By Krista Danielson (MA ’20), Department of English, Kansas State University.
It’s 1829 in the town of Middlemarch, England. Dorothea Brooke, the female protagonist in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871), is seeking a husband. A 19-year-old woman, Dorothea is beautiful, extremely religious, and hungry for knowledge.
Who will Dorothea choose?
Bachelor #1—Sir James Chettam, the handsome, easy-going, 20-something year-old boy next door? He’s looking for a wife who he can engage with as a partner. An excellent horse-rider, he hopes to go on long excursions, even on Sunday afternoons—if that’s agreeable with his wife. Unless they’re in bed. Or building cottages for the village poor.
Bachelor #2—the Reverend Edward Casaubon, the village killjoy? This reclusive older man (45+ years of age) is known for his serious study of religious history, dry personality, and scrawny legs. Exacting to the point of exhaustion, this bachelor requires a good-looking female with high intellect and extreme moral purity to inject life into his declining years.
You guessed it: Dorothea went with Bachelor #2.
If only Dorothea had access to the Internet! She could have googled WebMD and read up on signs of a toxic marriage.
According to Joanna Broder at WebMD, a bad marriage can increase stress, bring about heart disease, and worsen one’s overall physical and psychological health. What kind of situation are Dorothea and Casaubon in?
Stress. Marriage and family therapist Sharon Rivkin says that marital stress can impact a person’s health. If a person’s daily reality is “full of stress, fighting, or the silent treatment… ‘you are compromising your health every day.’” (WebMD)
On their honeymoon, Dorothea and Casaubon spend more time apart then together. He goes to the library to work on his manuscripts, and she tours museums alone. After their very first conversation before their engagement, they don’t talk much, and when they do, their conversations are stilted and uneasy. Rational? Yes. Comfortable? No.
A lack of affection. Without appreciation and affection, a person “starts to feel lonely, unappreciated, and neglected,” according to Rivkin. Little things—a gift, saying hello, a romantic dinner—go a long way towards sustaining a positive relationship.
It’s week five of their honeymoon, and Dorothea is “sobbing bitterly…as a woman habitually controlled with pride…will sometimes allow herself to do when she is alone. And Mr. Casaubon was certain to remain away for some time at the Vatican” (Eliot 184).
Alarm bells clanging here! Why are they spending their honeymoon—in glorious ROME—apart? There is no mention of hand-holding, flirting, playful squeezes by the Trevi fountain in the afternoon sunlight. No joyful lunches. No joy, period.
Dorothea doesn’t tell Casaubon that she wants to spend more time with him—she thinks that the way to show emotional support is to let him write his book in the Vatican’s caverns. And he assumes that she’s fine with the arrangement, so long as she doesn’t ask too many questions about the manuscript’s progress….
Cameo bracelets and necklaces were popular during the Victorian era, and visitors to Italy would often bring them home as souvenirs. Yet, Casaubon doesn’t accompany Dorothea on a shopping trip to buy some cameos for Celia. Dorothea chooses the jewelry herself, and shows the cameos to Will Ladislaw…more on him later.
(No mention of a charming souvenir for either Casaubon or Dorothea….perhaps their honeymoon is best forgotten?)
Failure to Really Listen and a Lack of Empathy. Rivkin says that if a partner doesn’t feel truly heard, they won’t open up with their feelings. This leads to a lack of intimacy and deep communication.
Back in Middlemarch, Dorothea and Casaubon stop listening to each other. Dorothea can’t hear that Casaubon feels threatened by Will Ladislaw. She keeps bringing him into conversation and inviting him to the house. Casaubon can’t hear how lonely Dorothea feels, bristles at her reaching out for companionship, and is incapable of apologizing for hurting her feelings. Neither can empathize with the other, for each is too preoccupied with their own disappointments.
And, why does Casaubon “always [said] ‘my love’ when his manner was the coldest” (Eliot 215).
Repressed Feelings and Blaming Your Partner.Rivkin says “unhappily married people often blame their partner instead of taking responsibility for their own actions” (WebMD). Rivkin advises that each partner should try to figure out the core issues that are causing the conflict, and then they can take steps to resolve those deeper issues.
After their quarrel in Rome, Dorothea apologizes to Casaubon because she wants them to be in right relationship. However, he can’t accept her apology, and blames her for his reluctance to write his book. But is it entirely his fault….not exactly.
Did either Dorothea or Casaubon marry for the right reasons? Well…the evidence leans towards negative.
Dorothea wanted knowledge, not romance or partnership. Going to university didn’t cross her mind (not that she could go—women weren’t permitted to study during the Victorian era), and she can’t articulate what exactly she wants to learn; she only knows that she wants to live a moral, reverent knowledge-based life à la St. Theresa. Casaubon seemed like the means to that end…religious scholar, lots of books in his house, no flicker of sexual attraction to detract from an intellectual journey.
Casaubon also has his inner conflicts and troubles. Now that he’s married, he feels a “new pain” when he realizes that his pretty bride requires attention. He’s shocked to realize that she is capable to emotionally hurting him (Eliot 193). He married her because he doesn’t want to be alone in his dying years, and he never thought he’d meet someone who could charm him (Eliot 41).
Neither Dorothea nor Casaubon see the other as a whole person, an individual complete with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires. Rather, they see each other as an extension of themselves—a means to an end.
Celia warned Dorothea that Casaubon wasn’t a good match. Their uncle tried to persuade Dorothea to consider Sir James. The whole village wrung its hands, shuddering at this ill-fated scenario. Yet Dorothea wanted knowledge, saw Casaubon as the Path to Truth, and chose this marriage.
And, just when we think that the relationship can’t be more strained than it is, enter…
Bachelor #3—Will Ladislaw, the sensitive artist. The nephew, er, cousin of Casaubon, this thoughtful young man is painting in Rome when he and Dorothea reconnect in the sunlight. Known for his warm personality and poignant conversations, he plans to return to England, where he hopes to spend more time with Dorothea….
Oh boy. Time to book some family therapy sessions on Rivkin’s couch.
“20 Bizarre Pieces Of Marriage Advice That Victorian-Era Women Were Compelled To Follow.” Absolute History, http://absolutehistory.com/anthropology-and-history/history/bizarre-marriage-advice-victorian-women-compelled-follow/
Eliot, George. Middlemarch, Penguin, 2003.
“Is Your Marriage Toxic?” WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/sex-relationships/features/unhealthy-marriage-signs-and-finding-help#2
“Story of Cameos.” The Cameo Collection, https://www.thecameocollection.com/story-of-cameos/