Three Novels That Should Have Ended in Boston Marriage

For the Untutored

1. Fanny Price and Mary Crawford

“Should have ended” is not quite right here. Mansfield Park is a perfect book and cannot be improved, and if Mary Crawford is less monstrous than her Grendelesque brother, that is a testament to him, not her.

But entertain the possibility for a brief moment.

Mary, after losing Edmund’s love, sees the error of her wicked ways and clasps her arms around Fanny’s knees in a plea for forgiveness and redemption. Fanny, for her part, is too heartsick at Edmund’s obdurate preference for Mary and complicity in his family’s abuse of her to want anything more to do with him; besides, the deep wells of mercy in her are touched by the repentant sinner, and she takes Mary into her arms and under her wing. Mary’s income and abandonment of expensive vice enable them to rent a cottage: retired, secluded, not too far from Mansfield, where Mary’s moral education begins. She and Fanny read together, and Fanny teaches her the names of the constellations on clear nights. Mary grows every day in appreciation of Fanny’s sterling worth, as well as in her desire to protect and emulate her. She gives Fanny a hitherto unimaginable gift: a home where she is never mocked, never trampled on, never made to feel inferior, where her tastes are consulted, her opinions sought, her fears gently allayed, where Mary’s adroitness and acumen have turned to delicacy and solicitude in the care of Fanny’s feelings.   Mary teaches Fanny how to gallop, and Fanny gives Mary a conscience. Mary teases Fanny with the teasing of security and intimacy and equal familiarity, and Fanny begins to love it more than civility.

Mary becomes good, and Fanny quietly merry.

At one point. Edmund half-heartedly attempts to renew his advances to one or both parties. He is rejected but always welcomed in the cottage.

Henry dies of syphilis, and only Mary mourns.

2. Elizabeth Bennett and Charlotte Lucas

This only works if Lizzy gets Pemberley, so we will have to make her a recently bereft widow by a terrible pond-diving accident. In the mean-time, Charlotte has numbed herself to the horrors of days and nights as Mrs. Collins, and is accustomed to praying only for the sweet release of death when she gets the note from Lizzy.

“My dearest Charlotte,

In this sudden grief I have only one consolation—that I am now able to offer you a home. Pemberley is far too large for me to wander its halls alone with any comfort or propriety; and though I cannot promise that you shall ever dine with Lady Catherine should you join me here, I trust that the remembrance of our long friendship will induce you to overlook these deficiencies.

Your affectionate,


That night, Charlotte brings up Lizzy’s proposal at the Collins family dinner table. Her husband not enthusiastic. That his wife should leave the protection of her own hearth, not to speak of her duties to husband, to parish, to her patroness—no, it was not to be borne.

“But consider, my love: Mr. Darcy was such a particularly beloved nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and if his widow condescends to call on me to condole with her in this time of affliction, I hardly know how to refuse . The greater the sacrifice of your comfort, the more your patroness must honor you for making it.”

Mrs. Collin’s bags are packed that night.

Mr. Collins soon finds he can bear the loss of his better half remarkably well, and Lizzy and Charlotte spend their days rambling about the grounds, educating Lydia’s children, and curating Pemberley’s library.

The only men regularly found on the premises are in livery.

3. Mary Garth and Dorothea Brooke

Throw Mary and Dorothea together before any of their massively inferior suitors get hold of them and you’ve got a partnership up there with Clare and Francis, Benedict and Scholastica. Dorothea would give Mary the intellectual companionship she’s never had, a relationship in which she is not the only adult, and scope for her talents unencumbered by the narrowing grind of penury and drudgery it imposes. Mary would temper Dorothea’s vision, not with fussy nay-saying, but with a grim practicality unfazed by the obstacles at which Dorothea’s sheltered delicacy quails. No one else can do this for Dorothea—not Cecilia, not Chettam, not her uncle, not Mrs. Cadwallader, not Will, not anyone who is less than her equal. The most they can do is suppress, or, in Will’s case, divert her visionary zeal. Mary would root Dorothea in the ground, and Dorothea would draw Mary up to the skies.

Will goes off to Italy to make sad pre-Raphaelitish paintings of Dorothea look-alikes. Fred learns to content himself with Mary’s stern motherly guidance. Casaubon finishes his book, or doesn’t. Mary and Dorotha found an egalitarian farming collective, several beguinages, and die within hours of each other at the ripe age of one hundred and five.

Books and Baked Goods 9

Your baked good for this week is this  Smitten Kitchen’s plum cake, for maximum convenience suggested well after all the plums have vanished from the greengrocer’s. I tried to make this cake in a toaster over, which, I was promised, worked as well as or better than what I was used to. In point of fact the oven burned the top and failed to cook the rest, so I ended up scraping the burnt crust off and cooking it for ten more minutes before serving it with ice cream as plum pudding. It was surprisingly scrumptious.

Moral of the story: when everything goes wrong, serve it as a pudding.

Chapters 60 to 69! Previous installments here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Explanation of this ghastly drawn out Bataan death march of a book club, here.

Will is finding a little more about his family, and the plot thickens.

“[Bulstrode] was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratifaction of his desires into satisfactory arrangement with those beliefs.”


