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The Rosamond Plots:

Alterity and the Unknown


in Jane Eyre and
Middlemarch
RE B E CCA N. MI TCHE L L
N earnest man, devoted to a singular
cause, falls inlovewithawomannamed
Rosamond. She is exceptionally lovelyan angel
1
but she is
invested in the superficial perquisites of that loveliness, and is
unwilling or unable to share in his ambitions. Should he marry
her? Two major novels of the nineteenth century feature a man in
this very predicament: Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre (+Sq) and
George Eliots Middlemarch (+S+:). In Bronts novel, St. John
Rivers gives up Rosamond Oliver; in Eliots novel, Tertius Lydgate
marries Rosamond Vincy. The divergent responses to similar situa-
tions are tellingof the foundational differences that critics have con-
ventionally identified in the novels: Bront privileges knowledge of
Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 66, No. , pp. o:. ISSN: oSg+-g6, online ISSN:
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direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the
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journals/rights.htm. DOI: +o.+:/ncl.:o++.66..o.
1
See Charlotte Bront, Jane Eyre, ed. Jane Jack and Margaret Smith (Oxford: Claren-
don Press, +g6g), p. q6q: What did St. John Rivers think of this earthly angel? And see
George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. David Carroll (Oxford: Clarendon Press, +gS6), p. +og:
In fact, most men in Middlemarch, except her brothers, held that Miss Vincy was the
best girl in the world, and some called her an angel. Further references are to these
editions and appear in the text.
307
the self, and Eliot privileges knowledge of the other. Know yourself
fully, as St. John Rivers does, and avoid an unhappy marriage while
sparing an innocent woman from a wholly preventable fate. Fail to
knowthe other, as Tertius Lydgate does, and condemnyourself to a
miserable future inwhichbothyou and your partner are unfulfilled
and resentful.
Such easy conclusions suggest that there is little in the
Rosamond plots that cannot be accounted for by the most basic
readings of Bronts and Eliots oeuvres, a conclusion substanti-
ated by the dearth of critical attention paid to them. So overlooked
are the Rosamond plots that the very names of the characters have
been misspelled in the critical literature.
2
Rosamond Olivers role
in Jane Eyre is, of course, considerably smaller than Rosamond
Vincys in Middlemarch. Even so, Olivers near-total absence in anal-
yses of the novel is striking, and, when she is mentioned, she
is often reduced to a superficial foil to Janes unconventional
beauty. That is not to discount the role of beauty in both works.
In Middlemarch as well, Rosamond Vincys preternatural loveliness
contrasts with heroine Dorothea Brookes austere beauty, and
Bronts and Eliots treatments of feminine attractiveness is one
intersection commonly addressed by critics. Wendy Steiner argues
that the unlinking of beauty from virtue was an important goal in
the creation of aesthetic and human sympathy for both Bront
and Eliot.
3
Elizabeth Hardwick concurs that both Charlotte
Bront and George Eliot are hard on the whims of beautiful
women, and she opines further that it seems such a pity only
pretty girls are able to win that fine, complicated hero the heroines
and the authors would like for themselves.
4
More broadly speak-
ing, critics have done much work comparing the writings of Eliot
2
For example, Zadie Smith, in a commentary on Middlemarch, uses Rosamund
throughout (see Smith, Book of Revelations, The Guardian [:q May :ooS]). In Disorient-
ing Fiction: The Authoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels (Princeton: Prince-
ton Univ. Press, :oo), James Buzard refers to Miss Oliver as Rosamund, even though
the Penguin edition he cites uses Rosamond. Perhaps not a major gaffe in any instance,
but it is one that evinces the ease of overlooking the characters particularity.
3
Steiner, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Free
Press, :oo+), p. :.
4
Hardwick, Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature (New York: Random House,
+gq), p. :6.
308 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
and Bront,
5
and a great deal of that work has offered compelling
insights regarding the historical, social, political, and aesthetic dif-
ferences that underscore their novels. Yet no critic has considered
the Rosamond plots of Jane Eyre and Middlemarch together.
In this essay I suggest that the Rosamond plots do far more
than provide embodiments of beauty to serve as counterpoints
to the novels plainer heroines, and that they also do more than
demonstrate a shift from Bronts self-awareness to Eliots other-
awareness. I argue that Middlemarch stages a radical revision of
the version of subjectivity vaunted in Jane Eyre. Via its invocation
of Jane Eyres Rosamond plot, Middlemarch challenges the very
nature of self-knowledge, questions the status of identification in
intersubjective relationships, and insists upon the unknowability
of the other. In Eliots retelling, the self-awareness promoted in
Jane Eyre is not only insufficient, but also verges on self-absorption
and even solipsism. One way in which Eliot enacts this revision is
by shifting the focus of positive affective relationships away from
models of identification. Rather than basing empathic extension
on the recognition of similarities, Eliots novels describe charac-
ters who must first apperceive the difference between themselves
and others. Having realized the self, one must go further to realize
the complexity, difficulty, even the potential impossibility of know-
ing the other in order to open up a space for a richer engagement
with those whose desires and drives are different from ones own.
In light of Eliots construction, it becomes increasingly clear that
in Jane Eyre the cultivation of self-definition is predicated on ones
notions of self in relation to others. St. Johns behavior toward
Rosamond Oliver serves as an example for Jane; fromhis example
of self-certainty even in the light of social pressure and conflicting
desire, she learns to identify her own desire and to resist pressure.
We see that St. Johns rejection of Miss Oliver is a model for Janes
rejection of St. John. Janes time in Morton becomes not a mere
distraction from her life with Rochester, but rather a necessary
5
See for example Wilbur L. Cross, The Development of the English Novel (New York:
Macmillan and Co., +Sgg); Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the
Attic: The Woman and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale Univ.
