So Casaubon’s a vampire. No one else appears to be talking about this (or a Google search of the phrase “Casaubon is a vampire” brought up little in the way of conversation– strike that: investigative scholarly research). so I thought I’d lead with my groundbreaking discovery. I won’t even call it a theory because, you guys: seriously.
But before we get too far into my groundbreaking FACT, let’s first get this out of the way: Shut up, Dorothea. Any time you think you have something to say, like making Celia feel guilty for wanting to wear bling* — your dead mother’s bling, p.s. — or turning down free horses or snubbing adorable puppies, just shut the f up. We get it: you’re better than the rest of us. It’s only the strength of the brilliant Prelude that I’m willing to feel any sympathy for you at all once you end up married to Casaubon the Undead.
[* It’s even a little worse than simply making Celia feel guilty about the jewelry. Not satisfied with just doing that, Dorothea also has to throw in, when Celia asks her if she might not want to keep the gem-covered crucifix, “No, I have other things of mamma’s — her sandal-wood box which I am so fond of.” See how much more righteouser she is than any of us can ever be? She doesn’t need jewels: SHE HAS A BOX.]
We learn that casaubon is a vampire when he and a man named Sir James Chettam come over to Mr Brooke’s house (he’s Dorothea and Celia’s uncle with whom they’re now living) for dinner. Dorothea wants to rebuild the houses of the farm laborers (the one admirable thing about her so far — that and her love of boxes), and has Chettam, who’s in love with her though she doesn’t know it (even though Helen Keller is totally trying to pass Dorothea notes about how much Chettam is crushing on her), convinced to try the experiment on his own lands. Mr Brooke thinks the idea is a little ridiculous (and we love Mr Brooke, by the way; the way he name drops constantly, for instance, and acts the intellectual show-off with his “Adam Smith” this and his “Wilberforce” that. But I also legitimately love him, and that’s coming up a little later in this entry), saying, “A great mistake, going into electrifying your land and that kind of thing, and making a parlor of your cow-house. It won’t do. I went into science a great deal myself at one time;” — see, you guys! — “but I saw it would not do. It leads to everything; you can let nothing alone.” Dorothea argues the point back, passionately, (because it’s a chance for her to model some more of the latest in I’m-Better-Than-You) and catches the attention of Mr Casaubon, who has been pretty quiet up to this point. When Mr Brooke tries to steer the conversation away from what he’s not interested in, or at least in what he’s not as well-read in, he mentions that he’s been reading a lot of Southey lately. “You know Southey?” he asks Casaubon.
Casaubon says no, he isn’t; that he doesn’t have time for Southey. “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. But I find it necessary to use the utmost caution about my eyesight.”
I was only kind of joking about Casaubon being a vampire. And I certainly don’t think he literally glitters in the sunlight or smells great or has a yen for sort of bratty, not-so-cutely-precocious sticks in the mud (…oh, wait) — but in the terms of the narrative, and in the way that he’s going to function in this novel: we’re definitely dealing with a life-sucker here. “I feed too much on the inward sources” he says. “I live too much with the dead.”
(Other places, so far, where Eliot has emphasized his too-old and incubussy qualities: She describes his smile as “pale wintry sunshine” and that he has “the need of that cheerful companionship with which the presence of youth can lighten or vary the serious toils of maturity.”)
This is the guy Dorothea’s keen to marry. More than Chettam, who seems interested not just in Dorothea as a person, but interested in the things that Dorothea’s interested in — or at least willing to give it a college try. Casaubon is 47. Dorothea is 20. He’s going to feed off of her youth and her innocence and her enthusiasm. He’s going to spoil her eyes with reading. He’s going to lock her away from the world as it is and fill her mind with thoughts about the world as it was.
Casaubon’s main interest is in the early Church. He has a mistaken idea that the further back in time one goes, the purer the source of Christianity is going to be. That he can reach this sort of Ur-Church from which all other churches have deviated. The thing is, though, there never was a pure form of Christianity. From the moment Jesus said, ironically, to Peter, “You’re the rock I’m going to build my Church on” (ironic because it’s Peter who denies even knowing Christ three times), there have been schisms and factions and in-fighting and out-fighting. So not only is Casaubon’s interest a huge worthless time-sink, it’s an incorrect timesink, too. (Only, of course, I don’t think George Eliot knew this at the time; this is a lot of modern spin on her character.)
