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Adam Roberts

5. Ladislaw

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1© 2021 Adam Roberts, CC BY 4.0.


3It is up to us, as readers, how we choose to pronounce Will Ladislaw’s surname. We might assume that it rhymes its final syllable with ‘coleslaw.’ Then again, we could note the clues as to his family provenance that unobtrusively accumulate as the novel proceeds (starting in chapter 8, when Mr. Cadwallader explains Ladislaw’s relationship to Casaubon: ‘his mother’s sister made a bad match—a Pole, I think—lost herself—at any rate was disowned by her family’) and conclude that Will’s name must actually be ‘Wilhelm Ladisław’. He has presumably Englished his Christian name, and it is possible the English ‘coleslaw’ pronunciation of ‘Ladislaw’ is the one the book’s characters use: we’re in England after all, not Poland (the novel is Middlemarch, not Centralnynaród). But we cannot be sure, because Eliot’s novel doesn’t include a pronunciation guide. We can call Will ‘Ladislāw’ or ‘Ladisclăv’ depending on our preferences.

4Eliot does not go out of her way to draw attention to Will’s Polishness, but neither does she conceal it, and in a novel like Middlemarch, which is centrally and persistently about how we ‘read’ other people, how much nuance and insight (or blindness) there can be in such human reading, and how much our insights can be compromised by our prejudices, our inertia or our fantasies—in such a novel these questions are of course much more important than they might be in a different kind of fiction. All we know of Will by the end of Book One is: he’s handsome, artistic, charming and something of an outsider. As the novel goes on we learn more. Making Will Polish makes him ‘Romantic’ in more senses than one.

5This was because of the status of Poland in the early decades of the nineteenth-century. In 1788 the Polish king Stanisław II oversaw a new reformist national constitution. The country’s neighbours, Russia and Prussia, fearing that the success of Stanisław’s liberalising revolution might destabilise their respective autocracies, carved the place up between them. In 1793, after a short war, independent Poland ceased to exist and the country was partitioned, with Russia and Prussia taking the lion’s share and Austria acquiring some territory in the south. As you might expect Poles were not happy with this arrangement. There were several uprisings, some very bloody, throughout the nineteenth century, although in fact ‘Poland’ was not to exist again as a distinct nation until the twentieth century.

6The political situation meant that other European countries, not least Britain, became home to many exiled Polish revolutionaries. Perhaps Ladislaw’s grandfather fled from the initial war and partition (it is not spelled-out in the novel). What’s undeniable is that during the timeline of Middlemarch ‘Poland’ was in the grip of by another upheaval, the 1830 ‘November Uprising’.

  • 1 Quoted in Norman Page (ed), Tennyson: Interviews and Recollections (London: Macmillan 1983), p. 141

7For many, and especially for younger Britons with radical or revolutionary sympathies, this uprising became a supremely Romantic symbol of doomed struggle against tyranny. Alfred Tennyson, twenty-one years old in 1830, took to dressing in the style associated with Polish exiles: a dark cloak and wide-brimmed floppy hat (he was still dressing that way in the 1890s). He wrote an epic poem about the nation’s fate: ‘a beautiful poem on Poland’, he later told his friend William Allingham, ‘hundreds of lines long—but the housemaid lit the fire with it. I never could recover it’1 (other early Tennysonian poems celebrating the romantic dash of Polish resurrection do survive, including 1820’s ‘On the Late Russian Invasion of Poland’).

8The situation had not resolved itself, four decades later, when Eliot was writing her novel. A year before she began publishing Middlemarch Jules Verne published his submarine science-fiction novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870), in which a mysterious nobleman going by the name of ‘Nemo’ (that is, ‘Nobody’) uses his advanced submarine to make war on imperialism. In the original draft of his novel, Verne revealed at the end that Nemo was a Polish aristocrat taking revenge for Tsarist atrocities in his homeland. But Verne’s publisher, Hetzel, conscious of how many copies of Verne’s novels were sold in Russia (where much of the reading public spoke French), persuaded him to change this to something less controversial, and Verne removed all specific references to Poland from the work—indeed, in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea’s sequel, The Mysterious Island (1875) ‘Nemo’ is revealed to be an Indian Prince with an animus against the British Empire.

9As Tatiana Kuzmic points out:

  • 2 Tatiana Kuzmic, ‘ “The German, the Sclave, and the Semite”: Eastern Europe in the Imagination of Ge (...)

