Corps de l’article

“‘There is something in what you say, my dear, something in what you say—but not everything—eh, Ladislaw?’”

“There’s something singular in things: they come round, you know. … There’s something singular in things.”

—George Eliot, Middlemarch (243, 501; my emphasis)

Muddled tautologies like these epigraphs characterize the idiom of Mr. Brooke in Middlemarch. Brooke speaks in discordant lists punctuated with “that kind of thing” and “that sort of thing,” and, as he says, “Well, there is something in that, you know” (52). Brooke’s quirky idiom parodies what seems to have been a common Victorian colloquialism,[1] but it nevertheless models the ways Middlemarch knows and values reality; a grammar of things underwrites the whole novel. Middlemarch uses “thing” 233 times, “things” 314 times, “something” 293 times, and “nothing” 290 times. The novel is long and these are common words,[2] but the novel also foregrounds this usage in short chapter epigraphs from works like The Maid’s Tragedy (5), Don Quixote (10), Measure for Measure (413), “The Traveler” (395), Paradise Lost (15), and lyric fragments by Eliot (453) that all center on forms of “thing.” Invoking such relations with antecedent-less variants of thing enables characters and the narrator to animate and defer agency to these relations without delineating them.

The pronounced ambiguity and repetitiveness of Brooke’s idiom adds to his fatuity, and consequently much criticism dismisses Brooke as a Dickensian caricature or an ancillary flat character.[3] But Brooke’s dialect exaggerates a pervasive stylistic and epistemological issue in Middlemarch and other nineteenth-century fiction; however fatuous, Brooke’s idiom exemplifies the explicit epistemological assumptions that govern focused characters like Lydgate and Casaubon. The very idiom that flaunts Brooke’s inanity is only a comic exaggeration of the grammar and implicit assumptions that underwrite the deep subjectivity of characters like Ladislaw and Dorothea.

Brooke affects to integrate, categorize, or otherwise summarize the meaning of his paratactic remarks with the summary phrases “that sort of thing” and “that kind of thing,” phrases which imply that the abstract relationships underwriting his lists are so obvious that they do not need explanation. His grammar of “things” substitutes an abstract classification (a kind or sort of thing) for implicit relations whose complexity otherwise exceeds articulation. As the narrator explains, “when he has something painful to tell, it was usually his way to introduce it among a number of disjointed particulars, as if it were a medicine that would get a milder flavor by mixing” (501). Thus Brooke introduces Casaubon’s proposal to Dorothea in a preposterous flurry of sorts and kinds of things: “he is a tiptop man and may be a bishop—that kind of thing, you know, if Peel stays in” (26); “I said, my niece is very young, and that kind of thing. But I did not think it necessary to go into everything” (26); “people should have their own way in marriage, and that sort of thing—up to a certain point, you know. I have always said that, up to a certain point” (26); “to be sure,—if you like learning and standing, and that sort of thing, we can’t have everything” (26); “you couldn’t put the thing better—couldn’t put it better, beforehand, you know. But there are oddities in things […] Life isn’t cast in a mould—not cut out by rule and line, and that sort of thing” (27); “well, you are not fond of show, a great establishment, balls, dinners, that kind of thing […] You have not the same tastes as every young lady; and a clergyman and scholar—who may be a bishop—that kind of thing—may suit you better than Chettam” (27).

Brooke fumbles his remarks, perhaps out of awkwardness, perhaps out of embarrassment, perhaps out of a sense that something is not quite right, but he can not put a name to it: but the style of his fumbling makes him an exemplary representative of Middlemarch and of ideological or epistemological reform even though he fails as a political representative and reformer. When Brooke says, “Lydgate has lots of ideas, quite new, about ventilation and diet, that sort of thing” (59), he obscures and illogically juxtaposes the particulars of Lydgate’s innovations; but he nevertheless accurately represents the colloquial commensurability of Lydgate’s ideas (how Middlemarch society lumps these innovations) as well as helping to reveal the fragmentary understanding Lydgate has of these ideas. Lydgate idealizes the microscopic “nature of things.” His goal is to isolate “hitherto hidden facts of structure … the very grain of things,” “the homogenous origin of all the tissues” (95, 282). Such investigation posits the existence of an atomistic unit of similarity, a type of tissue linking all living beings but invisible to the naked eye.[4] The descriptions of Lydgate’s efforts invoke Lucretius’s project in De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), which Eliot reread while planning Middlemarch[5]; they also echo Brooke’s summary use of “that sort of thing.” For all his technological aptitude and “ideas,” Lydgate fails to extend his investigation of “the very grain of things” to the networks of individuals, circumstances, and matter that Bulstrode calls the “framework of things” (82) and “the general scheme of things” (99).[6] The narrator reflects that “there were many crass minds in Middlemarch whose reflective scales could only weigh things in the lump” (100), and yet with all his attention to minutiae Lydgate, like Casaubon, suffers from an inability to estimate “things in the lump.”

