The dramatic political events occurring at this time have created a great deal of confusion in Middlemarch. Many had stopped reading the local newspaper The Pioneer, which has a progressive bent, due to its over-tolerant position on the Catholic Question. However, the anti-Catholic Trumpet is not favored either. Mr. Hackbutt tells Mr. Hawley that Mr. Brooke is rumored to have acquired the Pioneer in secret, adding that he has got “a very brilliant young fellow”—Ladislaw—to be the paper’s editor. The two men intend to use the paper to push the Reform agenda.
“The Catholic Question” refers to the events surrounding the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which allowed Catholics to become Members of Parliament. This change is obviously related to broader questions around religious tolerance (explored in the book through Bulstrode) and also to Reform itself, a movement to change the country’s electoral system and make it more democratic.
Hawley ridicules Reform, which leads Hackbutt to point out that, though he is no radical, the electoral system in England does have serious problems. Mr. Brooke, meanwhile, describes Ladislaw as a “kind of Shelley,” clarifying that he means this in a complimentary way. He appreciates Ladislaw’s “enthusiasm for liberty, freedom, emancipation” and tells Casaubon that he is glad they are related. Casaubon could not feel more differently. Ladislaw knows that Casaubon hates him. Ladislaw knows he has a debt to his cousin due to the financial support Casaubon once provided, yet he is convinced that Casaubon has “done a wrong to Dorothea in marrying her.”
Brooke’s comparison refers to Percy Bysshe Shelley, a Romantic poet famous for his radical social, political, and economic views. Shelley advocated for atheism, and against war and the monarchy. His rebellions got him kicked out of Oxford and cut off from his family. He died at the age of 29 in Italy. Although Shelley is now seen as an important radical, in a conservative place like Middlemarch, it would be hard to see how a comparison to him could be meant as a compliment.
Ladislaw is determined to faithfully watch over Dorothea and has managed to see her a few times since coming to Middlemarch, although never alone. To Dorothea, seeing Will is like a brief glimpse of sunshine in her prison-like existence. Finally Will manages to see her alone, and admits to her that he aimed to catch her without Casaubon. Dorothea explains that she has learned a lot since Rome in order to be able to help her husband, and adds that it can be tiring to learn and know so much.
Dorothea seems to not yet realize how much Will hates Casaubon. Furthermore, although the narrator compares her life at Lowick to a prison, Dorothea has not yet fully admitted that her marriage is a failure. She is clearly still attached to the original fantasy of being an intellectual helpmeet to Casaubon.
Will says that Casaubon should get a secretary, and Dorothea says neither she nor her husband wants that. Will then says that this is because Casaubon is too insecure about his own work to have anyone else look at it. Rather than getting angry, Dorothea is quiet. Will mentions his grandmother, Julia, who was disowned for marrying a poor Polish musician. Dorothea suddenly exclaims: “I wish I knew all about her!” She wonders how Julia coped with transitioning from “wealth to poverty,” but Will admits he did not know her or his grandfather very well, and that they died young.
Dorothea romanticizes Julia’s trajectory because it is so different from her own. Julia married for love and was forced to give up all her wealth as a result. Perhaps naively, Dorothea is excited by this story. Will’s response tempers this romanticization, particularly when he points out that both Julia and her husband died young. Marrying for love isn’t necessarily a “happily ever after.”
Dorothea says that she has always had “too much of everything.” Will explains that his mother also ran away from her family, though not for a man, but rather to be an actress. He then tells Dorothea about Mr. Brooke buying the Pioneer and asking Will to stay in Middlemarch and edit it. He says that he will stay unless Dorothea wants him to go, but she assures him she wants him to stay. As he goes to leave, he wants to ask Dorothea not to mention their conversation to Casaubon, but he doesn’t want to corrupt her innate honesty, so says nothing.
The history of rebellious women in Will’s family makes him an even more fitting match for Dorothea, as he—unlike everyone else in Middlemarch—might actually be able to understand and sympathize with her free-spirited nature. Of course, unfortunately this has emerged too late, once Dorothea is already married to Casaubon.
When Casaubon comes home, Dorothea tells him about Will’s visit and Mr. Brooke’s proposal. She suggests that it would be good for Will to finally have a job that he can dedicate himself to. The next day, Casaubon writes Will a letter telling him that Will’s acceptance of Mr. Brooke’s proposal would be “highly offensive” to him. He cites his previous support of Will as grounds for him to be able to forbid Will from taking the position. He also tells Will not to come to Lowick again.
Crucially, Casaubon does not give a reason why Will’s acceptance of the position at the Pioneer would be “offensive”—he just cites his authority over Will as the reason why Will should comply with his wishes. This once again shows that Casaubon is cold and unfeeling, with too much reverence for authority and tradition.
Meanwhile, Dorothea keeps thinking about Julia. She thinks that the unjust way Julia was treated means that Casaubon “ha[s] a debt to the Ladislaws.” She suddenly feels sure that in order to repay this debt, Casaubon should give Will a steady income which would continue to be paid even after Casaubon’s death. This idea fills her with happiness and a sense of purpose. Late that night, Dorothea tells her husband that she has been thinking about money, and how she has always had too much of it.
Dorothea has an unusually strong and forward-thinking sense of justice. At this time, it is normal for families to cut off members who act in disobedient and rebellious ways. However, Dorothea sees that this is not right. Unfortunately, her naivety means that she believes Casaubon will agree and be willing to right this past wrong.
Dorothea then mentions Julia, suggesting that Casaubon himself perhaps felt a debt and that’s why he paid for Will’s education. She says she doesn’t think it’s right that Will is poor while they are rich. Casaubon tells Dorothea that it is not her place—nor within her capacity—to try and influence him on a subject like this. The next day Casaubon receives a response from Will, saying that Will disagrees with the idea that Casaubon has a right to forbid him from staying in Middlemarch. While Casaubon has supported him in the past, Will is now independent and may do what he likes.
Casaubon is a deep believer in hierarchy and authority, and he holds the conservative view that people should temper their behavior according to their place in this hierarchy. Neither Dorothea nor Will sees the world this way, but unlike Will, Dorothea has limited means to rebel against it. This passage also illuminates that Casaubon does not truly respect Dorothea’s intelligence and opinions, but rather expects her to remain subservient to him.
Casaubon is suddenly convinced that all of Will’s recent actions have been part of a plan to turn Dorothea against him. He considers contacting Mr. Brooke or Sir James for help. However, he doesn’t feel he can rely on anyone to take his side. He also doesn’t want anyone to know that he is jealous and insecure when it comes to Will. This would be as bad as letting his fellow scholars judge his work. He therefore says nothing to anyone.
Like many people whose insecurities lead them to isolate themselves, Casaubon begins to suffer from paranoia. Crucially, his social paranoia about Dorothea and Will mirrors his intellectual paranoia about other scholars viewing him as a fraud.