Steering Out in Mid-Sea


At the head of Book 5, chapter 44 is this epigraph:

I would not creep along the coast, but steer
Out in mid-sea, by guidance of the stars.

This little couplet is about Dorothea leaving behind the shore-hugging life she has had with Casaubon and charting a more adventurous and exciting (sexual) course. Or at least it’s about her starting to think, obliquely, in these terms. In chapter 44 Casaubon is dying but not dead, and Dorothea, walking around the hospital grounds, is thinking about her future.

Critics, universally, assume these two lines were written by Eliot herself, which is sort-of, though not entirely, right. Actually, ‘creep along the coast’ is a phrase from Dryden’s The Hind and the Panther 1:128-33, and the six-line passage in which it occurs rather looks like it has been boiled down by Eliot for her two.

Why choose we, then, like Bilanders, to creep
Along the coast, and land in view to keep,
When safely we may launch into the deep?
In the same vessel which our Saviour bore,
Himself the pilot, let us leave the shore,
And with a better guide a better world explore.

(A ‘bilander’ is a flat-bottomed masted Dutch ship, designed for coastal traffic). This piously Christian sentiment is, at root, classical. The contrast between hugging the shore and the more dangerous but far-reaching tactic of heading out across open water defined classical navigation. The Greeks even had a particular name for the former activity. Here’s Nicholas Purcell in the Oxford Classical Dictionary:

Periploi, ‘voyages around’ (i.e. around a sea, following the coastline), were the standard basis of ancient descriptive geography. Sequences of harbours, landings, watering-places, shelters from bad weather, landmarks, or hazards could be remembered in an oral tradition as a sometimes very long list, and in written culture provided a summation of space that could be easier to intuit, and which offered much more room for detail, than cartography.

More adventurous Greek heroes repudiate such timid periplism! Here’s Homer’s Odyssey 5:270-82.

Gladly then did goodly Odysseus spread his sail to the breeze; and he sat and guided his raft skilfully with the steering-oar, nor did sleep fall upon his eyelids, as he watched the Pleiads, and late-setting Bootes, and the Bear, which men also call the Wain, which ever circles where it is and watches Orion, and alone has no part in the baths of Ocean. For this star Calypso, the beautiful goddess, had bidden him to keep on the left hand as he sailed over the sea. For seventeen days then he sailed over the sea, and on the eighteenth appeared the shadowy mountains of the land of the Phaeacians, where it lay nearest to him; and it shewed like unto a shield in the misty deep.
[This is the old Loeb translation: Homer’s Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray (London, William Heinemann 1919)]

I wonder if Eliot had this Homeric moment in mind as she wrote her couplet? One of the (if you’ll excuse me) oddities of the Odyssey is that its overarching storyline—a man travelling back through adversity to reunite with his beloved wife—is interrupted by stories of that same man pairing-off with women not his wife, and generally finding himself repeatedly tangled-up in the narratological logic of sexual romance. Item: Odysseus loiters with Circe. Item: as the epic opens he is cohabiting with the beautiful nymph Calypso. Indeed, it is leaving Calypso’s island that occasions the passage quoted above, where Odysseus sets out, not creeping along the shore, but steering out in mid-sea by guidance of the stars.

And where is he heading? To the land of the Phaeacians, where he meets the beautiful young Phaeacian princess Nausicaa and afterwards captivates her with stories of his many adventures. It reads as the set-up to a romantic story that ought to end with Odysseus marrying Nausicaa, although (of course) it doesn’t—instead of that romantic ending, the story makes a knight’s-move into a different denouement: the Phaeacians gift Odysseus quantities of treasure and send him on his way back to his actual wife.

You couldn’t call Odysseus sexually faithful, certainly. There’s always seemed to me something ironic in the poem’s happy ending, involving as it does his reunion with Penelope, who has gone to such extraordinary lengths to avoid cheating on her husband. And as Middlemarch moves into its second half it reveals itself as, amongst other things, a complex meditation on the nature of marital infidelity, not (of course) as actual physical adultery, but as a complication of the wedded heart. Casaubon, fretful at the prospect of Dorothea having sex with Ladislaw, decides that such a connection would constitute adultery even after his death; and so he arranges his posthumous testament to try and prevent it. We, as readers, naturally don’t see it that way—a widow should be allowed the marry again without acquiring the taint of adultery, surely! And Dorothea is hardly Odysseus, gadding about and jumping into bed with whomever she comes across. And yet—and yet—she is conflicted, I think. The story wouldn’t be half so interesting if she weren’t. Which is to say: it’s not about the money that she would lose if she marries Ladislaw, or not only that. There’s something else at work in her sexual conscience.