For all its imprecision, Brooke’s grasp of things is more socially functional than Lydgate’s or Casaubon’s. On Dorothea’s return from her honeymoon, Brooke remarks, “Rome has agreed with you, I see—happiness, frescoes, the antique—that sort of thing” (174). The manifold joke here is, first, how “that sort of thing” reduces the historical and aesthetic wonders of Rome to a generic clutter of expectations that equates feeling (“happiness”) with a discordant list of unspecific material objects and abstractions (“frescoes, the antique”) as if they were inexorably connected; and, second, how “that sort of thing” casually elides the conjugal expectations for honeymoons, which Dorothea misses but which Brooke (mistakenly or politely) supposes to have “agreed” with her. “That sort of thing” condenses these aesthetic and conjugal expectations and leaves their particulars to the imagination. The phrase thus masks the discrepancy between generic expectations (marked by “sort of thing”) and actuality: in this case, Dorothea’s disappointment with Rome, the honeymoon, and Casaubon, in line with general Victorian disappointment with honeymoons and Rome,[7] but throughout the novel permutations of the phrase constitute reality in the form of such discrepancies. By mocking the idea that his expectations would coincide with reality, Brooke’s pattern of speech highlights a paradigmatic “strategy” in Middlemarch, as Elizabeth Ermarth puts it, “that engages readers in a process that turns toward, and then away from, every formulation” (114-18). Middlemarch figures reality as the inconsistency between explicit expectations and implicit actuality. This is the kind of knowledge Eliot idealizes in “The Natural History of German Life” (1856), knowledge that “would include all the essential facts in the existence and relations of the thing” (267).[8] As Suzanne Graver writes, this phrase “exemplifies one of the most important premises of ‘natural history’: that all knowledge is a knowledge of relations” (31-2). Middlemarch inscribes this epistemology of relations in idiosyncratic variations of “thing.” These function like the taxonomical characters[9] of natural history that Michel Foucault describes in The Order of Things: they articulate “the relation between visible structure and criteria of identity” (226); they “determine the ‘character’ that groups individuals and species into more general units, that distinguishes those units one from another, and that enables them to fit together to form a table in which all individuals and all groups, known or unknown, will have their appropriate place” (226). Harry Shaw suggests that it is “our ‘common’ stock of words … [that] will put us in contact with reality, not the ability of the individual, sitting alone, to devise distinctions” (88) and Brooke’s use of things to invoke such distinctions is the form in which the novel articulates reality. In interpreting Brooke’s language this way, I engage “materiality” and “memory” methodologically: I treat Eliot’s grammar of things as material evidence for the ways her novel documents reforms in nineteenth-century ways of knowing other than its explicit historicization of the Reform Bill of 1832.

Brooke consistently “remembers” his concrete learning and interest in material innovations or reforms as if they were not relevent to the present. When Chettam says he is reading Humphry Davy, “to see if something cannot be done in setting a good pattern of farming among [his] tenants” (11), Mr. Brooke explains:

“A great mistake, Chettam […] going into electrifying your land and that kind of thing, and making a parlour of your cow-house. It won’t do. I went into science a great deal myself at one time; but I saw it would not do. It leads to everything; you can let nothing alone. No, no—see that your tenants don’t sell their straw, and that kind of thing; and give them drainage-tiles, you know. But your fancy-farming will not do—the most expensive sort of whistle you can buy.”


This anxiety that one thing will lead to everything puts a comic twist on the novel’s earnest theme about the material and immaterial interconnectedness of things.

