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Summer Reading: Dorothea Brooke and Work-Life Balance

Photo: Breck Wills

“Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion… But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible… But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

-George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)

When I finished reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, I immediately thought of my grandmother. Though Baba, as we call her, passed away the year before I was born, her memory still looms large in my family. There was one image in particular I couldn’t get out of my head: Baba hanging her diploma from Smith College in the laundry room of her suburban home. It was a small, wry act of protest within a mostly faithful, hidden life.

The course of her life stood in stark contrast to my grandfather’s. He served in the Army, went to law school, and had a long and successful career as a corporate lawyer. When he was in his 80s, he wrote a memoir to chronicle it all. He barely mentioned his family.

Baba never wrote a memoir, though she was a talented writer. Before having her first child, she spent five years at the Boston Herald-Traveler, working her way up from secretary to editor of a Sunday lifestyle page and fill-in book reviewer and reporter. Later, she had a column in the local paper, and, when the children were old enough, she went back to work part-time as a department secretary at Wellesley College. She loved the job. But I doubt it was lost on her that she could have been a professor there instead, had she taken a different path.

Baba had a strong and lasting effect on all of her five children, as well as her older grandchildren. But the reality remains that after those family members are gone, she’ll be forgotten, just like Middlemarch’s Dorothea.

In search of intellectual challenge—which most women in her small 19th-century village are denied—Dorothea marries Edward Casaubon, a cold and passionless priest and scholar, and begins assisting him with his research. The marriage is loveless, and Dorothea soon realizes that Casaubon’s research is doomed to fail. She finds some happiness through her friendship with a young relative of Casaubon’s, Will Ladislaw, but Casaubon resents the relationship. When Casaubon dies, only a few years into the marriage, Dorothea discovers that his will forbids her from marrying Ladislaw, or else lose her inheritance. Nevertheless, Dorothea soon realizes that she is in love with Ladislaw and gives up her inheritance to be with him. She lives a long and happy life as a wife and mother. But her dream of scholarly fulfillment slips away.

I’m not a crier, but the book’s final passage, quoted above, brings me to the verge of tears whenever I read it. Nevertheless, I know that it’s not a strictly unhappy ending. Eliot calls Dorothea’s fate—pouring her tremendous intellect and energy into family life—a “sad sacrifice,” but she’s also clear that the good of the world depends on such choices. Caregiving, so often in the form of unrecognized and uncompensated female labor, is the foundation on which nearly all other societal contributions are built.

Nor does Eliot valorize the alternative path. In Middlemarch, the clearest contrast to Dorothea is perhaps her first husband, Mr. Casaubon, who spends his life researching a book entitled The Key to All Mythologies. Clearly, the project has a ridiculously, unattainably huge scope, so much so that Casaubon meets an untimely death due to exhaustion from long hours of research. He’s not pursuing the project because he enjoys researching and writing and learning new things; rather, his goal is to prove himself as a learned and important man, and to have his name immortalized. He’s so focused on being remembered this way that he tries to goad Dorothea into continuing his research after his death and finishing the book in his stead—with his name on it, of course.  

If that’s the alternative to “liv[ing] faithfully a hidden life,” Eliot is on Dorothea’s side. Dorothea may not be remembered after her death, but she spends her days doing good works, learning for learning’s sake, and enjoying strong relationships with her family and friends. She never reaches her full intellectual potential, but her life is filled with joy and love. This kind of existence has value, Eliot suggests, certainly more than a life relentlessly focused on career accomplishments. Middlemarch is definitely not Lean In.

And yet, in her own 19th-century way, Eliot seems to be advocating for having it all—love, family, and intellectual fulfillment. Not only does she want women to have equal access to intellectual pursuits, she wants men to rethink their approach to knowledge and success. She wants everyone to live with love and passion. She doesn’t want anyone to be forced to choose between care and intellectualism. And she wants traditionally feminine contributions, like caregiving, to be recognized for the crucial role they play in society. This is the project of Middlemarch itself, a long and sprawling book that insists that every person’s story is worth telling and does its best to do so.

Happily, fewer and fewer college diplomas are relegated to laundry rooms these days. But the constraints women face haven’t gone away so much as they have evolved. Now, we worry less about the problem that has no name and more about the wage gap and the glass ceiling and work-life balance. Even in her day, my grandmother was lucky to have a husband with a salary that could support a wife and five kids; good jobs with benefits have only gotten rarer since then, especially for people without access to the kind of education that my grandparents had. And there are many kinds of burdens. Some mothers, like my grandmother and George Eliot’s Dorothea, give up intellectual and career pursuits for a lifetime spent at home with the children. Others give up time with their children in order to earn enough money to feed them. Both are, in their way, sad sacrifices.

Middlemarch is still all too relevant. The life that George Eliot wanted for Dorothea is still out of reach. But it doesn’t have to be. We can value those who care for us, so that their lives don’t stay hidden and their tombs don’t go unvisited. We can support them with better policies, so that care is not a sacrifice. Everyone deserves a full life, with the freedom to work, to learn, to create, and to love.


Susannah Howe is an intern in the Better Life Lab. She studies public policy at Brown University.