“Middlemarch” and Me

Giselle Potter

Does life imitate art? Art imitate life? Neither? Both? I bring it up because some time ago it seemed my choices were mirroring those made by a fictional character. The art in question was George Eliot’s great novel “Middlemarch.” And I was emulating the book’s intelligent, well-intentioned, thwarted heroine, Dorothea Brooke.

I don’t think I intentionally imitated Dorothea. But imitate her I did, perhaps unconsciously, and as a result paid the same price she did — years spent in a bad marriage, and a lot of personal unhappiness.

Let me explain. In August 1956, I was a precocious, protected Brandeis graduate who, at barely 20, was about to marry my medical-student boyfriend while wearing a dress on loan from someone who wore a size 14. I was a size eight. My ill-fitting bridal dress became a metaphor for everything else that went wrong on my wedding day and in my marriage.

A few months earlier, as an English and American literature major, I’d read “Middlemarch” with a sense of recognition. America in the 1950s bore a strange resemblance to the 1830s English village Eliot describes. Like many of my peers, I was a bright, non-sports-playing, goal-discouraged girl urged to eschew graduate school and focus on what was really important — a professional husband.

As I approached my wedding day with a nervous rash on both my cheeks, I realized I was marrying someone very like the Rev. Edward Casaubon, Dorothea’s first husband. There were some differences, of course. My future husband would be a doctor, not a minister. Instead of obsessing over the writing of a scholarly treatise, he fixated on the mysteries of psychiatry, from which I was already excluded. Still, like Dorothea, I would be joining my life to an academically preoccupied, insecure person who was himself being driven to matrimony by social pressures.

And I had read “Middlemarch”! My dim future had been predicted, indeed, laid out for me in subtle, painful detail. But did I pay attention? Did I try to explain my fears to my loving but controlling parents, whose first inkling of my specialness came when I announced I was dating a medical student? With a masochism that flourished among many of the women I knew, I went like a sheep to slaughter.

I didn’t even have Dorothea’s independence of thought, limited though it was. She believed she would share a great intellectual mission with her husband. Me, not so much. I simply believed — or tried to — that I was laying a comfortable, secure bed for myself in a world that was uncertain for women. I bet on marriage instead of betting on myself.

Fast-forward to my 1970s divorce. Then another 15 years of dealing with the horrors of divorcée dating. Finally, at age 55, I met my Will Ladislaw and am presently trying to live happily ever after.

Does every generation demand so many missteps? It’s as though young people are walking vacuum cleaners, with minds like empty bags. They suck everything up, then do things their way. How else can I explain an otherwise intelligent, competent young woman of 20 who did the exact opposite of learning by example?

Only recently, having forced myself to re-examine the circumstances of my life, I came to a new, rather simple hypothesis. Perhaps my wish — indeed, my need — to please my parents, who saw nothing but blessings ahead from my marriage, overrode the lessons contained in Dorothea’s pain. “Middlemarch” is, after all, only a story.

Perhaps the dreams of first-generation American parents who did not yet know that satisfaction could come from the achievements of a daughter alone, not only from a daughter married to a doctor, had leaned on me too long and too hard to allow me to learn from Dorothea’s mistakes rather than follow her.

Eliot understood the danger posed by the seemingly innocent capitulations we make. In “Middlemarch,” she laments the ease with which we fall “into that pleasureless yielding to the small solicitations of circumstance, which is a commoner history of perdition than any single momentous bargain.”

Ironically, she also cautions us against thinking too much like novelists in our day-to-day lives, “for we all of us, grave or light, get our thoughts entangled in metaphors, and act fatally on the strength of them.”

Joan P. Shapiro has been a writer since age 4.