Brooke later dissuades Chettam from improvements with another hilarious list. “You should read history—look at ostracism, persecution, martyrdom, and that kind of thing,” he says; “outlay,” “that’s a showy sort of thing to do, you know … A man who does that is always charged with eccentricity, inconsistency, and that kind of thing” (240). Brooke here caricatures the eighteenth-century ideal of the disinterested gentleman, who moves in all circles without being absorbed in any and who has a totalizing appreciation of the state of things. With things, this totalizing vision alludes to the influential eighteenth-century moral philosopher Samuel Clarke’s idea of “the eternal fitness of things.” Clarke proffered an ethics whereby “things as they are” possess an objective fitness or correlative to the will, such that one is morally responsible for making oneself fit with things as they are (qtd. in Humphreys 188-98). This justified the status quo—the nature of things, the state of things, the condition, order, frame, or scheme of things—as divinely ordered and thus morally sanctioned.[10] In phrases such as the title of William Godwin’s Caleb Williams; or Things as They Are, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s description of men as “the first of things” and “the roof and crown of things” (78), and many other prominent writings, residues of Clarke’s philosophy survived even though its connotations varied widely from Clarke’s perspective. Eliot directly alludes to Clarke’s ethics when Fred Vincy is disappointed with the one hundred pounds he receives from Featherstone: “For [the bank notes] actually presented the absurdity of being less than his hopefulness had decided that they must be. What can the fitness of things mean, if not their fitness to a man’s expectations? Failing this, absurdity and atheism gape behind him” (86). As in the case of the honeymoon expectations, “things” again stands in for a discrepancy between expectation and actuality; it instantiates an implicit order or “fitness,” but characters interpret that order differently because it comes always in ambiguous permutations of things that are subject to interpretation. This passage is also analogous to the famous “pier-glass” metaphor for individual perspective, which concludes “These things are a parable.” Unlike Fred, Brooke knows “it doesn’t do to reason about things; and law is law” (245).

Brooke is wrong to discourage reform, reason, and improvement, but his advice is correct in relation to Casaubon, who is the paradigm of specificity and over-close attention. When Casaubon falls ill and Lydgate advises him to abstain from “too eager and monotonous application” (180), Brooke adds, “I would never give way to that; I was always versatile.” He recommends that Casaubon take up “fishing … have a turning room, make toys, table-legs, and that kind of thing … shuttlecock … conchology … Smollett—‘Roderick Random,’ ‘Humphrey Clinker’” (180). Brooke recommends desultory hobbies because in Middlemarch specialization leads “too far.” “I overdid it at one time,” Brooke says, “about topography, ruins, temples—I thought I had a clue, but I saw it would carry me too far, and nothing might have come of it. You may go any length in that sort of thing, and nothing may come of it, you know” (174). At the end of the novel, when Brooke asks for Chettam’s advice about whether or not to change his will with respect to Dorothea, Chettam replies, “I would let things remain as they are,” and Mr. Brooke “was relieved by the sense that he was not expected to do anything in particular” (514). Particular action in this case means altering his entail to punish Dorothea for marrying Will Ladislaw, and so inaction is the right thing to do. The novel values involvement (in valuing Dorothea, Mary Garth, Chettam, and Caleb Garth), but it also values certain modes of distance or the detachment of oneself from particularity—versatility, as Brooke puts it—because over-particular attention and specificity imply solipsism, egoism, and unsympathetic individuality (in Causabon, Fred, and Lydgate). Underlying these modes of selfishness is an over-simplistic epistemology: Fred thinks things should correspond to his desires while Casaubon and Lydgate think corresponding universals should underwrite their subjects. But Casaubon and Lydgate choose specific universals, mythology and (what we now call) biology, which generalize but which are exclusive and narrowly focused in ways that Brooke’s idiom is not.

If this analysis seems too generous to Mr. Brooke with his “most glutinously indefinite” mind (6), the novel (if slightly uneasily) characterizes Reverend Farebrother’s normalcy by emphasizing that he spends days at entomology, which he emphatically distinguishes as a hobby distinct from Lydgate’s obsessive profession, and nights at billiards and cards. His gambling is morally suspect, but Farebrother represents an ideal of disinterested interest, a balance of versatile distance and active involvement. And Eliot does not unequivocally denounce Brooke or his rhetoric.[11] Even characters whom Eliot praises for their attentive grasp of practical reality, characters like Caleb Garth and (outside of Middlemarch) Adam Bede, employ a grammar of things to name the abstractions that they value most. Adam Bede repeatedly venerates Adam for his grasp of things and the “natur o’ things [sic].” Mr. Poyser attests, “Adam knew a fine sight more o’ the natur o’ things than those as thought themselves his betters” (97); Adam reassures himself, “There’s nothing but what’s bearable as long as a man can work … the natur o’ things doesn’t change, though it seems as if one’s own life was nothing but change” and “the best o’ working is, it gives you a grip hold o’ things outside your own lot” (115). The narrator says Adam appreciates “knowing the bearing of things” (163), and other characters also express their abstract systematizations of the world in terms of “things”: affable Mr. Irwine, for instance, appreciates mornings because they present “a clear mirror to the rays of things” (168). Even such lines that explicitly exalt particularity do so with generalizations.[12]

