The other night I pulled my 800 page copy of Middlemarch out of my denim hobo bag and set it down on the table where those I was hanging out with promptly marveled at its heft. I told my friends that I had recently decided to read Middlemarch once a year and was in the middle of reading it for a second time.
Why, in the midst of modern romances as varied as Something Borrowed and Twilight would a modern, skinny jean wearing, city girl like me bother to reread a book that was written almost 150 years ago? Aside from it being a classic and something I can casually bring up in conversation to demonstrate how well read I am, I am impressed by the depth of observation that George Eliot demonstrates as it relates to marriage and her plea with the reader to enter into marriage without a shadow of self-delusion.
Dorothea Brooke, a young woman of 20 years old, meets Rev. Edward Casaubon, a man many years her senior. She feels that his considerable years of knowledge will allow her to be challenged and have access to higher educational pursuits. Conversely, Mr. Casaubon sees the delight that Dorothea takes in him and feels she will be a young mind that will encourage him in his intellectual efforts. Unfortunately, upon marriage Dorothea finds that the caverns of Casaubon’s mind she imagined contain rich texts of learning actually are filled with dusty volumes that have been of little use for many years. And Mr. Casaubon finds that his young wife is willing to challenge him on his life philosophy. Instead of discussing the way this injures him, he creates an inner secret life wherein he harbors feelings and suspicions against Dorothea that she would have easily proved false if he had allowed her the opportunity to do so.
We witness a similar struggle between Rosamond Vincy and Dr. Tertius Lydgate. Rosamond unabashedly admits to herself that being Lydgate’s wife would please her due to his well established family, his handsome face, and his being a man from outside the walls of Middlemarch. When marital problems arise due to the extravagance of Rosamond’s taste and Lydgate’s attempt to please her, there is great separation between the two. In Rosamond’s eyes, Lydgate failed to provide her the quality of life that she expected and demanded. In Lydgate’s eyes, the pristine muse whom he put on a pedestal and worshipped injured him. While their marriage does not dissolve, both carry into the remainder of their marriage the understanding that their spouse is not who they thought they were.
How often does this happen today? That men and women fall in love with and then marry the photograph of the person and not the person as they truly exist. George Eliot was truly ahead of her time, encouraging her readers in 1871 to reexamine what drives us to bind our lives with another person’s. Before the book ends, we learn of a final ordained union that takes place. It is the most compelling marriage in the book and we know it only came to be because both people let go of their illusions about the other person and felt safe enough to reveal their true selves and their true desires for the marriage.
In George Eliot’s time, divorce was not as easy to acquire as it is today. The warnings she gave about self-delusion and manipulation had to be heeded as unhappiness in marriage did not necessarily mean one could dissolve the union. Today, divorce rates continue to rise and it is more crucial than ever to hear Eliot’s cry for truth and honesty in marriage. It is this plea that rings throughout every page of Middlemarch and the plea I hear even after I have read the final page and put the book back on my shelf.