Two other points I’ll make quickly about these first four chapters:
(1) The nineteenth century isn’t necessarily the best time to be a lady. The Married Women’s Property Act, which grants women the right to the things they own once they’re married and after — god forbid — a divorce, won’t show up until almost the very end of the century; because of the lack of advancements in hygiene, a lady is pretty likely to die either before, during, or pretty soon after childbirth; and women aren’t educated with any thought of their mental betterment in mind. They’re educated just enough to make them intriguing to men (if they’re educated at all, I should say). I mention all of this because of this lovely scene between Dorothea and Chettam, who is trying to get Dorothea to notice him and his big ol’ crush by giving her a puppy:
“I have brought a little petitioner,” he said, “or rather, I have brought him to see if he will be approved before his petition is offered.” He showed the white object under his arm, which was a tiny Maltese puppy, one of nature’s most naive toys.
“It is painful to me to see these creatures that are bred merely as pets,” said Dorothea, whose opinion was forming itself that very moment (as opinions will) under the heat of irritation.
“Oh, why?” said Sir James, as they walked forward.
“I believe all the petting that is given them does not make them happy. They are too helpless: their lives are too frail. A weasel or a mouse that gets its own living is more interesting. I like to think that the animals about us have souls something like our own, and either carry on their own little affairs or can be companions to us, like Monk here. Those creatures are parasitic.”
I don’t want to be Captain Obvious — but I’m pretty sure she’s not really talking about puppies here. And how psychically draining to consider yourself, and your station in society, as parasitic.
(2) While reading and thinking about Middlemarch, I keep remembering Eliot’s first book, Adam Bede. There’s a character in Adam Bede named Dinah Morris, who is a Methodist preacher. This is pretty extraordinary — even, unfortunately, in our time. As a Methodist preacher, though, Dinah has this incredibly social fluidity that she couldn’t have if she were married. She can come and go as she pleases. She is the master of her fate from morning until night. She spends a large part of the novel avoiding marriage proposals. She says that her ministry is too important; that she can’t marry as long as she’s needed as a spiritual mentor and comforter.
Cynically, though, sometimes, when I think about Dinah (which is often, especially when you find yourself thinking about women in the nineteenth century anyway), I think: Is she really religious? Or is she simply unwilling to give up the costume that allows her autonomy in a way that being a married woman in the nineteenth century can’t. Dinah herself may not even be aware of this struggle — but I think a part of her knows that as soon as she marries, no matter how much her husband may say otherwise, and that he’d be okay with her ministering as she has been, the jig is up once the ring is on. I think she’s committed to this belief in God and the Bible because of what tangible freedoms it gives her; and not because of the spiritual relief it might give.
And that’s sort of where I am, a little, with Dorothea. She’s upsettingly moral and irritatingly religious, but I wonder about her motivations for that. The kind of religious life she’s choosing for herself — being the wife of a religious man of letters — comes with some perks: she’ll be educated in a way that she wouldn’t have access to on her own. She’ll be reading books of religious history and philosophy to Casaubon, and benefitting from his extensive education. It’s a trade-off: Life with a wrinkled old life-sucker in exchange for a chance at some actual critical thinking. When one’s choices are as proscribed as the choices available to Victorian women, maybe you suck it up, learn to spoon-feed an adult, and hope for a quicker death. For your husband, of course; survive if you can.
What makes this a little more complicated (bear with me as I think this out while I’m typing) is that Dorothea’s exchanging one kind of patriarchy (being married conventionally and beholden to a husband who isn’t interested in challenging her intellectually) for another (belief in a Supreme Male Being who’s really only interested in smiting things and foreskins). Maybe, though, it’s less galling when it’s God doing the sexism than when it’s just a mere mortal? Maybe we rationalize terrible things every day.
And here’s a bonus third point before I close-up shop on this section:
(3) Casaubon isn’t interested in Dorothea’s Habitat for Humanity plans (which, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to phase Dorothea at all). And for a man of God, he seems to pay no attention to Jesus’s urging to care for the least of his flock. And yet, and awesomely, there’s Name-Dropping Brooke:
“What news have you brought about the sheep-stealer, uncle?”
“What, poor Bunch? — well, it seems we can’t get him off—he is to be hanged.”
Dorothea’s brow took an expression of reprobation and pity.
“Hanged, you know,” said Mr. Brooke, with a quiet nod. “Poor Romilly [ed.: Sir Samuel Romilly, an English statesman who worked for criminal law reform]! he would have helped us. I knew Romilly [ed.: of course he did]. Casaubon didn’t know Romilly. He is a little buried in books, you know, Casaubon is.”
“When a man has great studies and is writing a great work, he must of course give up seeing much of the world. How can he go about making acquaintances?”
The book isn’t going to present us with easy bad and good characters — no matter how often I tell Dorothea to shut up. And in this lovely moment with Mr Brooke, I almost forget that I’m almost at the place that always trips me up.
Wish me luck.