In Middlemarch Caleb Garth’s “meditation on the value” of “the roar of the furnace, the thunder and plash of the engine … the felling and lading of timber …the crane at work on the wharf, [and] the piled-up produce in warehouses” is a meditation not on the nitty-gritty material things themselves but the “sublime labour” of feeding, clothing, and housing “the social body” (158-9). Although he has a close relationship with the land, tenants, and his labor, Caleb translates these different kinds of “exact work” into “the name of ‘business’” (159). Caleb’s “classification of human employments was rather crude” (159), the narrator explains. While the novel values Caleb’s proximity to quotidian life, then, it tempers this proximity with an ambiguous idiom that undermines the epistemological privilege of close adherence to and active involvement with materiality. Proximity to material reality—to the land, to tenants, to the implements and products of work—does not make Caleb speak a Wordsworthian “real language of men.”[13] To the contrary, he speaks much more like Brooke (and like Wordsworth writes[14]): he wants “things to be neatly booked” (509) and, as Mary reminds him, says that Fred has “an uncommon notion of stock, and a good eye for things” (508). Caleb promises he will talk to Fred about “business and the nature of things” (509). He confirms that Mary has not changed her mind “since things have been going on as they have been of late?” (509); and the narrator overtly highlights how Caleb here uses the ambiguity of things to stand in for the complex circumstances and feelings of the Mary and Fred subplot: “Caleb meant a great deal in that vague phrase” (509).

Caleb and Brooke own property in different ways, but both articulate their relations to it in terms of what I have been calling a grammar of things. Brooke exemplifies an abstract, proprietary ownership of all subjects, material and immaterial, from the safe distance of disinterest. “I know something of all schools” (13), he says; “it was my way to go about everywhere and take in everything” (25); “I have gone through all these things, but they might be rather new to you” (181). Brooke affects to have dabbled in everything even as he dismisses everything as inadequate; he has been there and done that.[15] In this respect Brooke’s disinterested ownership of material and intellectual property signals his transition to a modern form of abstract ownership that is exempt from the inhibitions and responsibilities of tangible property. Brooke is the paradigmatic “reformed” subject insofar as his grammar values people and things abstractly, as immaterial properties or “ideas,” rather than according to their inheritance of or relation to land and material property.[16] My point here coincides with some implications of Jeffrey Nunokawa’s argument that the Victorian novel established female love as the primary locus of stable property in the nineteenth century.[17] Brooke seems to be used to the old form of property, entailment, as his only security over Dorothea (demonstrated by his explicit concern over his will and her wills), but while Dorothea gives up her own inheritance from Casaubon and embraces herself and love as the repositories of abstract, secure property, Brooke linguistically embraces abstract property, exempt from material reality or particularity, as his repository of value. He feels secure only in abstraction, and he values others according to their capacity for ungrounded abstraction.

The novel employs a grammar of things to articulate Dorothea’s complex (because divided and partially hidden) interiority and her abstract object of desire. Dorothea’s active pursuit of benevolent “schemes” opposes “her uncle’s talk or his way of ‘letting things be’ on his estate” (6); yet her opposition to her uncle’s language and disinterest only camouflages her own ambiguous grammar of things. In refusing her mother’s cross, she says it “is the last thing I would wear as a trinket,” “I have other things of mamma’s … plenty of things,” “what miserable men find such things, and work at them, and sell them” (9). She views the jewelry as a commodity, instead of seeing it as the personal property of her late mother, and thus she refuses to value its particularity.[18] Throughout the novel Dorothea (and the narrator) articulate her emotions in terms of things. At Featherstone’s funeral, “the dream-like association of something alien and ill-understood with the deepest secrets of her experience seemed to mirror that sense of loneliness which was due to the very ardor of Dorothea's nature” (203).[19] She has “a throbbing excitement like an alarm upon her—a sense that she was doing something daringly defiant for [Will’s] sake” (496). At the climactic post-passionate-kiss moment of awkward “silence,” “Dorothea’s heart was full of something that she wanted to say, and yet the words were too difficult” (499). Earlier in the novel, the narrator remarks that “it seemed as if something like the reflection of a white sunlit wing had passed across [Dorothea’s] features, ending in one of her rare blushes. For the first time it entered into Celia’s mind that there might be something more between Mr. Casaubon and her sister” (30). In these passages, something stands in for complexities of emotion that Dorothea senses and reacts to but which she cannot name with precision. The word implies a concrete but hazy connection between her consciousness, her material body and material situation, and some abstract, ineffable agency that governs it.[20] These somethings, which stand in for the implicit half of Dorothea’s divided subjectivity, function like Brooke’s “that sort of thing” and “that kind of thing,” which stand in for the implicit logic that purportedly connects his “disjointed particulars.”