The ‘Polish fever’ that swept England in the 1830s reached such a pitch that beggars from other countries craftily exploited the nation’s sympathies and, counting especially on the romantic fantasies of the ‘fair sex, ’ managed to obtain money and lodgings by passing themselves off as impoverished Polish princes. Andrew Halliday, writing in the 1862 supplemental volume of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1851), recalled these events in a section on ‘Foreign Beggars, ’ and warned his audience that ‘it will not do to mistake every vagabond refugee for a noble exile.’ ‘To be a Pole, and in distress, was almost a sufficient introduction, ’ Halliday stated, as well as ‘so excellent an opportunity for that class of foreign swindlers which haunt roulette-tables, and are the pest of second-rate hotels abroad’.2

10Will isn’t quite in this position. He’s no beggar, and he has his older cousin Casaubon to vouch for him. But some in Middlemarch regard him with a suspicion tainted with this kind of assumption: a handsome but indigent ‘foreigner’ working on the romantic fantasies of the ‘fair sex’ to obtain money.

11Eliot knows exactly what she’s doing by introducing this sort-of English, sort-of Polish character into the novel in the way she does. ‘Ladislaw’ is not an English surname, but then neither is ‘Casaubon’—the famous Renaissance classical scholar Isaac Casaubon was a Huguenot exile in Switzerland. Eliot never makes explicit in Middlemarch if Edward is a scion of this notable family, but we can deduce from his surname that his roots are Huguenot—that is, that his ancestors were French Protestants who fled from Catholic France to Protestant Britain after the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre. Centuries separate them, but both Casaubon’s and Ladislaw’s forebears were refugees. That key theme of Middlemarch is, alas, as relevant in our twenty-first-century world as it has ever been. The creeping prejudice by which people who self-identify as ‘English’ view Polish people on British streets with suspicion or hostility could hardly, as of the 2020s, be more current.

12There is a difference, though, in the refugee ancestry of Casaubon and Ladislaw, even though the two men are connected by blood. Huguenots were refugees from specifically religious persecution; the Polish diaspora of the nineteenth-century were political refugees. And Eliot, carefully if unobtrusively, explores the consonances and differences of these two modes of exile as her novel goes on. It gives us, for example, one of the ways in which we can parse Dorothea’s dilemma: the theologian versus the politician, or if not quite that, the man dedicated to the theological and mythological past, and the man engaged in shaping the political and social future. That this dilemma is also construed in terms of an unattractive older man—dead (it seems) from the waist down—and a sexually compelling younger man is not arbitrary, although it perhaps doesn’t quite amount to Eliot’s thumb in the balance. But in addition to interpellating us, as readers, into Dorothea’s situation, it becomes another way in which Middlemarch engages its relationship to epigraphy and quotation—to, that is, tradition and novelty. The dynamic is straightforwardly established early on. It is Mr. Brooke, hardly the most politically engaged of Eliot’s characters, who says to Casaubon, ‘smiling towards’ him: ‘I remember when we were all reading Adam Smith. There is a book, now. I took in all the new ideas at one time—human perfectibility, now’. His conclusion (‘we must have Thought; else we shall be landed back in the dark ages’) constellates thought as such and novelty, and he adds ‘But talking of books, there is Southey’s Peninsular War. I am reading that of a morning. You know Southey?’ Casaubon’s negative response to this question becomes a tacit linking of the old and the introverted:

  • 3 Eliot, Middlemorch, ch. 2.

‘No, ’ said Mr. Casaubon, not keeping pace with Mr. Brooke’s impetuous reason, and thinking of the book only. ‘I have little leisure for such literature just now. I have been using up my eyesight on old characters lately […] 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’.3

  • 4 Polybius, Histories, ed. by Theodorus Büttner-Wobst after L. Dindorf (Leipzig: Teubner, 1893), vol. (...)

13So far as Southey’s celebrated history is concerned, we need look no further than its title page, which quotes as its own epigraph a passage from Polybius: Ἱστορίας γὰρ ἐὰν ἀφέλῃ τις τὸ διὰ τί, καὶ πῶς, καὶ τίνος χάριν ἐπράχθη, καὶ τὸ πραχθὲν πότερα εὔλογον ἔσχε τὸ τέλος, τὸ καταλειπόμενον αὐτῆς ἀγώνισμα μὲν, μάθημα δὲ οὐ γίγνεται· καὶ παραυτίκα μὲν τέρπει, πρὸς δὲ τὸ μέλλον οὐδὲν ὠφελεῖ τὸ παράπαν. This means: ‘For if you take from history all explanation of cause, principle, and motive, and of the adaptation of the means to the end, what is left is a mere panorama without being instructive; and, though it may please for the moment, has no abiding value’.4 Mere panorama is as far as Casaubon ever gets, of course; not because he hasn’t had time, or professional expertise, as a collector of data, but because he has missed this fundamental Polybian point.

