Botanical Vernacular

The Flowers of Middlemarch: Dorothea Brooke, Rosamond Vincy and Mary Garth

George Eliot’s Middlemarch is composed of a myriad of different narrative strains that are intricately woven into an elaborate tapestry of interconnection over the course of the eight books that compromise the novel’s whole. Eliot weaves her story not around a single locus, but instead embraces heterogeneity in an effort to capture the realism of mid-nineteenth century life. The reader is presented with a panoramic snapshot of provincial English Midland life (1830-1832) that includes everything from the extension of the railroad networks, to the budding of new professions such as medicine to the women’s post-marriage domestic sphere, which had, up until Eliot, often been glossed over in novels of manners (Spacks 162). However, despite the immense span of the novel, which deals with a multitude of people, as well as political, sexual and social issues, there are certain echoes of homogeneity sprinkled throughout the text, which endow Middlemarch with an uncanny wholeness. One of the fastening agents that Eliot uses to bond her sprawling narrative together are strategically applied patterns of imagery. Throughout Middlemarch Eliot employs numerous different patterns of imagery including images of light, water and flowers; these patterns percolate through out the text and are strategically manipulated by Eliot to subtly communicate a subtext about the novel’s characters that they themselves are often blind to.

Present-day readers may skim over the metaphorical descriptions of a character’s “budding,” “blooming,” “blossoming” or “flowering” as they develop from an inchoate being into their potential, for those idioms have become clichéd staples of English expression. Eliot’s readers, however, would have much more closely scrutinized the text’s botanical references (Shteir 18). During the Victorian and Edwardian eras women were granted admission to the citadel of science on the condition that they study female disciplines; the earliest field of scientific study that women were granted admission to was botany (Higgitt and Withers 12). Women of all classes were encouraged to keep herbariums, which were books where women would keep pressed botanical specimens, filed by taxon, with detailed notes of their origins (where flowers and plants were picked, when they were picked, etc.). George Eliot’s botanical knowledge was expansive; her interest in the subject went beyond the margins of popular books on the subject. In her journal essay “Recollections of Jersey 1857”, she catalogues her botanical education as follows: “I have been getting a smattering of botany from Miss Catlow and from Dr. Thomson’s little book on Wild Flowers, which have created at least a longing for something more complete on the subject” (281). The “Miss Catlow” Eliot admonishes in the essay is the author of Popular Field Botany. Eliot iterates multiple times that she was unsatisfied with Popular Field Botany. In a letter to Sara Hennell from the Isle of Jersey she indicates that she had been taking inland walks with said book. Eliot exclaims in the letter that the woods are full of “distracting wild flowers that Miss Catlow never says anything about, just because they are the very flowers you want to identify” (329).

From the mid-nineteenth century until the early twentieth, women of leisure were encouraged to go out and explore the country side, collecting both known and unknown species of flora (Shteir 36). This drive to collect and classify was part and parcel to the colonial drive to stamp the impression of empire onto the unmapped. Botany, as a prescribed Victorian pursuit for women, can be seen as a locus of bourgeois Victorian power that suppressed outliers and implemented order. Flowers, however, were also a locus of resistance. Although flower collecting and the practice of botany was prescribed for women, and was reflective of the constrictive, empire-driven Victorian society, flowers were also used in subversive communicative acts. For, flowers, in arrangements called “tussie-mussies” or “talking bouquets”, were used to send coded messages to friends or lovers (Laufer 17). Thus, the botanical pattern of imagery that runs throughout Middlemarch is a doubly charged pattern, an antithetical symbol that can refer simultaneously to the resistance and acquiescence to the Victorian hegemony. This botanical pattern of imagery demands further scrutiny, for up until now only Amy King has seriously addressed Eliot’s tactical use of botanical imagery, a topic that demands more academic attention.

