The Gulf Between Aspiration and Accomplishment: Rebecca Mead on Saint Theresa and Middlemarch

“Middlemarch—both the novel and the fictional town for which it is named—is limited by the constraints of ordinary life.”

Among the most enduring of 19th-century novels there are a handful with opening sentences that have achieved proverbial status. Consider Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” or Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These are lines as memorable and as often-reached-for as a Shakespearean verse. Brough the conjunction of irony and verity, each opening sentence aspires to universality and conveys to readers that they are in safe authorial hands.

It would be hard, however, for even the most devoted aficionado of George Eliot to argue that the opening sentence of Middlemarch should be numbered among the greats in terms of memorability, effectiveness, or enticement. The novel opens with a Prelude—not so much an introduction to the novel’s characters or context as an announcement of its themes. It begins with a rhetorical question: “Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand in hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?” Modern-day readers, invited at the outset of what is a dauntingly long book to reflect upon their familiarity with the life of a 16th-century Spanish saint, might be forgiven for meekly responding, “Er, me?”

George Eliot—who was born Mary Ann Evans in 1819, and who adopted her masculine pen name in 1857 when she published her first work of fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life—was herself very familiar with the life of Saint Theresa, a Spanish noblewoman of passionate religious conviction who first joined a religious order when she was twenty years old, and who, over the subsequent almost half-century, became an influential theologian, mystic, and religious reformer. The opening sentence of Middlemarch refers to an incident in which the young Theresa and a sibling, seized with precocious religious conviction, set off from Ávila with the intention of being gloriously executed for their faith by non-Christians, only to be thwarted by family members who stopped them in their outing.

It is described in Saint Theresa’s autobiography, which Eliot would doubtless have read multiple times and in different languages: in 1867, three years before Middlemarch was published, she sought out a Spanish-language copy while on a trip through Spain, and seems to have been mildly irked when, in a bookshop, an effort was made to sell her a photograph instead. Eliot might have expected that her contemporary readers would be at least somewhat familiar with the Life of the saint—which is, modern-day readers may be surprised to discover if they look at it, approachable and even winningly ironical in its depiction of its narrator’s early religious ardor. “As soon as I saw it was impossible to go to any place where people would put me to death for the sake of God, my brother and I set about becoming hermits,” Saint Theresa writes of the abortive effort at martyrdom cited by Eliot. “We contrived, as well as we could, to build hermitages, by piling up small stones one on the other, which fell down immediately; and so it came to pass that we found no means of accomplishing our wish.”

Eliot’s opening sentence is ironical, too, though a reader who is new to her voice may not immediately discern the irony amidst the more off-putting elements of Eliot’s prose, such as the alarming capitalization of “Time” and the invoking of an obscure-ish saint. Middlemarch has acquired such a forbidding reputation of literary gravitas that a reader embarking upon it for the fist time may not be primed to expect humor, but it is there from the start, if in subtle form. The novel’s opening sentence suggests that the author is taking no less an object for her novelistic consideration than “the history of man” and the “experiments of Time”—even though, as the reader has been informed by the novel’s subtitle, these large themes are to be explored within the narrow framework of “A Study of Provincial Life.” Like Saint Theresa herself, the novel has epic ambition.

But, also like the young Theresa, Middlemarch—both the novel and the fictional town for which it is named—is limited by the constraints of ordinary life. The novel’s first sentence may not be pithy; it may even be clunky. But with it, Eliot establishes what is to be her theme, developed with complexity throughout the novel: What happens when grand aspiration dwindles into lesser accomplishment?

Grand aspirations are everywhere in Middlemarch, not least nurtured within the breast of Dorothea Brooke, the nineteen-year-old heroine to whom the reader is introduced as soon as the generalities of the Prelude give way to the specifics of the narrative. (“Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress,” the fist chapter of Book One of Middlemarch begins—a much more inviting way to start a story.) Dorothea, we can safely assume, has read the autobiography of Saint Theresa.

With the first sentence, Eliot establishes what is to be her theme, developed with complexity throughout the novel: What happens when grand aspiration dwindles into lesser accomplishment?

When we are first introduced to her, it is through the eyes of more conventional Middlemarch dwellers, whose regard for the as-yet-unmarried Dorothea’s high birth and good manners is qualified by the disquieting sense that she also has some unfortunate habits, such as kneeling down on a brick floor to pray by the side of a sick laborer or having “strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books!” Even Dorothea’s most fond allies, her family, are skeptical of her predilection for self-denial. “She likes giving up,” remarks Dorothea’s more down-to-earth sister, Celia, with comic generalization. And the ironical voice of the novel’s narrator has fun with Dorothea’s high-minded religiosity, noting, apropos of Dorothea’s fondness for horseback riding, that “she felt that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it.”