Bulstrode’s sanctification of profit scheme does not hold up very well to the light. He and his constant terror of exposure are so pitable.

Arghh. Will and Dorothea talking past each other is driving me insane. Lesson learned, folks: if you think it’s one hundred percent certain that the object of your affections must grok the hints and allusions you are dropping….they probably don’t.

Why won’t Lydgate let Farebrother help him? But his pride can’t hold long with the vise of debt squeezing him. The thread of debt runs all through the novel–Fred’s debts, his reliance on the death of a patron to absolve him; Lydgate’s debts, and the degradation in which they immerse him; Caleb’s disinclination to be in Bulstrode’s “debt” by accepting his patronage; even Dorothea’s relation to Will is colored by what she feels she owes him and cannot render him.

“The poor thing saw only that the world was not to her liking, and that Lydgate was the world.”

Rosamund sees herself, and the world, not herself among selves. Her narcissism seems to totally lack a theory of mind.

The idea of letting her house to the man she rejected must be terribly painful for her, coinciding with the loss of Will Ladislaw’s attentions.

Lydgate can only go lower than his original picture of a passive adoring spouse, not higher. Still, his continued love for Rosamund, and more than that, his fervent desire that he might continue to love her, is deeply touching

“In marriage, the certainty, “She will never love me more,” is easier to bear than the fear “I shall love her no more.”

This is true, and not just for marriage, I think. What terrifies me about my sin is not that God will stop loving me, but that I will lose my ability to love God.

This is also why Rosamund is more pitiable than Lydgate.

The alienation of their marriage  is so painful to watch–and Lydgate, with his many real excellencies, could have had a marriage of so much tenderness, respect, and mutual support had he treated the character of a wife more seriously. And instead he ends up sobbing with her while their furniture is sold, a togetherness without unity or intimacy.

Re Fred stopping Lydgate’s gambling, it strikes me how much important action of the novel takes place in public space.

And, as usual, Farebrother is being a hero to Fred. What else is new?

Speaking of news, Raffles has returned, sick and delirious. Uh oh. Is it all over for Bulstrode? Will Bulstrode murder Raffles? Tune in for chapters 70-79 to find out!

I’ll end with this quote.

He had never liked the makeshifts of poverty and they had never before entered into his prospects for himself, but he was beginning now to imagine how two creatures who loved each other and had a stock of thoughts in common might laugh over their shabby furniture and their calculations how far they could afford butter and eggs.

Unrelated: IT’S MY BIRTHDAY. Consider this my birthday present to you, after the manner of hobbits.

Books and Baked Goods 8

Right now, my feelings about this project resemble Frodo’s towards the ring on one of the steeper trails up Mt. Doom.

I will finish this. I must.

And be you Gollums or Sams, you are welcome to plod up the summit with me. In place of Lembas, I offer you Smitten Kitchen’s cream scones. I made these once with yogurt, once with cream. The yogurt ones were more second breakfast, the cream version a decadent afternoon tea treat. I also added approximately an extra half to full tablespoon of butter, because why not? Substitute tiny pieces of chopped up apples, add a dash of cinnamon and nutmeg to the batter, and swap some of the sugar for maple syrup if you, like me, insist that all your baked goods from September to Christmas scream autumn in the most predictable of ways.

Chapters 50 to 59!

It seemed that where there was a baby, things were right enough, and that error, in general, was a mere lack of that central poising force.

I love the impersonal universality of this axiom.

Dorothea’s terrible shock at realizing someone she trusted had “hidden thoughts” from and about her is probably familiar to a lot of people; I think this discovery is one of the most agonizing blows to a friendship possible.

Dorothea also just seems to have awakened to Will’s erotic potential. Well, this should be interesting.

But Will is an Italian with white mice, and he might as well be in Rome. Dorothea is an uncomfortable and misplaced product of Victorian Protestant England, and Will is a disruptive, sensual, and suspect foreigner. But Will’s  rootless disruptiveness can be channeled politically into a useful engine of reform–what happens to Dorothea?

“But if you are to wait till we get a logical Bill, you must put yourself forward as a revolutionist, and then Middlemarch would not elect you, I fancy.”



“But as to one family, there’s creditor and debtor, I hope; they’re not going to reform that away; else I should vote for things staying as they are.”

Farebrother is finally getting his due! I’m so glad. He is so very lovable in these chapters. The scene wherein he pleads Fred Vincy’s case to the woman he himself loves, particularly.

The English evangelicalism of this period is fascinating, especially since we’re mostly used to think of revivals et al. as American phenomena.

I think the most realistic touch Eliot gives Bulstrode is his sincerity; he really does think he is a humble servant endowed by the Lord with a mission to prosper. But now he has Raffles jamming up the works! Secrets and scandal! Bulstrode’s apparent relation to Ladislaw reminds me of a Dickens story, where each character is intricately tangled up in another, sometimes by roots that remain subterranean for most of the novel.

“to sit like a model for Saint Catherine looking rapturously at Celia’s baby would not do for many hours in the day, and to remain in that momentous babe’s presence with persistent disregard was a course that could not have been tolerated in a childless sister.”

This sounds…familiar.

