Dorothea and Casaubon, literature's most famous miserable academic couple: Background information when reading Private Life

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Private Life

by Jane Smiley

Private Life
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  • First Published:
    May 2010, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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Beyond the Book:
Dorothea and Casaubon, literature's most famous miserable academic couple

Margaret and Andrew of Private Life are cut from the same cloth as George Eliot's classic unhappy spouses, Dorothea Brooke and the Reverend Edward Casaubon. Eliot's Middlemarch was published in 1874, just a few years before Smiley's character, Margaret Mayfield, is born.

Dorothea Brooke is an intelligent and idealistic young woman, the kind of girl who didn't have a lot of options in early nineteenth-century England (as Eliot spells out). She is just 19 when she meets Casaubon who is almost fifty. (Margaret and Early are a bit closer in age – when they marry she's 27 and he's 38.)

George EliotCasaubon appeals to Dorothea because of his intellectual seriousness. "Here was something beyond the shallows of ladies'-school literature," she reflects during her first conversation with him, "Here was a modern Augustine who united the glories of doctor and saint." She convinces herself that marriage to him will give her an education and engage her in important work. She wonders ...

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