chapter  6
20 Pages

Anatomizing Excellence: Middlemarch, Moral Saints and the Languages of Belief

Boldly voicing her disgust with ‘fearful, delicate, dainty ladies’, Dixon, the heroine’s servant in Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South, suggests that the cult of femininity is to blame for the lack of saints in the modern world (415). In Dickens’s novels angels abound; and males, like Stephen Blackpool of Hard Times attribute saintliness to those females, like Rachel or Sissy, who are capable of acute moral perception and responsiveness to the needs of others. In the Prelude to Middlemarch George Eliot identifi es Saint Teresa’s saintliness with her great act of institutional and spiritual reform, a manifestation of moral excellence apparently inconceivable in the nineteenth century. So how do we recognize a modern saint? What qualities does she possess? And what can act in place of the ‘social faith’ that according to the narrator of Middlemarch in earlier times spurred the saint to accomplish great good? That Dorothea Brooke is proposed by George Eliot as a likely candidate for moral saintdom seems obvious. It is less obvious whether by the end of the novel she can be seen to have reached such glorious heights. In the opinion of one of Dorothea’s neighbours, the mordant Mrs Cadwallader, Dorothea suffers from a ‘constitutional disease’ that makes her obstinate ‘in her absurdities’ (84-5).1 Absurd at times she may be, but more signifi cantly, Dorothea misses her vocation ‘to make her life greatly effective’, and her lack of worldly recognition, of infl uence and acclaim, is generally read as signalling failure.2