An interesting effect of the Victorian botanical frenzy was that botanical terms seeped into the lexicon. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, employed metaphors of sexual courtship and marriage to describe plants. In a post-Linnaean reversal a botanical vernacular was applied to human sexual interactions. The most common botanical trope, found peppered throughout the novel of manners, was the bloom trope, wherein women with marital dispositions bloomed for their respective suitors. In her excellent monograph, Bloom: The Botanical Vernacular in the English Novel, Amy King outlines how by the time Eliot wrote Middlemarch the term bloom had become nearly as stilted and stagnant as it is today. King writes that if in Austen [among others] bloom had primarily accounted for marital dispositions, in Eliot the expansion of the systemic of bloom to a more generally categorized nature corresponds to the way Eliot expanded her novels from linear marriage plots to multistrand narratives”(134). King argues that the “‘departicularization’ of bloom in Middlemarch is in the service of a new realist taxonomization—one that studies the various types of female bloom” (154). King broadly looks at Eliot’s reinvention of the trope as it manifests in Middlemarch but fails to note a disparity in Eliot’s distribution of the term bloom, which is primarily used to describe Dorothea Brooke. King fails to note that while Dorothea is repeatedly referred to as a “blooming girl” or a “bloom” or “in bloom,” Rosamond Vincy is described through more concrete floral imagery. Eliot’s expansion of the systemic of bloom is perhaps more elaborate than King’s monograph would lead us to conclude.

In the prelude to Middlemarch Eliot articulates that one of the novel’s objectives is to expand on the “literary tradition of portraying love,” which has been reductionist in its representations of women (Novy 64). According to Eliot, women’s lives are much more varied “than anyone would imagine from the sameness of…the favourite love-stories in prose and verse” (32). Eliot’s study of provincial life flushes out numerous types of women that have often been pushed into the margins of literature. Eliot locates literary anemia in a certain type of female heroine, embodied by Rosamond Vincy, whose goal was marriage wherein she supposedly bloomed and whose emotional and mental depths were questionable. In an effort to expand the category of heroine, Eliot engages in a project of retaxonimization. Through her use of botanical terminology, Eliot expands the taxon of literary romantic female to include characters such as Mary Garth and Dorothea Brooke. By the 1880s, the term “to bloom” had become synonymous with the unvaried heroines of literature that Eliot castigates in the prelude to Middlemarch. Eliot reappropriates the term to bloom and applies it almost exclusively to the character Dorothea Brooke who blooms intellectually and spiritually, rather than physically. While Dorothea’s mind blooms, despite the failures of her Lausanne education, Rosamond Vincy, who is almost exclusively associated with physicality, is described as flowering rather than blooming. The plain Mary Garth, by contrast, is the most fertile of the three women, for she produces both heirs (a litter of boys) and a book, Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch; she, however, is not associated with flora, but with the fecundity of earth.

In the opening chapters of the novel Dorothea is presented as being spiritually castrated. Her Calvinist education at Lausanne has curbed her natural aesthetic longings. Dorothea manages to rationalize her aesthetic indulgences such as her love of riding and her zeal for her mother’s emerald jewellery. The hyper-conscientious Dorothea loves to ride, but she feels that she enjoyed it in a pagan sensuous way, and always looked forward to renouncing it” (36). Dorothea never actually renounces riding, but she is uncomfortable with her own unbridled enthusiasm for it and so must validate her actions through self-deception. Jill Matus asserts that Dorothea’s self deception is not a manifestation of her mental struggle to balance the Puritan ideals she learned at Lusanne with her natural aesthetic longings. Matus is adamant that Dorothea’s asceticism with regards to the way she looks forward to giving up horseback riding emphasizes that she was “uncomfortable” with her “displaced sexuality” which prompts her to attempt to “work out a negotiation between ideas and common yearnings” (228). Whether it is an aesthetic hunger or sexual urges that Dorothea struggles to subdue the conclusion is the same: Dorothea is trying to mould herself into a singular type of individual, which is clearly antithetical to her plural nature. Elizabeth Sabiston has noted that there is no one key to unlock Dorothea’s character and no one metaphor attached to her. The patterns of imagery applied to her include botanical images, images of water blocked and flowing, images of extinguished light and the blinding light of God. In a lecture Sabiston stated that “Dorothea is not just some contemporary Saint Therese,” she does not embody a sole allusion, but many, for she is “Saint Catherine forced to stare at her sister’s daughter, Diana when she walks in on Will [Ladislaw], and Eve in quest of the apple of knowledge”. Dorothea escapes the limitations of seizing a single metaphor by juggling numerous metaphors. Ultimately Dorothea is able to grow as an individual, and is able to rebloom, when she becomes capable of acknowledging her attempt to be a singular type of woman was a failed attempt.

