Notes on The Prelude to Middlemarch, by George Elliot (by Mary Ann Evans)

This is a really good Prelude. I’ll make a few comments, which may be to the benefit of a reader, or for my own recall. The “mysterious mixture” seems to be the carry over of Galenic physiology where an ideal disposition is referred to as eukrasia, lit. well mixed as of wine. It refers to the mixture of humors which at least partly determine the character of a person. Saint Theresa is her example of a proper object of study for this “mixture,” beginning with her deeds and ending with reflection on her character. The idea here is that her flame burns hotly, a characteristic of men in the Elizabethan conception of gender and the humors, the “flame” referring to the character of her heart–the source of animal spirits. Theresa’s deeds showed an excellence of courage and idealism the Victorian world would have had a hard time countenancing in a woman.

“Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa’s passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.”

But Theresa is not the only woman of spirit that demands our attention. Tragically, the other Theresas have not always been met with opportunity for satisfying their ideal natures. Not only are these women overlooked, but they are charged with deficiency of character on account of the tension between their nature and their opportunity (and education, “dim lights”). They do not even have the benefit of the pre-modern religious confidence that made heroes and martyrs out of courageous women. They are not merely unwept, they are condemned. He (she) sarcastically notes how inconvenient it is for society that God has not made all women equally incompetent. 

“That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.”

“Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women’s coiffure and the favorite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet [swan] is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.”

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