By Adatto, Kiku | Commonweal, July 15, 1994 | Go to article overview
Save to active project


Adatto, Kiku, Commonweal

What do I think of Middlemarch?" Emily Dickinson wrote. "What do I think of glory?" Now that the BBC production of George Eliot's Middlemarch has concluded on public television and we turn to the book, what glory will we find there? Unfortunately, the BBC production provided few clues. Despite its rich evocation of Middlemarch society, it muted the two voices that matter most in Eliot's novel. As a consequence it missed the relevance of this great story for our times.

One of the glories of Middlemarch is that it gives us two of the strongest women's voices in all of fiction, that of the author, George Eliot, and of her heroine, Dorothea Brooke. Eliot is the poet of Dorothea's life, a life that to outward appearances has no epic meaning. Eliot reveals that some of the greatest good is done quietly and without historical acknowledgment, in the space between public and private life. It is this space that is occupied by Dorothea Brooke. In a society suffocated by convention and resistant to reform, her moral courage provides a more potent form of agency than more public lives achieve.

Middlemarch is a tale of how the pettiness and scandal of private life threaten to undo great efforts for public reform. At its moral center are three reformers: Dorothea Brooke, Dr. Tertius Lydgate, and Will Ladislaw. All are young and new to Middlemarch. Dorothea is a twenty-year-old heiress who has come to Middlemarch after the death of her parents to live with her uncle. Though she lives on a grand estate, her talent and passion is land reform. She holds no public position, but is self-taught. Most people think she should stick to being a lady, and give up her projects.

Dr. Lydgate has come to Middlemarch to reform health care. Middlemarch promises the opportunity for innovation away from the entrenched and unyielding institutions of London. Not surprisingly, the pharmacists who dispense medicine that people don't need and the doctors who offer cures that don't work resent Lydgate and wait for an opportunity to discredit him.

Will Ladislaw comes to Middlemarch to visit his elderly cousin, Rev. Edward Casaubon, a clergyman and religious scholar of independent means. After Casaubon marries Dorothea, he grows jealous of Will, and insists Will leave town. Instead, Will stays to work for political reform as a journalist and political adviser.

All three reformers are drawn together by shared ideals and mutual respect. But their fates are different because of the various ways they negotiate the pulls of public and private life.

Eliot begins Middlemarch with a "prelude," a parable by which we are to understand Dorothea's life, and through her life, the lives of many gifted women. She tells the tale of Saint Teresa of Avila, the sixteenth-century religious reformer, whose "passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life." Her soul could not be contained by the small pursuits of private life but "soared after some illimitable satisfaction."

Saint Teresa found her calling in the reform of a religious order. But Eliot reminds us that the fate of the modern-day Teresa is different. Women of distinctive promise arise in every epoch, but they are fettered by society, forced to leave the path of public action, or unacknowledged, never given a chance to exercise their agency in the world:

That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Teresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion.

Eliot describes Dorothea as a modernday Saint Teresa, brimming with moral passion, poised to change the world. The television series, by contrast, casts Dorothea as "girl interrupted," diverted by the claims of domesticity.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article



Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?