Press, +gg); and Christopher Lane, Hatred and Civility: The Antisocial Life in Victorian
England (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, :ooq).
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 309
step toward that life. By functioning as obstacles on the ostensible
path to knowledge, the two Rosamonds perform essential roles in
both works: in Jane Eyre the obstacle posed by Miss Olivers pres-
ence is overcome with relative ease, while in Middlemarch Miss
Vincys alterity proves to be more formidable.
While none of Eliots notes for Middlemarch indicate that she
was actively considering Jane Eyre, her familiarity with and interest
in the novel and Charlotte Bronts life and works is well docu-
mented. Jane Eyre became a sort of touchstone for Eliots own writ-
ing; upon the publication of Adam Bede in +Sg, Eliot turned to
Bronts novel to compare its sales figures to those of her own
work.
6
If Eliot chafed against anything in Jane Eyre, it seemed to
be the rigidity of Janes versionof duty, especially to the extent that
Janes boundedness to social or religious propriety oppressed her
own personality. Writing shortly after Eliots death, Abba Goold
Woolson describes Eliots aversion to Bronts vision of self-
respect, which scorns a relationship, however excusable in her
own eyes, which would make her personal honor seem other than
stainless in the eyes of the world.
7
Described in this way, Eliot
seems to object to Janes concern about others regard for her.
As she noted in a letter to Charles Bray, Eliot further objects
that Janes sort of self-sacrifice is directed toward a diabolical
law which chains a man soul and body to a putrefying carcass.
8
Woolson links Eliots response to Jane Eyre to Eliots own romantic
situation. Eliot, unlike Jane Eyre, chose life with the man she loved
over supplication to the marital laws that kept G. H. Lewes, her
lover, bound to his legal wife. This reading confines Eliot to sup-
porting, even forwarding, Bronts emphasis on self-knowledge
by suggesting that Eliot believed that Janes problem was her
hyper-concern about the views of others or of the abstract soci-
ety-at-large. This preoccupation with externally approved righ-
teousness, such readings argue, could be corrected with greater
personal fortitude or a stronger sense of self.
6
See J. W. Cross, George Eliots Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals, vols. (New
York: Harper and Brothers, +SS), I, +S.
7
Woolson, George Eliot and Her Heroines: A Study (New York: Harper and Brothers,
+SS6), pp. +:.
8
George Eliot, letter to Charles Bray, June +SqS, quoted in Cross, George Eliots Life,
I, +S.
310 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Other critics have cast the comparison in light of Eliots oeu-
vre rather than her biography. Swinburnes +S Note on Charlotte
Bront flatly prefers Bronts fiction, which he labels the work of
genius, to Eliots, which he labels merely the work of intellect;
Eliot, in his view, is but a pale and inferior example of a woman
writer.
9
Martin Spence, in a very brief piece comparing the pro-
posal scenes in Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, opens by claiming: Lit-
erary indebtedness is always interesting, and when it concerns two
of our greatest novelists, it cannot fail to be instructive.
10
Spen-
ces essay nevertheless ends with an indictment of Eliots effort
by noting the signs of admiration and envy in Eliots imitation
of Bronts text: The signs are always the same: dilution, senti-
mentalisation or vulgarisation of the original, lack of unity and
drive so that the force of the original is wasted and dispersed,
and . . . an obvious lack of rooting (C. Bronts Jane Eyre and
G. Eliots Middlemarch, pp. +o++).
11
As I argue, there is another way of understanding the two
novels distinctions: Eliots focus in Middlemarch on the limits of
knowledge reveals the insufficiency of the self-knowledge and
self-fulfillment advocated in Jane Eyre. In addition, by insisting that
her characters remain in society after their marriages, Eliot fur-
ther exposes the problem with the isolationist model of marriage
offered in Jane Eyre, a model necessary to sustain static definitions
of self. In comparison to Eliots in Middlemarch, Bronts vision
itself seems adolescent, egocentric: the world conceived in Jane
Eyre is a world without society, where self-fulfillment is achieved
by moving away from, rather than into, a sphere shared with other
people. Jane, after all, chooses Rochesters retired and hidden
9
Swinburne writes: George Eliot, a woman of the first order of intellect, has once
and again shown how much further and more steadily and more hopelessly and more
irretrievably and more intolerably wrong it is possible for mere intellect to go than it
ever can be possible for mere genius. Having no taste for the dissection of dolls, I shall
leave Daniel Deronda in his natural place above the ragshop door (Algernon Charles
Swinburne, A Note on Charlotte Bront [London: Chatto and Windus, +SS], pp. :+::).
10
Spence, C. Bronts Jane Eyre and G. Eliots Middlemarch, The Explicator, q, no.
(+gS), +o.
11
Eliot was kinder toward those who invoked Bronts work. Writing about Charles
Kingsleys Westward Ho! (+S), she notes that the novel reminds us a little of Jane Eyre,
but we prefer a partially borrowed beauty to an original bathos ([George Eliot], Belles
Lettres, Westminster Review, 6q [+S], +:).
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 311
(Jane Eyre, p. S) Ferndean, in quite a desolate spot (p. qg)
with two elderly servants as their only company; St. John leaves
English society altogether in favor of India. In Middlemarch Doro-
thea moves into society through steps that are not always easy
(e.g., Sir Jamess reluctance to accept her husband Ladislaw)
and sometimes contentious (e.g., Middlemarchs persistent com-
munity view that Dorothea is not a nice woman [Middlemarch,
p. S:q]). The novels very forms mirror this transition: from the
first-person narration of Jane Eyre to the omniscience of Middle-
marchs narrative voice, and from Bronts quasi-autobiographical
title to Eliots title, named after the community in which her nov-
els central characters live. These movements, from the subtle to
the pronounced, are all present in the Rosamond plots, which,
so long ignored in the critical literature, show Eliots work not to
be a pale derivative of Bronts, or a meager extension of its pri-
mary tenets, but instead an exploration of encounters with con-
sciousness of the other in a way foreign to Jane Eyres characters.
