3. Lydgate Winces: Character and Realism

© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0249.03

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.1

Why does he wince? In this specific case, it is because he has a say 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 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:

‘I 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.’2

This is the pamphlet he’s talking about.

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.google.co.uk/books/edition/A_Brief_Account_of_Microscopical_Observa/bz8-AAAAcAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1. Public domain.

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’.3 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 1904.4

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 Provençale, 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:

‘I will tell you something,’ she said, in her cooing way, keeping her arms folded. ‘My foot really slipped.’
‘I know, 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.
‘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?’
‘I 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.’5

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.

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 a very 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’6—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 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!

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.7 To describe ‘melodrama’ as histrionic dallies, perhaps, with tautology, since a drama performed upon the stage is necessarily that; and it is a 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 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 I—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.’8

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

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.9

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 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 passionate and the beautifully proper in favour of his scientific endeavours.

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).10 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. More 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 François 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.11

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 for the persistent scientific allusions in her works’.12 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?13

‘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”.’14 A contrary argument would repudiate such 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.)15

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, invisible:

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.16

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.17 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’.19 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, 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 I am 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 allure:

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.20

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 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.

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

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.22

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 in a more compromised 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 put in 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’;23 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 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.24 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.25

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 lenses.

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 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.26

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’.27 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.

1 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 18.

2 Ibid., ch. 17.

3 M. 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.

5 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 15.

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

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.

8 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 42.

9 I do not claim 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]; ‘I’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]; ‘[…] I should 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] ‘I 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].

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, https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511691706; 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.

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.

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.’

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

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’.

20 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 16.

21 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 58.

23 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 31.

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.org/10.1086/681036

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://doi.org/10.2307/2933926

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’.

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