Mary Garth | Middlemarch

If I could have paid Middlemarch a flying visit, this would have been my itenery:

  • have lunch with Rev Camden Farebrother in his house and have a hearty chat in his study among his bug collections
  • turn into a fly and watch Will Lawdislaw in Lydgate’s house stretching full length on the carpet
  • on the way out of town, give Miss Henrietta Noble a big grin when she hands me some sweets from her basket (and possibly have a peep at Lawdislaw again, while he waits patiently arm linked with the old little lady)
  • spend the whole evening at the Garth’s cottage

Those are my favourite people.

A lot of Middlemarch is about marriage. If you ask me specifically who are my favourite couples, they are Celia Brooke and Sir James Chettam, Caleb and Susan Garth, and the favourite of favourites are Fred Vincy and Mary Garth.

Fred and Mary are in the second tier cast in the novel. I find the fate and fortune of second tier characters generally more blessed in novels as well as in TV dramas. The main characters have the burden to speak the message for the author and to lead the show, their life is usually full of misfortune or rollercoaster episodes one after another. In contrast, the authors are kinder to second tier characters. they shoulder less responsibilities and have a more peaceful storyline. One example would be Kitty and Levin in Anna Karenina; another example would be Seth and Summer in the O.C (a 2003 American teen drama). And Fred and Mary.

Although Mary is plain and poor like Jane Eyre, there’s a big difference between them: Mary has three wonderful men in her life. Mary has an intelligent, tender and hardworking father, along with a big and loving family. Mary has Fred who would do anything for her and has never thought of giving up on her. And Mary has the friendship of the local vicar Farebrother, who is the kindest and most honourable person in the whole cast.

I think Mary is the most fortunate woman in the book in this respect: Dorothea Brooke doesn’t have parents to make sure she thinks carefully about Casaubon or give her advice about Lawdislaw, while her friends did not speak strongly enough against Casaubon and mostly just spread gossip about Lawdislaw. Rosamond Vincy is the most unpleasant female character in the book – I feel really sorry for Lydgate. She’s spoiled materially by her parents (or put it another way, she simply follows the examples of the carelessly lavish lifestyle of her parents), extremely selfish and vain – a trait likely to have been encouraged by her parents since she was little. However by the time her marriage is cracking, her parents don’t seem to care anymore. And she’s just too self-centred to bother having any friends.

Now by this point, I’ve been typing up this blog post for two weeks and failing multiple times. Under the pressure of my (self-imposed) deadline, I’ve decided just to pick out a few key plot points that involve Mary. Hope it works out this time. Beware spoilers.

Scene One: At Featherstone’s house, Mary speaking with Rosamond

This is where Mary first appears in person in the novel (chapter 12). We have learnt a little about her in Vincy’s condescending breakfast conversation a chapter earlier: she’s plain and poor, “more fit for a governess” but instead looks after a sick old relative, Mr Featherstone, because that’s a more tolerable option than becoming a governess (p94-95)*. However we find out in this chapter Mary is not so far beneath the Vincys as they make it sound.

The chat between the two girls on the three pages is a masterpiece (p105-107). The topics hop swiftly from one to another like a dragonfly dipping on a glassy lake. A lot of information is passed between the characters, at the same time it puts the two girls’ personalities in high contrast.

Mary has the good humour to compare her plain look with that of Rosamond, whose beauty is emphasised right from the start (“What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy!”). When Rosamond tries to get information out of Mary about this desirable doctor, with subtle hinting and overwrought suggesting, Mary cuts straight to the point (“You want to know something about him.” “But you will see him. You know this is about the time of his visits”). Because of Mary’s position – being a possible candidate to inherit something from Featherstone and being poor and almost a servant in the house, no one shows her any kindness. She’s well aware of it but she just puts her head low and gets on with it (“I? Oh, minding the house – pouring out syrup – pretending to be amiable and contented – learning to have a bad opinion of everybody.”) But at the same time, she is not hesitant to speak her mind (“My liking always wants some little kindness to kindle it. I’m not magnanimous (i.e. generous or forgiving) enough to like people who speak to me without seeming to see me”.).

And this following short exchange between Mary and Rosamond says a lot about Mary and Fred:

“It is of no use saying anything to you, Mary. You always take Fred’s part.”

“Why should I not take his part?” said Mary, lighting up, “He would take mine. He is the only person who takes the least trouble to oblige me.”