At the emotional climax of Middlemarch, when Dorothea decides to be a friend to Rosamond despite having witnessed her intimate encounter with Ladislaw, “something that [Dorothea] could achieve stirred her as with an approaching murmur which would soon gather distinctness” (486). Later Dorothea is stirred by a still more indistinct “something to which she must go doggedly” (496). In this passage, rich with more allusions to Wordsworth, Dorothea recognizes “the truer measure of things” (485) by learning to pursue something in lieu of a specific, conscious desire.[21] The pronoun grammatically instantiates the presence of something and, by making it a subject with verbs, gives this something physical and moral agency. But the lack of clear and immediate antecedents—sometimes the lack of any antecedents at all—enables that something to exceed representation, to elude classification, definition, naming, or full presence. Where “that sort of thing” or “that kind of thing” imply that Brooke’s paratactic thoughts are generically or rationally coherent, although he might not be able to articulate that coherence, “something” invokes the presence of a governing but inaccessible will (as the Victorians might have put it) or interiority (as we say) in Dorothea. These pronomials benefit the narrator’s delineation of Dorothea’s divided, self-reflexive subjectivity, even though they detract from the epistemological credibility of Brooke’s representation of agricultural ideas, personal advice, political and social principles.

Brooke thematically exemplifies the benefits and dangers of this “reformed” attitude of abstraction and its attendant distance in his political aspirations. In his campaign speech, he twice aims to say “the right thing” (312-14), as if to invoke his equally inarticulate literary precedent, Mr. Square of Tom Jones, who asks, “Can any man have a higher notion of the rule of right, and the eternal fitness of things? ”(Fielding 146). Quoting Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” which depends on “things,” the narrator describes Brooke’s remarks as “fallings from us, vanishings” (313).[22] As if to invoke Francis Jeffrey’s infamous opening line of criticism on Wordsworth’s The Excursion—“This will never do”—the novel then stresses Brooke’s self-contradictions. Ladislaw hopes: “The only chance is that, since the best thing won’t always do, floundering may answer for once” (313). Brooke, with his “neutral physiognomy,” invokes Adam Smith’s laissez-faire economic theory, which aptly articulates Brooke’s hands-off approach to life and language:

It won’t do, you know, breaking machines: everything must go on—trade, manufacturers, commerce, interchange of staples—that kind of thing—since Adam Smith that must go on. We must look all over the globe:—‘Observation with extensive view,’ must look everywhere, ‘from China to Peru’ as somebody says, Johnson, I think, ‘The Rambler,’ you know. That is what I have done up to a certain point—not as far as Peru; but I’ve not always stayed at home—I saw it wouldn’t do.


As an effigy of Brooke passes through the audience and parrots his language, Brooke admits, “There is something in what you say, my good friend, and what do we meet for but to speak our minds—freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, liberty—that kind of thing” (314). “That kind of thing” twice stands in as the rationale for a combination of uninhibited commercial action and political inaction. The pronomial phrase allows him to go “up to a certain point” without being too decisive or too specific.

Mr. Brooke’s aspirations to sit in Parliament may go unfulfilled, but in many other ways he does represent Middlemarch. In an essay review on Middlemarch, Leslie Stephen recognizes Brooke’s fatuity and yet also his serious function as a “typical representative” of the intellectual world of Middlemarch.

In Middlemarch we consider the higher stratum, which reads newspapers and supports the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and whose notions constitute what is called enlightened public opinion. The typical representative of what it calls its mind is Mr. Brooke, who can talk about Sir Humphry Davy, and Wordsworth, and Italian art, and has a delightful facility in handling the small change of conversation which has ceased to possess any intrinsic value. Even his neighbours can see that he is a fatuous humbug, and do not care to veil their blunt commonsense by fine phrases. But he discharges the functions of the Greek chorus with a boundless supply of the platitudes which represent an indistinct foreboding of the existence of an intellectual world.[23]

In recognizing that Brooke’s choral role generalizes the specific maladies of the novel’s various solipsists and intellectuals, Stephen ultimately judges Middlemarch to be too uncomfortable “a satire on the modern world” (586). What Stephen does not record is how extensively Brooke’s fatuous language pervades the narrative. His representativeness is precisely what constitutes his function in the novel: as a typification of Middlemarch, he represents its way of knowing.