James and Celia’s worries over Dorothea being lonely are loving and innocuous, but we see the general determination to keep her docile in Mrs. Cadwallader’s warnings against “seeing visions.”

“But I see clearly a husband is the right thing to keep her in order.”

But it’s not as though Dorothea’s non-conformity is unambiguously valorized, either. Rather, much of it seems her poor-woman’s negative substitute for greatness of action and leadership.  Although now, it seems, she’s planning to build some kind of commune.

Will and Dorothea’s awkward fumbling around each other feels surprisingly possible and relatable, despite the ostensibly Victorian obstacles separating them.

The railroad is cutting its way through Lowick, the the disapproval of the workmen, who see only rich owners turning a profit from the disruption of their lives.

And Rosamund has suffered a miscarriage. It’s only mentioned in passing dialogue, given much less time and attention than any other events of these chapters. What does this mean to her? We get no peek into an interior world where loss and grief exist.

“…Mary always desired to be clear that she loved Fred best.”

This seems like the root of fidelity.

Lydgate’s belief in Rosamund’s innate submissiveness and adoring deference crumbling, he has no way of being married beyond alienation and sterility. He never saw her as one with real agendas and desires of her own, so he can’t ask her to give them up in loving mutual sacrifice. She can’t help and suffer with him in his struggles, because she was never to take an “unwomanly” interest in his work, never to be his partner in any real sense.

And she wouldn’t recognize the call to that kind of heroism; nor can she ask him to enter into her own projects. She has only learned how to gently thwart others’ plans for her. It’s a damning look at a dynamic that’s sometimes romanticized.

And then he compares her to Laure, with his “It is the way with all women.” I had almost forgotten about Laure; poor foolish Lydgate.

He also remembers Dorothea, and I’m still not sure the poor chump’s wrapped his around the fact that Dorothea’s absolute loyalty to her husband is not some natural feminine clinging but active, struggling virtue.

But now Will knows about the codicil! What will happen next? Tune in next time for the surprising adventures of me, Sir Digby Chicken Ceasar, I mean, uh….Middlemarch.


Was your Valentine’s day not all you expected? Did the man of your dreams turn out to be a two timin’ sonofa or closet Steven Crowder?  Or, even more common in these shameless modern times, did he ditch you for some broad with a thirty thousand pound dowry or fail to mention the mentally ill wife locked in his attic till you were on the point of saying “I do”?

Here, without further ado, is a breakup playlist inspired by the different* ways some of our favorite romantic heroines, broadly defined, handled heartbreak, split-ups, and rotten lovers..

Feel free, of course, to add your own.

Marianne Dashwood 

Honorable mention

Elinor Dashwood

Because, although she does not exactly tell Edward she should have changed that stupid lock, she should have made him leave his key, etc, she is a survivor if anyone is.

Honorable mention

Miss Havisham

Honorable mention

Jane Eyre, re Rochester

Honorable mention

Jane Eyre re St. John Rivers

Dido, Queen of Cathage

Honorable mention

Anne Elliot

Scarlett O’Hara

Cathy Earnshaw

Honorable mention, because I had to

Fanny Price re Henry Crawford

Ellen Olenska re Newland Archer

Ellen Olenska re Count Olenski

Tess Durbeyfield re Angel Clare


Jo March re Laurie

Maggie Tulliver re Philip, Stephen, dry land, life.

*Of course, there’s different and there’s….different

Books and Baked Goods 6

So, this time, (no really!) I have a valid excuse for failure. The excuse being, my entire family got hit with a world-historical stomach bug, and I spent the whole week feverishly making ginger tea, stroking fevered brows,  and trying to talk like Florence Nightengale.

Or at least, how I imagine she would talk, for I have not yet had the privilege of making that honored lady’s acquaintance.

See? You know it’s time when you’re talking like Casaubon.

But first, banana bread. This is the best banana bread I have ever made, and I have made a lot.  I dialed back the sugar (I used closer to half a cup), upped the spices, and added a dollop of molasses, because I like my fall quickbreads autumnally spicy, and duh, molasses makes everything better.

I also discovered an interesting variation on this recipe during one of my adventures in failure. Recently, for some reason that was probably not my fault, I forgot to add flour before putting the batter in the oven. Ten minutes later, as I was going about my business, I realized why I could not shake the nagging feeling that something was not right. I mixed in the the flour and put the bread back in the oven in a lame attempt at salvage, and when I took it out it was…a pudding. Or a bread, but an uber moist, rich, pudding-y bread that looked ugly but tasted quite delicious, especially served over ice cream. I don’t really recommend you try to replicate this freakish success, especially not by forgetting the flour or other vital ingredients, but if you’re bored it might be fun to fiddle around with baking times.

Ok, on to Middlemarch.

1. Fred! Penniless, spendthrift Fred! What will he do with himself? On the other hand, could the dashing of all his lazy hazy hopes finally spur him to steadiness and self-improvement? It remains to be seen, but I watch his career with growing interest.

On a related note, who is Joshua Rigg? Thoughts? I like the description of his frog-face. His impassability seems vaguely sinister, at least to the people of Middlemarch. This is one of the things I love about sprawling Victorian novels–new, intricately interconnected yet tangential characters are liable to pop up wherever, whenever. It’s kind of like The Silmarillion that way.

