Here's what I noted in the Prelude and first three chapters:
The grand Victorian look at a small town, people living down foolish impulses and stubborness, George Eliot's Middlemarch, begins with a prelude that has always struck me as unusual. A Victorian author living in sin begins her masterpiece writing about Saint Theresa of Avila. Whatever for?
Well, it does make sense when the saint's life is viewed through the particular lens Eliot employs. What if a person wanted to live a life she deemed worth living, carrying a torch for lofty ideals and ready to sacrifice the rewards of everyday life if it means becoming the foundation, the means by which a great goal is attained? What if all that yearning was for naught, if there was no lofty boulevard, only side streets and dead ends on the way to glory?
That's our heroine, Dorothea.
And one of the things I love most about a high Victorian author like Eliot is that she can write about the tragedy of missing one's calling in life talking about swans and ugly ducklings, and yet not be overwrought.
Then, with the advent of Chapter 1, Eliot switches from near pathos to dry wit: "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress." No danger of being overwrought when the author can take a step back and deliver an introduction like that.
The back-and-forth about the various qualities of Miss Brooke and her younger sister Celia continues to build in this detached voice whose owner sees the humor in life and who sees that Dorothea possesses it not. But just about the time it's possible to think Dorothea is a prude and a prig, Eliot switches gears again:
Yet those who approached Dorothea, though prejudiced against her ..., found that she had a charm unaccountably reconcilable with it.
Right away, Eliot adds information which shows what Dorothea might become if she approaches life the right way and the right avenue opens up before her:
Most men thought her bewitching when she was on horseback. ... she felt that she enjoyed (horse riding) in a pagan sensuous way ...Whoa! That's no Saint Theresa of Avila, is it? But wait, Eliot adds the killer:
... she ... always looked forward to renouncing it.Oh. Looks like we're not headed for a sumptuous feast of the richness of life. At least, if the table is laid, Dorothea is going to refuse it and head toward the bread and water. Instead, Eliot lets us know Dorothea has her eyes set in another direction. To marry a father figure who would teach her Hebrew would be the pinnacle, especially as she was born during the wrong era to, say, guide John Milton through blindness. So when the Rev Edward Casaubon comes to dine with the suitor she doesn't know is one -- Sir James Chettam -- we know she's going to set her cap for him. After all, Casaubon has been working for many years on some work of religious history.
Chapter 2 begins appropriately enough with a quote from Don Quixote about seeing what is and isn't there. Dorothea does a lot of the latter in the early going, while Eliot allows us to see what really is there. I cannot help but contrast what Mr. Brooke says: "The fact is, human reason may carry you a little too far" with Dorothea's wish "to reconstruct a part of the world, doubtless with a view to the highest purposes of truth". This comparison makes me realize that while Dorothea thinks she is using reason to guide her, she's really following her emotions: To matter, to live a worthwhile life. And in her circumstances and in her society, perhaps it's no wonder she can think of nothing more worthwhile than building nice cottages for the workers. She's stuck in that limousine liberal stance of wanting to help while being firmly a part of her own class and era. Sir James brings the constraints facing Dorothea into sharp focus when he notes that even the stupidest thought of a man is sound because it is from a man.
Meanwhile, Dorothea dumbly swoons over vapid comments made by savior she has appointed for herself when Casaubon remarks about her riding.
In Chapter 3, there is another passage that reminds me why I loved Middlemarch so much as a young woman; Eliot knows how to capture that moment of life:
Signs are small measureable things, but interpretations are illimitable, and in girls of sweet, ardent nature, every sign is apt to conjure up wonder, hope, belief, vast as a sky and colored by a diffused thimbleful of matter in the shape of knowledge.(By the way, in retyping these passages, I can see where Eliot has greatly influenced my use of commas and semi-colons.)
And, once again, Eliot returns us to harsher reality: "... wrongly reasoning sometimes lands poor mortals in right conclusions". Well, even without having read the novel before, it's fairly easy to guess that's not what is going to happen here.
Dorothea gushes about living a life of great earnestness in pursuit of truth and advances her scheme for the cottages. Isn't she seeing people of a lower class as less than herself, the way others of her class mayhap do? Here's where I get that feeling: "Life in cottages might be happier than ours, if they were real houses fit for human beings from whom we expect duties and affections." Why should she feel she should expect "duties and affections" from people she does not regard as her equals? She is looking down on them as if she were the same as mythical royalty: " ... it would be as if the spirit of Oberlin had passed over the parishes to make the life of poverty beautiful."