In Middlemarch formulations of “thing” negotiate the epistemological problem of representing and valuing abstractions in the absence of names or the ability to see them concretely. Brooke fails because he runs for Parliament on a reform ticket yet refuses to interfere with the status quo. The language of things in Middlemarch aligns Brooke’s refusal to interfere politically or to make improvements on his own property with the residual epistemological principles of Baconian empiricism, Eliot’s theory of “realism,” Wordsworth’s poetics, and Matthew Arnold’s cultural criticism.[24] These epistemological writings all profess not to distort the “things” that they describe; they contend that their allegedly non-interpretive representations—Wordsworth’s real language of real men, Arnold’s prescription “to see things as they really are” (35 and passim)—constitute the production of credible and politically cultivating or reforming knowledge. They affirm the creditability of their writing by insisting that, as Francis Bacon first put it, “all depends on keeping the mind’s eye fixed on things themselves, so that their images are received exactly as they are” (29-30). But Bacon, Wordsworth, and Arnold all wanted to employ the things they described for material, sentimental, ethical, and poetical ends. Brooke’s inaction is an ineffective ethos. Brooke uses “things” to maintain distance from his things—to keep from going “too far.” Middlemarch thus seems to mock the problem of describing “things as they are in themselves” by formally foregrounding the abstraction in the word “things” itself and thematically foregrounding the overwhelming “roar on the other side of silence” (124)—the pitfalls of over-close attention or focus on particular things.[25]

Brooke personifies a problematic representation of abstractions that underwrites the language of the novel inasmuch as he positively sustains a detachment and disinterested distance from everything. This novel does not wholly sanction the ethos that Stephen Arata has described as “not paying attention,” but it relies on sustaining gaps between action and inaction, interest and disinterest, particularity and generalization, explicit and implicit or ineffable motives, individuals and their social sets: permutations of things signify these gaps in Middlemarch and “depth of character” was the matrix of values ascribed to such gaps. The grammar of things formalizes the novel’s epistemology of deep character by repeatedly instantiating its attention to these abstract relations. “Things” functions as a “communal substance” in Middlemarch. Its variants stand in for the invisible interconnection of ideas, individuals, and matter that characters apprehend or sense but cannot name. As a pronomial, “things” obviously denotes various specifics in different contexts; but, as in Brooke’s comic lists, “things” always names a grammar of relations that subtends and exceeds individual characters and objects. Brooke personifies this perversely, but his misappropriation of the language for personal and political inactivity aptly represents the forfeiture of agency and subjectivity implicit in this logic of characterization.

The tension in things as a politics, an epistemology, and a form of representation that can successfully articulate depth of character and complex processes or webs of connection is most evident in Will Ladislaw. Mr. Brooke makes Ladislaw into his protégé because of his disinterested interest in things in general: “He and I are alike, you know,” he says to Dorothea, “he likes to go into everything” (242). Ladislaw voices a “remonstrance with [Dorothea’s] fanatical sympathy and her want of sturdy neutral delight in things as they were,” a position which marks for Mr. Brooke Ladislaw’s good “sense of things” (183). Ladislaw accepts “his bit of work, though it is not that indeterminate loftiest thing which he had once dreamed of as alone worthy of continuous effort” (286), for he is resigned to “the common order of things” (286). If the conflict he experiences derives from the tension between the “the common order of things” and “that indeterminate loftiest thing,” his job is to articulate “things” for Mr. Brooke’s newspaper, the Pioneer. “‘Put the figures and deduce the misery, you know; and put the other figures and deduce—and so on,’” Brooke says, “‘You have a way of putting things.… I want that sort of thing—not ideas you know, but a way of putting them’” (285).

Ladislaw’s way of putting things can be rather vague, but that seems to be its advantage. He protests to Dorothea that language is superior to painting because “language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for being vague” (123). Thus Ladislaw’s own feelings come as “somethings”: at the end of the encounter in the museum, he feels “as if something had happened to him with regard to [Dorothea]” (123). He calls on Dorothea to explain his indecorous presence with Rosamond and begins, ever so awkwardly, “I wished you to know that something connected with it—something which happened before I went away, helped to bring me down here again” (496). In such scenes between Ladislaw and Dorothea, the word “something” stands in for two abstractions: complex plots and ideas that produce the tension we call dramatic irony by being only latent in ambiguous pronouns instead of overt explanations, tensions, or anticipations; and desires inside the characters, whose realism depends on these feelings remaining inaccessible. Dorothea does not quite know her own feelings and so her language can be as “incalculably diffusive” as “the effect of her being on those around her” (515).