I love how important death and marriage both are to this society, specifically, in negotiating the transfer of property; we’ve seen marriage a couple of times, in Mrs. Cadwallader’s remarks and Ladislaw’s story about his parentage, but this is the first time we see death. And death is the more important of the two, I think–it  allows property to be named, allotted, shrouded in the mantle of sacred and impersonal law. Marriage creates the families that function as receptacles for property, but death itself effects its dynamic transfer. Property and death belong to each other, and both define the boundaries and obligations of human relationships, as we see with Will’s story. Is it worth noting that Dorothea and will are both orphans?

If anyone’s read The Mill on the Floss, the relationship between law, death, and property seems to be steady thread that runs through Eliot.

Ok, Lydgate and Rosamond: I thought it particularly interesting that, while Lydgate falls into a genuine if shallow passion for Rosamand, she does not do the same for him. She doesn’t seem to have any idea what that would look like–I think Eliot says that she sincerely believed that no one could be capable of loving more than she loves Lydgate. Poor stunted creature, she has no idea how to love, how to move beyond herself even in Lydgate’s flimsy fashion; she has no idea how to be anything but acted upon, and how to arrange and re-arrange the small circle of her self and accessory objects.

If she cannot be anything but acted upon, though, she is very determined to dictate how she is acted upon, and so poor stupid Lydgate .

“Lydgate relied much on the psychological difference between what for the sake of variety I will call goose and gander: especially on the innate submissiveness of the goose as beautifully corresponding to the strength of the gander.”

It is painful to watch his delusion–but after all, he never asks anything better of her. He is getting exactly what he wants, God help him.

And, last for best, Will and Dorothea. Casaubon is getting meaner and smaller by the minute, Will is very obviously falling very much in love with Dorothea, Dorothea is oblivious and unhappy and good.

There is one line about how she dresses as though she had taken a vow to always look different from other women. This is part of her problem, I think, that she has to set herself apart from other women. There is no place for Dorothea, and so the best she can do is attach herself to a man.

“I used to feel about that, even when I was a little girl; and it always seemed to me that the use I should like to make of my life would be to help some one who did great works, so that his burthen might be lighter.”

She can only envision herself as a helper or page. There is the hint of a great work of her own–Sir James speaks of her cottage plans as displaying real talent, and she seems to have a genius for sympathy and the itch for justice that hint at a vocation to reform–but neither she nor anyone else can recognize her own gifts, and so she puts her energies at the service of a parsing, precise intellectualism totally unrelated to her character, even before Casaubon’s vices enter the equation. Will Ladislaw doesn’t seem to help much here–his concern is all for her happiness, and how much that happiness depends on him. Very sweet, but not touching on the real problem.

But what do we think of the whole Will, Dorothea, Casuabon situation. Does anyone else think it makes it somehow much worse that Casaubon’s distrust of Ladislaw isn’t even motivated by sexual jealousy, but pure pride?

And all these local politics. They are making my head spin. This is a big age of reform, which is perhaps why the political dustups create such a poignant contrast to Dorothea’s seclusion at Lowick.

And I’ll leave you with this.

“I know the sort,” said Mr. Hawley; “some emissary. He’ll begin with flourishing about the Rights of Man and end with murdering a wench. That’s the style.”

Books and Baked Goods 5

In which I am the worst. Also in which we discuss Middlemarch, chapters 23-30.

Three quick recipes:

1. Key lime custard cups are simpler, smaller, quicker, and as almost as magically delicious as key lime pie in an inexplicably different way. I discovered this a few weeks ago during a disagreement with my oven. To make them, just whip up key lime filling and pour it into a glass baking dish. Bake on a high heat, around 450, for 10-20 minutes. Note that this arrangement is the product of my temperamental oven: you might have to fool around with yours a little until you find a combination that works. The filling should thicken to the consistence of custard, which you can dole into cute little cups, top with crumbled graham crackers, lime zest, and a dollop of whipped cream, chill, and serve.

2. Stuck in an non-air-conditioned apartment? Grinding end-of-summer heat making you want die or giving you global warming nightmares? Well, fear not, because I have discovered the most refreshing thing ever. Take a big tall glass of seltzer water, squeeze a lemon slice or two into it, and then get out your grater and grate in a few tablespoons of ginger root (or less, if you are not a ginger fanatic). Garnish with mint leaves or a healthy dose of gin.

3. This seems ideal for birthday parties.

Ok, on to the book. I know I said I would have the post up by yesterday, it’s just that, as I said, I am the worst, and this adjusting-to-new-job thing is really slowing me down. Who knew whether to do our Latin word of the day before or after our daily protest song would be such a fraught scheduling decision? And to top it all off, I am too brain dead to come up with anything of real interest to say.

I have nothing to say for myself. I can only offer this is atonement.



So anyway, here are my super lame and short thoughts on chapters 1-30.

1. Poor, poor, wretched selfish Casaubon.

2. Awful, awful, wretched selfish Casaubon.

I think Eliot is acutely aware of both the corrosiveness and pervasiveness of selfishness, and so you get this damning moral portrait side by side with incredibly tender pity for everyone–often in the same sentence.