14The question then is not just that Casaubon is mired in the past, but that his comprehension of the past is merely panoramic. Of course, he is mired in the past. Indeed, it’s possible that Eliot, usually more nuanced in her characterisation, rather over-plays this distinction. In the next chapter Mr. Brooke attempts to interest Casaubon in ‘documents on machine-breaking and rick-burning’, whilst ‘Mr. Casaubon made a dignified though somewhat sad audience; bowed in the right place, and avoided looking at anything documentary as far as possible’. Later in the novel, Ladislaw, famously twitting Casaubon (though not to his face) for his ignorance of German scholarship, lays out the case plainly:

‘But there are very valuable books about antiquities which were written a long while ago by scholars who knew nothing about these modern things; and they are still used. Why should Mr. Casaubon’s not be valuable, like theirs?’ said Dorothea, with more remonstrant energy. She was impelled to have the argument aloud, which she had been having in her own mind.

  • 5 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 22.

‘That depends on the line of study taken, ’ said Will, also getting a tone of rejoinder. ‘The subject Mr. Casaubon has chosen is as changing as chemistry: new discoveries are constantly making new points of view. Who wants a system on the basis of the four elements, or a book to refute Paracelsus? Do you not see that it is no use now to be crawling a little way after men of the last century—men like Bryant—and correcting their mistakes?—living in a lumber-room and furbishing up broken-legged theories about Chus and Mizraim?’5

15With Ladislaw, Eliot draws on a different cultural reservoir to characterise his freshness and youth. For example: in chapter 37, Ladislaw visits Dorothea to tell her he’s taking up the editorship of the new Middlemarch newspaper. She is pleased, since it means he will stay in the area, but immediately has second thoughts: it might displease her husband. Accordingly she suggests he obtain Casaubon’s blessing:

‘But my opinion is of little consequence on such a subject. I think you should be guided by Mr. Casaubon. I spoke without thinking of anything else than my own feeling, which has nothing to do with the real question. But it now occurs to me—perhaps Mr. Casaubon might see that the proposal was not wise. Can you not wait now and mention it to him?’

  • 6 Ibid., ch. 37.

‘I can’t wait to-day, ’ said Will, inwardly seared by the possibility that Mr. Casaubon would enter. ‘The rain is quite over now. I told Mr. Brooke not to call for me: I would rather walk the five miles. I shall strike across Halsell Common, and see the gleams on the wet grass. I like that’.6

16In the event, of course, Casaubon tries to forbid Ladislaw taking up the position. But, for the moment, what I am interested in is that lovely detail of the wet grass.

  • 7 George Eliot, ‘Art and Belles Lettres: Review of Modern Painters’, Westminster Review, 65 (April 18 (...)

17Ruskin’s five-volume Modern Painters (1843–60) is, perhaps, his masterpiece: a sustained interrogation of aesthetics, of the artistic apprehension of nature, and a full-throated defence of the genius of J. M. W. Turner. Eliot read this work, and indeed reviewed it, or at least reviewed volumes three and four.7 And here is Ruskin praising Turner’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral’:

  • 8 John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 5 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1860), part 7, ch. 4, section 19, (...)

The plain is swept by rapid but not distressful rain. The cathedral occupies the centre of the picture, towering high over the city, of which the houses (made on purpose smaller than they really are) are scattered about it like a flock of sheep. The cathedral is surrounded by a great light. The storm gives way at first in a subdued gleam over a distant parish church, then bursts down again, breaks away into full light. The rain-clouds in this picture are wrought with a care which I have never seen equalled in any other sky of the same kind. It is the rain of blessing—abundant, but full of brightness; golden gleams are flying across the wet grass.8

18It is possible these Ruskinian details, the rain ‘a blessing’, the post-storm ‘gleams across the wet grass’, were in Eliot’s mind when she wrote her bit about Ladislaw. It would be a way of reinforcing that he has a painter’s eye, a Ruskinian capacity for fine attention to the beauty of nature—which is to say, another way of drawing the contrast with Dorothea’s myopic, dryasdust husband. Not that John Ruskin figures as an especially auspicious model when it comes to the case of an older man marrying a younger, idealistic woman, of course. Conceivably that particular irony was also in Eliot’s mind.

19Eliot touches on the contrast between the future-oriented visual arts, and the library-work of dead textual scholarship, during Dorothea and Casaubon’s Roman honeymoon. Dorothea is eager to help her husband’s researches:

  • 9 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 22.

