Middlemarch HTML version

Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious
mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least
briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the
thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still
smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they
toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with
human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them
in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-
pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an
epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social
conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel;
and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which
would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the
rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of
a religious order.
That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the
last of her kind. Many Theresas have been born who found for themselves no
epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps
only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched
with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred
poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance
they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to
common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for
these later-born Theresas were helped by no coherent social faith and order
which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their
ardor alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of
womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other
condemned as a lapse.
Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient
indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of
women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to
count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific
certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are
really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's
coiffure and the favorite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet
is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the
living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a
Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an
unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of
centring in some long-recognizable deed.