-confessedly, Schiller) 
sentimentalise the Greeks themselves. The problem for modern literature of this 
loss of innocence is that, in contrast with the ancient simple poet, we never see “the 
object itself”: instead, the modern poet is always reflecting on the impressions he 
receives from nature, always “a spectator of his own emotion”. Schiller’s examples 
of simple poets are Homer and Shakespeare; of sentimental poets, Milton and 
Kleist’. James Wood, ‘Buckets of Empathy’, London Review of Books, 22.7 (2000), /james-wood/buckets-of-empathy 

23 Seren Kierkegaard, On Authority and Revelation: The Book on Adler, or a Cycle of Ethico- 
Religious Essays, trans. by Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 
1955), p. 65. 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 131 

readers like a conclusion as well as a consummation, but Eliot is canny 
enough to understand that it actually represents the lack—the rather 
vivid lack—of a conclusion. Or to put it another way: a hammer strike 
meeting the bell’s metal might be simple, but there is more haunting 
and spiritual unison in the flute-song, sentimental though it be, inside 
the bell’s hood. 

A bell is revealed as—if this isn’t too bizarre a way of putting it— 
an auditory mirror: our action upon it, direct or inferential, is bounced 
back resonantly to us. The chiming of bells is a preliminary, a kind of 
aural epigraph, to a church service; and a short text, an epigraph, is the 
verbal preliminary to the sermon at the heart of the service. Such items 
stand not as models of the larger, or longer, work to which they append 
themselves so much as fractal ratio minores, encapsulations that reflect, 
like the drop of ink at the end of the pen with which Eliot opens Adam 
Bede. We can see in them, and through them, and what we can see are 
the vistas Eliot’s great novel opens to us. 

It would, however, be perverse to end a study that proposes to read 
Eliot’s novel via mirrors and lenses with a bell. After all, Middlemarch is 
not lacking in deictic pointers to its own specular design. This is how 
chapter 27 opens: 

An eminent philosopher among my friends,” 

your ugly furniture by lifting it into the serene light of science, has 
shown me this pregnant little fact. Your pier-glass or extensive surface 
of polished steel made to be rubbed by a housemaid, will be minutely 
and multitudinously scratched in all directions; but place now against 
it a lighted candle as a centre of illumination, and lo! the scratches will 
seem to arrange themselves in a fine series of concentric circles round 
that little sun. It is demonstrable that the scratches are going everywhere 
impartially and it is only your candle which produces the flattering 
illusion of a concentric arrangement, its light falling with an exclusive 
optical selection. These things are a parable. The scratches are events, 
and the candle is the egoism of any person now absent—of Miss Vincy, 
for example. 

who can dignify even 

24 It is tricky to prove, but nonetheless likely, that the ‘eminent friend’ referred to 
here was scientist William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), who lectured to the Royal 
Society on mirrors and electric illumination, and was involved in a number of 
advances in arc-lights, electrical communication and other things. Eliot befriended 
Ayrton’s daughter Hertha in the early 1870s, and helped her gain a place at Girton. 

132 Middlemarch 

This ‘parable’ has been widely discussed by Eliot’s critics, although 
given how assiduously Eliot herself spells-out its meaning, elaboration 
runs the risk of being supererogatory. For J. Hillis Miller, the crucial 
thing here is the way Eliot describes her own mimetic mirror-work, as 
novelist, in parabolic terms: as the ‘parable’ lays clear the lines of sight 
that are gathered, on parabolic trajectories, by this mirror.* Barbara 
Leckie, with perhaps greater penetration into Eliot’s craft, focuses 
instead on the way her mimetic reflectivity is augmented (rather than, 
as we might think, compromised) by the ‘cross-hatching of scratches’ 
here identified: ‘the cross-hatching of scratches also signal one of the 
novel’s central organising motifs: the web. That is, the pier glass is at 
once a reflective surface and a surface that invokes a web; it represents 
the mirror not as a straightforward reflection but rather, as Leah Price 
puts it, “the mirror as a system of infinite connections”’.” It is a web, and 
a bell, and both are in some sense a mirror—the mimetic art in which a 
small, distorted thing reflects back to us the large, beautiful thing. 