More specifically, Eliots revisions situate empathic response as
being dependent upon the recognition of the radical alterity of
the other.
Given the importance of self-knowledge in
Bronts world, the fact that Rosamond Oliver functions as an
obstacle both for St. John and for Janes self-realization makes
her role far more important than her presence on the page might
suggest. On the surface, Bronts depiction of St. John Rivers and
Rosamond Olivers relationship, mediated by Jane Eyres incisive
reporting, details the collisionof two egos. Rosamondis fully aware
of her perfect beauty and knew her power over St. John (Jane
Eyre, pp. q6, q6g), flirting to excite his desire even when her
advances are rebuffed. St. John easily exceeds Miss Olivers level
of self-awareness, as his self-assessment acknowledges both his
desires and the rationale for his refusal to act upon those desires.
Sopowerful is his devotionto his self-constructionthat it influences
the way in which he views others in addition to himself. That is,
St. Johns dedication to his missionary ideals might have led him
to deemany beautiful (and thus distracting) woman an unsuitable
312 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
companion. But his consideration of Rosamond is remarkable for
its frank acknowledgment of the potential pleasure of the match.
In his exhortation to Jane on this point, St. John articulates a vision
of a future that entertains not only the limitations of his and
Rosamonds clashing sensibilities, but also his genuine delight in
Miss Olivers charms. Though he loves her so wildlywith all
the intensity . . . of a first passion, he imagines her a partner
[un]suited to him; though acutely sensible to her charms, he
is as deeply impressed with her defects (pp. q6). The state-
ments refute those critics who characterize St. John as denying
his erotic attachment to Rosamond Oliver.
12
He does not com-
pletely repress his desire for her, but rather subjects that desire to
a brutal test against the other qualities that define his character
duty and piety foremost among them.
Rosamond presents temptations that serve as a tempering
agent for St. Johns self-vision, which he calls upon repeatedly to
guard against her charms and the fantasy life they inspire.
13
St. John admits that she is a beauty, well named the Rose of the
World, indeed! (Jane Eyre, p. qg),
14
and her perfect beauty
in fact ossifies his resolve, so much so that even Jane is skeptical
about his ability to know his real desires. Challenged by Jane,
St. John insists that his attraction to Rosamond is a mere fever
of the flesh and not a convulsion of the soul, and, as such, he
scorns the feeling as a weakness, affirming that he is as fixed as
a rock, firm set in the depths of a restless sea (p. qS). To Jane
this assertion seems only mock-heroic, and when St. John instructs
her, Know me to be what I ama cold hard man, her response
is to smile incredulously (p. qS).
12
Melodie Monahan, Heading Out Is Not Going Home: Jane Eyre, Studies in English
Literature, , :S (+gSS), 6o:.
13
See Barbara Hardy, Tellers and Listeners: The Narrative Imagination (London:
Athlone Press, +g), pp. :So. Hardy includes a discussion of St. Johns stance in
light of those fantasies.
14
The erudite Rivers is wrongRosamond is derived from the Teutonic name
Hrosmond, meaning horse protection (see A. Smythe Palmer, Folk-Etymology: A Dic-
tionary of Verbal Corruptions or Words Perverted in Form or Meaning, by False Derivation or Mis-
taken Analogy [London: George Bell and Sons, +SS:], p. q). St. Johns Rose of the
World is a translation based on the French rose (rose) and monde (world), which seems
better suited to Rosamonds portrayal in the novel.
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 313
The significance of Janes incredulity cannot be overstated: it
is an indication of her own inchoate self-awareness. Jane doubts
and mocks St. Johns self-vision early in their acquaintance, but
the novel shows that Jane eventually comes to use his stubborn
self-definition as a model for her own development. Although
Jane ultimately rejects St. Johns marriage proposal, she adopts
his willingness to buck conventional expectations in favor of fol-
lowing the ideals that define his existence. For St. John that meant
abandoning a rich, beautiful woman who loves him in favor of a
missionary life; for Jane it means abandoning most of her inheri-
tance and a life of altruistic religious devotion in favor of loving
a now-obscure cripple. Before Jane realizes her internal resolve,
the pressure to join St. John seems at times to overwhelm her abil-
ity to articulate her own self in relation to him; when attempting to
describe St. Johns power in the pulpit, the usually pithy Jane can-
not: I wish I could describe that sermon, she confesses, but it is
past my power. I cannot even render faithfully the effect it pro-
duced on me (Jane Eyre, p. qqg). Such imprecision in Janes nar-
ration is a sign in Bronts universe of problems on the horizon.
(For Eliot this anxiety is inverted, as too much self-assuredness more
often signifies a problem.) In response to this sense of ineffability,
Jane is forced to find language for herself; St. Johns pressure
steels Janes resolve, just as Rosamonds presence strengthened
St. Johns resolve.
The shift when Jane realizes all at once that St. John was not
a suitable husband for Rosamondor for Jane herself, or perhaps
for anyoneis the apogee of Jane Eyres Rosamond plot:
I began to feel he had spoken truth of himself when he said he was
hard and cold. The humanities and amenities of life had no attrac-
tion for himits peaceful enjoyments no charm. Literally, he lived
only to aspireafter what was good and great, certainly; but still
he would never rest; nor approve of others resting round him. . . .