3. Dorothy and Ladislaw:  can this possibly be going anywhere good? On the other hand, how long will Casaubon be with us? Speculation, anyone?

4. Oh Dorothea. It’s so painful watching her wake up.  I love her because the things that make her angry and the things she doesn’t get (like her discomfort with art when she knows so many people are shut out from it) are things that make me really angry, and things that I don’t get. I viscerally feel her emotions as I’m reading them , which is odd because in point of character I’m nothing really like her. Does this say anything about the type of character she is, or just Eliot’s skill as an author?

5. Fred! Fred Fred Fred. Why?? You and Mary seemed the one budding romance that might grow, that wasn’t doomed to tragedy, that just needed light and air and hard work to build a strong melodrama-free happiness. And now look what you’ve done.

Also, way to take the life savings of your poor, overworked love interest and the funds meant to secure the future of her little brother to pay your stupid debts, and be most worried about whether she’ll stay mad at you. How do you have the nerve to voice this concern to her? This is where Mary Garth becomes somewhat alien to me as a character. She feels a motherly pang of concern for Fred; I’d probably try to inflict maximum physical damage.  Still, I love Mary, and Caleb. Fred I suspend judgement on for now.

6. Speaking of relationships that seemed doomed to tragedy, Rosamond and Lydgate? There’s a reason they can’t meet each other’s eyes.  Rosamond wants lovely objects that marriage and an establishment provides, and the freedom to carefully curate her lifestyle it will afford. Lydgate wants the lovely object Rosamond and the carefully curated lifestyle of which a flirtation with her is part of. Their wants are the same; the only difference is that Rosamond has to marry him to achieve her goals. Also, this:

“For Rosamond never showed any unbecoming knowledge, and was always that combination of correct sentiments, music, dancing, drawing, elegant note-writing, private album for extracted verse, and perfect blond loveliness, which made the irresistible woman for the doomed man of that date.”

It always strikes me how Rosamond is such an impenetrable wall of perfection, so irreproachable and lovely, and also so deliberately vapid and suppressed. Every single physical and intellectual feature seems to have been pressed into the service of this facade.

What’s the equivalent of that today? What would that woman look like–superficially perfect, free of all substance but (and I think this is the key point) in a way that inspires admiration in those with genteel tastes?

Ok folks, that’s all I’ve got. Supply my deficiencies with what you noticed.

And here’s this.

“…his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic:  it was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.”

Books in Babylon 4

Ok everyone, here’s the surprise! Our friend from William Writes has graciously offered to do this week’s Middlemarch write-up, ostensibly because I am busy with work, but really because I am lazy and he does a much more thorough and interesting write-up than I ever could. Without further ado….

Good afternoon, everybody. I’m William Brafford. Since Clare’s busy this week with a new job, I’ve offered to do this week’s book club notes, on chapters 17-22.

But first, my dad’s apple pie recipe:

    1. Place oven rack in center position. Preheat oven to 350 °F.
    2. Remove Mrs. Smith’s Classic Apple Pie frozen pie from box. Open center hole of pie and cut 4-6 slits in top crust.
  • Leave pie in original pan and place in center of cookie sheet lined with heavy foil.
  • Bake Classic Apple Pie at 350° F for 55 to 65 minutes until crust is golden brown.
    1. Removed baked pie carefully from oven on cookie sheet with oven mitts. Never handle by edge of pie pan.
  • Serve warm in 30 minutes or cooled after 2 hours. Pies are best when just baked. Store loosely covered at room temperature for up to 3 days.

We are not really bakers in the Brafford family…


All right, on to Middlemarch. Keep in my mind that this is my first time through the book, so I’m sure I’m missing all kinds of awesome foreshadowing and introduction of themes that will be virtuosically elaborated on later in the book.

Lydgate and Farebrother


In the last few chapters, we’ve gotten Lydgate’s backstory. He’s the outsider in Middlemarch: an ambitious, reform-minded doctor who trained abroad and is looking to get his career started in Middlemarch. Camden Farebrother is the Vicar of St. Botolph’s church, and what we’ve seen of him so far is that he tends to win at gambling.

Here we see Farebrother’s home life. He’s got an amusingly strong-minded mother who’s a one-woman industrial revolution of the production of cranky declarations (e.g., “When you get me a good man made out of arguments, I will get you a good dinner with reading you the cookery-book”), and an aunt and a sister. So Farebrother is embedded in Middlemarch society in a way that Lydgate can’t be.

But after Farebrother and Lydgate retire to Farebrother’s study to bargain over an “anencephalous monster” in a glass jar (has anyone figured out what this is?), you see quickly he doesn’t much like being a rural vicar. Farebrother is an amateur natural scientist, a collector of insects and other bugs. His version of “spiritual tobacco” is research reports on entomology.

This makes me wonder about the intellectual in the provinces: would he be a Wikipedia editor today? (Also, would he be a “he” today?) One of Farebrother’s pieces of advice to Lydage is “you must learn to be bored.” This is before the university system sucked all the life of the mind into itself, so perhaps it’s possible for these characters to achieve something worthwhile. On the other hand, neither Farebrother nor Casaubon seem successful in their endeavors. I suppose Farebrother’s life is being set up as a possibility for Lydgate, should he fail in his projects and lose his ambition.