The chapter with which this passage opens pre-begins with this 

Let the high Muse chant loves Olympian: 

We are but mortals, and must sing of man. 

This is Eliot’s translation of the following two lines from Theocritus: 

Movoat yev Beal Evti, Beovc Seai deiSovtu: 
diuuec Sé Bpotoi ode, Bpotovs BpoToi daeidwpeEv.”” 

A more literal rendering might go: ‘the Muses, though, are gods and 
being gods do sing of gods; we who are here (oiS¢) are mortals, and as 
mortals let us sing of mortals.’ Eliot loses something by condensing the 

25 ‘“Parable” means, etymologically, “thrown beside,” from the Greek para, beside, 
and ballein, to throw. A parable is set or thrown at some distance from the meaning 
which controls it and to which it obliquely or parabolically refers, as, in its definition, 
a parabolic curve is controlled, across a space, by its parallelism to a line on the 
cone of which it is a section [...] the parabola creates that line in the empty air, 
just as the parables of Jesus remedy a defect of vision, give sight to the blind, and 
make the invisible visible’. Joseph Hillis Miller, Reading for Our Time: Adam Bede 
and Middlemarch Revisited (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 65. 

26 Barbara Leckie, Open Houses: Poverty, the Novel, and the Architectural Idea in 
Nineteenth-Century Britain (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), 
p- 191, 

27  Theocritus, Idylls, 16:3-4. 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 133 

thrice-repeated Oeai (goddesses) and thrice-repeated Bpotds (mortal 
men) that balance it, not least the gender distinction between female 
goddesses and mortal men. 

Theocritus’s poem turns out to be about how far men have fallen 
(into love of money and other things) and yet how it remains possible 
that they can be redeemed, and open their houses to the Xapitec— 
the ‘Graces’: Aglaea (‘Shining’), Euphrosyne (‘Joy’) and Thalia 
(‘Blooming’). Grace (Xaptc¢) has an important place in Christian 
thought, of course; as do ‘parables’. And Theocritus’s poem says that 
though we are broken, scratched as in Eliot’s ‘parable’ of the mirror, 
grace can still enter in. It is hard not to wonder if Eliot, by invoking 
this gracious poem, is not inviting us to see rose-blooming Rosamond 
as Thalia, spiritually-illuminated Dorothea as Aglaea and, smaller than 
the other two in terms of the space the novel allows her, but surely just 
as important in terms of what she says about the lineaments of female 
happiness, quietly joyful Mary Garth as Euphrosyne. 

And even this, I would say, modest unpacking of a particular 
epigraph entails the lensing, or flute-resonance, that Eliot’s epigraphs 
so often do. Her choices as a translator, by de-gendering and 
de-repetitising a gendered, triply-insistent original, universalise and 
render less insistently rhetorical the underlying sentiment. Most of all, 
by translating the original triad of Muse-Graces as a single ‘Muse’, Eliot 
gestures, delicately enough, at the unifying vision she is attempting in 
her novel. 

Here, for comparison, is a roughly-contemporaneous Victorian 
translation of the opening lines of Theocritus’s sixteenth idyll: 

This is ever a care to the daughters of Jove, ever to poets, to hymn 
immortals, to hymn the glories of brave men. The Muses indeed are 
goddesses; goddesses sing of gods: but we are mortals here; let us mortals 
sing of mortals. Yet who of as many as dwell under the bright dawn, will 
open his doors, and graciously welcome in his home our Graces, and not 
send them away again unrewarded?”® 

The translator here adds a footnote, glossing Xaptte¢ as ‘i.e. his poems. 
For a similar prosopopoeia see Horace’s Epistle 1:20 where he compares 

28 ‘Idyll XVI: The Graces; Or, Hiero’, The Idylls of Theocritus, Bion and Moschus, and the 
War-songs of Tyrtaeus, trans. by Rev. J. Banks (London: George Bell and Sons, 1878), 
p. 84. 

