Bookish Talks, Classics

Middlemarch: Why Did Dorothea Marry Casaubon?

George Eliot’s Middlemarch starts in the Jane Austen style. A young girl, Dorothea, beautiful and naive, doesn’t even realize when she is being courted. However, she sets eyes on another man herself. Both men are rich, one is definitely also young and handsome, one – not so much, but that makes him definitely intelligent, right? Who will she choose?

Well, Dorothea is special:

A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick laborer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles—who had strange whims of fasting like a Papist, and of sitting up at night to read old theological books! Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

She was regarded as an heiress; for not only had the sisters seven hundred a-year each from their parents, but if Dorothea married and had a son, that son would inherit Mr. Brooke’s estate, presumably worth about three thousand a-year—a rental which seemed wealth to provincial families.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensees and of Jeremy Taylor by heart. She was enamored of intensity and greatness, and rash in embracing whatever seemed to her to have those aspects; likely to seek martyrdom, to make retractions, and then to incur martyrdom after all in a quarter where she had not sought it.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Dorothea, with all her eagerness to know the truths of life, retained very childlike ideas about marriage.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

And if you think…”No, this doesn’t sound so weird. She is just your average ingenue of the time.” Well, what she herself says about marriage is:

The really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew, if you wished it.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Weird, right? Who thinks this way? Well.. Dorothea Brooks does.

So…you may guess who she’ll choose for a husband – the “dashing” reverend Edward Casaubon:

If it wasn’t clear, the above is a portrait of John Locke, any 19 year-old woman’s dreamy future husband/father. But, while Dorothea’s dreams involve learning Hebrew on a whim, Casaubon’s dreams are even more practical:

I have little leisure for such literature just now. I have been using up my eyesight on old characters lately; the fact is, I want a reader for my evenings; but I am fastidious in voices, and I cannot endure listening to an imperfect reader.
It is a misfortune, in some senses: I feed too much on the inward sources; I live too much with the dead. My mind is something like the ghost of an ancient, wandering about the world and trying mentally to construct it as it used to be, in spite of ruin and confusing changes.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

He himself is very rich and

noted in the county as a man of profound learning, understood for many years to be engaged on a great work concerning religious history.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Dorothea’s uncle tries to explain to her she might have the wrong opinion on Casaubon:

Well, now, I’ve known Casaubon ten years, ever since he came to Lowick. But I never got anything out of him—any ideas, you know. However, he is a tiptop man and may be a bishop—that kind of thing, you know, if Peel stays in.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Her uncle, Mr. Brooks, also tries to talk about Casaubon’s age:

He is over five-and-forty, you know. I should say a good seven-and-twenty years older than you. To be sure,—if you like learning and standing, and that sort of thing, we can’t have everything. And his income is good—he has a handsome property independent of the Church—his income is good. Still he is not young, and I must not conceal from you, my dear, that I think his health is not over-strong. I know nothing else against him.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Dorothea, however, sees how they are a perfect fit. After an “enthusiastic” letter in which Casaubon asks her to marry him – and yes, he proposed in a letter, Dorothea is ecstatic:

Now she would be able to devote herself to large yet definite duties; now she would be allowed to live continually in the light of a mind that she could reverence. This hope was not unmixed with the glow of proud delight—the joyous maiden surprise that she was chosen by the man whom her admiration had chosen.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Casaubon thought he will marry a secretary. Dorothea thought she will marry a genius and will be able to learn from him.

This is clearly a recipe for disaster and it’s just the beginning of the book!

But how and why did it come to this? Is Dorothea so naive? Why Did Dorothea Marry Casaubon?

As I’ve shown up until this point, Dorothea has a bit of a mind of her own. She is different than other girls her age. She wants something more out of her life than just homemaking. She has a thirst for knowledge and study.

Casaubon’s reputation recommends him as the only one in her area that actually has a similar purpose. He is a scholar, trying to write a masterwork, “the Key to All Mythologies”. Reputation in those times meant everything, especially to an inexperienced young woman. It is no wonder she feels this is her escape. This is how

the impetus with which inclination became resolution was heightened by those little events of the day which had roused her discontent with the actual conditions of her life.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

And now we wonder – how can life for a young heiress be so bad she feels she must marry an ugly, middle-aged man to escape it?

The answer is hidden in plain sight by George Eliot:

Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and of domestic life was, that opinions were not acted on.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

And if Mr. Brooks chooses to let Dorothea act on her opinions when it suits him, when that’s more convenient, he also has a very low opinion on women’s intellect:

“Young ladies don’t understand political economy, you know,” said Mr. Brooke, smiling towards Mr. Casaubon.

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

“I cannot let young ladies meddle with my documents. Young ladies are too flighty.”

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

“Your sex are not thinkers, you know—varium et mutabile semper—that kind of thing. You don’t know Virgil.”

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

This is the talk of Dorothea’s guardian, presumably her only father figure, given that she’d been orphaned at twelve.

All the while, Casaubon takes a genuine interest in her and praises her intellect:

“You have an excellent secretary at hand, you perceive.”

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Well, sort of. No one other than Dorothea would actually be satisfied with so little, but, it remains a statement of Casaubon’s openness to giving a woman actual responsibilities and appreciation.

Added to all this is the comparison to Sir James Chettam:

an amiable handsome baronet, who said “Exactly” to her remarks even when she expressed uncertainty,—how could he affect her as a lover?

― George Eliot, Middlemarch

Of course, through his dignified silence and reputation, Casauban shines as a genius, especially by comparison to Sir James.


Taking into consideration Dorothea Brooks’s need for a father figure who appreciates her for her intellect and the other choice of marriage being a man she didn’t value herself intellectually, Dorothea’s choice is, hopefully, a bit clearer now.

3 thoughts on “Middlemarch: Why Did Dorothea Marry Casaubon?”

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