Fred and Rosamond are out riding when they see a gig belonging to Mrs. Waule, one of their uncle Featherstone’s relations. They observe that, despite being enormously wealthy, the Waules and Featherstones stay close to Mr. Featherstone like “vultures” in order to make sure that his money doesn’t end up going to the other side of the family. Mrs. Waule, who is Mr. Featherstone’s sister, came to visit him that morning while Mary Garth was giving him medicine. Mrs. Waule gossips about the Vincys, saying that Fred is a “clodhopper” who gambles.
As this passage makes clear, people in Middlemarch are highly judgmental of each other. So far we have seen people judged for being old, ugly, rebellious, earnest, impatient, reformist, Methodist, miserly, irresponsible, and, in the case of Rosamond’s judgment of her suitors, simply being from Middlemarch! It seems difficult to evade condemnation in such a judgmental community.
Featherstone insists that Mr. Vincy must not give Fred money to pay his debts, and says that he’s heard Mr. Bulstrode criticize Mrs. Vincy’s habit of spoiling her children. Mary mentions that she doesn’t like hearing about “scandal.” Mrs. Waule says it upsets her to hear of Mr. Featherstone’s name being “made free with” by people who are not his true relatives. Angrily, Featherstone asks if she is implying that Fred has been telling people he will gain inheritance from his uncle’s will, and using this to borrow money. Mrs. Waule insists that this isn’t what she’s saying, but it is what she’s heard.
This passage shows that the judgmental nature of people in Middlemarch is fueled by their proclivity for gossip. Not only does everyone in the community have an opinion about other people, but they all have knowledge of other people’s business in the first place via a very overactive gossip mill. Indeed, Mary stands out as one of few characters who takes a stand against gossip.
Rosamond enters and Mrs. Waule greets her coldly. Rosamond says Fred will be in shortly, and Mr. Featherstone tells his sister she should leave. Mrs. Waule says she hopes a doctor will be able to heal Featherstone and that she and her nieces would be happy to nurse him back to health. Featherstone accuses them of only wanting money and bids her goodbye. He then dismisses Mary and Rosamond, saying that he wants to speak with Fred. The two young women are close friends, and Rosamond had been hoping to speak with Mary in private.
Featherstone’s reaction to Mrs. Waule’s offer of help highlights a major downside of being wealthy. Nearing the end of his life, Featherstone possesses a (seemingly well-grounded) fear that no one actually loves him, and that every act of kindness bestowed on him is just a strategy to get some of his money.
Once they are alone, Featherstone accuses Fred of using the promise of his inheritance to borrow money. Fred denies it, but Featherstone insists that Fred explain himself, warning that he can still change his will if he wants. Fred again denies it, and Featherstone tells him he’s heard it’s true from Fred’s uncle Mr. Bulstrode. Horrified, Fred protests that Bulstrode “has a prejudice against me.” He says that he never wanted to disrespect his uncle and that he is grateful. Featherstone demands that Fred bring a letter from Bulstrode assuring him that Fred has not promised to pay his debts with his inheritance.
Again, while Featherstone may have a rude and unpleasant manner, his paranoia about the actions of his relatives is well-founded. Mrs. Vincy has already mentioned that she and her family are effectively waiting for Featherstone to die so they can get their inheritance from him. Aware that this is how his family feels, Featherstone desperately attempts to assert authority in the final moments of his life.
Despite his anger, Fred still feels pity for Featherstone, who is neither loved nor respected. Featherstone asks Fred to read him the names of the books on his shelves, asking why Mary needs those books when reading the newspaper should be enough for her. Meanwhile, Rosamond and Mary have been talking quickly upstairs. Rosamond is very beautiful, and most men in Middlemarch consider her “the best girl in the world.”
This passage confirms that in Middlemarch, women are not valued for their intelligence—as shown by Featherstone’s dismissive comments about Mary’s books. Instead they are valued for their looks, which lead men to think Rosamond is “the best girl” of all.
Mary is 22 years old and rather plain, but very honest. She exclaims that she looks ugly next to Rosamond, but Rosamond responds that this doesn’t matter because Mary is so “useful,” adding that beauty is ultimately quite meaningless. She says it is possible Mary will receive an offer of marriage and asks if Mary likes Lydgate. Mary replies that she can’t like someone who behaves as snootily and dismissively toward her as Lydgate does. Rosamond asks Mary to describe him and seems pleased with the description, saying: “I rather like a haughty manner.”
Rosamond’s comment about Mary being “useful” and her delight at Lydgate’s haughtiness suggest that she does not have a particularly strong set of moral principles. Mary seems far more principled, which a shows a similarity to Dorothea, although Mary is arguably more practical and mature than Dorothea is.
Rosamond exclaims that Fred is “horrid,” adding that he is lazy, disobedient, and makes Mr. Vincy angry. When Mary says she thought he was going to be a clergyman, Rosamond replies that this will never happen and accuses Mary of always siding with Fred. Mary says that if Mrs. Vincy is worried about Fred proposing to her, Rosamond should assure her mother that Fred intends to do no such thing.
The implication of a union between Fred and Mary is surprising. Thus far Fred appears to be mischievous, lazy, and irresponsible, whereas Mary is honest, hardworking, and mature. Again, love is shown to work in unexpected ways.
At that moment Lydgate arrives, dreading his encounter with Featherstone, whom he imagines will have backwards views about doctors. Rosamond insists to Fred that they leave, and as they are going Lydgate asks if Rosamond is a musician. Featherstone replies that she is “the best in Middlemarch.” Rosamond replies that the bar for musical talent in Middlemarch is decidedly low. She and Lydgate exchange an intense look, and Rosamond blushes. She and Fred leave.
Here we see a glimpse of Lydgate and Rosamond beginning to bond over their shared distaste of the provincial way of life in Middlemarch. Note that Rosamond’s musical skill shows that she excels in exactly the pursuits that women are supposed to follow.
Ever since Lydgate arrived in Middlemarch Rosamond has been fantasizing about a future with him. She has always been determined to marry someone who is not from Middlemarch, but this is not the only reason why she finds Lydgate a perfect match: he also comes from a “good family” and is talented. She and Fred ride home in silence, each consumed by their own thoughts. Rosamond dreams of impressing Lydgate’s high-ranking relatives, while Fred frets over Featherstone’s request for the letter from Bulstrode. His boasts about his inheritance from Featherstone were uttered while he was drunk, and have been blown out of proportion by the gossip mill.
Although Rosamond and Fred are preoccupied with very different thoughts, both of them are essentially obsessing over reputation. Rosamond fantasizes about going up in rank through marrying Lydgate; her fixation on impressing his relatives conveys her obsession with reputation and status. Meanwhile, Fred’s problems originated in a similar desire to impress (which led to his boasts), and have been worsened by gossip and speculation.
Fred’s debt is small, but it is causing him a lot of misery. He feels annoyed that he is the son of a Middlemarch manufacturer. He guesses that Mrs. Waule was the one who told Featherstone about the debt and asks Rosamond if Mrs. Waule said anything about him. Rosamond replies that Mrs. Waule called him “unsteady,” but that’s it. Fred then mentions that Mary is “the best girl I know,” while Rosamond replies that it’s strange that Fred is in love with her. She adds that Mary told her she would say no if Fred proposed. As they near home, Fred resolves to seek help from his father about the whole mess with the debt, Featherstone, and Bulstrode.
Fred and Rosamond may be brother and sister, but they don’t have a very loving relationship. In fact, they often seem to want to sabotage each other. This has perhaps resulted from their being spoiled by their parents, which has made each of them greedy and selfish.