134 Middlemarch 

his book with a damsel desiring to go forth in public’. Theocritus’s 
poem, in other words, is a poem about poetry, a self-reflexive text, not 
in a hermetically sealed or inward manner but, on the contrary, in the 
sense that poetry goes out into the world. Eliot’s novel, similarly, refracts 
its textualities dialectically between epigraph-small and chapter-, and 
novel-, large. This specular epigraphy is a line of sight that combines the 
microscopic and the telescopic, that shines upon the mirror’s scratches 
in order not to overlook or occlude them but rather to transform them 
in the brilliancy of Eliot’s imaginative reconfiguration into something as 
beautiful as true. That Middlemarch is a novel that balances the small and 
the large is hardly a new critical observation of course. Back in 1975, J. 
Hillis Miller argued that Eliot’s configures Middlemarch such that 

a fragment is examined as a ‘sample’ of the larger whole of which it is 
a part, though the whole impinges on the part as the ‘medium’ within 
which it lives, as national politics affect Middlemarch when there is a 
general election, or as the coming of the railroad upsets rural traditions. 
Eliot’s strategy of totalization is to present individual character or event 
in the context of that wider medium and to affirm universal laws of 
human behavior in terms of characters.” 

This strikes me as both an over-emphasis on ‘totalization’ as Eliot’s 
aesthetic strategy, and an over-emphasis on such in-world events as 
elections and railway development. The refractive epigraphy I am 
arguing for here as constitutive of the novel is less lineally accretive 
than Miller’s model. In Middlemarch we look through the epigraphs, 
as through a lens; and also back at the quoted text (as in a mirror), 
and both directions, one gesturing telescopically at the larger, the 
other condensing attention microscopically upon the former—and by 

29 J. Hillis Miller, ‘Optic and Semiotic in Middlemarch’, in The Worlds of Victorian 
Fiction, ed. by Jerome Buckley (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975), pp. 
125-45 (126-27). For Miller, the optical is only one of three ‘totalizing metaphors’ 
that construe the novel, and is moreover subordinated in his reading to the more 
prominent ‘textual’ metaphors (fabric, web and so on) and metaphors of ‘flow’ or 
‘stream’. He also, in passing, suggests a meta-metaphor, describing these three as 
‘a family of intertwined metaphors and motifs’ and glossing his own comment ina 
footnote: ‘what, exactly, is the nature of the resemblance which binds together the 
members of this family and makes it seem of one genetic stock? Why, if Eliot’s goal 
is to describe what is “really there,” objectively, must there be more than one model 
in order to create a total picture?’ Miller, ‘Optic and Semiotic’, p. 134. Like jesting 
Pilate he does not stay for an answer to these question. 

Postscript: The Flute inside the Bell 135 

extension, one inviting us to view the whole of this middled England 
as a vista or panorama, the other inviting us to zero-in on the minutiae 
that constitute this life-vista, as minutiae constitute all our lives. In all 
this Eliot is beautifully aware of the textuality of lived experience, not 
just in the sense that texts (like books and paintings) have a large role 
in creating and shaping us as human beings, but in the sense that life is 
a process of reading and re-reading other humans, and their situations, 
and life as such. In that, the radicalism of the epigraph is its insistence 
that such reading is always close-reading, actually; that the smallest 
of expressions or gestures may embody the largest of significances. 
The delicate sound of a flute resonates all the bell-like universe into 
contrapuntal music. 

Towards the end, Ladislaw finds that he cannot pour out his heart to 
the (now widowed) Dorothea and that he is constrained to a brevity of 
expression. This, though, is presented in the novel as no bad thing. 

That simplicity of hers, holding up an ideal for others in her believing 
conception of them, was one of the great powers of her womanhood. 
And it had from the first acted strongly on Will Ladislaw. He felt, when 
he parted from her, that the brief words by which he had tried to convey 
to her his feeling about herself and the division which her fortune made 
between them, would only profit by their brevity when Dorothea had to 
interpret them: he felt that in her mind he had found his highest estimate.” 

Brevity is the highest mode of communicating with the expansive 
simplicity of fulness—and vice versa: in a nutshell, it’s the whole novel. 

