By Lilian R. Josefski - London, United Kingdom - Lent/Easter 2011
I was surprised when my confessor suggested I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1874). That a priest should suggest a work of mid-Victorian fiction as a remedy to my spiritual struggles struck me as quite bizarre. But it did not take long for me to realize the treasures this book could offer me. Set in an average, early nineteenth-century English village that was experiencing the changes of the industrial revolution and a new middle class, George Eliot nimbly shows her readers the complexity of ordinary human failures and victories. While George Eliot may not have had the joy that accompanies a Sacramental life, her compassion as narrator opened my eyes to the way an Omnipresent Supreme must see my failures, not as pitifully deserving of hell, but as someone on whom He bestows confidence and infinite love. George Eliot’s embrace of these ordinary lives softened me to receive God’s love while also making me acutely appreciative of the sanctifying grace on which my faith depends.
George Eliot’s compassion and my subsequent recognition of God’s mercy is most poignantly illuminated in the mercy Nicholas Bulstrode’s wife offers him after a scandal ostracizes the two of them. After having settled and married in Middlemarch, Bulstrode’s past unraveled when a man previously employed by him revealed that Bulstrode had conspired to disinherit his stepdaughter who consequently died penniless. When the town commanded Bulstrode to leave, I winced at the thought of his wife’s reaction, knowing that he deserved punishment and that his wife was also innocent. But George Eliot’s magnificent description of the love his wife offers him in the midst of his shame made me see that I too could offer him love.
[Bulstrode] raised his eyes with a little start and looked at [his wife] half amazed for a moment: her pale face, her changed, mourning dress, the trembling about her mouth, all said, “I know”; and her hands and eyes rested gently on him. He burst out crying and they cried together, she sitting at his side. They could not yet speak to each other of the shame which she was bearing on him, or of the acts which had brought it down on them. His confession was silent, and her promise of faithfulness was silent.
In Mrs. Bulstrode's merciful acceptance of his misdeeds, I understood how I am to God in those sad moments where I have accepted my sin and its consequences. Like Mrs. Bulstrode, God looks at me with allegiance and love. By writing so intimately about this man’s repentant soul, George Eliot freed me from the retentiveness that shame induces and showed me that God wanted me to look at him, just as Bulstrode looked at his wife when he knew that she would love him. Mercy, therefore, is precisely the promise of heavenly love given in response to spiritual nakedness.
As happy as I was to know a deeper level of God’s love, I also felt keenly that the novel lacked the light of sanctifying grace. In the novel, natural virtue acts in place of sanctifying grace and therefore points the reader to tranquility on earth rather than heaven. George Eliot demonstrates her familiarity with natural virtue and simultaneous unfamiliarity with sanctifying grace through Dorothea Brooke’s marriage to Mr. Casaubon. Shortly after their wedding, Dorothea becomes disillusioned with her husband and descends into inconsolable loneliness. “How was it that in the weeks since her marriage, Dorothea had not distinctly observed but felt with a stifling depression, that the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband's mind were replaced by ante-rooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?” How pitiful that instead of seeking God in her silent depression, she stoically clings to the promise she made. She does not pray that God give her the grace to love her husband through this trial or for the comfort of Cross. And God who holds nothing back from His children should have offered her the graces she needed. But she offers no prayers nor receives an invitation from God for friendship. Had George Eliot known God, she would have chosen this moment for God to inspire Dorothea, but she remains abandoned. And so it is for the rest of the novel, tribulations do not lead people to our Lord and our Lord does not inspire, it is not even between the lines. And while Dorothea achieves a pinnacle of human virtue in her faithfulness, generosity, and relentless kindness, her loneliness is palpable.
But the beauty of Eliot’s wisdom lies not in what she lacks, but in her elevating perception of natural virtue. She captures virtue emerging from profound suffering—the loss of a child, infidelity, matrimonial disinterest, poverty, unjust punishment, and the unsettling acceptance that dreams will not be realized. So it cannot be said that George Eliot is a naïve humanist using pithy aphorisms to push the agenda that human beings are intrinsically good. Rather, she accepts that human beings also cause their own suffering and she accepts that this suffering is real. By acknowledging the darkness of suffering, she shows with more force how generosity of spirit can convert hearts, and bring joy with time. She shows that true freedom is found in facing suffering courageously because then suffering cannot enslave. Eliot guides her readers to explore how the courageous can emerge triumphantly from those trials. This courageous virtue is repeatedly highlighted by Dorothea’s meekness, which brings relief to several of her fellow townspeople. She transforms her neighbors by replacing hopelessness with a keenness to offer love. Eliot closes the novel with Dorothea’s magnanimity, and in that closing captures Middlemarch’s great purpose.
[Dorothea’s] finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
Do these words remind you of the Little Flower’s humility and more generally of our mission to love in little ways? Eliot’s message, sewn poignantly throughout her novel, endures transcendently as a message harmonizing with Christian charity.