“If youth is the season of hope, it is often so only in the sense that our elders are hopeful about us; for no age is apt as youth to think its emotions, partings and resolves are the last of their kind. Each crisis seems final, simply because it is new.”
Halfway through George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” the reader is no longer surprised to encounter such a seemingly condescending – but tender and true – chastisement of youth. A Victorian masterpiece which bestrides moral judgment and human forgiveness, individual choice and social inevitability, “Middlemarch” marks the first novel in a series of Reads articles exploring what it means to love while one is young.
The past year for me has been one of meditation on tradition and love. The latter is a state so intensely focused on one person, and yet all aspects of the world supposedly independent from that person intrude and complicate the feeling. Expectations for one’s own body and ambitions for one’s lifestyle can cloud an amorous vision. And often we attend to race, gender and money, scrying how they will warp our love, preferring to ignore the role of tradition, for “tradition” is fickle, unable to be always discerned as either fulfilling or malign. Even though it is valiant to organize marches, to read theory until our wills are unequivocal, to aspire toward universal amity, it may be harder to confront ourselves, when our legs are sore and we drop the picket sign on the doormat and suddenly see the special person with his glasses off in the entryway, and ask, “Do I love you in the way we see adults love each other? Are they to be our models? If not them, who?”
I begin with a British novel written in the midst of the Victorian domestic cult (1871) and set a generation prior, a time of idealistic notions of progress. In the fictional, provincial town of Middlemarch, a slew of characters debate over English political reform in the early 1830s. To us (and to Eliot’s reformed, “enlightened” audience), it seems absurd that they would waver over whether Catholics should be allowed as representatives in Parliament or whether the property qualification for voting should be lowered. Eliot herself was “au fait” with the radical ideas of her time, writing as a woman and living with a man to whom she was not married, and yet she urges a critical eye toward how unmeditated, impatient severances with social conventions can affect our love for ourselves and others.
Although no character receives predominant attention over others, the story begins and ends with Dorothea Brooke, a wealthy 17-year-old orphan who “hates her wealth” and who loves to dedicate her fortune and time to such progressive reforms as improving housing conditions of the local poor. In other words, she is weak – through no fault of her own. She is just at the acceptable age to marry for her time period, but she seems, in the first part of the book, naïve and more sensitive to philosophical and political ideas than her own feelings. Dorothea is oblivious of a gentle, apolitical suitor of a similar background named James Chettem, who, despite his moderate views, is eager to support her philanthropic goals. Her self-hating asceticism instead inclines her to rush into a marriage with the elderly Reverend Edward Causubon, a potentially brilliant scholar of Christianity and mythology. But his mind proves to be too narrow, his will too flaccid and his heart too gelid to produce either a work of genius or a happy marriage with Dorothea. He eventually dies of poor health a few years into the glacier that is their cohabitation.
As Causubon courts Dorothea, George Eliot is careful to point out to the reader that the marriage may be a success, it may not. But Dorothea is clearly too young:
“And how should Dorothea not marry? – A girl so handsome and with such prospects? Nothing could hinder it but her love of extremes, and her insistence on regulating life according to notions which might cause a wary man to hesitate before he made her an offer, or even might lead her at last to refuse all offers.”
For Eliot, all adversities, all joys, are the product of “mights” and of causes we might not initially be aware of. Dorothea’s “love of extremes” can engender disaster either by attracting unwary men, or by precluding her from accepting a man who cannot handle her fanaticism. The novel contemplates how, especially for young people, character “is a process and an unfolding.” Dorothea exemplifies this, for at the outset she views love as “the union which … would deliver her from her girlish subjection to her own ignorance, and give her the freedom of voluntary submission to a guide who would take her along the grandest path,” and yet by the end of the novel, she cares less about elevating herself to a plane of perfection and more about spending her life in a traditional marriage supporting a different man and bearing children instead of great public deeds –Will Ladislaw, the younger cousin of Causubon, whom she grows to love through conversation, and who understands her naturally in turn.
Even though Eliot lived an unconventional life for her time, she commits Dorothea to a conventional fate, to live as a mother without a “great name on the earth.” One contemporary reviewer laments the fact that Dorothea “allow[ed] her life, which should have been consecrated to the whole of humanity, to be absorbed within the life of one other person.” She seems to have slipped from Simone de Beauvoir’s “Mystic” trope, in thrall to absolute ethics, to the “Woman in Love” trope, drowning her freedom in a man.
On the contrary, Dorothea seems to have outgrown the expectations laid out for her by her personality. In the first chapter, she and her sister look at their inherited jewelry. Dorothea takes a ring and bracelet, but not without “trying to justify her delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy.” She cannot enjoy what she organically loves, and is unhappy, compulsively “question[ing] the purity of her own feeling” by disparaging the jewelry’s spiritual worth. But, at the end of the book, she has her gem: Will. Eliot writes, “Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible … 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.”
I once strove for the same ideological purity Dorothea did. I felt the swoon of wanting change for my life and the world, and I have misinterpreted my own feelings for people based on how I judged (too quickly) I should live in pursuit of that change.
An enigma of young love: We may crave concomitance with another soul, a craving which conflicts with the fact that by graduating, by age 25, 30 or 40, we will have shifted in our politics, priorities and preferences. Eliot offers no voucher for nuptial bliss, no balm for the sting of confronting ourselves, but instead shows how surprising the gradual flow of life is, leading us past each crisis into strange eddies of peace with our fellow human beings.
Contact Scott Stevens at scotts7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.