Two points of interest: Farebrother tries to set Lydgate up with Mary Garth, and Farebrother’s parish is named for St. Botolph, whose name gave us “Boston.”

Local politics


Lydgate and Farebrother become friends, but unfortunately small-town petty politics threatens the friendship. Local power-player Bulstrode is building a new hospital, and though Farebrother would normally get the chaplain’s job and the money that goes with it, Bulstrode wants the chaplain to be Tyke, whose doctrine he agrees with more. I’m not clear on the medical and religious issues here, but fortunately Eliot makes it clear that the real issue is Bulstrode’s power in the town. Lydgate understands intuitively “that Bulstrode was prime minister, and that the Tyke affair was a question of office or no office”: in other words, Lydgate has to vote Bulstrode’s way if he wants influence in the hospital.

That Lydgate chooses Tyke tells us a lot about his flavor of pride – “What he really cared for was a medium for his work, a vehicle for his ideas.” Lydgate’s motivated by intellectual passion and desire for glory, not “humanitarian” concerns. On the other hand, he’s reluctant. He feels compromised by “the hampering threadlike presence of small social conditions.” It looks like there’s no immediate harm in Lydgate’s friendship with Farebrother, though. Farebrother is an amiable guy and makes it clear to all that he’s only interested in the job because it would bring in some money.

Still, one can’t help thinking there’s a failure of friendship on both sides between Farebrother and Lydgate. I feel that Farebrother should have been madder, and Lydgate more apologetic. It’s not that you can’t go against friendship; it’s that you shouldn’t do it so lightly and pridefully.

Ladislaw and the Casaubons in Rome


Now we get back to Dorothea. I have to admit, I was a little taken aback when she and Casaubon strolled and shuffled (respectively) offstage. The first nine chapters had me thinking this was a domestic drama in the Austen mode, but the rush of new characters and relationships showed me it’s, as Clare said before, “a novel about a town and its growing pains.”

We see Dorothea again through the eyes of Will Ladislaw and his hilarious Hegelian friend Naumann, a painter. Naumann has spotted Dorothea brooding (beautifully) beside a sculpture, and waxes eloquent: Dorothea appears as “antique form animated by Christian sentiment–a sort of Christian Antigone–sensuous force controlled by spiritual passion.” This hearkens back to the beginning of the first chapter, and it’s something the other characters don’t really express. To what degree is Naumann accurate?

Ladislaw, meanwhile, develops a massive crush on Dorothea, but it seems that he moves from one reduction to another: “She was not coldly clever and indirectly satirical, but adorably simple and full of feeling.” He does his best to charm Dorothea, and in the process probably charms most readers, but she doesn’t return his affections. And I have to admit: I like this guy, but he still seems pretty frivolous to me. Also, in case the ladies are wondering I can verify that this line is still generally true: “The remote worship of a woman throned out of their reach plays a great part in men’s lives, but in most cases the worshiper longs for some queenly recognition, some approving sign by which his soul’s sovereign may cheer him without descending from her high place.”

Instead of falling in love with Ladislaw, Dorothea’s been watching her dreams collapse into the tedious reality of being married to Casaubon. They’ve had their first fight, when Casuabon loses his temper after Dorothea asks when he’s going to move on from research and start writing his text. It turns out that this is just the site of Casaubon’s doubts and anxieties, and he calmly delivers an emotionally lacerating little speech. So far, this seems human. But what comes later is more disturbing. Dorothea, full of remorse about the fight, apologizes to her husband. And instead of apologizing in return, or even being honest about his own emotional difficulties, he accepts her apology in the most passive construction imaginable, by saying, in my translation, “Shakespeare said it’s demonic to reject an apology. You don’t think I’m like that, do you?” Does this even count as accepting an apology? Anyway, it’s cold and cruel.

There’s a degree to which Casaubon reminds me of the main character of The Browning Version, which is one of my favorite movies. It’s a portrait of another cold-hearted intellectual, Andrew Crocker-Harris. Here’s a clip from the movie:

Does anyone think this is how Casaubon talks? Of course, Crocker-Harris becomes relatable only because he has to face his own failures, and it seems that Casaubon is going to be too proud to face his own, even if it means being heartless to Dorothea.

As for Dorothea herself, she seems to be cocooning for a metamorphosis as she realizes that her previous path is a dead end.

I’m lucky that my used copy of Middlemarch was previously read by a pretty smart reader. This reader starred the following passage from chapter 20, which stands as a nice meditation on the novelist’s task: “If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Books and Baked Goods 2

I know, I know, late again. And I don’t even have a good excuse. I just forgot.  I also didn’t mention how far I’d be going–to the end of chapter ten. Mea culpa. As usual, just consider it a weekend-long book club.

To make amends, here is an easy recipe that I cobbled together out of necessity a week or so back. It’s kind of a weird pie/crumble/pudding hybrid of apple tart tatin in a graham cracker crust, and I, at least, thought it was delicious.