I comprehended all at once that he would hardly make a good hus-
band: that it would be a trying thing to be his wife. (Jane Eyre, p. o+)
This is a moment of breakthrough, not only because Jane sees
St. John clearly, but also because that revelation arises from her
recognition that he knew himself clearly. Along with his sisters
314 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Diana and Mary, Jane had believed that St. Johns missionary aspi-
rations could be overcome with affection, with persuasion, or with
money. They were wrong. As long as Jane is skeptical of St. Johns
self-vision, she cannot articulate herself in relation to him. Once
she recognizes the accuracy of his self-vision, Jane can then apply
that lesson to her own relationship with St. John: if she had been
wrong in her understanding of him, then surely he could be
wrong in his understanding of her. His insistence that she [turn]
to profit the talents which God had given her (p. qgg)that she
embrace duty to the exclusion of all other drivessolidifies her
sense of self and casts into relief Janes real desires, desires that
conflict with St. Johns vision of a future with her. Rosamond
was essential for establishing St. Johns internal fortitude, forti-
tude that Jane must then herself muster in order to rebuff his
advances.
In this model, Jane moves into genuine comprehension only
when she confirms St. Johns self-assessment and acts as an affirm-
ing, rather than a skeptical, audience. Feminist criticism has long
framed Janes development in similar terms, as a quest for an
appropriate or appreciative audience. Rosemarie Bodenheimer
writes that Janes progress in the novel . . . has to do with finding
a fit audience for whom she can give a proper shape to her own
story, where Janes role is to take charge of so many kinds of sto-
ries in a narrative that seems both to credit and to quarrel with
them all.
15
So Jane is a character who wants to write her own
story, in her own way, and to have it believed by those she tells.
So too does St. John, and in his relation to Rosamond we see an
early example of the very difficulty that Jane faced: St. John
repeatedly asserts not only his position in relation to Miss Oliver,
but also his very character, only to have it disbelieved by his family.
When Jane comprehend[s] all at once, stating in clear, declara-
tive sentences her revised understanding of St. John, she also over-
comes at least some of the challenges posed by Rosamonds
presence, challenges that propel Janes own narrative.
15
Bodenheimer, Jane Eyre in Search of Her Story, Papers on Language and Litera-
ture, +6 (+gSo), Sg, qo:. Carla Kaplan pushes this point further, suggesting that under-
lying Eyres plot is a reliance on dialogue or dialectic for self-construction (see Kaplan,
Girl Talk: Jane Eyre and the Romance of Womens Narration Novel: A Forum on Fiction,
o [+gg6], +).
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 315
Just as she did for St. Johns self-articulation, Rosamond Oliver
functions as a counterpoint to Janes. Jane doubted St. Johns
declarations about his desire, at least in part because of her identi-
fication with Rosamond: as a woman unable to be with the man
she desires, Jane identified with Rosamonds equally thwarted
desire. From that perspective, St. Johns behavior was the cause
of Rosamonds pain, and Jane worked to counter his behavior or
attitudes. After St. Johns proposal, Jane ceases to be a thwarted
loveraroleshesharedwithRosamond. Instead, sheis inaposition
to reject a partnership that might seem appealing to outsidersa
role that St. John himself had occupied in relation to Rosamond.
Jane is thenable toapprehendSt. Johnwithout anoverdetermined
sympathy for a woman longing to be loved. St. John becomes a
model of self-recognition for Jane; as she comes to realize the accu-
racy of his self-description, she is able to feel more certain in her
self-analysis. In other words, Jane emerges from the encounter
with Rivers with a stronger belief in the necessity to know oneself
rather than to be more careful when reading othersa conclusion
that Eliot will complicate in Middlemarch. When Jane acts on her
desire for Rochester and returns to Thornfield Hall, she refuses
to embrace a vision of herself that excludes passion, a choice
endorsed by the novels happy ending. Joyce Carol Oates describes
Janes choice between two men urging her in different directions:
if Rochester is all romantic passion, urging [Jane] to succumb to
emotional excess, St. John Rivers is all Christian ambition, urging
her to attempt a spiritual asceticism of which she knows herself
incapable.
16
I would say that Jane comes to know herself as incapa-
ble of St. Johns brand of asceticism, but I agree with Oatess
broader point: Janes dilemma focuses less onwhichmanshe wants
and more on which version of herself is more accurate. Janes
clarity on that point leads her to Rochester.
This ending seems to confirm the accuracy of Janes self-
definition. It also confirms St. Johns: he would have made a mis-
erable husband for Rosamond. St. John ends the novel a resolute,
indefatigable pioneer; an unmarried missionary firm, faithful,
and devoted; full of energy, and zeal, and truth ( Jane Eyre, p. S).
16
Oates, Introduction, in Charlotte Bront, Jane Eyre (New York: Bantam Books,
+gS+, +gS), pp. xiiixiv.
316 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Though St. Johns reading of Rosamond as an unsuitable partner
was accurate, his reading is based not on his deep understanding
of her needs but rather on the strength of his ambition. Miss
Olivers alterity was immaterial to his decision, and because the
novel does not grant the reader access to Rosamonds thoughts,
it remains silent on how she felt about the outcome of the relation-
ship. Rosamonds end, according to the novel, has nothing to do
with her own expectations or premonitions but instead confirms
St. Johns hunch about her future. Despite all of Rosamonds
childlike petulance, she does, as he predicts, marry someone else.
This final point elucidates Rosamonds function in the novel. She
exists as a necessary step along the road of St. Johns and Janes
growth into self-awareness; each constructs an identity in response
to or as a reaction against Miss Oliver and what she stands for. As a
conduit to the self-actualization of St. John and Jane, Rosamonds
alterity has no place in the lives of those characters, just as it has no
place within the novel.