In their conversation before marriage, Mr. Casaubon had often dwelt on some explanation or questionable detail of which Dorothea did not see the bearing; but such imperfect coherence seemed due to the brokenness of their intercourse, and, supported by her faith in their future, she had listened with fervid patience to a recitation of possible arguments to be brought against Mr. Casaubon’s entirely new view of the Philistine god Dagon and other fish-deities, thinking that hereafter she should see this subject which touched him so nearly from the same high ground whence doubtless it had become so important to him.9

  • 10 Judges 16.23 tells how the temple of Dagon is destroyed by Samson at Gaza (Samson’s last act, of co (...)
  • 11 John McClintock, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, 2 vols (New Y (...)

20We understand that ‘Mr. Casaubon’s entirely new view of the Philistine god Dagon’ is a dead-end. Eliot’s novel is not interested in his question. Its concerns are quite other, to do with the relationship between art and life, how love is reconciled to reality and the way life is best lived. Should we wish to dig down a little, we discover that Dagon is a pagan deity mentioned several times in the Bible.10 The consensus of nineteenth-century scholarship was that he was, as Eliot notes, a pagan fish-god. John McClintock describes him as a kind of merman, ‘the body of a fish with the head and hands of a man’.11

21Horace’s Ars Poetica, one of the earliest and most influential works of aesthetic theory, opens with these lines:

  • 12 Horace, De Arte Poetica liber, ed. by C. Smart (Philadelphia: Joseph Whetham, 1836), 1, http://www. (...)

Humano capiti cervicem pictor equinam
iungere si velit, et varias inducere plumas,
undique conlatis membris, ut turpiter atrum
desinat in piscem mulier formosa superne,
spectatum admissi risum teneatis, amici?12

If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part of nature, so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight?

  • 13 John Rignall, ed., Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 (...)
  • 14 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 6.

22Horace takes it for granted that this kind of incongruity is, simply, ludicrous. Art should aim for something better: paint a fish by all means, or paint a beautiful woman, but don’t muddle the two up. The Ars Poetica is a very famous piece of classical literary criticism, and Eliot certainly knew it: according to John Rignall, Horace is ‘the Latin author George Eliot refers to most frequently in her writing’.13 Was she thinking of the Ars Poetica, I wonder, when she prefaces her novel’s first sustained discussion of the purpose and form of art with this mermaidish reference to Casaubon’s pointless researches? Horace’s whole point is—to repeat Dorothea’s words, quoted above—that appending a scaly fish tail to a human torso is ‘a consecration of ugliness rather than beauty’ and ‘ridiculous’. Eliot tucks the joke in at various places: as with Mrs. Cadwallader’s unforgiving judgement that ‘Casaubon has money enough; I must do him that justice’ but ‘as to his blood, I suppose the family quarterings are three cuttle-fish sable, and a commentator rampant’.14 We laugh because there is something ‘fishy’ about Casaubon. He’s a cold fish, in many ways neither fish nor fowl.

23Dorothea meets Ladislaw on her honeymoon, in Rome, where Ladislaw is improving his artistic technique by studying under the German artist Adolf Naumann (the Casaubons later visit Naumann’s studio and both sit for portraits). Will dines with Mr. and Mrs. Casaubon and the conversation turns to art, a topic over which he and Dorothea disagree. ‘I fear you are a heretic about art generally’, Ladislaw tells her and she replies that the important thing would be to make life itself beautiful, rather than make beautiful imitations of life:

  • 15 Ibid., ch. 22.

I should like to make life beautiful—I mean everybody’s life. And then all this immense expense of art, that seems somehow to lie outside life and make it no better for the world, pains one. It spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it. […] I should be quite willing to enjoy the art here [in Rome], but there is so much that I don’t know the reason of—so much that seems to me a consecration of ugliness rather than beauty. The painting and sculpture may be wonderful, but the feeling is often low and brutal, and sometimes even ridiculous.15

24Dorothea adds ‘I have often felt since I have been in Rome that most of our lives would look much uglier and more bungling than the pictures, if they could be put on the wall’. It is an important aesthetic question: should art be ‘realist’, and serve the betterment of life, or ‘idealist’ adding a beautifying and ennobling sheen to the things represented? But this is not a question that engages Casaubon, devoted as he is to his myopic pedantry. When Ladislaw praises the ambition of Neumann’s art (‘ “The sketch must be very grand, if it conveys so much,” said Dorothea. “Oh yes,” said Will, laughing, “and migrations of races and clearings of forests—and America and the steam-engine. Everything you can imagine!”’) Dorothea suggests, ‘smiling towards her husband’ that it would require somebody of Casaubon’s encyclopaedic knowledge ‘to be able to read it’. Eliot adds: ‘Mr. Casaubon blinked furtively at Will. He had a suspicion that he was being laughed at. But it was not possible to include Dorothea in the suspicion’.

