One question that must surely occur to most modern readers is whether Dorothea and her elderly husband consumate their marriage. Of course, in one sense this is a meaningless question – these are fictional characters who do not exist outside what the author reveals of their lives. If George Eliot chose not to tell us whether or not this marriage was consummated, then we will never know. But that is not the whole story. The conventions of the time would have prevented Eliot from addressing this question directly. By implication, ‘Middlemarch’ poses the question as to whether a happy sexual relationship was part of a successful marriage. In my view Eliot gives us many clear indications that the marriage of young, vibrant Dorothea Brooke and her aged (47!) husband, Reverend Casaubon, was sexually unsuccessful, and possibly celibate.

Casaubon is sickly, with a heart problem that (spoilers) finishes him off quickly. He spends his honeymoon ignoring Dorothea, leaving her to sob alone. His doctor forecasts he may live “up to” another fifteen years “if we are very careful” and avoiding “agitation of all kinds, and against excessive application”. Dorothea’s expectation of a physical relationship are limited – her description of marriage in the novel’s first chapter is thus: “the really delightful marriage must be that where your husband was a sort of father, and could teach you even Hebrew”. As a prospective husband and lover, Casaubon inspires little confidence – his proposal is probably the driest, least romantic ever, and concludes:

“You have all – nay, more than all – those qualities which I have ever regarded as the characteristic excellences of womanhood. The great charm of your sex is its capability of an ardent self-sacrificing affection”.

Is he looking for a wife, or an assistant?

Eliot introduces early and often the idea of Dorothea being like a virginal saint – “Her hand and wrist were so finely formed that she could wear sleeves not less bare of style than those in which the Blessed Virgin appeared to Italian painters”. The reference to Italian painters anticipates the honeymoon in Rome, and the art which appears to cause Dorothea such distress.

One scene early in the novel stood out for me as a clear warning of what Dorothea is to expect from her marriage. It is the chapter when the newly engaged Dorothea is shown around Lowick, Mr Casaubon’s home, for the first time. Casaubon encourages her to choose a room as her “boudoir”. (The word is used here in the sense of a room for her private and exclusive use – although today the word has more intimate connotations, as somewhere for private (even possibly dangerous) liaisons). She declines to choose, but her younger more ebullient sister Celia urges her to select the bow-fronted room on the first floor. They (Casaubon, Dorothea, Celia, and the sisters’ uncle and guardian, Mr Brooke) go to view the room. This is how Eliot describes what happens:

“Now, my dear Dorothea, I wish you to favour me by pointing out which room you would like to have as your boudoir,” said Mr Casaubon, showing that his views of the womanly nature were sufficiently large to include that requirement.

“It is very kind of you to think of that,” said Dorothea, “but I assure you I would rather have all those matters decided for me. I shall be much happier to take everything as it is – just as you have been used to have it, or as you will yourself choose it to be. I have no motive for wishing anything else.”

“Oh, Dodo,” said Celia, “will you not have the bow-windowed room up-stairs?”

Mr Casaubon led the way thither. The bow-window looked down the avenue of limes; the furniture was all of a faded blue, and there were miniatures of ladies and gentlemen with powdered hair hanging in a group. A piece of tapestry over a door also showed a blue-green world with a pale stag in it. The chairs and tables were thin-legged and easy to upset. It was a room where one might fancy the ghost of a tight-laced lady revisiting the scene of her embroidery. A light bookcase contained duodecimo volumes of polite literature in calf, completing the furniture.

“Yes,” said Mr. Brooke, “this would be a pretty room with some new hangings, sofas, and that sort of thing. A little bare now.”

There’s lot going on here. Casaubon’s invitation is interpreted as showing his views of “the womanly nature” as sympathetic and understanding – women need somewhere private for their moments of reflection, to do their mysterious womanly deeds. Dorothea is suitably submissive – but not sincere, because Celia’s suggestion about the ideal room for her is swiftly followed up, and the idea of leaving things entirely in Casaubon’s hands is forgotten.