If the Rosamond/St. John relationship in
Jane Eyre demonstrates the value of self-knowledge in preventing
incompatible relationships, then the tale of Rosamond Vincys
marriage to Tertius Lydgate in Middlemarch shows that an uncom-
promising sense of self is not sufficient to navigate a world ruled
by relationships with other individuals. Their marriage forms the
link between the novels epistemological claims and the inter-
personal relationships it depicts, showing that the limitations of
knowledge that apply to literary or scientific pursuits apply equally
to engagements with individuals.
Lydgate, like St. John, begins his approach to Rosamond
Vincy with the conviction that his ambitionhe is a Doctor intent
on reforming medical practices in Englandwill overrule any fan-
cies of the heart. Whereas St. Johns self-awareness allowed him to
avoid a potentially disastrous marriage, Lydgates convictions can-
not save him, and the stumbling logic that leads himto propose to
Rosamond arises precisely from the strength of his resolve. In El-
iots depiction, self-certainty functions more as self-delusion, and
the stronger that certainty, the more impenetrable the delusion.
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 317
What is more, both men are unable to appreciate the full alterity
of their Rosamonds, but St. Johns deficiencies in this area have lit-
tle permanent effect on those around him, and Rosamond Oliver
escapes relatively intact. In Middlemarch the consequences of their
egotism extend beyond the lives of Rosamond and Lydgate, a dis-
tinction crucial in understanding the differences between the
worlds depicted in Eliots and Bronts novels. The tidiness of Jane
Eyres resolutionall parties happy, each in an isolated contented-
ness that depends on no other person than her husband
17
is
countered by Eliots web of connection that links each person to
every other. That web ensures that repercussions of interpersonal
failure reverberate beyond the individual. Knowing yourself does
not ensure your own happiness, and not apprehending others
ensures difficulties for all those connected to each other. Yet these
greater demands also create room for greater growth, and the
promise of the Rosamond plot in Middlemarch is the potential
even in the least likely personfor a movement into an acknowl-
edgment of alterity, and thus the possibility for expansion and
change. Even among Eliots oeuvre, which tends to frame self-
awareness through encounters with others, the relationships in
Middlemarch emphasize more strongly the necessity of encounter-
ing the other not in opposition to the self, and not even, as Kay
Young argues, as an application of the other onto and even into
the self, . . . as feeling the presence of the other residing within.
18
Before that application can occur, an individual must apprehend
the unknowability of the other. Eliot accomplishes the emphasis in
broad, formal strokes (as when her narrator famously interrupts
to query of the reader, why always Dorothea? [Middlemarch,
p. ::]), as well as in characterization (as when Mary Garth, com-
plaining to Rosamond about Fred Vincys approach to courtship,
bemoans, I am not magnanimous enough to like people who
speak to me without seeming to see me [p. +++]).
17
The narratives of Miss Temple, Jane, Diana, Mary, and Miss Oliver functionally
end with their marriages, as the unions function to fulfill the promise as well as the
desire of each woman.
18
Kay Young, Middlemarch and the Problem of Other Minds Heard, LIT: Literature
Interpretation Theory, +q (:oo), ::6. See also Young, Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics
of Austen, Eliot, and Hardy (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, :o+o).
318 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Curiously, because critics often focus on the empathy that
Eliots novels provoke in readers, and because they so often figure
empathy as a feeling like, they have for many years overlooked
the role that such alterity plays in Eliots novels.
19
In fact, Eliots
construction of the ethical imperative of empathy largely an-
ticipates the twentieth-century phenomenology of Emmanuel
Levinas, whose work on radical alterity gave a vocabulary to con-
siderations of empathy independent of identification. More re-
cently, scholars such as J. Hillis Miller and Thomas Albrecht
have begun to consider Eliots work in light of her repeated insis-
tence that before one can feel like another, one must recognize
that one is other.
20
It is this tenet of Eliots writing that is apparent
in Middlemarch: knowledge derives from the recognition of what
one does not know.
Rosamond and Tertiuss relationship and its miserable end
show the natural outcome of the failure to appreciate the others
radical alterity; it also resonates because both characters (as seems
so often to be the case) assume with smug certainty that they do
understand the other perfectly. That understanding is shown to
be limited by the shallowness of Lydgates interestit is not Rosa-
monds particularity that he finds attractive, but precisely her lack
of particularity. Lydgate apprehends her not as a person, but as
one of a type featuring that distinctive womanhood which must
be classed with flowers and music, that sort of beauty which by
its very nature was virtuous, being moulded only for pure and del-
icate joys (Middlemarch, p. +6+). Such phrases echo Jane Eyres
comments about Rosamond Olivers beautyNature had surely
formed her in a martial mood; and, forgetting her usual stinted
19
There has been a resurgence of interest in empathy of late. Suzanne Keen, in her
insightful Empathy and the Novel (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, :oo), thoroughly con-
siders the readers affective response to fiction. Other useful examples include Rachel
Ablow, The Marriage of Minds: Reading Sympathy in the Victorian Marriage Plot (Stanford:
Stanford Univ. Press, :oo); and Ellen Argyros, Without Any Check of Proud Reserve: Sym-
pathy and Its Limits in George Eliots Novels (New York: Peter Lang, +ggg). My concern
here, however, is Eliots representation of relationships between characters, not
between readers and the texts.
20
See especially J. Hillis Miller, Others (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, :oo+); and
Thomas Albrecht, Sympathy and Telepathy: The Problem of Ethics in George Eliots
The Lifted Veil, ELH, (:oo6), q6.