In Middlemarch Eliot engages in reformatting the bloom trope. By aligning the term bloom primarily with Dorothea, Eliot associates the term not with the sexual fulfilment of marriage, but with self-fulfilment. Dorothea blooms intellectually and spiritually, rather than sexually, for her bloom is not representative of a physical ripeness, but a mental ripeness. Early on, in the third chapter of the novel, the narrator locates Dorthea’s bloom in her mind: “…the reasons that might induce [Dorothea] to accept [Casaubon] were already planted in her mind, and by the evening of the next day the reasons had budded and bloomed” (47). Eliot makes it almost too easy for the reader to lay the onus of the awful Brooke-Casabon marriage onto the shrivelled, sterile and neglectful Casaubon who “had no bloom that could be thrown into relief by that background” (85). This opinion is championed by the Middlemarchers who vocally state that Dorothea “is too young to know what she likes” and that she is being taken advantage of (81). The marriage is, however, the result of mutual myopia; both Dorothea and Casaubon are misinformed with regards to who they both think they are and who they both think their partners are. Dorothea is much less submissive than Casaubon perceived her to be during their courtship; he failed to recognize her independent nature. Dorothea, despite her desire to be the exemplar of the submissive ideal wife, has a natural disposition that is misaligned with the Victorian ideal woman. Dorothea scorns the hegemonic oppression of women (exemplified by her desire to engage in “too taxing” male intellectual pursuits such as architecture and classic tongues) (78).

In “Middlemarch and the Woman Question” Kathleen Blake coyly points out that while Dorothea “casts herself in prospect in a self-subdued role as a wife, as her husband’s lamp bearer and so on, she is hardly so selfless as she thinks” (293). For Dorothea marriage—at least her first marriage—is not a telos in and of itself, but a path that she hopes will lead to self-improvement. Dorothea is mistakenly under the impression that marrying Casaubon will help her have access to the provinces of masculine knowledge—Greek and Latin—that have thus far been barred to her. And through an expanded education that endows her with masculine tools, Dorothea believes that her great desire to aid in bettering the world will become a tangible reality, rather than an abstraction that manifests in the untrained sketching of cottages. Unfortunately for Dorothea, who longs to be an equal partner in marriage, Casaubon does not want an equal partner, but a completely submissive helpmate. Within the confines of Lowick Dorothea is not granted admission to the citadel of masculine knowledge guarded by Casaubon, but is condemned to fade away.

During their courtship and the early portion of their marriage Dorothea mistakes Casaubon’s learning for intellectualism, but it is no more than well-presented rote memorization. For, Dorothea’s sole attraction to Casaubon (his intelligence, which she hopes will fertilize her mind with knowledge) is revealed by Will Ladislaw to be a farce. Even if Dorothea learned Latin and Greek it would be of no help to Casaubon, for his academic project, to unveil the “Key to all Mythologies,” suffers from his ignorance of current German scholarship on his research topic. Ladislaw explains to Dorothea that “the Germans have taken the lead in historical inquiries, and they laugh at results which are got by groping about in woods with a pocket-compass while they have made good roads” (191). Thus, not only is Dorothea’s path to knowledge stymied by a chauvinistic mate who has no interest in an equal partner, her partner does not even have the ability to baptize her into useful scholarship, for his own work is as impotent as he himself is.

The “breathing blooming girl,” Dorothea, must pass through a yew tree-lined path before she enters the matrimonial trap that is Lowick (176). The yew tree is a coniferous tree with tempting berry-like fruits that entice with their vibrant red colour. The tempting tree is, however, highly poisonous just as the marriage to Casaubon is. There is a long history that associates the yew tree with graveyards, which stretches back to antiquity. In the antiquarian Richard Gough’s first work, Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain, he notes, “yew-trees in churchyards supply the place of cypress round tombs, where Ovid says they were placed” (102). Daines Barrington asserts that the tradition that aligns yew trees with graveyards was not a relic of the ancient world. In his work Observations on the Statutes Barrington says that “trees in a churchyard were often planted to skreen [sic] the church from the wind; that, low as churches were built at this time, the thick foliage of the yew answered this purpose better than any other tree. (122). The contemporary literature that Eliot would have read also equivocated yew trees with death and graveyards. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “In Memoriam: A.H.H.” the yew above Arthur Halla’s grave is addressed: “Old yew, which graspest at the stones/ That name the underlying dead,/ Thy fibres net the dreamless head,/ Thy roots are wrapped about the bones” (II, ln. 1-4). Ultimately, Lowick is equivalent to a graveyard for Dorothea whose “blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colourless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight” (239). It is this domestic prison that causes her bloom to wither, fade and drop.