Make a graham cracker crust, and let it chill for an hour or so. I have no idea why, but my graham cracker crusts always hold together best when I chill them. For this recipe, I would dial back the sugar you put in the crust, and throw in some cinnamon and nutmeg. Peel, core, and quarter (I am from the Edmund Campion school of baking) 6-8 apples, more or less depending on the size of the pie pan you’re filling. Combine a stick of butter and cup of sugar in a saucepan or skillet over low heat. Arrange the apple quarters in the sugar-butter mixture, convex side up, and turn the heat on high. Let everything boil away for 15-20 minutes or so, flipping midway through, or as long as you want. If you just want the apples cooked tender and sweet, simmer them for less time. If you want them really caramelized, though (and this is my strong preference), wait until the apples turn brown on each side and the butter and sugar starts thickening into dark delicious caramel. Remove from heat, and while they cool, whip yourself up a big vat of whipped cream (ok, maybe vat is a little much); while you’re whipping, why don’t you throw a little bourbon in? I mean really, why not? Also, my fanaticism for whipping the cream yourself and preference for not adding too much sugar are both completely justified for this recipe.

Put the apples in the graham cracker crust, and if the mixture has caramelized, pour over. Top with tons and tons of fresh whipped cream. Be careful to wait till the apples are completely cooled, though, or they’ll melt the cream. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I discovered. Do whatever else you need to do to make things pretty, and serve!


Ok, Middlemarch, chapters 5 to 10.

Here are some links I thought might be useful. Ok, random thoughts, here goes:

1. What is with the constant religious allusions, particularly the juxtaposition of religious traditions opposed to each other? Like when Dorothy treats Casaubon as a “Protestant pope.” I think it might have something to do with Dorothea and the sort of jumbled and conflicted state of her religiosity. She has this intense religious impulse, but no actual outside creed by which she can give it structure and direction. She can only be more religious than the people around her–sort of endlessly aspirational rather than personally rooted and growing. Which is maybe why she makes herself this little idol of out the awful awful (but seriously did you notice how every time he opened his mouth you wanted to crawl in a hole or punch him?) Casaubon. It’s kind of neat to me that Casaubon and Dorothea’s story follows in many ways the pattern of a doomed or adulterous affair, with religion replacing love and marriage replacing adultery. Powerful, transcendent human impulse loses/lacks proper object, cannot grow and give life, turns inward on itself, throws itself under train. Or, in Dorothea’s case, under creepy clergyman.  I think that’s why we constantly get references to English religious strife, and I think this mutual mirroring of personal and political is going to be a pattern.

2. Like, for instance, with these intense growing pains and bewilderment of Dorothea, and the English political energy and post-industrialized roiling Eliot keeps drawing our attention to. We’ve already seen tensions stemming from new societal arrangements: Mrs. Cadwallader’s disgust for the vulgar rich, and Brooke’s reluctance to let his nieces meet “the daughter of a manufacturer” (helloooo industry!). I think Dorothea and England are both painfully trying to form some kind of identity in the absence/irrelevance/failure of old norms, and Dorothea’s fate seems somehow caught up in Engand’s.

3. Will Ladislaw. He sketches. He pouts. Anyone else think he is just begging to be played by Leonardo DiCaprio circa 1999?

4. Speaking of sketching, if Dorothea has an actual creed it’s lower-case puritanism–which is in itself kind of endlessly aspirational. She can’t understand or relate to the pictures in Casaubon’s house–certain kinds of beauty, particularly that relating to the body, she has no access to. This is interesting , because we saw on the first page how defining bodily beauty is for women, not only in Victorian England, but in the text itself. It also sheds further light on CasauBrooke (yup, that’s now a thing.) Mrs C. reviles Dorothea for “entering a nunnery,”–but in fact she’s entering into the opposite: marriage, which is both exactly what she’s supposed to be doing as a good little woman and the only way for her to escape that role. The nunnery, hated by good puritan protestants, channels and sublimates female sexuality in a way that Dorothea’s loveless, sexless marriage cannot. Mrs. C and Dorothea are both puritans, both trapped in this cycle of restriction, futile rebellion, and punishment. The irony is so gorgeous I need to get a beer.

Also–Will Sketches, Renaissance art freaks Dorothea out. Interesting.

5. Mrs. Cadwallader–I really love her–the way she has no problem telling Brooke and Chettam what’s what on politics and their love lives, and pays zero attention to the macho Brooke falls back on to disguise how much sharper and more capable she is. I think she has a little of the “I’m the only girl cool enough to be in the boys’ club” thing going on, which may be part of the reason she likes Celia and not Dorothea? Another thing I love: in Mrs. Cadwallader’s critiques of Dorothea you see both Dorothea’s absurdities and Mrs. C’s narrowness revealed–and yet the author’s fondness and I think admiration for both characters remains undimmed, as does mine. Eliot’s genius is sympathy.

5. Nevertheless, Eliot is very, very angry. You see it in her measured, quiet, absolutely withering depiction of Dorothea’s limitations and their social enforcement–in half the words that come out of Brooke’s mouth. She never slips into spite or completely rejects any of her characters, though, and I think this is what makes her anger so powerful, so righteous.

Ok folks, that’s all from me. I’ll leave you with this quote, then feel free to take it away.

“After all, people may really have in them some vocation which is not quite plain to themselves, may they not? They may seem idle and weak because they are growing.  We should be very patient with each other, I think.”

PS- Ok if we go up to chapter 20 next week?