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 319
step-mother dole of gifts, had endowed this, her darling, with a
grand-dames bounty (Jane Eyre, pp. q66q)while transform-
ing their focus fromthe specific incarnation to the abstract. Eliots
diction emphasizes critically Lydgates consideration of Rosa-
mond in terms of generalities, and not exactitudea creature
like Rosamond would make a good wife; her intelligence was
just the kind that Lydgate found desirable, and hers was a sort
of beauty that ensured virtue (Middlemarch, p. +6+). Rosamond
herself was not innocent of such characterizing. Arriving in Mid-
dlemarch as a stranger, Lydgate appeared particularly interesting
to her because she had already decided that she shall not marry
any Middlemarch young man (p. g). In Middlemarch these men-
tal conceptions of the other foreshadow the couples future fail-
ures at shared life. In Jane Eyre Rochesters similar reductions
of Jane to placeholder do not prove to be equally problematic
(e.g., Rochester, when comparing Jane to Bertha Mason, explains
his desire by saying, I wanted her just as a change after that fierce
ragout [Jane Eyre, p. +]), as they are indicative only of his
desire, a desire that Jane shares.
Unlike the world of Jane Eyre, where self-certainty can buttress
a person against the judgments of others (for example, St. John
and Jane herself), in the town of Middlemarch no amount of per-
sonal fortitude can completely prevent the outside world from
affecting ones actions or thoughts. A case in point: even though
Lydgate believes that he is in control of his life and marriage, the
conflicting beliefs of his beloved continually impede his actions.
The omniscient narration contrasts Lydgates and Rosamonds
thoughts in order to demonstrate the disconnect. He believed
that the preposterousness of the notion that he could at once
set upa satisfactory establishment as a married manwas a sufficient
guarantee against [the] danger of proposing to Rosamond (Mid-
dlemarch, p. :6+)that is, sufficient enough for Lydgate. Rosa-
mond, only a few lines later, is occupied with thoughts of a
handsome house in Lowick Gate which she hoped would by-and-
by be vacant, and by the paragraphs end she is imagin[ing]
the drawing-room in her favourite house with various styles of
furniture (p. :6+).
The regular collisions of these two minds reach their apotheo-
sis in the scene of Lydgates proposal. Still insisting that Rosamond
320 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
tookeverythingas lightly as he intendedit (Middlemarch, p. :g),
21
Lydgate visits the Vincy household ostensibly to test his resolve
to avoid the temptations there, to have a few playful words with
Rosamond about his resistance to dissipation, and his firm resolve
to take long fasts even from sweet sounds (p. :gq). Despite his
resolve, his dedication to his plans is lost when Rosamond becomes
teary-eyed in his presence. It is not exactly her pain or desire that
ignites Lydgate, but rather his sudden belief that this sweet young
creaturedependedonhimfor her joy (p. :g). Sopassionovertook
the warm-hearted and rash Lydgate (p. :gq), a passion that con-
structs Rosamonds desire in terms of himself. Given the myopic
vision that permeated both sides of the Lydgate/Vincy courtship, it
is not surprising that their marriage exacerbates, rather than breaks
down, these barriers to shared intimacy.
Eliot insists upon demonstrating that the very proximity of
marriage exposes the fissures in Rosamond and Lydgates rela-
tionship: Between him and her indeed there was that total miss-
ing of each others mental track, which is too evidently possible
even between persons who are continually thinking of each other
(Middlemarch, p. :). In the end, Lydgates approach to his lifes
work and his marriage undermines his efforts at both. Once Rosa-
mond is defined in his mind as the instrument of the ruin of his
potential (one of the final details that the novel offers about their
marriage is that Lydgate, in a moment of frustration near the end
of his life, calls Rosamond his basil plant [p. S:+]), Rosamonds
actions or feelings have no effect on that characterization. While
Lydgate acknowledges his own failures, he regards himself as a vic-
tim of the unwelcome influence of others: He had meant every-
thing to turn out differently; and others had thrust themselves
into his life and thwarted his purposes (p. :). To a degree,
the novel concurs with Lydgates self-assessment. Lydgates failure
might have been influenced by others, but only to the extent of
his devotion to ignorance about them. Rosamond is Lydgates
match in this regard. She is unhappy in her marriage (it had ful-
filled none of her hopes, and had been quite spoiled for her
imagination [p. q+]), and that misery is defined in terms of
21
Another example from Eliots oeuvre is Arthur Donnithornes insistence in Adam
Bede that his intentions have always been understood by Hetty Sorrel.
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 321
her disappointment in Lydgate. She receives his occasional at-
tempts at tenderness as a poor substitute for the happiness he
had failed to give her (p. q:). She, like Rosamond Oliver, goes
on to marry a rich man, whose wealth she regards as her reward
(p. S:+), and Mrs. Lydgates backward slide into the fate shared
by Miss Oliver is one of Eliots most damning characterizations.
Rosamond blames Lydgate for her unhappiness as well as his
own; her only redeeming feature, as is told in the Finale, is that
she does respect Dorothea. This flawed external focus, seeing the
other as fungible or as a medium to deliver happiness or misery,
is a core problem in Middlemarch, but it is also one that may be
overcome.
In Jane Eyre self-knowledge was the means to escape bad deci-
sions or bad marriages. But in Middlemarch it is clear that every
individual impinges upon another and is similarly impinged
upon, and so any self-knowledge that refuses to allow the influ-
ence of the other is not sufficient. Bad marriages thus occur
despite perceived self-knowledge. Lydgate believes that he knows
his own desires very well, but he is deluded by his expectations
of life in relation to Rosamond, imagining that he would serve
as her hero or that she would serve as his trophy. He does not
account for the influence of her subjectivity on his own, and he
cannot accurately anticipate his reactions under that influence.
