Article excerpt

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. …