25What, then, of Casaubon’s ‘entirely new view of the Philistine god Dagon’? Eliot, of course, is writing about ‘real’ people in ‘real’ situations, and not about horseheaded men and fishtailed women of fantasy or (latterly) science fiction. Where Eliot’s ‘literary realism’ embodies a mimetic logic, whereby life is mapped onto art with a minimum of distortion, science fiction and fantasy are both metaphorical modes of art, because they aim to represent the world without reproducing it. The metaphors that inform science fiction sometimes calcify, through over-use, into mere cliché: the robot, the spaceship, the raygun. But at its best, science fiction estranges its reader with an eloquent and arresting metaphorical apprehension of life that compels us again to think about existence. Speaking for myself, and as a writer of science fiction, I value that estrangement, and consider metaphor a more expressive mode of art than mimesis. And under that aegis, Casaubon’s merman seems to me a fascinating rebus for a novel like Middlemarch—a novel, after all, centrally about the way human life and its relationships so often construe incompatible juxtapositions: Dorothea and Casaubon, Lydgate and Rosamond, high ideals and provincial practicalities. These are the petty hypocrisies of the respectable middle classes that Matthew Arnold so memorably called ‘philistinism’.

26In the Old Testament Dagon appears as the enemy of righteousness, but by the time we get to the New Testament we must consider a new dispensation, one in which the last now becomes the first. After all, what is Christ himself if not a kind of fish god? He recruits disciples from trawlermen telling them to become fishers of men; he feeds five thousand, miraculously, with ‘five small loaves and two fish’. In another miracle he tells Peter that he will be able to pay the temple tax by casting a line in the water, saying that a coin will be found in the fish’s mouth, which it is. In Matthew 12: 38–45 Jesus identifies himself with ‘the Sign of Jonah’, symbolic of his death and resurrection. The early church branded itself with a fish symbol (many modern Christians do the same): ICHTHUS, which means fish, and is a Greek acrostic (ΙΧΘΥΣ). Conceivably Casaubon’s key to all mythologies would, if completed, prove to be a way of reconciling pagan and Christian piscine symbols into one unified whole.

  • 16 Sean Gaston, ‘George Eliot and the Anglican Reader’, Literature and Theology, 31.3 (2017), 318–37 ( (...)

27I daresay that strikes you as fanciful. But this question of ‘Realism’ versus the Fantastic had important resonances for Eliot’s own religious faith. In 1846 she had translated David Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, in its day a controversial book (the Earl of Shaftesbury memorably called Eliot’s translation ‘the most pestilential book ever vomited out of the jaws of hell’). Strauss conceded that Christ was a historical figure but argued that there had been nothing supernatural or miraculous about his ministry. The miracles recorded in the New Testament were, he suggested, mythic accretions or fanciful extrapolations added-in by the early Church bolster their messiah’s reputation as a wonder-worker. Eliot was persuaded by this argument. Then again, it is possible to disbelieve the miraculous events recorded in the Bible without altogether jettisoning one’s engagement with the orientations of faith. In the words of Sean Gaston: ‘Eliot rejected the supernatural trappings of punishment and reward, while still embracing what is in “conformity with the will of the Supreme” […] though she later modified her youthful vehemence against orthodoxy, by and large her position appears to have remained unchanged for the rest of her life’.16 Christianity can be a rationalist faith, and a believer can think of Christ as a character in, as it were, a realist story. Then again, Christianity can be a miraculous faith, and a believer can think of Christ as a practitioner of the strongest kind of magic. Calling Christ a kind of fish-god is to take the latter line (the fish stories in the New Testament all share a miraculous element). Seem this way, Christianity itself becomes is a kind of numinous monster, a combination of the ordinary and the impossible, the mundane and the magical. A kind of merman or mermaid system of belief. Monsters can, as Horace says, be ridiculous, or ugly, but they can also be marvellous. It is even possible that some monsters can be marvellous because they are ridiculous and ugly. Metaphor itself is a yoking together of apparent incompatibles in the service of a new eloquence.

  • 17 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 1.