Dorothea, Lydgates complement in this regard, thoroughly con-
siders her chosen role as helpmate to her future husband, but
she woefully miscalculates her husbands desires and the effect
of his will on her own. Overcoming those delusions requires a
near-violent encounter with the truth embodied by the present,
human other, not with the abstract Providence on which charac-
ters in Jane Eyre depend to confirm internal hunches.
22
For
22
In Jane Eyre agents or voice of change are often curiously disembodied or external
Janes uncles letter and Rochesters voice calling for her are two examples. Janes decision
to leave Thornfield was the result of a soul-searching answered from without: in a dream, a
spirit instructs her to flee temptation (Jane Eyre, p. qo), and on the road away from
Rochester, she begs Providence to sustain her (p. q:+). As for St. John, he tells Jane:
my powers heard a call from heaven to rise, gather their full strength, spread their wings
and mount beyond ken. God had an errand for me (p. q6:). These are moments of crisis
(Jane on the verge of giving up her life while wandering the moors, and St. John deciding
on the future course of his then-adrift life), and the crises are emphasized expressly
because the characters need to seek an answer from outside of the self. Lacking the
322 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
Dorothea this truth arises in the present, human other embodied
by Rosamond Vincy. Dorotheas realization reinforces Eliots
metaphor of the pierglassthat each person is the center of her
own universe, and that to imagine the other simply as a constella-
tion of the self is to condemn oneself to solipsism.
23
Dorothea and
Rosamonds meeting at the novels end, an encounter in which
Rosamond makes possible a rapprochement of Dorothea and Will
Ladislaw, is a harsh, almost violent reckoning with another, forc-
ing both women into a mutual awareness of alterity.
Both Jane Eyre and Middlemarch describe an
encounter between the heroine and her foil (a Rosamond) in
which one is called into consciousness of the otherscenes that
are illustrative of the progression from Bronts to Eliots vision.
In Jane Eyre Jane watches as Rosamond Oliver and St. John walk
away from each other after a clipped conversation. Rosamond
twice looks back at St. John, who never turns to look at her. Jane
recognizes Rosamonds pain: This spectacle of anothers suffer-
ing and sacrifice, rapt my thoughts from exclusive meditation on
my own (Jane Eyre, p. q66). As I noted earlier, Janes sympathy
for Rosamond is contingent on her identification with Rosamond
as a woman in love with a man she cannot have. And though Jane
describes the encounter as a shifting of her thoughts away from
herself, the shift is painfully slight, as it is based in that identifica-
tion. The encounter fails to help Jane understand Rosamond bet-
ter (it is perhaps as much projection as it is identification), and
Rosamond emerges from this realization not a fuller person in
Janes mind, but rather one more like Jane herself. In Middle-
march that encounter with anothers pain also forces the charac-
ters to cease exclusive meditation of their own situations. Yet in
Eliots novel these encounters require interaction beyond merely
seeing anothers pain; it is precisely ones inability to anticipate or
access the other that imbues such interactions with potential.
fortitude to assert desire definitively, they call upon Providence. For both St. John and Jane,
such moments are only steps on the road to a clearer self-awareness that can shirk outside
pressure.
23
For the full parable, see the opening of chapter : of Middlemarch (pp. :Sg).
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 323
In Dorothea and Rosamonds meeting near the end of Mid-
dlemarch, Dorothea must confront her assumption that Will is
romantically involved with Rosamond, while Rosamond must con-
front the truth that Will is devoted to Dorothea. Though later she
would claim otherwise, Eliot revised the scene repeatedly, intent
on capturing the significance of the interaction.
24
What is once
an encounter of rivals becomes something else, as each woman
is in turn pulled out of a deep self-awareness into an awareness
of the otherness of the other. At first Dorothea misreads Rosa-
monds intentions, too much preoccupied with her own anxiety,
to be aware that Rosamond was trembling too (Middlemarch,
p. S). For her part, Rosamond is taken hold of by an emotion
stronger than her ownhurried along in a new movement which
gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect (p. S6), yet
she does find the words to release Dorothea from her suspense:
Ladislaw is in love with Dorothea, not with Rosamond. The revela-
tion surprises Dorothea, who expected Rosy to vindicate herself,
not Ladislaw. Eliot locates much of the affective power of the
scene in their mutual surpriseeach woman is overcome by her
own emotion, but even more by the encounter with someone else
entirely, whose experience was unknown, even unimagined. One
might expect the self-centered Rosamond Vincy to be shaken by
the experience, but even the generous and contemplative Doro-
thea could not have imagined it:
It was a newer crisis in Rosamonds experience than even Dorothea
could imagine: she was under the first great shock that had shat-
tered her dream-world in which she had been easily confident of
herself and critical of others; and this strange unexpected manifes-
tation of feeling in a woman whom she had approached with a
shrinking aversion and dread, as one who must necessarily have a
jealous hatred towards her, made her soul totter all the more with
a sense that she had been walking in an unknown world which
had just broken in upon her. (p. Sq)
Here, an encounter with the other woman leads to an encounter
with the world, an unknown worldit leads Rosamond not back
24
See Jerome Beaty, The Writing of Chapter S+, in his Middlemarch from Notebook to
Novel: A Study of George Eliots Creative Method (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, +g6o), p. +o.
324 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
to herself but instead expressly outside of herself. Moreover, the
result of the encounter is generosity, even at the expense of ones
own (imagined) happiness. This breakthrough into the foreign
mind-space of the other opens up the possibility for better rela-
tionships, for actions based on a genuine empathic extension that
first recognize difference before recognizing similarity.
