Maria and the Bellasis Family 12
I have been looking forward to my next visit to see Florence, but she has been busy herself. With her improvement in health, she has made trips to Derbyshire and also to stay with her sister and family. But finally the day arrived.
Things were different this time. Instead of seeing Florence in her bedroom, I was invited into the parlour, where she was seated on a comfortable divan, playing with many of her cats.
The room seemed very bright, and it took me awhile to realize that there were no curtains at the windows, and with white painted walls, the room was very illuminated. She offered me a seat and asked me about how I had spent the last few months. I was embarrassed at how dull it all seemed compared to her life.
With the formalities over, she asked me if I had managed to read Middlemarch, as she had hoped I would. I told her I went out and bought the book and many others months ago and had been feasting on them ever since.
“I really want to know how you thought George Elliot handled her main character. Some people have commented that they feel she was somewhat based on me, as a strong woman with a message to tell to the world about sanitation and hospital design.” she said.
“Yes, I can see how people would interpret that George Eliot’s character for Dorothea was influenced by what you have done and your messages. But I didn’t think she was all that much like you, although I admit I hardly know you.”
“She and I had many conversations about health care, and she gave me some suggestions, which I was first not willing to accept. But then she showed me her research and it seemed convincing, so I found myself adding another chapter to my nursing manual about how to avoid catching certain disases.”
“Did you feel that Dorothea was a good character, as you say she probably was party based on you?”
“Why would she made Dorothea marry? It was clearly a disaster. Someone with her desire to serve will always be undermined if they marry. Women on their own have a hard time getting anyone to listen, but a married woman has the extra problem of her husband who basically owns all she does and thinks.”
“Well, I suppose that getting married seemed the traditional route for Dorothea. And she wasn’t the only one who married disasterously. So did Terius Lydgate."
“Although she is portrayed as an earnest intelligent woman she makes a serious error in judgment when she chooses to marry Edward Casubon a pompous scholar many years her senior.”
“She thought she could become actively involved in his work, but he only wanted her to serve as a secretary.”
“He is very controlling, isn’t he?”
“Show me a man who is not. Didn’t your father and don’t your brothers make the decisions about what their wives do and don’t do?”
“I think my mother was strong too, and she had to abide by his wishes because the alternative was worse. She chose not to go to Hong Kong at first, and was made to live with her in-laws, which she hated. So when she got the choice a second time, she felt Hong Kong was the better of two unpleasant options.”
“Did you feel you had to go to Hong Kong?”
“I was torn, certainly as I had an interesting job helping run the Ragged Schools in Exeter. And I didn’t enjoy the life in Hong Kong, but being a single unmarried woman, I wasn’t ready financially or emotionally to depend on myself alone.”
“But you chose not to marry, I presume.”
“I was never asked. But of course for a long time I had an urge to be a nun, and then when that turned out to be a disaster, I lost much of the little self confidence that I had.”
“Personally I think you make a mistake hiding yourself away in a convent, but if that is your choice, who am I to criticise.”
“Let’s get back to discussing the story,” I said, not wanting to half to defend my current choice of life, which I find very satisfactory.
“Do you agree that Middlemarch is one of the best books of literature yet produced?” she asked.
“I enjoyed reading it certainly, but I think Jane Eyre would be my choice.”
“She was a very odd woman, Charlotte Bronte. I didn’t know her personally although we corresponded for awhile. But my friend Elizabeth Gaskell knew her well, and of course was asked by her father to write her biography when she died. When Eliabeth arranged for Charles Dickens to meet Charlotte , she hid behind the velvet curtains, too timid to even say hello.”
“But you must admit she writes beautifully.”
“That romantic clap trap is not my idea of reality. More fool her if she ties herself to a blind philanderer.”
“She loved him, and I think women who truly love are prepared to overlook weaknesses in their partners. My mother put up with an awful lot from my father’s foolish decision making over the years, but she was always there for him when he needed her.”
“Going back to Middlemarch, Dorothea was a bit of a philanderer herself, with falling in love with Will Laislaw, and wishing to support him after his heart attack. But of course Casuabon becomes jealous of him, and fears that after he dies she will take up with him.”
“In fact in making her promise to follow his wishes even after his death puts him in a very controlling situation, and she intends to agrees with him to keep the peace, but of course he dies before she tells him that.”
“And then the will contains a provision that if she marries him, she will be disinherited. And fearing scandal they stay apart for awhile but eventually marry and she is content.”
“Of course the secondary plot involves Lydgate, the progressive young doctor who is passionate about medicine, especially his research. Soon after arriving in Middlemarch, he becomes involved with and later marries Rosam on Vincy, whom he finds to be “polished, refined, and docile,” all qualities he wants in a wife.”
“Typical male attitude.”
“For her part, Rosamond believes that marriage to Lydgate, who she does not realize is poor, will improve her social standing.. Lydgate comes to realize that he has made a mistake in choosing Rosamond. She is shallow and uninterested in his work, and her expensive lifestyle forces him to the brink of financial ruin. He seeks a loan from Nicholas Bulstrode, a widely disliked banker, but is refused.
“Bulstrode is not without his own problems. He is being blackmailed by John Raffles, who knows about Bulstrode’s unsavoury past. When Raffles becomes ill, Bulstrode tends to him and sends for Lydgate. During one of the doctor’s visits, Bulstrode offers to lend Lydgate the money he had previously refused, and Lydgate accepts. Bulstrode subsequently disregards Lydgate’s medical instructions, causing Raffles to die. When the true story about Bulstrode and Raffles comes to light, questions arise over Lydgate’s possible involvement in the latter’s death. One of the few people who believes his innocence is Dorothea, and he is taken by her compassion and kindness. Lydgate and Rosamond are ultimately forced to leave Middlemarch, and they move to London, where Lydgate becomes wealthy but considers himself a failure. He ultimately dies at age 50.”
“People like a happy ending, and this book does not have one,” I said.
“That is one of the best parts of the book for me. She broke with convention by refusing to end the work with the inevitable happy ending, as women writers of romance fiction are expected to do. Instead, she detailed the realities of marriage.”
“Not all marriages end in disasters. My brothers all seem happily married.”
“Seem is the operative word. One wonders what their wives really think of it all.”
Our time being up, I asked her if she would like to discuss another of the books on our next occasion, but I got the impression that I hadn’t done what she was hoping I would do - reinforce her own ideas about the failings of Middlemarch.
“We shall see,” she said, and with that I made my way home.