28The truth is, critics have never quite decided on the place of Casaubon’s ‘Key to All Mythologies’ in Middlemarch. In one sense, of course, it is obvious enough: this unfinished and perhaps unfinishable project is indicative of Casaubon’s unfittedness as Dorothea’s husband. She deserves better than this withered old pedant, wholly consumed by his dryasdust obsessions. From the novel’s first mention of the character, his project is linked to his name, as something integral to his being-in-the-world: ‘the Reverend Edward Casaubon, noted in the county as a man of profound learning, understood for many years to be engaged on a great work concerning religious history’.17 The very phrase ‘Key to All Mythologies’ has become a shorthand for pointless and pedantic scholarly vanity, the academic’s ‘life project’ always doomed to failure— as an academic myself, I can vouch for how sharply the jibe can hit home.

29The fact Dorothea is initially won-over by Casaubon’s plan speaks to the naivety of her character at the novel’s beginning; and her slowly dawning realisation of the barrenness of her husband’s work tracks her own Bildungsroman narrative—that is, her growth and development. So, in that sense, it’s obvious enough what function the ‘Key’ has in the novel.

30But here’s what I’m not sure about: is the problem with Casaubon’s ‘Key’ that it is too ambitiously framed, doomed by virtue of the fact that it seeks to explain everything with one clef when the nature of reality— the reality Eliot so deftly gestures towards with her particular mode of literary realism—is too complex to admit of such simplistic analysis? Or is the idea that a ‘Key’ could be written so as to explain all mythological systems but that Casaubon is too disorganised, too narrow-minded and too lacking in necessary expertise, to do it? (Later in the story Ladislaw scoffs that Casaubon doesn’t even read German.) Is the novel saying that the ‘Key to All Mythologies’ could never be written, or is it saying that such a work could be written, just not by Casaubon?

  • 18 Ibid., ch. 3.

31Casaubon believes his ‘Key’ will show ‘that all the mythical systems or erratic mythical fragments in the world were corruptions of a tradition originally revealed’18 and though he has a relatively high opinion of Dorothea’s intelligence compared to other women, he does not propose to take her on as a partner. Her role is to be ‘helpmeet’, ‘secretary’, to take dictation and assist him in sorting through paperwork. In chapter 2 we learn that the materials for the ‘Key’ are dispersed between many pigeon-holes in Casaubon’s study, and Dorothea believes she could be the person to order and arrange the material. When Mr. Brooke complains that his pigeonholes are a mess (‘I have tried pigeon-holes, but everything gets mixed in pigeon-holes: I never know whether a paper is in A or Z’) Dorothea’s offer to him—‘I wish you would let me sort your papers for you, uncle. I would letter them all, and then make a list of subjects under each letter’—is actually a coded romantic pitch at Casaubon, and is, in the cleverly-observed, rather strangulated idiom in which Eliot renders this doomed love affair, recognised as such (‘Mr. Casaubon gravely smiled approval’).

  • 19 Colin Kidd, The World of Mr Casaubon: Britain’s Wars of Mythography, 1700– 1870 (Cambridge: Cambrid (...)
  • 20 Ibid., p. 7.

32We could rephrase my question this way: is Dorothea culpably naïve for believing in Casaubon’s proposed ‘Key’? I’m not sure she is. Casaubon’s work is, on its face, a perfectly respectable project. As Colin Kidd’s recent study, The World of Mr Casaubon, shows, there was a rich tradition of comparative mythology through the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries—a ‘significant and variegated terrain’ rather than the ‘sterile, unworldly disengagement of which Mr. Casaubon has for so long been an emblem’.19 Despite taking its name from Eliot’s famous scholar, Kidd’s book is not really about Middlemarch. Its three sections examine, first, ‘the eighteenth-century golden age’ of such research, second ‘the Age of Revolution and Reform down to the early 1830s, the period in which the novel is immediately set’ when ‘mythography remained an urgent calling for Anglican scholars who wished to conserve Christian truth against the poisons of Enlightenment deism, scepticism and atheism’, and finally the period from the 1830s to the novel’s publication 1870–71, the time ‘during which Eliot’s own views of mythography were formed’.20 Lots of people were researching and writing ‘Keys’. There was, Kidd implies, nothing hubristic or outrageous about Casaubon attempting such a thing.

33Perhaps our mistake is focusing on the ‘Key’ part of Casaubon’s title. Compare the real-world Ernest von Bunsen, eminent scholar of comparative religion and mythology, who published his Key of Knowledge (in English) in 1865. His ‘Key’ is: Christ (Bunsen, an eminent Anglo-German writer and contemporary of Eliot’s, proposed a common origin for many different religions and mythologies, including Buddhism, Essene Judaism and paganism: his book’s full title is The Hidden Wisdom of Christ and the Key of Knowledge). Were it ever finished, Casaubon’s book would—presumably—argue similarly that all the various mythological traditions derive, with varying degrees of corruption and divergence, from the sacred revelation of the Christian God. When the German painter Naumann sees Casaubon and Dorothea on their honeymoon together in Rome he assumes the man is a Geistlicher, a clergyman or cleric.

