Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 20 (1989)
I was interested to read David Ball's article on "Triangular Patterns in Middlemarch" (Review No. 19, 1988) with its reference to farcical triangle situations. I have been wondering about similarities and connections between Chaucer and George Eliot - Middlemarch (and Daniel Deronda) as almost Eliot's answer to Chaucer's ''Marriage Group" of tales. The most concentrated and specific link seemed to be between the Merchant's Tale and the Casaubon-Dorothea - Will triangle. Given Eliot's interest in Chaucer (there are four Chaucer epigraphs in Middlemarch, three from comic contexts including one from the Wife's Prologue (ch.lxv) and one from the climax of the Miller's Tale (xii» it's hardly possible that she wasn't aware of the similarity, if only at a submerged level. The beautiful young bride - the rich, physically unattractive older man, whose incongruity as her husband is revolting! y obvious though not to him - the garden in which much of the action occurs and in which (in Middlemarch) the young man - the husband's dependent - is first glimpsed. The way both January and Casaubon are reduced by physical disability Oanuary losing his sight) to far greater dependence and no longer take their wives for granted. Each one's appeal to his wife's loyalty, January offering May all his heritage, "toun and tour", all to be signed "to-morwe er sonne reste"; Casaubon more sinisterly altering his will just in case.
Of course a vast distance separates Casaubon from January (and the same for the other characters) but some of the differences are piquant. For one thing the cuckolding is displaced from the sexual to the intellectual sphere. Casaubon's immediate and visceral emotions of desire and jealousy centre on his Key to all Mythologies, whilst he goes to the sixteenth-century sonneteers for advice on what his sexual emotions should be (Then he thinks of the sonneteers urging him to leave behind a copy of himself, his next thought is that "he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key" ch. xxix)
But also the differences often take the form of comic contrast, parody by opposites. January and Casaubon are both impatient to be married - the latter because of "the hindrance which courtship occasioned to the progress of his great work". January is eager to clear the house of wedding guests and set about May: Casaubon is keen to take Cella along on the honeymoon as company for Dorothea, and proves incapable even of the kisses and caresses of fatherly affection. May's clothes impede January's advances:
He wolde of hir , he seyde, han som plesaunce, And seyde hir clothes dide him encombraunce. (1959 f.)
Casaubon's clothes by their formality repel Dorothea's affectionate caresses:
Having made his clerical toilette with due care in the morning, he was prepared only for those amenities of life which were suited to the well-adjusted stiff cravat of the period ...
Chaucer interestingly anticipates George Eliot's use of distorting metaphors through which characters look forward to marriage. Readers of Middlemarch need no reminders of Dorothea's view of Mr. Casaubon's mind as an "ungauged reservoir", and the way she experiences from a pamphlet he has annotated "the scent of a fresh bouquet after a dry, hot, dreary walk". And Gwendolen Harleth looks forward to marriage with Grandcourt: she "wished to mount the chariot and drive the plunging horses herself, with a spouse at her side who would fold his arms and give her his countenance without looking ridiculous."