The room in question has the air of a memorial – the furniture is faded and the colours of the tapestry have become blue-green and pale with age. The pictures hang in a group (at least I assume it is the pictures hanging in a group, not the ladies and gentlemen themselves!) representing a family tree, of sorts. The furniture is subtly personified – it has thin legs and is easy to upset – which is a hint perhaps of the room’s previous inhabitant. Thin legged chairs and furniture, which upset (in the sense of fall over) easily are very impractical – this is a room off limits to boisterous children or blundering men, one assumes. The alternative meaning of upset, of having emotions shaken, is picked up in the narrator’s image of the room “where one might the ghost of a light-faced lady revisiting the scene of her embroidery”. This is a clever joke – the sentence sets the reader up to expect the phrase “the scene of her death”, but takes a last minute swerve to a lighter comic ending. What we don’t know at this point, but are told shortly, is that this was the retiring room of Mr Casaubon’s mother, now deceased. It is Mrs Casaubon who is the ghostly light-faced embroiderer conjured in the imagination of the narrator, looking down from the wall in one of the faded miniatures. At this point the reader is not to know, but can surely expect the maternal presence memorialised in this room to haunt the shortly to be wed couple.

I appreciate this may be taking things too far for any reader that has got this far, but allow me one further comment on this scene, in relation to the pale stag. Eliot could have chosen to decorate her piece of tapestry with any number of objects from classical mythology, and a stag is far from an obscure choice. But it is unlikely to have been a completely random choice either (and even if it was, so what?). A stag is a classic symbol of masculinity. A two dimensional, pale and faded stag calls to mind the figure in the narrative (up to this point) who is superficially the predominant male figure, the groom to be, but who is described earlier (chapter 3) as having a smile like “pale wintry sunshine”, “sallow” and a “dried bookworm”. One need not be the most observant or acute reader to have spotted that the chances of success of this passionless marriage are limited.

On return from her unhappy honeymoon, Dorothea revisits this room. Eliot clearly wants to tell us that the marriage thus far is unconsumated, or at the very least sexually unsuccessful. She uses a range of symbols, metaphors and euphemisms, as an alternative to the bald facts. The “very furniture in the room seemed to have shrunk since she saw it before: the stag in the tapestry looked more like a ghost in his ghostly blue-green world; the volumes of polite literature in the bookcase looked more like immovable imitations of books.” (Chapter 28) Things have changed, and decayed. Just a few lines later she again surveys her room:

“her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colourless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight”.

Dorothea’s vitality, and by implication her sexuality, is emphasised constantly; in contrast Casaubon’s shrivelled libido is hinted at insistently. If the reader needs the dots joined, in chapter 29 things are made a little more explicit. The narrator declares their frustration with portraying events solely from Dorothea’s point of view, and instead tells us something of Casaubon’s thoughts and feeling. Considering his thoughts on marriage and an ideal wife, he concludes: “On such a young lady he would make handsome settlements, and he would neglect no arrangement for her happiness: in return he would receive family pleasures, and leave behind him that copy of himself which seemed so urgently required of a man”. “Family pleasures” is a very lightly coded euphemism for marital sex, and the description of the outcome of those pleasures – a child, a copy of himself – leave no doubt that Casaubon originally anticipated that procreation would play part of his married life. However, the narrator notes sadly that “he had not yet succeeded in issuing copies of his mythological key”. Superficially this is a reference to his book on mythology, but the metaphorical substitution of key for penis is a common one.

It is also significant that while Casaubon’s and Dorothea’s brief marriage remains childless, by contrast the other newly weds – Celia and Sir James, and Lydgate and Rosamund – both have pregnancies very early in their marriages.

One last clue, if it were needed, that Casaubon is impotent resides in the name of his house, Lowick. A candle with a low wick is approaching the end of its useful life and has very little power. Eliot uses names in this way throughout Middlemarch – indeed the name of the novel itself is an example.

So was their marriage consummated? Eliot goes as far as she can to be explicit about this – a healthy sex life is an important component of married life, and that Dorothea and Casaubon’s relationship was in this regard, sadly lacking.