While I have outlined a direct correlation between the term bloom and Dorothea’s spiritual matriculation, it is necessary to note that Eliot traces the genealogy of the bloom trope throughout the course of the novel rather than starting afresh with a brand new systemic of bloom. Dorothea, whose name can be etymologically traced back to the Greek “gift of the gods,” is granted the Christ-like gift of being reborn, for she does not bloom only once, but twice. Her first bloom is triggered by external factors mimicking the bloom experienced by an Austen novel protagonist, while her second bloom is engendered by her spiritual growth. In this sense her first bloom, ignited by the sterile Casaubon, is of the old variety of botanical taxonomy, wherein a woman’s bloom is defined by external factors such as marriage. When Casaubon dies Dorothea is under the impression that she has evaded his eternal authority over her by never capitulating to the promise that he wanted her to blindly make. Thus, under the impression that she has escaped his post-mortem clutches, Dorothea is reborn again; the faded Dorothea, clad in widow’s black is described as looking “all the younger” with her “recovered bloom” (431). As a widow of means, Dorothea is able to begin in a project of bettering Middlemarch through her patronage.

In The Novels of George Eliot a Study in Form Barbara Hardy notes that the plant image tends to be poignant or pathetic, as when female victims in the novels are so characterized (206-209). Dorothea Brooke, who is consistently referred to as blooming, and who even re-blooms after Casaubon smothers her initial bloom, is anything but the novel’s pathetic victim. The bloom trope is divided into two new taxons: women who flower and women who bloom. Women who bloom, are self-empowered heroines of the new generation of literature; women whose happiness is not necessarily bonded to motherhood and matrimony; women who engage with their own plural nature and are not reducible to a single type of woman. By contrast, women who flower, such as Rosamond Vincy, are of the pathetic orientation because they dwell in the realm of the physical rather than the spiritual. Rosamond, who flowers rather than blooms, is described through the novel as having “delicate petals,” as having a “flower-like head on [a] white stem”; she is “the flower of Mrs. Lemon's school” and the “flower of Middlemarch”.

The narrator makes a point to note, ironically, that Tertius Lydgate “felt himself amply informed by literature” about the “complexities of love and marriage,” which if the narrative ended with the Lydgate-Vincy marriage, may have appeared true (154). However, it is within their marriage that complications arise due to the intransigence of both Lydgate and Rosamond. Their relationship mirrors Dorothea’s and Casaubon, for both partners see the other as they want them to be and not as they are, furthermore both characters are blind to their own motivations to marry. The narrator states this succinctly, “Each lived in a world of which the other knew nothing”, and it is this lack of knowledge that determines Lydgate’s lifetime of frustrated ideals. It is through this pattern of noxious marriages that it becomes evident that Eliot’s reformatting of the systemic of bloom does not castigate marriage, but bad marriages. Thus, while Dorothea reblooms into a self-motivated agent unrestrained by social reprobation and is rewarded with mutual love in a healthy marriage to Will Ladislaw, Rosamond’s fate is much less idyllic. Her imbalanced marriage, which is built on a dearth of communication, does not foster Rosamond’s spiritual, emotional or intellectual bloom. Ultimately, Rosamond is not the agent of her own flower, but rather through Lydgate’s gaze she is rendered into a flower. She flowers in the eyes of men and for male attention such as in chapter seventy-five, when Rosamond’s face “looked like a reviving flower” because she was under the impression that Will Ladislaw intended to come to back to the Midlands and feed her with attention (583).