“You make me feel very uncomfortable, Mary”, said Rosamond, with her gravest mildness; “I would not tell mamma for the world.”

“What would you not tell her?” said Mary, angrily.

“Pray do not go into a rage, Mary”, said Rosamond, mildly as ever.

“If your mamma is afraid that Fred will make me an offer, tell her that I would not marry him if he asked me. But he is not going to do so, that I am aware. He certainly never has asked me.”

A few pages later, on their way home Fred asks his sister Rosamond what Mary says just now and Rosamond complains he only cares what Mary says.

“Of course I care what Mary says. She is the best girl I know.”

“I should never have thought she was a girl to fall in love with.”

“How do you know what men would fall in love with? Girls never know.”

“At least, Fred, let me advise you not to fall in love with her, for she says she would not marry you if you asked her.”

“She might have waited till I did ask her.”

“I knew it would nettle you, Fred.”

“Not at all. She would not have said so if you had not provoked her.”

These two conversations make me love them right from the start. I love how they openly confess their fondness of each other without having to blush and falter as young people in novels are bound to do. I love how they know and trust each other, especially the line when Fred says “she would not have said so if you had not provoked her”. Noticed they are both speaking to a third person, who disapproves of their relationship and tries to alienate them. Even so, Rosamond fails to damage their good opinion and trust of each other. If you think of how almost all the courting couples in novels constantly misunderstand and mistrust each other until the last possible moment, this is quite refreshing.

Scene Two: In the Garth’s garden, Mary speaking with Farebrother

Another thing I love about Mary is the affection from Mr Farebrother. If Fred is deemed a faulty-but-deep-down-good man because of Mary, Mary becomes more respectable and valuable because of Mr Farebrother.

Rev. Camden Farebrother is a vicar, a bachelor in his forties living with (hence supporting) three female family members, and a good friend with the Garths. And Mary among all his parishioners, as he praises openly, “is a favourite of mine” (p164).

Mr Farebrother on this occasion comes to see Mary as a go-between on behalf of Fred. Mary and Fred clearly have feelings for each other more than just playmates. Fred confesses to Farebrother that he has loved Mary since they were children, “making her his wife with a brass ring which he had cut from an umbrella” (p217). Knowing how openly they talk about it, what is it that stops them getting married?

Fred is too idle: He doesn’t finish his university study, he puts his hope on an uncertain ‘expectation’: he hopes to inherit Featherstone’s land as a way of supporting himself financially and ends up inheriting nothing. Mary is too sensible: She would not promise to marry him until he finds proper work and would not accept him as a clergyman only for gentility’s sake. Fred, on the other hand, would not put his heart into establishing himself unless Mary promises to marry him. Aren’t their problems adorable?

Therefore Mr Farebrother, who is “such a friend to both of us”, us being Mary and Fred, comes to Mary on behalf of Fred with a mission: Can Fred hope to have Mary’s hand at some point in the future? Would Mary consider marrying anyone else in the meantime? Here’s Mary’s answer:

“I will tell you that I have too strong a feeling for Fred to give him up for any one else. I should never be quite happy if I thought he was unhappy for the loss of me. It has taken such deep root in me – my gratitude to him for always loving me best, and minding so much if I hurt myself, from the time when we were very little. I cannot imagine any new feeling coming to make that weaker. I should like better than anything to see him worthy of everyone’s respect. But please tell him I will not promise to marry him till then…”

That’s tremendous good news to Fred, and what a confession and promise! But what makes this moment more precious is the heart of the messenger. Fred trusts Farebrother to persuade Mary to give her promise because Fred trusts Farebrother will take his side and win Mary over for him. Farebrother accomplishes the mission with the trustworthiness that Fred takes for granted, but with a great sacrifice that neither Fred nor Mary knows until many chapters later – that he has loved Mary too.

Scene Three: At Garth’s house, Caleb speaking to his wife

In chapter 40 Caleb Garth discusses the idea of taking Fred under his wing for work. Fred’s family would be appalled by the idea, for one reason, that Fred has “gone down a step in life” meaning going into a trade instead of church which would have made him a fine gentleman, and for another, that the Garth’s conspired to claim Fred for Mary, who is beneath the Vincy’s (p384). The subject is dropped while Fred goes back to university and finishes his degree (which he does eventually), and now in chapter 56, Fred is back in Middlemarch.