I’d argue we flatten the dramatic dilemma of the novel’s second half if we take an absolutist moral position with respect to it: as it might be, telling ourselves Casaubon is wholly irrational in demanding his widow be sexually chaste after his death; Dorothea is wholly within her rights to take another husband and should feel no scruple about desiring another man. It’s a fair enough moral position, but it runs the risk of missing what Eliot is doing. She is not an absolutist writer—always fonder, we might say, as per her title, of the middle line. Say Dorothea has been guilty, even self-deceiving, about her desire for Ladislaw whilst her husband was alive. Those are the kinds of feelings that don’t merely evaporate now that her husband is dead.

In other words I’m suggesting Eliot is suggesting there is something complicated in our married lives: something adulterated about our desire for our spouses even in the most untroubled of marriages (and you wouldn’t call Casaubon and Dorothea’s marriage untroubled). Odysseus and Penelope, we might say, are closer to the truth of marriage than Sir Charles Grandison and Lady Harriet. If that weren’t the case, the psychodrama of Middlemarch would be considerably less compelling than it actually is.

Of course Rosamond has no such Dorothean scruples. Indeed, immediately before this chapter (and its Odyssean epigraph) she, newly married to Lydgate, finds herself awaking into a worldy awareness of the potency of, precisely, extra-marital sexual allure:

Rosamond felt herself beginning to know a great deal of the world, especially in discovering what when she was in her unmarried girlhood had been inconceivable to her except as a dim tragedy in by-gone costumes—that women, even after marriage, might make conquests and enslave men. At that time young ladies in the country, even when educated at Mrs. Lemon’s, read little French literature later than Racine, and public prints had not cast their present magnificent illumination over the scandals of life. Still, vanity, with a woman’s whole mind and day to work in, can construct abundantly on slight hints, especially on such a hint as the possibility of indefinite conquests. How delightful to make captives from the throne of marriage with a husband as crown-prince by your side—himself in fact a subject—while the captives look up forever hopeless, losing their rest probably, and if their appetite too, so much the better! [Book 5 chapter 43]

‘What can a man do when he takes to adoring one of you mermaids?’ her poor husband wonders, aloud, unconsciously picking up the nautical metaphor. What indeed?

There are a great many Victorian novels about the scandal of bigamous marriage, not because bigamy was a particular problem in the nineteenth-century, but because this was one of the ways authors could navigate the conventions of 19th-century respectability and representation so as to talk about a more basic, universal  human fact: that lines of desire do not always align themselves with the marriage bond.

A little more on the Homer. It had become well-known by the 1870s that Homer’s epics were stitched together from a variety of earlier myths and stories (although it wasn’t until the 20th century that the full scope of the oral deep-history of ‘Homer’—and his likely non-existence—was finally established). In the case of the episode with Nausicaa what has happened, evidently, is that Homer has integrated into his epic an older ‘romance’ story, in which the beautiful princess helps the shipwrecked stranger who turns out to be a great prince who in turn wins her heart with his magnificent storytelling. Everything in this portion of the Odyssey points us in this direction … except that it doesn’t work out that way. Except that this isn’t the direction the story goes down (it can’t, because Odysseus already has a wife). Something about this implied but broken-off romantic emplotment interests me, and interests me especially with respect to Middlemarch. Am I the only reader who sees, in Eliot’s twinned stories of Dorothea and Lydgate (originally two separate novels, of course) an as-it-were Nausicaa/Odysseus implicit-tale of thwarted possibility? Am I the only person who thinks they’d make the perfect couple: both young, beautiful, idealistic, driven? Of course they can’t be together because Doroetha is married, and by the time she is free to marry again Lydgate is married. And I concede there’s nothing in the novel that explicitly reverts to any mutual attraction between them. Maybe it’s a mere will-to-neatness on my part that thinks in these terms, but still.


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