And thus Eliot depicts two flawed womenRosamond and
Dorotheacognizant of their own limitations but willing to
extend themselves by recognizing the unknown experience of
another woman. That imagination carries the individual outside
of herself into a fuller, more generous understanding of the world
and its inhabitants. For Rosamond Vincy that understanding arises
inaninstant, and might indeed be confined entirely to the conver-
sation she shared with Dorothea about Ladislaw. Dorothea proves
the fuller realization of the seed of empathic extension that ends
Middlemarchs Rosamond plot. Nevertheless, always entangled with
the other, Dorothea Brooke cannot be a new St. Teresa, as her
world and those in it no longer support the work of an ardently
willing soul in the way they once did (Middlemarch, p. ). In the
novels finale Eliot writes: there is nocreature whose inwardbeing
is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside
it (pp. S:q:). This is a critique of social strictures that bindpeo-
ple to inequitable institutions and ideals, but also a comment on
the inescapability of the obligation to the other. Early in her mar-
riage to Casaubon, Dorothea is described as being as blind to his
inward troubles as he to hers: she had not yet learned those hid-
den conflicts in her husband which claim our pity (p. +gq). The
yet is important, and is repeated: She had not yet listened
patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating
violently (p. +gq). Substitute Casaubon, or Lydgate, or Rosamond
Vincy in Dorotheas place, and the sentiments still hold; being lim-
ited to knowledge of oneself is not enough, as one must work to
learn to move beyond the self and recognize the limitations of
self-knowledge.
Eliots modeling of the dynamics of interpersonal relationships
depends on the role that the recognition of alterity plays in her
description of the ethical drive, a recognition that does not inhibit
empathic extension but rather makes it possible. In this way, Eliots
fiction anticipates Emmanuel Levinass phenomenological model,
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 325
a model that provides a useful touchstone for understanding
Eliots construction, wherein only through the individuals recog-
nition of the radical, interminable alterity of the other does the
possibility for empathy exist. Writing in the mid twentieth century,
Levinas maintains that the other is alterity,
25
yet he does not
place the self and other in a dialectic, suggesting instead that the
other remains always unknowable. In Levinass account, the
encounter with that radical alterity of the other human opens up
the space for ethical behavior. And in his account, only another
human is radically other and cannot be folded into ones self-
conception or made into an object of the self. This distinction
helps to explain the connection in Middlemarch between Lydgates
and Casaubons difficulties with their scholastic endeavors and
their difficulties with human relationships. Not recognizing the
futility of their chosen projects, each man works toward a compre-
hensive and exhaustive knowledge, believing all the while in the
possibility of success. While those limitations may be evident in
even the most superficial reading of the novel, what becomes clear
via the Rosamond plot is that the same certainty of knowledge and
ignorance of limitationapplies to the way inwhichthese men(and
others) approach relationships with other people. Levinas cau-
tions against the common desire for or expectation of alterity in
non-human objectsa book, for example, cannot function as an
other. But the characters in Eliots fiction routinely collapse that
distinction.
26
If Lydgate believes that he can (and will!) unlock
the secrets of the tissue that unifies all living things, then why
should he doubt his capacity to understand his relatively simple-
minded wife? (Lydgate is, of course, gravely mistaken in this
belief.) Whereas St. Johns and Janes certainty ensured their
respective desires, Lydgates seems to ensure the frustration of his.
The difference between the Rosamond plots of Jane Eyre
and Middlemarch rests with this revolution of emphasis of the
unknownwhereas for the characters in Jane Eyre the self must
25
Emmanuel Levinas, The Proximity of the Other (+gS6), trans. Bettina Bergo,
in his Is It Righteous to Be? Interviews with Emmanuel Levinas, ed. Jill Robbins (Stanford:
Stanford Univ. Press, :oo+), p. :+.
26
See the chapters Alterity and the Limits of Realism and Sawing Hard Stones:
Reading Others in George Eliots Fiction, in Rebecca Mitchell, Victorian Lessons in
Empathy and Difference (Columbus: Ohio State Univ. Press, :o++).
326 N I N E T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y L I T E R A T U R E
be sorted, defined, and refined, and progression must be marked
by a movement into certainty, for the characters in Middlemarch
the unknown world is the world of the other, and progression
occurs through an acceptance of uncertainty. A community, an
environment peopled with others, precludes a pervading sense of
certainty of self or other; the kind of self-certitude exhibited by
St. John and ultimately achieved by Jane Eyre is neither possible
nor desirable in the world of Middlemarch.
University of Texas-Pan American
ABSTRACT
Rebecca N. Mitchell, The Rosamond Plots: Alterity and the Unknown
in Jane Eyre and Middlemarch (pp. o:)
In both Charlotte Bronts Jane Eyre (+Sq) and George Eliots Middlemarch (+S+:) an
earnest and ambitious man falls in love with a superficial and beautiful woman named
Rosamond. This essay explores the Rosamond plots to argue that Middlemarch stages a
radical revision of the version of subjectivity vaunted in Jane Eyre. Via its invocation of Jane
Eyres Rosamond plot, Middlemarch challenges the very nature of self-knowledge, questions
the status of identification in intersubjective relationships, and insists upon the unknow-
ability of the other. In Eliots retelling, the self-awareness promoted in Jane Eyre is not only
insufficient, but also verges on self-absorption and even solipsism. One way in which Eliot
enacts this revision is by shifting the focus of positive affective relationships away frommod-
els of identification. The change marks an evolution in our understanding of the way in
which character and communal life is conceived by each author. More specifically, Eliots
revisions situate empathic response as being dependent upon the recognition of the radi-
cal alterity of the other.
Keywords: Charlotte Bront; George Eliot; Jane Eyre ; Middlemarch;
alterity
J A N E E Y R E A N D M I D D L E M A R C H 327