Rosamond, whose name when etymologically broken down to the original French translates to “rose of the world,” is just that, “of the world” rather than of the self. The world around Middlemarch creates Rosamond. What she wants is what society tells her, which is to climb socially by marrying her way out of Middlemarch. Rosamond’s name also calls up a long history of literary love that stretches back to The Romance of the Rose and Chaucer’s poem “To Rasemounde” in which he compares himself to Tristram, the famous lover.  Marianne Novy points out that in an earlier draft of the novel Lydgate bore the name Tristram (Novy 66).  A historical Rosamund from the Plantagenet era, the mistress of King Henry II, also made several appearances in Victorian literary works such as Samuel Daniel’s “The Complaint of Rosamund” and Tennyson’s “Rosamund’s Bower”. Charlote Brontë’s Rosamond Oliver (Jane Eyre) is also seen by St. John Rivers to be too weak to act as a missionary’s wife, which is why he proposes to Jane rather than Rosamond with whom he has been casually in love with for some time. Rosamond Vincy is a product of that long tradition of literary “sameness” that ignores the heterogeneity of female types, which Eliot proposes to combat in the novel’s prelude (32). Thus, one can read Rosamond Vincy as the telos of a long history of homogenous female heroines who win love not because of their intelligence, their autonomy, and their constitutional strength, but because of their enticing veneers, which trap men like a Venus flytrap.

In chapter sixteen the narrator of Middlemarch asserts that Rosamond’s accomplishments are artful entrapments for men, and have only been acquired in order to catch a suitor and not to feed Rosamond’s own aesthetic hunger (Wiesenfarth 363).  After it is made clear that Rosamond Vincy’s piano playing perfectly echoes her teacher’s but has no soul of its own, the narrator proceeds to state that Rosamond “was always that combination of correct sentiments, music, dancing, drawing, elegant note-writing, private album for extracted verse, and perfect blond loveliness, which made the irresistible woman for the doomed man of that date”(235). According to Jacques Lacan the gaze is a property of the object and not the subject who is looking (Sturken and Cartwright 94). The gaze is a process where the object makes the subject look, and Rosamond, utilizing the siren skills she has honed at Mrs. Lemon’s school entraps the young doomed doctor Tertius Lydgate. In “The Eye and the Gaze” Lacan also notes that recognition of the visual object is always overlaid with misrecognition because the subject’s attempt to view the other (the petit objet a) must pass through the intermediary. Lydgate mediates his perceptions of Rosamond through a discourse of literary love. Thus, if Rosamond is the representative of a flat type of literary heroine as the etymology of her name indicates, then it is only appropriate that her suitor, Lydgate, can only experience their courtship through the literary cliché of the bloom.

When Tertius Lydgate and Rosamond Vincy first meet the reader is not granted access to Rosamond’s immediate perceptions of Lydgate. Instead, the free indirect discourse privileges Lydgate’s perception as he examines Rosamond with such scrutiny that “[n]othing escaped” his gaze (119). Despite the intensity of his gaze he cannot see her through human terms, instead he floropomorphises her through a botanical simile that goes out of control: “her flower-like head on its white stem was seen in perfection above-her riding-habit” (119). Prior to marrying Rosamond, Lydgate’s perceptions of “the flower of Middlemarch” are, to his detriment, defined by botanical clichés of the period (that a woman who is seen as blooming is ripe for marriage) (253). It is only later in their relationship, after Rosamond’s selfishness has forced Lydgate to forgo his dreams of ameliorating the medical profession, that he is able to recognize the negative aspects of Rosamond’s floral qualities.