Books and Baked Goods 1

In which we discuss Middlemarch, Ch. 1-4.

But first, the important stuff. As in, food. Since summer is rapidly slipping away, it seemed best to capitalize on seasonal desserts while we still can. So, here is an easy key lime pie recipe.

Two things that will make it much, much better: buy key limes and juice them yourself (I find it’s easiest to cut them in half and press down on each half with a fork), and make your own whipped cream. Just beat heavy cream with sugar added to taste until it forms stiff peaks. Easy peasy, even if you do it by hand (this is what I owe any and all definition in my arms to). Also, if you make your own whipped cream, you can add all kinds of fun stuff to it, like, I don’t know, tequila?

To make the graham cracker crust, just crush a packet and a half or so of graham crackers into little crumbs (this is so. much. fun), zest a lime into half a cup of sugar and rub together with fingers, melt half a stick of butter (or however much it takes to hold your crust together) and mix it all up. Press into a pie pan. Ok, now you know what to do. The great thing about key lime pie is that the lime juice really controls the taste. If you like a tart pie, as I do, go crazy with the lime juice–I definitely used more than half a cup. Of course, if you are afraid of raw eggs, like normal people, and therefore unwilling to taste the concoction through various stages of limeyness, you should probably just stick with the recipe. Also, after the pie is cooked and chilled and topped with mounds of fresh whipped cream, zest another lime all over the top. It makes it look so purty.


Ok, on to Middlemarch. Here are my basically unconnected thoughts.

1. This book is going to be all about Dorothea, at least on some level. All the book’s energy and our emotional responses so far center on her and this intimate, loving portrait Eliot is drawing of her soul’s travails–yet Eliot also goes out of her way to draw our attention to a specific moment in a specific cultural context. In the first four chapters, she name-drops Pascal, Jeremy Taylor, William Wilberforce, and John Locke (am I missing anyone?) and alludes more than once to an uncomfortable triangulation of Puritanism, Catholicism, and comfortable middle-class Anglicanism. What gives? Notable that Dorothea herself is compared first to St. Teresa of Avila, and then to a Puritan–these are two wildly different religious traditions.

2. Dorothea. She already drives one of my friends crazy. Full disclosure, I loved her from the first page of my first reading all the way to the end, and probably will again. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t drive me crazy too.

Eliot seems very aware of her flaws–her tone alternates between fond mockery and respectful compassion, I think. In  Dorothea’s first appearance of the novel, Eliot connects her asceticism with her notions of gentry and ladyhood—Dorothea’s religious impulses are tied to class boundaries, and for all her eccentricity, her religion is part of a larger conception of self that depends on the lines her fervor transgresses. It seems to me that D’s inability to extricate herself from these boundaries is a gentle jab at her, but even more so, a pointed and serious indictment of how far the limits imposed on her bind her ardent mind.

Also, we first learn about her piquant character, her devotion and austerity through her distaste for adornment. We are introduced to the quality of her mind through the contours of her clothes–there seems no way to escape the primacy of female decorativeness–not even in the narration of it’s rejection. Something to keep an eye on.

On a side note, can I just say how much I love Celia? That willingness to forgive and be forgiven combined  with the discomfiting acuity that sees through Dorothea’s playacting–this seems very characteristic of sisters, to me, especially sisters so different.

And Dorothea does a lot of playacting; I think this dishonesty will come up more as the novel progresses. In the scene where she rejects Sir James’s gift of a lapdog, she echoes what Eliot says of her own narrow female existence two paragraphs above. She can only accurately assess her own situation and voice her own discontents when she applies them to a creature of a much lower order. Which may be somehow why she sees in Causaubon a creature of a much higher order, when everyone else can already tell he’s a complete wet fish? It is telling that she sees in him a “mirror.”

Dorothea seems to want to play the part of eromenos. She is completely cut off from any intellectual or public life–we see it with the constant dismissal of her intellect, the inanity of her expected pursuits, the fact that she can only put  her plan for the cottages into action through Sir James’ courtship–and so for her, marriage is initiation and access to the world of men. She casts herself into a stereotypically wifely and feminine submission and self-abnegation in order play a much more ambiguously gendered and typically male role. Remember that Eliot describes her as a “beautiful boy,” in the dinner party scene where she snubs Sir James (who is happy to let her dominate intellectually and practically because the terms of any erotic relationship between them cannot threaten his fundamental male privilege.)

Ok, I will stop rambling and leave you with this quote.

“Sir James had no idea that he should ever like to put down the predominance of this handsome girl, in whose cleverness he delighted.  Why not?  A man’s mind–what there is of it–has always the advantage of being masculine,–as the smallest birch-tree is of a higher kind than the most soaring palm,–and even his ignorance is of a sounder quality.  Sir James might not have originated this estimate; but a kind Providence furnishes the limpest personality with a little gunk or starch in the form of tradition.”

 Now, get to it!



Sorry I didn’t put this up sooner! Will try to get it up earlier in future. For now, just think of this as a weekend-long book club thread.

How did everyone find the length? Too long, too short, just right? I hope you now feel like literary Goldilockses. Let me know, and I will update this post with how far we’ll go next time, determined by consensus, or by me if no one chimes in.