Sullly.portrait.1832

(NOT Rosamond Vincy, but close enough. By Thomas Sully).

For the last month I’ve been steadily churning through Middlemarch, George Elliot’s masterpiece about class and society in an English country town. It is very good, and suggests all sorts of interesting questions, one of which I plan on writing about here. I have two caveats: I have not finished the book and it’s entirely possible the coming events will make this post meaningless. Also, there will be spoilers.

There are three main female characters in Middlemarch:

1, Dorothea Brooke is perhaps the most prominent of all characters in the novel. She’s headstrong, virtuous and naive. She pursues a marriage to Casaubon out of a sense of misplaced desire to have a life of significance and learns quickly the error of that decision. She loves Will Ladislaw, but is powerless to act upon it.

2, Mary Garth is a plain girl from a poor family, but has strength of character. She refuses to consider Fred Vincy until he gets his act together, and when urged to burn the will of Peter Featherstone, her employer on his death bed, she refuses, unwilling to be drawn into his family drama.

3, Rosamond Vincy is a pretty girl from a respectable family. Pursued by the town’s eligible men, notably the foppish Ned Plymdale, she is drawn to the confident doctor, Tertius Lydgate.

Initially, Rosamond has none of the dimension of Dorothea and Mary, and seems to serve only as a model of a respectable young woman of her age. For much of the book, Rosamond hovers in the background, appearing only drive home points about the male characters. We meet her first as the well-mannered good daughter, in contrast with her brother Fred, who is in debt and causing his family trouble. Then she’s the object of Lydgate’s attention,  and it’s in his courting of her that we see how superior he is to the other men of the Middlemarch.

But it’s through her marriage to Lydgate that her character is fully realized, and Rosamond becomes among the most interesting people in the novel. For Rosamond, Lydgate is a stepping stone to a bigger, more exciting world. He comes from a prominent family from northern England, and while he seems to despise them, she hopes to leverage his connections. She has no interest in his work as a doctor – she thinks his experiments are morbid –  but admires his breeding and status.

Lydgate’s intensity, however, has made him unpopular in town, and his reluctance to prescribe the useless medicines favored by his peers is viewed suspiciously by potential patients. His practice suffers, and he soon realizes their lavish lifestyle has left them in debt. He confronts Rosamond with this and tells her they need to sell some of the silver, and she is horrified. When Lydgate proposes additional sacrifices, including making do with one servant instead of three and – most drastically – moving into a smaller house, Rosamond rebels.

She quietly sabotages Lydgate’s efforts to find a new tenant for their house, and without telling him, writes his wealthy uncle asking for help. The uncle refuses, and Lydgate is aghast. Throughout their debt trauma, Lydgate is brusque and demanding, rejecting any suggestions from Rosamond about how to improve his practice and insisting she obey him. But as drawn by Elliot, she’s even worse.

Unwilling to accept any inconvenience, Rosamond conspires against her husband to advance her own goals. She listens placidly to Lydgate’s lecture, then ignores him, believing herself to be the injured party. Convinced of her correctness, she dismisses any other possibility. Lydgate, the uncle, the debtors, even her father, were all responsible for her distress:

“In fact, there was but one person in Rosamond’s world she did not view as blameworthy, and that was the graceful creature with blonde plaits and little hands crossed before her, who had never expressed herself unbecomingly, and had always acted for the best – the best naturally being what she best liked.”

Rosamond’s behavior is abominable. But, crucially, it is effective.

This is what make he so interesting: Rosamond pulls the few levers available to her to get what she wants. Consider her options in England of 1832. She resents her husband, who she believes has deceived her about the life together she was to expect. Divorce is not an option. She owns no property, and has no means to earn her own living. Instead, she exerts force where she can, squeezing Lydgate to get what she believes she is owed.  As she tells him: “I think it was to be expected that I should try to avert some of the hardships which our marriage has brought on me.”

In her view, he has defaulted on the contract and she is resolved to salvage what she can from it. As I stipulated, I haven’t finished the book, and it’s possible her resolve crumbles (or that she dies, a proven solution for disposing of inconvenient characters). But through this episode, at least, she manages her options deftly.

Compare her to the Dorothea Brooke, who never acts in her own interest, but sacrifices herself first to Casaubon, then to an idealized sense of propriety. Or Mary Garth, who rejects Featherstone’s promises of money her family desperately needs.

Rosamond isn’t likable, or even admirable. But in a novel – and world – where many characters, and most women, are swept along by forces out of their control, she is unyielding.

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