By the novel’s finale, after Lydgate’s aspirations of ameliorating the medical profession have been stymied by Rosamond, he refers to his wife as “his basil plant” alluding to the Keats poem “Isabella; Or a pot of basil” (683). The poem Lydgate alludes to centres on the heroine Isabella who falls in love with a man below her rank. Her brother kills her lover, Lorenzo, and Isabella, in an effort to keep her lover nearby, retains Lorenzo’s head in a pot of basil that she tends to neurotically. By referring to Rosamond as a basil plant, rather than referring to her as the tragic heroine Isabella, Lydgate is commenting on Rosamond’s extreme selfishness and her failure to give in kind. This observation is rather apt because Rosamond does not fit into the old systemic of bloom. She may flower for marriage, or at least Lydgate perceives her to do so during their courtship, but she does not bloom for motherhood. Rosamond gives birth prematurely and loses her first child because she “persisted in going out on horseback one day [to court Captain Lydgate’s praises] when her husband had desired her not to do so” (460). Rosamond is consistently described by other characters in floral terms (by Mrs. Lemon, by the Middlemarchers, by Lydgate), but the narrative seldom describes her as experiencing a blooming moment save in chapter seventy-five when she expects Will Ladislaw to lavish attention on her much neglected self. One could surmise that Rosamond’s flowering is not prompted by matrimony or motherhood, it is prompted instead for two reasons: by male attention and by social climbing opportunities; both factors that poison a marriage, rendering it sterile rather than fertile. Rosamond’s desire to ascend her role and escape Middlemarch is one of her often-repeated goals throughout the novel. Unfortunately for Rosamond, she marries a man who dotes on his career more than he dotes on her, and who stymies her attempts at social mobility.

Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own” frames early creative women’s lots as a binary that forces women to choose between biological productivity and creative productivity. In a lecture Elizabeth Sabiston noted that Woolf shunts aside Elizabeth Gaskell, while cataloguing the pioneering female authors that exemplified this binary, because she does not fit the mould of female authors forced to give up motherhood in order to birth novels. Gaskell was the exception that proves the rule, for she balanced the duties of wife, mother and writer. Mary Garth channels Gaskell, for she is the only Middlemarcher to balance—successfully—the duties or wife, mother and author. Despite Mary’s marked three-fold success, she is never described with floral terms, notwithstanding the fact that she is the only protagonist to actually garden and handle flowers. She does not flower for Fred Vincy, she does not bloom when she becomes a mother, nor does she blossom when she writes Stories of Great Men, taken from Plutarch. Mary Garth is never described in botanical terms. She is, in fact, described in opposition to flowers: “Mary’s little figure, rough wavy hair, and visage quite without lilies and roses” (503). When standing next to Rosamond, the flower of Middlemarch, Mary candidly declares, “What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion”. As a working-class woman without means Mary would not have been able to engage with botany as Dorothea Brooke and Rosamond Vincy were apt to do. Botanical pursuits were “part of polite culture within mid-Victorian bourgeois” circles (Shteir 234).

Mrs. Vincy, who does not want her son Fred to marry below his rank, does not want to think of Mary as a viable wife for her Fred. She sees Mary through the same lens as she sees the governess Miss Morgan: “Everything looked blooming and joyous except Miss Morgan, who was brown, dull, and resigned, and altogether, as Mrs. Vincy often said, just the sort of person for a governess” (TKPG). The colour brown for Mrs. Vincy is the opposite of the fertility, which she associates with her flowering daughter, “the flower of Middlemarch”. Brown, while it is associated with dead plants, is also the same colour as earth. Mary embodies the fecundity of earth. Mary is also demonstrative of how the social etiquette thought to bourgeois women serves only to cloud their self-perception and their perceptions of others, for without the bourgeois myopia, which both Rosamond and Dorothea suffer, Mary Garth knows that a happy marriage with Fred Vincy is conditional on his leaving the clergy. She is keenly aware of what she needs from a marital partner and is more aware than Fred of what he himself needs to achieve happiness. In “A Room of One’s Own” Virginia Woolf argues that women have been kept from writing because of their relative poverty, and financial dependence. Woolf notes, “In the first place, [for a woman] to have a room of her own...was out of the question, unless her parents were exceptionally rich or very noble” (52). Thus the same lack of wealth that excludes Mary Garth from participating in the popular pursuit of botany should theoretically also exclude her from engaging in creative projects such as writing. Mary Garth, however, is perhaps the most naturally fertile character in the entire narrative. Being brought up outside out the bourgeois circles has not hindered Mary, but empowered her.   She is both active herself and a catalyst that compels Fred Vincy to self-betterment. “[M]ight, could, would—they are contemptible auxiliaries” exclaims Mary, who dwells in a world of action (135). She demands that Fred give up his half-hearted pursuit of a career in the clergy, an ultimatum that could force Mary into spinsterhood should Fred not pick up the gauntlet. Mary thus is not only a fertile writer and wife, but she can also plant the seed of fertility in others by stimulating agency in those prone to sedateness.


Works Cited

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