30 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 77. 


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Wright, T. R., “Middlemarch as a Religious Novel, or Life without God’, in Images 
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List of Illustrations 

Fig. 1 

Fig. 2 

Fig. 3 

Christianus Walz, Rhetores Graeci, vol. 1 (Stuttgart and Tubingen: 
J. G. Cotta, 1832), title page, 
KzTGebC5F6gC?hl=en&gbpv=1. Public domain. 

Robert Brown, A Brief Account of Microscopical Observations on 
the Particles Contained in the Pollen of Plants; and On the General 
Existence of Active Molecules in Organic and Inorganic Bodies 
([n.p.], 1828), title page, 
AAAACAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1. Public domain. 

Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot, Cours D’Histoire Moderne 
(Brussels: Louis Hauman & Co., 1835), vol. 1, title page, 
?hl=en&gbpv=1. Public domain. 





Aeschylus 96 

Arendt, Hannah 68 
Armstrong, Isabel 62-63, 137 
Austen, Jane 3, 21, 142 

Baker, William 53 

Baltazar, Lisa 86 

Balzac, Honoré de 56 

Bate, Walter Jackson 19, 21, 137 
Beale, Anthony 20, 137 

Beaty, Jerome 37 

Beaumont, Francis 107, 109 
Beer, Gillian 33, 54-55 

Bichat, Marie Francois Xavier 54-56, 137 
Blake, William 105 

Browne, Thomas 106 
Browning, Robert 68 

Brown, Robert 56-57 

Bunyan, John 106 

Burrow, Colin 21-22, 114, 137 
Burstein, Miriam 3 

Burton, Robert 106 

Cervantes, Miguel de 106 
Chaucer, Geoffrey 105 
Cicero 3-4 

Cioran, Emil 29 

Cocteau, Jean 22 
Conrad, Joseph 7, 29 

Dante 106 

Darwin, Charles 33, 55-56, 126, 137 
De Staél, Germaine 21 

Dickens, Charles 21, 113 

Disney, Walt 94 

Dodd, Valerie 25 

Donne, John 105 

Dryden, John 89 

Eagleton, Terry 95 

Einstein, Albert 45 

Eliot, Thomas Stearnes 7,27, 141 
Empson, William 6, 138 
Erskine-Hill, Howard 5 
Euripides 96 

Fleishman, Avrom 53 

Fletcher, John 107, 109 

Flint, Kate 13 

Foucault, Michel 12, 56-58, 141 
Fuller, Thomas 70, 106 

Furst, Lilian 13 

Gaston, Sean 83 

Ginsburg, Michael Peled 9 

Gissing, George 32 

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von 21, 106, 
116, 140 

Goldsmith, Oliver 106 

Guizot, Francois Pierre Guillaume 
65-67, 106, 138 

Halliday, Andrew 75 
Handley, Graham 113 
Hardy, Thomas 2 
Herodotus 23, 109-110, 139 
Hesiod 106 

Higdon, David Leon 8 
Homer 4, 48, 90, 92, 130, 139 
Horace 80, 83, 133, 139 
Horowitz, Evan 121 

Hugo, Victor 30, 106 

Jackson, Catherine 62 
James, Henry 8, 18-20, 35, 67, 72, 130, 
140, 143 


Jameson, Fredric 32, 139 
Johnson, Samuel 106 
Jones, H Stuart 32 
Joyce, James 19-20 

Kidd, Colin 85 
Kierkegaard, Soren 130 
Kitchel, Anna Theresa 13 
Kuzmic, Tatania 75 

