Middlemarch and Girls Who Read

I’m supposed to be writing my first update for the Middlemarch Read-Along hosted by Too Fond, but I keep thinking about this video:


Girls Who Read made the rounds a couple weeks ago. I didn’t watch it at first, because I’m pretty burnt out on “aren’t readers super special” memes. Most of them make us sound like smug assholes. Eventually I clicked, and I thought it was cute, well read, and funny. Who wouldn’t sigh at “passion, wit, and dreams?” I’m also a sucker for any kind of accent, so that helped.

A few days later, I noticed a minor backlash, including this article which contained the following from Portrait of a Lady:

He didn’t wish her to be stupid. On the contrary, it was because she was clever that she had pleased him. But he expected her intelligence to operate altogether in his favour, and so far from desiring her mind to be a blank, he had flattered himself that it would be richly receptive.

And I got to thinking: there’s nothing wrong with wanting a Girl Who Reads but in 2013 is this something that needs to be pointed out and celebrated? This guy seems to think he’s quite something because he can go one baby step further than tits and ass in his dream girl checklist. Not to mention that the video’s Girl Who Reads is also young, thin, white, and conventionally attractive, so it’s not reading over T&A, it’s reading AND T&A.

The Portrait of a Lady quote is pretty apt, and there’s even more to draw on from Middlemarch. She’s more of a Girl Who Drafts Ambitious Plans Relating to Cottages and Farming but same difference. I don’t have a great pull quote, though I found a few – damn Kobo annotations letting me down, as usual – but I think Dorothea and Casaubon are both guilty of using each other for their intellects. Dorothea wants to be educated and lifted up out of ignorance She says: “There would be nothing trivial about our lives… It would be like marrying Pascal. I should learn to see the truth by the same light as great men have seen it by.” Casaubon, well, I haven’t quite figured him out yet. I think he may have wanted a competent secretary as much as he wanted a wife, but finding Dorothea too smart and too able to see the shortcomings in his work, becomes jealous and shuts her out.

Despite ranting about it here, I’m not that bothered by this video. But it is making me think carefully about Dorothea and her passion, wit, and dreams. I’m paraphrasing someone on Twitter but I think it’s pretty telling that it’s Girls Who Read rather than Girls Who Write who are being celebrated. Reading, by itself, is pretty innocuous. Passive, even. Writing is a lot messier. Similarly, if Dorothea were passive, if she wasn’t compelled to speak her mind and didn’t have ambitions outside of marriage, she’d probably be a lot closer to Casaubon’s vision of an ideal wife.

As for the read-along, I’m just managing to keep pace. At 45% through the book, I’m finding it such a light read, not in the sense that it’s easy or quick or not thought provoking, but in that it doesn’t feel like a burden, even though at 800 pages, it surely is! There’s a perfect balance between all the plot points and characters and themes. Next week I’ll try to write a regular update but suffice to say that Ms. Eliot does not disappoint.


  1. Too Fond

    I think you’re right that both Dorothea and Casaubon were expecting something different from each other than flesh and blood humans. They saw each other as ideals and hence were both disappointed to find themselves married to actual people, capable of emotions like jealousy and anger. I have a harder time faulting Dorothea for this, although certainly she should have been humble enough to take the advice of family and friends into account, but Casaubon’s reaction is what really irks me. It’s interesting that the other men who encounter Dorothea also admire her for being such a devoted wife–they buy into the ideal just as much as Casaubon, even as they pity her for being married to him.

    • lauratfrey

      Yes, this is what I’m loving about Middlemarch, it’s such an objective look at how marriage worked for both sexes. It would be easy (well, in this day and age – not in the 1800s) to portray how fucked up it was for women, but Dorothea isn’t let off the hook. They’re both guilty, or both victims of their times, more accurately.

  2. Rick @ AnotherBookBlog.com

    Maybe this is the male perspective vs female perspective talking, but I saw the “Girl Who Reads” video less as a celebration of girl readers (even though it is) and more as a condemnation of men who don’t care if a girl is intelligent or not. To me, the guy is ripping on “dudes” who just want a hot piece of arm candy. The video is about how you should value more than that.

    Just my two cents 🙂

    • lauratfrey

      Yes, I can see that. I really don’t think the video is terrible, and I think that rebuttal was over the top and pretentious as hell, despite the most excellent Portrait of a Lady quote. I’m glad I watched (which was thanks to you posting) even though I find it a little confusing; as a Girl Who Reads (who has never had a guy give two shits about that) I love it, but as a Humourless Feminist I find it a little problematic 🙂

  3. Heather

    I’m actually kind of sad that this video had to be criticized. I just saw it as women being appreciated for something other than their body parts, and the fact that they’re being appreciated for READING is pretty cool. Especially since I have been in the position of guys (and other women) accusing me of reading too much and being a snob or something because of it. Does everything have to be picked apart? It annoys me sometimes. I’m with Rick and his interpretation…and I consider myself a pretty staunch feminist.

    (And that is not at all directed at you, I promise. I like this post and what it made you think more about.)

  4. Pingback: Reading in Bed Year in Review #4: Best Books and Blog Stats | Reading in Bed
  5. Christy

    When I read Middlemarch a few years ago, I also felt it was “easy” in terms of being so compelling, I flew relatively quickly through it. Eliot is so good at characterization. I recently bought Mill on the Floss, to try out some more Eliot.

  6. Magicandmystery

    I loved Middlemarch. It was a book that dealt with a lot of themes, while still being readable. I loved how a lot of the characters had to live with themselves and their failed dreams…ie Casaubon and his book project. The last few novels I have been reading for the list have great ideas as the basis for the novel, but are just 100% not fun to read. I agree with you that the despite the length this one is an easy read.

  7. Lucy

    I loved Middlemarch, and even Virginia Woolf said it was good, that it was a novel written for grown-ups. Even when she was saying something nice she managed to get a dig in at everything else 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s