A side note on Garth’s residence. Chapter 24 shows a cosy scene and the author gives a fabulous description of Mrs Garth – a helper fit for Mr Garth. The overall image of the household is rather like that of the Weasleys (of Harry Potter fame): the walls prop the roof up, apple blossoms poke into the windows, a smell of roast wafts from the oven, Mrs Garth simultaneously bakes a pie, washes clothes and gives her children a grammar lesson – the girl eagerly answers each question and the boy messes about and finds all excuses to slip away.

Hearing Fred’s honest confession, Caleb decides to take Fred on, knowing the objections of his wife, who thinks Fred a great deal of trouble and prefers Farebrother for Mary in marriage. But Caleb pleads Fred’s case with a fatherly affection, and remembering his own youth, said to his wife:

“I’ve always felt that your belongings have never been on a level with you. But you took me, though I was a plain man.”

“I took the best and cleverest man I had ever known,” said Mrs Garth, convinced that she would never have loved anyone who came short of that mark.

“Well, perhaps others thought you might have done better. But it would have been worse for me. And that is what touches me close about Fred. The lad is good at bottom, and clever enough to do, if he’s put in the right way; and he loves and honours my daughter beyond anything, and she has given him a sort of promise according to what he turns out. I say, that young man’s soul is in my hand; and I’ll do the best I can for him. So help me God! It’s my duty, Susan.”

Caleb is true to his word for the rest of the story, helping Fred to learn and work steadily and to establish in reputation as well as saving. How fortunate Mary and Fred are to have a father like Caleb!

Scene Four: Outside Green Dragon, Farebrother speaking with Fred

The end of chapter 66 is the best few pages of the whole book in my opinion, even better than the delicate thoughts and feelings between Dorothea and Will. Farebrother caught Fred redhanded in a gambling den, after snatching him out in an instant, this nocturnal conversation follows.

“I am under the deepest obligation to you, Mr Farebrother,” said Fred, in a state of uncomfortable surmise.

“I will not affect to deny that you are under some obligation to me. But I am going to confess to you, Fred, that I have been tempted to reverse all that by keeping silence with you just now. When somebody said to me, ‘Young Vincy has taken to being at the billiard-table every night again – he won’t bear the curb long;’ I was tempted to do the opposite of what I am doing – to hold my tongue and wait while you went down the ladder gain, betting first and then -“

“I have not made any bets,” said Fred, hastily.

“Glad to hear it. But I say, my prompting was to look on and see you take the wrong turning, wear out Garth’s patience, and lose the best opportunity of your life – the opportunity which you made some rather difficult effort to secure. You can guess the feeling which raised that temptation in me – I am sure you know it. I am sure you know that the satisfaction of your affections stand in the way of mine.”

After threatening him gravely and thoroughly, saying things like “relations of this sort (i.e. childhood playmates) are always liable to change”, “she is only conditionally bound to you”, “he (Farebrother himself) has a hold on her regard, might succeed in winning that firm place in her love as well as respect which you had let slip” (p634), etc etc. Fred was terrified to say the least. Farebrother would be a formidable rival if he intended to win Mary over; a man whom Fred is horribly jealous of, whom Fred childishly wishes “had been ugly and fat as men at forty sometimes are”, “a man who beats me in everything and whom you (Mary) set above everybody (p543)”.

However, Farebrother concludes their conversation:

“And now, do you understand me? I want you to make the happiness of her life and your own, and if there is any chance that a word of warning from me may turn aside any risk to the contrary – well, I have uttered it.”

Now Fred sees the purpose of this ‘threat’ and how costly it is to the older man. Deeply moved, Fred promises to start anew and live worthy “of you as well as of her”, meaning the vicar and Mary.

Farebrother is really the kindest man and I wish the author had given him a worthy wife! And what a lucky girl Mary is! To be loved so by two good men.

The end

I have spoiled the story enough I won’t tell you the ending. But it’s the sweetest thing and brings happy tears to my eyes.

In my copy, the Introduction mentions Mary to be one “whose capacity to observe the follies of the world around her with an amused generosity makes her akin to the narrator.” It also says Caleb Garth is “affectionately based on Eliot’s own father”. Maybe the author had favourites among her cast too. Who knows?

*I read Oxford World’s Classics 2019 version.

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