Dorothea’s inclination is not to withdraw to a cloister for a life of private devotion, however. Today we might recognize her motivations to be not so much religious as social and ethical: She wants to do good in the world, which in her case is provincial England around 1830. Dorothea wishes to reform the lives of the tenant farmers on her uncle’s property not by improving their souls for the hereafter, but by building them new and better cottages for the here and now. Early in the novel Dorothea marries a clergyman, Edward Casaubon, but her attraction to him is not due to any exemplary faith on his part, but rather because she believes—mistakenly, it turns out—that he has a great mind, and that by participating in a minor way in his intellectual project, she might contribute to the greater good of the world.

About halfway through Middlemarch—after considerable marital disappointment, among other developments—Dorothea gives an account of the form of religious belief that she has come to hold, which is personal rather than canonical: “Bat by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil—widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.”

To depict Dorothea’s youthful piety, George Eliot drew on her own. Eliot grew up in far humbler circumstances than did her heroine: as the daughter of a land agent on a country estate in Warwickshire, she might have anticipated a career as a farmer’s wife, not as the editor, critic, novelist, and poet that she became. Enormously gifted intellectually, she attended school until the age of sixteen, and thereafter continued her studies with tutors while also keeping house for her widowed father. In her teens, she turned her capacious mind to questions of theology, and, like her heroine in Middlemarch, went through a period of devout observance and even ostentatious denial. She disapproved of singing, other than of hymns, and renounced the reading of fiction as a frivolous distraction. “I am ready to sit down and weep at the impossibility of my understanding or barely knowing even a fraction of the sum of objects that present themselves for our contemplation in books and in life,” she wrote to a friend in 1839, when she was the age of Dorothea at the outset of Middlemarch. “Have I then any time to spend on things that never existed?”

By the time Eliot became the author of Middlemarch, thirty years on from writing that letter, she had long been what we would now call agnostic, having undergone a crisis of faith in her twenties and come to the conclusion that the tenets of the church could not stand up to intellectual scrutiny. But Eliot maintained her own adherence to the credo expressed by Dorothea in Middlemarch: that individual acts of goodwill, however small, contributed to the widening of the skirts of light, and the narrowing of the struggle with darkness. Eliot characterized herself as a “meliorist,” a word that she believed was of her own coinage, deriving from the Latin word melior, which means “better.”

Meliorism might best be understood as a belief that the world is gradually improving, or can gradually be improved, through individual, incremental actions in the direction of good. Eliot had come to believe, contrary to her youthful skepticism about the utility of fiction, that the depiction of “things that never existed”—the writing of novels—might itself be a way of making the world better. “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures,” she once explained.

By this measure, even the mere activity of reading a novel can be a way of bettering the world, if in doing so the reader expands their capacity for sympathizing with the choices and predicaments of characters whose circumstances may be profoundly different from their own, but whose moral and ethical dilemmas are completely recognizable. The social world of Dorothea Brooke, a daughter of the English landed gentry in the early 19th century, may be unfamiliar to a modern-day reader of Middlemarch; in many ways the conventions of her life, and the expectations that attend her, are as peculiar and obsolete as the practice of riding sidesaddle, the activity that Dorothea so looked forward to renouncing.

On the other hand, the larger world of the town of Middlemarch—which, Eliot shows her readers, is experiencing political upheaval in the form of the Reform Act that extended the franchise beyond the upper classes, and which is bracing itself for the possible spread to its precincts of the global cholera pandemic that occurred in the 1820s and 1830s—has more in common with our own time than we might at first imagine.

Meanwhile, Eliot’s rendering of her characters’ consciousnesses as they come to terms with the disjunction between aspiration and accomplishment needs no explanatory footnote. “For a long while she had been oppressed by the indefiniteness which hung in her mind, like a thick summer haze, over all her desire to make her life greatly effective,” Eliot writes of Dorothea near the outset of the novel. “What could she do, what ought she to do?” This is a state of mind that a young reader of today will likely recognize, just as Saint Theresa would have done five hundred years ago.

If readers can be forgiven for grumbling at the first sentence of Middlemarch, the novel’s last sentence is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest ever written. No spoilers—it won’t be quoted here. A first-time reader will have to arrive at it in their own time—after weeks or even months spent in the company of George Eliot and the struggling, erring human creatures who inhabit the fictional town of Middlemarch. Suffice it to say that that the sentence returns to the theme established at the novel’s beginning—the question of what counts as accomplishment for that large majority of individuals who may not have the capacity or the context to achieve the spiritual grandeur attained by the remarkable female saint with whom the book opens. What might the rest of us aspire to? Now read on, reach the ultimate sentence, and see the light widen.

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Excerpted from the Restless Classics edition of Middlemarch by George Eliot. Published by Restless Books. Introduction copyright © 2021 by Rebecca Mead. All rights reserved.

Rebecca Mead
Rebecca Mead
Rebecca Mead has been a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine since 1997. She is the author, most recently, of My Life in Middlemarch (Crown, 2014).





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