Take and Read: Middlemarch

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by Anne E. Patrick


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Editor's note: "Take and Read" is a weekly blog that features a different contributor's reflections on a specific book that changed their lives. Good books, as blog co-editors Congregation of St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant and Michael Daley say, "can inspire, affirm, challenge, change, even disturb."

Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life
by George Eliot
(William Blackwood and Sons, 1871-72)

The sexist remarks of a famous literary critic led me to start reading George Eliot in June 1976, just after receiving my master's in divinity from the University of Chicago. At the time, I was casting about for a case to include in my doctoral dissertation, which would demonstrate the usefulness of H. Richard Niebuhr's "ethics of responsibility" for literary criticism of fiction.

In 1976, I had not read much Niebuhr; what preoccupied me then were things that F.R. Leavis, a Cambridge University professor, had written about Eliot, whose original name was Mary Ann Evans (1819-80). In The Great Tradition (1948), Leavis had pronounced her one of a handful of truly excellent novelists, despite some unevenness in her writing. Leavis believed that Eliot's strengths were due to her "maturity," and her weaknesses to "immaturity," evident (to him) in an alleged emotional involvement with certain of her fictional characters, which he assumed was due to her being female.

Leavis acknowledged Middlemarch (1871-72) as Eliot's masterpiece, but felt she had over-identified with its heroine, Dorothea Brooke, idealizing this young woman and her friend Will Ladislaw and largely exempting them from the irony she displayed toward other characters.

When Leavis turned to Eliot's final novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), which dealt with themes of Jewish identity, he found her guilty of even greater lapses: "The Victorian intellectual certainly has a large part in her Zionist inspirations, but that doesn't make these the less fervidly emotional ... for the relation between the Victorian intellectual and the very feminine woman ... comes very naturally and insidiously. ... Deronda ... decidedly, is a woman's creation."

What on earth does that mean? Leavis tells us yet more baldly in "George Eliot's Zionist Novel" (Commentary, 1960): "The provincial girl, of lower middle-class origin who by sheer ability established herself as a figure of the English intellectual world while still in young womanhood was a woman. She was fully a woman, with a woman's needs."

By 1976, I tended to think it more likely that Leavis himself was guilty of emotional indulgence, and to suspect that misogyny had kept him from appreciating a good deal of what was going on in Eliot's fiction. To test that hypothesis, I set out to study her works on my own.

That summer, I read Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, and then turned to Evans' essays, which were brilliant and surprisingly amusing. I also read a biography by Gordon Haight, and finally approached her early fiction, having been spared a premature exposure to Silas Marner in high school.

From this reading, there developed a deep and enduring friendship with Mary Ann Evans, who, like me, had read Thomas à Kempis' The Imitation of Christ appreciatively as a teenager, but, unlike me, had left off the pious Christianity of her childhood when she encountered critical biblical scholarship in her 20s.

I, on the other hand, had spent (most of) my 20s in a starched white coif and long black serge habit, reading what was available on convent bookshelves and syllabi for courses taken at Catholic institutions during an 11-year quest for a bachelor’s degree in English the old-fashioned, pre-sister-formation way.

After two years in my community's novitiate in Rome, N.Y., I was sent out to teach at age 19. I spent nine more years collecting credits, mainly through courses taken after school, on Saturdays, and during the summers. I followed a similar plan for acquiring a master's degree in English, taking courses at the University of Maryland on the basis of what was offered 4-6 p.m. or 7-9 p.m. or in summer sessions.

I had a reduced teaching load during my final semester there, and was able to write the interdisciplinary thesis "Eschatological Perspective in the Major Novels of Graham Greene" that helped me gain admission to the University of Chicago Divinity School's program in religion and literature in 1973, despite having only eight undergraduate credits in religion, two of them in Gregorian chant.

I had felt the calling to become a theologian ever since studying the documents of Vatican II in 1967 and hearing talks by Monika Hellwig and Bernard Cooke around the same time. In the summer of 1969, I studied German toward that goal, and later asked my community to be freed for full-time theological studies in 1973.

