July 13, 2013

Heroine Week, Day 6 – An Un-Heroic Heroine: Dorothea of Middlemarch by Amara Royce

Author Amara Royce

Amara’s bio says that she “writes historical romances that combine her passion for 19th-century literature and history with her addiction to happily ever afters.” I think we all approve of this. Her contribution to Heroine Week is particularly interesting because it comes from the perspective of someone who is both an English scholar and an author.


An Un-Heroic Heroine: Dorothea of Middlemarch by Amara Royce

As I prepared to write this contribution to Heroine Week, I started out with a very clear and confident focus: the heroism (or is it heroine-ism?) of Dorothea Brooke from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (one of those “loose, baggy monsters” of a Victorian novel that you may have been assigned in high school or college).  So, of course, the very first thing I did was go back through the novel to remind myself of why she is my favorite literary character. And that’s when I got all discombobulated.

Middlemarch by George EliotYou see, one of the things I love most about Dorothea is that she is complex and contradictory. Ultimately, I think she is a romance heroine in a novel that questions the limits of romance. Her romance plot serves as the skeleton of the novel around which the intertwining stories of her community are layered. Moreover, she is a heroine who challenges the feminine expectations of her time…but does so in ways that still end up reinforcing some of those. (Hey, I said she’s contradictory.) This paradox, though, makes it exceedingly difficult for me to articulate why I think of her as a heroine. And so I ended up going with my gut and skipping over a lot of the problematic elements of the novel that would 1) make this a much longer article and 2) make me second-guess myself.

I adore a brazen, independent, kick-ass heroine as much as anyone. Dorothea Brooke is not brazen. At best, she’s outspoken and forthright. Most of the time. Except , eventually, she finds herself disillusioned by her marriage and reluctant to upset her sensitive, scholarly husband so she doesn’t challenge him. Dorothea is not financially or emotionally independent. Yet there are implications that she longs to be so. After her husband dies, she wants not to be subject to the directives of the other well-intentioned men in her life, including her brother-in-law. And eventually she does renounce her dead husband’s inheritance in favor of love. That’s kind of bold and unconventional for her time. As for being kick-ass, well, Dorothea’s version is not what we might expect. The one thing that is consistent about her throughout the novel (and the one thing that most appeals to me about her) is her aspiration to serve the greater good, in contrast with some of the women of her time focused on material possessions and “marrying well.” So…she’s sort of, kind of kick-ass in her own way.

But, as I said, her character is contradictory. She tries time and again to ignore her own inclinations and desires in service to others…but doesn’t always succeed. It’s a realistic portrayal of a woman striving to extend beyond what society expects of women; it isn’t a straightforward march ahead. So I decided the best way I can express why Dorothea is my favorite heroine (which probably reveals more about me than I want it to) would be to share with you one of my favorite sections of the novel—the conclusion:
       Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother's burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know. 
     Her 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.
In this conclusion, even the novel contrasts Dorothea with grand examples of heroines, St. Theresa and Antigone. She is not them. Instead, the novel shows that Dorothea represents the average person and that heroism isn’t only a matter of grand gestures and total self-sacrifice. Heroism is also present in those “unhistoric acts” that occur every day. People perform heroic acts all the time in ways that others don’t see, and what we do can improve the world in ways that are subtle but still meaningful. Furthermore, Dorothea doesn’t care that others are critical of the choices she’s made or that they minimize her ultimate role in society. She’s taken a path that is not dramatically heroic but still makes a difference in her own way.

NOTE: I readily admit that this is an oversimplification of Dorothea and of the novel. Really, I’m so torn. And so I’d love to chat about different people’s perspectives and explore paths and interpretations I didn’t get a chance to address above!


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  1. I love this book, and thank you for this really considered and sensitive examination of Middlemarch. The part you quoted is always a punch in the gut:

    "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

    "Kick-ass" heroism is so often male-gendered. I like to think that Eliot's argument at the end was maybe an attempt for us to consider more empathetic/female-gendered talents as valuable as the male/flashy kinds.

    1. Yes! It raises the question of what is truly heroic!

  2. I love Middlemarch so much and Dorothea is a huge part of the reason why. I love that she is so determined to make her life count, even if she chooses the wrong way to go about it, or at least the wrong man to support. As an aside, I have been haunted by the spectre of Mr Casaubon in my academic work for years. What if there is some book in German that I haven't read which contradicts my entire argument? Help!!!! I'd forgotten that last paragraph you quoted but it's exactly right. In the end, for all of us, what makes our lives count is the effect we have on those around us. Poor Mr Lydgate knows that, from the effects of Rosamond Vincy on his life.

    I need to read it again, I think!

    1. Regarding that fear of Casaubon-ian failings, I've absolutely been there and thought that.

      She's also so determined to sacrifice herself and deny her worldly desires that it's finally a relief when she accepts that part of herself. I'm eternally fascinated by the various contrasts among the female characters.

  3. In the almost 30 years that I have "known" Dorothea Brooke, my feelings about her and the ways I identify (or don't) with her have changed. But she's still one of my heroines and one of my favorite fictional characters.

    I think part of what I love about her is that the whole trajectory of her story is that there can be something "heroic," something that makes the world better, about an ordinary domestic life. A stereotypically feminine life. At the same time, I (and I think Dorothea) worry that celebrating that kind of heroism can become an excuse for not doing more. The complexity of her portrayal, her human-ness, the questions this character raises about what it means to live a good life, all of them have made her a touchstone for me for many years.

    Thanks for this post!

    1. I feel the same way...it's a very complicated middle space--celebrating a conscious, active agency in domesticity but risking the implication that this is the best one can do. I find myself haunted by this line, also in the concluding chapter: "Many who knew her, thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done."

  4. I loved Dorothea and MIDDLEMARCH when I read them as a teen-ager and still feel great affection and admiration for the novel. However, when I tried to re-read it, it did not touch me in the same way. Dorothea's idealism seemed youthful, naïve, maybe quixotic. At the same time, neither of the men she married were worthy of her and the great sadness and regret I feel for her and Lydgate is that, together, they could have rocked the world and each other. Lydgate and Dorothea remain the HEA-that-should-have-been; this is why I've always thought of Eliot as an anti-romantic and I cannot count her in the romance novel tradition.

    Nevertheless, the final paragraph about the "unvisited tombs" never fails to make me burst into tears, as do the last 50 pages of THE MILL ON THE FLOSS.


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