34Nor was such a theory eccentric by the standards of the age. Casaubon’s theory has the same shape, and therefore the same structurally explanatory power, as the theory proposed by the era’s most famous comparative mythographer, Max Müller, who argued that myth and language could be traced back to a common linguistic and cultural origin-point he named ‘Aryan’ (now generally called ‘Indo-European’). So, for example: Müller traces the word for ‘god’ back through history (dieu, deus, theos and so on) to a now lost Proto-Indo-European word *dyiw that means ‘sky, heavens, sun’. You can identify that with your personal God, or make an observation about humankind’s propensity to religiosity more generally, but either way it is a perfectly Casaubonic argument. And we know that Eliot read Müller closely.

  • 21 Paul Milton, ‘Inheritance as the Key to all Mythologies: George Eliot and Legal Practice’, Mosaic: (...)
  • 22 Lisa Baltazar, ‘The Critique of Anglican Biblical Scholarship in George Eliot’s Middlemarch’, Liter (...)
  • 23 Roger Travis, ‘From “Shattered Mummies” to “An Epic Life”: Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies and Do (...)

35Eliot’s critics, incidentally, have not been shy when it comes to picking up Casaubon’s dropped baton, offering a whole ring of keys of their own to the Middlemarch myth. According to Paul Milton ‘inheritance law’ is not just one of the novel’s various interests, it is the Casaubonic key to everything.21 For Lisa Baltazar, Casaubon’s project exists in the novel so that Eliot can undertake ‘an extremely informed debunking’ of infallibilist Biblical criticism.22 And for Roger Travis the ‘Key’ turns out to be Dorothea herself. Travis argues that Dorothea resists the ‘mummification’ implicit in husband’s struggle with Truth by stepping out of the textual ‘labyrinth’ into life itself: ‘Middlemarch is a labyrinth like the social life of Middlemarch like the Key’, he argues, ‘and Dorothea’s winding path through them makes emphatically satisfying her final achievement of a purity and legibility’. The Key, then, is ‘Dorothea’s character’: ‘with her, the reader must lay aside notions of a mythology that lacks animate life, an epic that fossilizes’ and instead learn ‘the art of living’.23

36In other words, perhaps the problem with a ‘Key to all Mythologies’ isn’t the key part, so much as the mythologies part. Myths fascinated Eliot, as they do most of us. They are, after all, powerful and enduring stories, pitched somewhere between fiction and faith. And it goes without saying that stories are central to a novelist’s praxis. Generations of readers can confirm Eliot’s skill at telling them. At the same time, Eliot is fascinated by the idea that some stories can’t be told using the conventional or traditional forms and structures. In one sense the whole of Middlemarch tends to the point where Eliot says to her readers: ‘now Dorothea passes out of view of the kinds of stories that constitute novels like mine’. Earlier in the book she is compared, or compares herself, to figures from both religious and classical myth—Saint Theresa and Antigone amongst various others—but by the end her life is revealed to be just her life, not shaped or directed by any such template. This in turn might suggest another perspective on Casaubon’s notorious ‘Key’: not that it is too ambitious to be achieved but on the contrary that it is, perhaps, too facile—that it is only too easy to extract some guiding principle from ‘mythology’ and apply it to our lives, where the truth is that to live properly means not confusing such models with actuality. Life—as George Eliot tells us, paradoxically enough, using her story—is not a story.

37Casaubon’s problem is not that he is seeking an impossible key. He already possesses the key. His problem is that he thinks this key fits the lock marked ‘mythologies’ when (Eliot is saying) it actually fits the lock marked ‘life’. Middlemarch ends not because there’s nothing more for Dorothea to do, but on the contrary because she has a whole life to live, and because life is bent out of the true when writers try to fit it into those procrustean structures called ‘stories’, from myths to novels. Look again at the novel’s desperately famous last lines. ‘The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive’ is surely a direct nod—‘Diffusionism’ is the name given to the theories of Müller and his ilk, that myth, religion and culture spread and diffuse from one source across the world. Here Eliot revisits the governing principle of Casaubon’s ‘Key’ in order to relocate it from myth to life—where, she seems to be saying, it belongs, for life should be lived not only unobtrusively but faithfully. But now I am straying into the matter of the final chapter: the ending of this novel, and its beginning. The way epigraphs concertina their beginning and their end (nobody wants an epigraph that goes on for pages and pages; the pithier the better) and the way they parse this spacious novel, a work whose beginning and end are separated by hundreds of thousands of words, and yet are closely interconnected.