My strategy was to enter divinity school through the program that built on my literary training, and then take theology and ethics courses so as to emerge a theologian. In choosing Chicago over other options, I wanted to avoid something I feared, perhaps unjustly, from Catholic institutions, namely, being condescended to as a woman religious. Yet I also wanted a place where I could learn from outstanding Catholic scholars, and Bernard McGinn and David Tracy were on the Chicago faculty.

By the time I met the great critics of religion -- Nietzsche, Freud, Marx -- and contemporary atheists and agnostics, thinkers such as Paul Ricoeur had come up with ways of understanding the issues that made it possible for me to develop a "second naiveté" sort of faith. In Mary Ann Evans' day, however, the only honest option she could see was to renounce the consolations of Christianity in favor of scientific humanism.

I admired the courage and intellectual honesty she showed in making this decision as a young woman, and the open-mindedness she later displayed in coming to see value in religious traditions she did not personally espouse. I knew, of course, that her contemporaries John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold had found different ways of dealing with the Victorian crisis of faith, and I think part of Eliot's appeal to me was sensing the analogy between the issues church membership raised for her in the 1840s and those surfacing in the 1970s over sexism in Christianity.

By 1976, I understood the options for Catholics who believed in the equal dignity of both sexes to have been framed by Mary Daly, who renounced all patriarchal religions, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, who believed the Christian Gospel was at its core egalitarian, and our task was to reinterpret and reform the tradition. Four years earlier, I had published my first essays in feminist ethics: a piece in Sister Formation Bulletin calling for the inclusion of women in all Catholic ministries, and a critical investigation of "Sex-Role Stereotyping and Catholic Education."

Imagine my delight when I discovered that George Eliot had anticipated me by more than a century, portraying Dinah Morris as a highly effective preacher in Adam Bede (1859), and demonstrating the problematic effects of sexist attitudes and social arrangements in many works, including Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda!

I was captivated from the beginning of Middlemarch when Eliot introduced her main character, Dorothea Brooke, as bereft of the "coherent social faith and order" that had obtained when St. Teresa of Avila accomplished great deeds in 16th-century Spain.

Eliot regarded all her novels as "experiments in life," and in this work she sets up an experiment featuring two young persons, Tertius Lydgate, a doctor who aimed to do significant research while caring for patients, and Dorothea, an equally idealistic woman from the landed class, who felt in her late teens that the only way to accomplish important things was to marry a middle-aged pedant, Edward Casaubon, and help him publish his "Key to All Mythologies."

In the end, Lydgate leaves Middlemarch thoroughly discouraged by difficulties experienced there, and blames his misfortunes on his self-centered wife, Rosamond Vincy. Dorothea's first husband dies before she has to deal with his outdated project, and she ends up content to do good in the world as the wife of Will Ladislaw, "an ardent public man" who worked on reforms through Parliament.

Although Dorothea's influence was not "historic," she is judged a moral success, whereas Lydgate, who showed such promise in his youth, dies embittered and unhappy. Dorothea also suffered, but she came to recognize the unity of all life and her part in it, and she was able to surmount experiences that led to feelings of grief and despair. Lydgate, however, never stopped seeing himself as the alienated victim of the otherness around him, especially the female otherness he chose to marry.

By the time I finished reading Middlemarch, I had no doubt that the esteemed critic F.R. Leavis had missed one of the most important ethical insights George Eliot derived from this "experiment in life," namely, the harm done to women and men by the sexist attitudes and social arrangements that characterized Middlemarch. The novel also demonstrated other concepts that became important to me, including the social dimensions of conscience, but it was Eliot's critique of gender stereotyping that made the greatest impact on me initially. Finding so much evidence against the sexism of a very influential literary critic in 1976 gave me confidence in my own judgment and increased my sense of the importance of bringing a feminist perspective to Catholic theology and ethics.

[Sr. Anne E. Patrick is William H. Laird Professor of Religion and the Liberal Arts, emerita, at Carleton College, Northfield, Minn. She is a member of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.]

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