As Shaw puts it, Dorothea “needs to embrace images of frustrating opacity, with a melancholic fixation and a refusal to move on, so that she will keep alive feelings for which she has no precise names, instead of defining them into the tameness of the known” (236). Thus, when Ladislaw presses Dorothea on her life at Lowick, she says, “please do not call it by any name... You will call it Persian, or something else geographical. It is my life, I have found it out, and cannot part with it” (244). Dorothea’s most important inheritance from Brooke is not the material property to be bequeathed by his unaltered will, then, but his mode of animating abstract property. Like Ladislaw, Dorothea depends upon a grammar of things to maintain her secret subjectivity. “Things” and “somethings” preserve the secrecy of Dorothea’s desires from herself by giving agency and presence to ineffable, unspoken motivations. By authorizing this mode of articulating subjectivity in Ladislaw and Dorothea and discrediting it as a mode of speech in Brooke, Middlemarch marks the disaggregation of deep subjectivity and moral value. Knowing oneself or reality as the subject of the nature of things, something more, or other things does not constitute morality, in other words, but it constitutes knowing.

And knowing in terms of things remains valuable. When Dorothea first marries Casaubon, she wants to make it so that “everyday-things with us would mean the greatest things” (19); she wants to learn Greek and Hebrew “in order”—like Lydgate, Casaubon, and even Brooke—“to arrive at the core of things, judge soundly on the social duties of a Christian” (41). Dorothea’s conflicted desire for an abstract knowledge of things coincides with the preference “the general mind” of Middlemarch has for “all the superior power of mystery over fact. Everybody liked better to conjecture how the thing was, than simply to know it; for conjecture soon became more confident than knowledge, and had a more liberal allowance for the incompatible” (445). “The thing” here stands in specifically for the complex history of Bulstrode’s actions and character; but “the thing” also extends the particulars of the plot to a generalization about the social function of conjecture. Middlemarch’s preference for conjecture and mystery here expresses Eliot’s own preferences. As she recounts her reading of The Origin of Species in a letter to Barbara Bodichon, Eliot attests to a preference for the ambiguous, implicit processes that underwrite explicit theorizations: “to me the Development Theory, and all other explanations of the processes by which things came to be, produce a feeble impression compared with the mystery that lies under the processes” (Writings of George Eliot 24.164). Thus the grammar of things in Middlemarch formalizes and validates an epistemology of deep character: a way of comprehending and articulating reality in the same forms in which it comprehends and articulates what we call secret subjectivity, instead of an epistemology of referential details and explicit relations.

The epistemology of character and its constitutive grammar of things also underwrites certain works of “hard” science. In Problems in Life and Mind, which George Levine has called “an important non-fictional analogue to” Middlemarch (“George Eliot’s Hypothesis” 4), G. H. Lewes explains that “Nothing exists in itself and for itself; everything in others and for others: ex-ist-ens—a standing out relation. Hence the search after the thing in itself is chimerical: the thing being a group of relations, it is what these are.” Lewes goes on to explain that this recognition of relations is an ethical position, a moral way of understanding the world: “the highest form of existence is Altruism, or that moral and intellectual condition which is determined by the fullest consciousness—emotional and cognitive—of relations” (2.26-7). This position is an earnest reformation of Clarke’s “eternal fitness of things.” Lewes posits “reality” as a moral, secret subjectivity—a virtual collectivity of which he and all humans are subjects and which will always exceed their individuality and knowledge but which is necessarily moral and positively real.[26] He articulates substantial reality in the form of deep character, not “detailism” or a “dull catalogue of common things,” as John Keats put it in “Lamia” (357). Lewes writes that “Every Real is the complex of so many relations, a conjuncture of so many events, a synthesis of so many sensations, that to know one Real thoroughly would only be possible through an intuition embracing the Universe” (343).

Middlemarch at times articulates Lewes’s sense of reality in terms of characterization. As Sally Shuttleworth explains, Eliot’s fictions incorporate and engage “social theories of organic evolution and scientific theories of dynamic biological life” (x) and thus affirm the ideas of development and parts integrated with wholes that Romantic writers had established as the tropes of psychological realism.[27] In Middlemarch Eliot avers that “character too is a process and an unfolding” (96); Mr. Farebrother tells Dorothea that “character is not cut in marble—it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing” (454).[28] The change and development of characters demonstrate this, of course, but the grammar of things also instantiates an awareness of an ineffable process, “something” living and unfolding and changing beyond the control of the characters or the narrator. Ambiguous pronomials and pronouns allow the novel to ascribe agency to this ambiguous, ambient collection of processes. And so in Middlemarch character is something. It is a form of knowledge organized as antecedent-less, non-referential, non-denotative characters. But the grammar of things suggests that this form of knowledge is morally ambivalent albeit necessary: the novel ends with a generalization about how “things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been” were it not for the Dorotheas of the world (515).

