As Casaubon’s carriage leaves Middlemarch, another carriage enters, containing a woman who is obviously important in some way. The woman happily chats to the Tipton lodge-keeper about her chickens. The woman, Mrs. Cadwallader, is of “immeasurably high birth” yet claims to be poor and always gossips with servants. When she greets Mr. Brooke, she says she saw Casaubon leaving and accuses the two of them of plotting to get Brooke elected as a Whig representing Middlemarch. Mr. Brooke replies that he and Casaubon have barely discussed politics, as Casaubon is only interested in religion.
This passage introduces us to some of the ways in which the world in which the novel is set is undergoing change and reform. As we have already seen, it is a world structured by the class system, a fact that is reinforced here by mention of Mrs. Cadwallader’s “immeasurably high birth.” However, at the time the Whig party was beginning to push for moderate reforms that would slightly diminish the power of landed gentry.
Mrs. Cadwallader teases Mr. Brooke and warns him not to get involved with politics. Brooke replies that he doesn’t debate politics with women, because “your sex are not thinkers.” Mrs. Cadwallader mentions Dorothea and Sir James; Mr. Brooke regretfully replies that the marriage will never take place. Just as Mrs. Cadwallader asks whom Dorothea could possibly marry instead, Celia enters the room and, when prompted, tells Mrs. Cadwallader that Dorothea is engaged to Casaubon. Mrs. Cadwallader deems this “frightful,” and she and Celia discuss their dislike of Casaubon and appreciation of Sir James.
While not exactly a surrogate mother to Dorothea and Celia, Mrs. Cadwallader does partially inhabit this role by getting involved with the marriage prospects of the Brooke sisters. Her agreement with Celia reinforces the idea that Celia happily conforms with societal norms, whereas Dorothea rebels against them.
Mrs. Cadwallader announces that she must immediately tell Sir James the sad news. She says that she set a bad example by marrying a poor member of the clergy and that other women should “think of their families in marrying.” She adds that at least Casaubon has money. Later, Mrs. Cadwallader intercepts Sir James on his way to Tipton. First, she tells him that she accused Mr. Brooke of planning to run as a Whig and that she was unconvinced by his denial. She then warns him to brace himself for bad news, before telling him Dorothea is engaged to Casaubon.
It is somewhat surprising to learn that Mrs. Cadwallader married a poor clergyman considering she appears to hold traditional ideas about what constitutes a “good match.” Indeed, the difference between Mrs. Cadwallader’s own personal decisions and her recommendations for others suggests that she is a hypocrite—or that, like Dorothea, she struggles to reconcile her own desires with the expectations placed on her.
Horrified, Sir James exclaims: “He is no better than a mummy!” adding that Casaubon “has one foot in the grave.” Mrs. Cadwallader attempts to cheer him up and suggests that Celia might have been the better match all along. She notes that Celia clearly likes him, and then she leaves.
Sir James’s horrified reaction again shows how alone Dorothea is in finding Casaubon admirable. (Although of course, the intensity of James’s feeling is also the result of jealousy.)
Mrs. Cadwallader lives a simple life but is fascinated by all the details of “the great world,” which she learns about from letters sent to her by her noble relatives. She has no prejudice toward poor people but despises “the vulgar rich.” For years, Mrs. Cadwallader has been keeping an eye on Dorothea and Celia and chastising Mr. Brooke when necessary. She had been planning Dorothea’s engagement to Sir James ever since the sisters arrived at Tipton. However, she is now happy to switch the plan to Celia.
Within the English class system, prestige and power do not result from money alone. Although the aristocracy tend to be wealthier than those of lower social status, it is also possible to be noble and poor. Meanwhile, thanks to the rise of industrial capitalism, it is also becoming easier and easier to be low-ranking and wealthy—probably what Mrs. Cadwallader means when she refers to the “vulgar rich.”
Sir James himself does not dwell on his sadness about losing Dorothea for long, and in fact actually feels grateful that he didn’t propose because this way he avoided rejection. He heads to Tipton in order to discuss the cottages with Dorothea out of “friendly politeness,” although subconsciously he is also hoping to see Celia.
The quick turnaround in Sir James’s feelings suggests that he perhaps wasn’t as attached to Dorothea as we might have assumed. Indeed, he seems to have a more pragmatic than romantic approach to marriage.