  • 24 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 46.

38Ladislaw, though, believes in art insofar as it addresses and offers amelioration to the age in which he actually lives. He is a realist, we might say, in art as in politics; although the debate he has with Lydgate over dinner in chapter forty-six sees him dismissed as a dreamer: ‘crying up a [political] measure as if it were a universal cure […] encouraging the superstitious exaggeration of hopes about this particular measure’. To Lydgate all party politics is ‘a political hocus-pocus’. Ladislaw, however, considers himself a pragmatist: ‘my dear fellow, but your cure must begin somewhere, and put it that a thousand things which debase a population can never be reformed without this particular reform to begin with’.24 The novel in which he appears is a more hybrid entity: and one of the functions of many of its embedded quotations and epigraphs is to construe the novel as simultaneously (what we might call) ‘realism’ and something that expresses a mythic, even a monstrous truth in the way human lives are shaped and lived. And this brings me to the matter of Eliot’s allusiveness to classical legend and literature.


1 Quoted in Norman Page (ed), Tennyson: Interviews and Recollections (London: Macmillan 1983), p. 141

2 Tatiana Kuzmic, ‘ “The German, the Sclave, and the Semite”: Eastern Europe in the Imagination of George Eliot’, Nineteenth-Century Literature, 68.4 (2014), 513–41 (p. 519),

3 Eliot, Middlemorch, ch. 2.

4 Polybius, Histories, ed. by Theodorus Büttner-Wobst after L. Dindorf (Leipzig: Teubner, 1893), vol. 3, ch. 31, The translation is by Eliot’s contemporary Evelyn S. Shuckburgh, The Histories of Polybius (London: Macmillan & Co., 1889), vol. 1, p. 193.

5 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 22.

6 Ibid., ch. 37.

7 George Eliot, ‘Art and Belles Lettres: Review of Modern Painters’, Westminster Review, 65 (April 1856), 625–33.

8 John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. 5 (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1860), part 7, ch. 4, section 19,

9 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 22.

10 Judges 16.23 tells how the temple of Dagon is destroyed by Samson at Gaza (Samson’s last act, of course: he dies in the ruins he himself makes). Elsewhere we learn that King Saul’s severed head was displayed in a different temple of Dagon [1 Maccabees 10.83; 11.4] and 1 Samuel 5.2–7 informs us the Ark of the Covenant was seized by the Philistines and taken to Dagon’s temple in Ashdod. The Philistines set a fetish of Dagon before their trophy, but each morning they discover it lying prostrate before the ark. They set it upright but the following morning it is discovered fallen over, and on the third morning it is broken into pieces: in the words of KJV, ‘the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands were cut off upon the threshold; only the stump of Dagon was left to him’.

11 John McClintock, Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, 2 vols (New York: Harper, 1868), vol. 2, p. 642.

12 Horace, De Arte Poetica liber, ed. by C. Smart (Philadelphia: Joseph Whetham, 1836), 1,; Horace, The Art of Poetry: To the Pisos, ed. and trans. by C. Smart and Theodore Alois Buckley (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1863), 1,

13 John Rignall, ed., Oxford Reader’s Companion to George Eliot (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 166.

14 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 6.

15 Ibid., ch. 22.

16 Sean Gaston, ‘George Eliot and the Anglican Reader’, Literature and Theology, 31.3 (2017), 318–37 (p. 319),

17 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 1.

18 Ibid., ch. 3.

19 Colin Kidd, The World of Mr Casaubon: Britain’s Wars of Mythography, 1700– 1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 2,

20 Ibid., p. 7.

21 Paul Milton, ‘Inheritance as the Key to all Mythologies: George Eliot and Legal Practice’, Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature, 28.1 (1995), 49–68.

22 Lisa Baltazar, ‘The Critique of Anglican Biblical Scholarship in George Eliot’s Middlemarch’, Literature and Theology, 15.1 (2001), 40–60 (p. 40),

23 Roger Travis, ‘From “Shattered Mummies” to “An Epic Life”: Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies and Dorothea’s Mythic Renewal in George Eliot’s Middlemarch’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition, 5.3 (1999), 367–82 (pp. 380–81),

24 Eliot, Middlemarch, ch. 46.


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