I have shown that Middlemarch is a novel that conspicuously foregrounds the prevalence and function of things, but variants of the word are common figures of characterization in many nineteenth-century fictions. In Scott’s Shadow (2008), Ian Duncan describes a propensity of English novelists to represent the abstractions that govern everyday life as predominantly invisible—as modes of “seeing nothing” (quoting Emma). Duncan explains that “‘Nothing’ refers,” in his interpretation of Emma, “not only to the everyday domain of traffic: it also refers, obliquely or metaphorically, to that reality’s governing abstraction, embedded in naturalized forms and qualities, English verdure, culture, comfort. Nothing names the immanence of the system in an invisible cause that sustains and regulates these conjunctions and circulations” of everyday reality (118). Such uses of variants of “thing” were to become prevalent in the works of Anthony Trollope, who writes in The Small House at Allington, “And then there lurked behind it all a feeling that it might be safer that the thing should not be so openly manifested before all the world (93)[29]—as well as being found in novels by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy fancies “a certain something” in the way a woman moves “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading” (27). This “more substantial” something more is hardly more concrete than the “certain something” in the way she moves. That “certain something” comprises an already vague list of abstractions: manner, air, tone, address, and expressions. But this is how Darcy and Elizabeth articulate their sense of the cultivated interiority Deidre Lynch has described at the center of the early-nineteenth-century “economy of character.”

Where Austen’s things remain invisible or stand in for ineffable interiority (like Dorothea Brooke’s), Dickens’s things parody generalization (like Mr. Brooke’s). Bleak House invokes “things in general” (277, 375) and “the surface of things” (330), “all things” (461), “all manner of things” (642), and “the nature of things.” Sir Leicester regards “an interminable Chancery suit” as

a slow, expensive, British, constitutional kind of thing … as a something, devised in conjunction with a variety of other somethings, by the perfection of human wisdom, for the eternal settlement (humanly speaking) of everything.


Tulkinghorn tells Lady Dedlock that “Nothing that you would call anything,” has been done in court (15). His usage valorizes the indescribable logic of Chancery: it employs nothing and anything to stand in for the implicitly complex procedures that have transpired but which are too abstract to merit Lady Dedlock’s sympathy. Without antecedents, something, anything, everything, nothing, and all other sorts of things function throughout Bleak House to insinuate the presence of an agency to which everything else in the novel is subject but which no one can recognize or articulate because it is definitively ineffable. But Dickens’s novels likewise use something earnestly at moments of intense feeling and importance to stand in for compulsions, burdens, desires, and knowledge that he could not or would not represent more explicitly but with which readers ought to sympathize.

Victorians did not consistently name the ideological assumptions instantiated by this grammar of things. Without written records, like notebooks or reading journals, we cannot fully recover the individual readings of a text by post-Victorian methods of interpretation. As Garrett Stewart explains, “in the commutation between plot and generic form, reading is a necessary tertium quid, ultimately the site of whatever dialectical synthesis a text seeks to stage for itself” (99) and this “third thing” does not often leave a material trace. We might not be able to recover this tertium quid—what readers actually do with the features that stage reading—but we can recover the assumptions authors made about their relation to their texts and about the processes those texts might have been thought to perform for readers. As Nicholas Dames explains, “the sense of the novel as a process rather than a structure was a fundamental part of Victorian novel theory” (11). This process of knowing and valuing is embedded in the style of these novels. Thus Dames asks,

what if the history of reading could be discovered not (solely) in records of individual reading acts—marginalia, journal reviews, histories of criticism, commonplace books, and autobiographies—but ossified in the very form of texts themselves, in the genetic code, so to speak, of genre itself, which evolves in a reciprocal relation with the reading modes they determine and are in turn determined by.


My claim here is that the grammar of things in Middlemarch “ossifies” the epistemology of character, this way of knowing the world in terms of ineffable, self-reflexive character. I have used “depth of character” to name these assumptions because Eliot and other writers used this grammar to represent the psychological depth of their characters as well as the abstract self-reflexive relation or internal divisions of their reality. And Eliot’s formulations of “thing” also function as “characters” in the sense of marks, letters, or figures of meaning. Like the natural historical characters of speciation, which mark the distinction between individuals and imagined species, such grammars mark the gaps between individuals and communities, individuals and the hidden complexities of the material world, conscious and inaccessible selves, and visible and invisible realities. The prevalence of variants of “things” and the relative lack of attention to them in reviews and letters suggest that these assumptions were readily acceptable.[30] By drawing attention to these generic phrases, we can recover the implicit assumptions underwriting Victorian realism and Victorian ways of knowing, recording, and remembering the world. If they are not material evidence of how Victorians read or interpreted, they are material evidence for the assumptions they took for granted.