Leckie, Barbara 132 

Leinster-Mackay, Donald 53 

Lewes, George Henry 25,31, 35-36, 53, 
96, 113, 116, 137, 140 

Lucretius 4, 122-123, 140, 143 

Macdonald, Fiona 5 
Mars-Jones, Adam 102 

Marvell, Andrew 6 

Mason, Michael York 11 
Mayhew, Henry 75 

McClintock, John 80 
McDonagh, Josephine 99 
McGann, Jerome J 122 

McKee, Patricia 72 

Miller, Joseph Hillis 134 

Milton, John 17-18, 105, 130, 141 
Milton, Paul 86 

Moring, Meg 37 

Mudge, Gilbert 113 

Miller, Karl Otfried 35-37, 86, 88, 141 
Miller, Max 86 

Musset, Alfred de 106 

Nuttall, Anthony 32, 141 

Pascal 4, 12, 25-30, 63, 106, 141 
Pascal, Blaise 63 

Pattison, Mark 32-33, 139 
Petronius 7 

Peyre, Henri 95 

Phillips, Adam 22, 114-116, 141 
Polybius 77 

Pound, Ezra 7 

Purcell, Nicholas 90 


Rebellato, Dan 12, 56-58, 141 
Richardson, Samuel 92, 95 
Ricks, Christopher 6 

Rignall, John 80 

Robespierre, Maximilien 116 
Rothfield, Lawrence 11, 63 
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques 66-67 
Runciman, David 69 

Ruskin, John 78-79, 142 

Sanders, Andrew 3 

Sand, George 21, 25-27, 30, 143 

Sappho 4, 35-37, 41-42 

Schiller, Friedrich 129 

Scott 1-5, 21, 142 

Sears, Minnie Earl 113 

Sedley, Charles 105 

Shakespeare, William 5, 13, 25, 41, 98, 
105, 130 

Shuckburgh, Evelyn 77 

Shuttleworth, Sally 11, 123 

Sophocles 95-97 

Southey, Robert 76-77 

Spenser, Edmund 105 

Stanislaw II 73 

Stevens, Wallace 121 

Strauss, David 83 

Tambling, Jeremy 57 
Theocritus 132 
Thomson, Patricia 26 
Thonemann, Peter 32 
Tolstoy, Leo 48-49, 95, 142 
Travis, Roger 86 

Turner 78 

Verne, Jules 74-75 
Virgil 2 
von Bunsen, Ernest 85 

Watt, Ian 94 

Watts, Alaric 53 

Webb, David 123 
Wettlaufer, Alexandra 26 
Williams, Raymond 50 

Index 149 

Wilson, Catherine 63 Wright, Terence 11 
Woolf, Virginia 5 

Wordsworth, William 9, 21, 105 
Wormald, Mark 62 

Ziolkowski, Theodore J 6 
Zola, Emile 12, 32, 56-57 

About the Team 

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Epigraphs and Mirrors 


Using epigraphs as a lens to open up new vistas, this study explores a wide range 
of connections. Moving freely between epigraphs and the main text, Roberts 
succeeds in throwing fresh light on the manifold ‘middleness’ of Middlemarch and 
the richness and sophistication of George Eliot’s realism. 

John Rignall 

In Middlemarch, George Eliot draws a character passionately absorbed by abstruse 
allusion and obscure epigraphs. Casaubon’s obsession is a cautionary tale, but 
Adam Roberts nonetheless sees in him an invitation to take Eliot’s use of epigraphy 
and allusion seriously, and this book is an attempt to do just that. 

Roberts considers the epigraph as a mirror that refracts the meaning of a text, 
and that thus carries important resonances for the way Eliot’s novels generate 
their meanings. In this lively and provoking study, he tracks down those allusions 
and quotations that have hitherto gone unidentified by scholars, examining their 
relationship to the text in which they sit to unfurl a broader argument about the 
novel — both this novel, and the novel form itself. 

Middlemarch: Epigraphs and Mirrors is both a study of George Eliot and a 
meditation on the textuality of fiction. It is essential reading for specialists and 
students of George Eliot, the nineteenth century novel, and intertextuality. It will 
also richly reward anyone who has ever taken pleasure in Middlemarch. 

This is the author-approved edition of this Open Access title. As with all Open 
Book publications, this entire book is available to read for free on the publisher’s 
website. Printed and digital editions, together with supplementary digital material, 
can also be found at 

Cover image: Vilhelm Hammershoi, Interior with a Mirror (1907). Cover design by Anna Gatti. 

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