The following are the last two paragraphs of the second chapter of George Eliot's Middlemarch:

He was not in the least jealous of the interest with which Dorothea had looked up at Mr. Casaubon: it never occurred to him that a girl to whom he was meditating an offer of marriage could care for a dried bookworm towards fifty, except, indeed, in a religious sort of way, as for a clergyman of some distinction.
However, since Miss Brooke had become engaged in a conversation with Mr. Casaubon about the Vaudois clergy, Sir James betook himself to Celia, and talked to her about her sister; spoke of a house in town, and asked whether Miss Brooke disliked London. Away from her sister, Celia talked quite easily, and Sir James said to himself that the second Miss Brooke was certainly very agreeable as well as pretty, though not, as some people pretended, more clever and sensible than the elder sister. He felt that he had chosen the one who was in all respects the superior; and a man naturally likes to look forward to having the best. He would be the very Mawworm of bachelors who pretended not to expect it.

According to OED Mawworm is "a hypocritical pretender to sanctity". I am not sure to whom the marked words "he" and "who" refer. Do they refer to them "man" of the previous sentence? In this case the meaning would be: A man would be hypocritical if he pretended not to expect his choice to be the superior one.

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    A man who pretended not to expect the best would be the most hypocritical of bachelors. Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 15:55
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    Even simplified, the sentence contains two superlatives and at least two negatives, which makes it about 3.6 in difficulty. Eliot's readers were expected to have a lot of time on their hands. Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 16:37
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    @JohnLawler, to which rating scheme of sentences are you referring?
    – Shimrod
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 17:23
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    @Shimrod The Nichter Scale Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 17:56
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    Brutus Force of the Center for Quantitative Syntax has determined that constructions like this are just too complicated for most of us to bother deconstructing. Personally, I abandoned the unequal struggle as soon as I hit the unfamiliar word "Mawworm", and just assumed that to a first approximation I was being told that Sir James was pleased with himself for having made a wise choice of potential mate. Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 18:11

1 Answer 1


ACTING LIKE, not being like. This is all about appearances.

The narrator says that Sir James thought the second sister was the better one; then the author has Sir James thinking to himself:

He felt [Sir James] that he had chosen the one who was in all respects the superior [the second sister]; and a man [Sir James] naturally likes to look forward to having the best. He [Sir James] would be the very Mawworm of bachelors who pretended not to expect it.

Often, at the time, people might speak in generalities by saying things like: A man likes to ride a good mount, when he can. Saying "A man" [whatever] makes it possible to express an opinion with saying "I", which, in any case, doesn't work in third person narration.

From "he felt" to "expect it", we are in Sir James mind. This is typical third-person narration.

The "who" refers to the antecedent: bachelors.

It means: he would act like a sanctimonious hypocrite bachelor who pretended (hence the sanctimonious attitude) he did not expect to "get the best one": i.e., woman, here, the second sister.

George Elliot, like many English writers before and after her, have the main intrigue in their novels depict the game between men and women. Men "getting the right wife" (at times, one they actually fall in love with) and "women getting the right husband". (also, one they might actually be in love with). In that pursuit, all kinds of social games were played where neither sex was supposed to show their hand right away. You sort of inched toward your goal using all the social codes of the day. If you were not of their class, the stories also involve navigating those waters to appear "better" class-wise than what you real position might have been.

So, (I have not read this particular book), while already being engaged to one Dorothea, here we have our hero contemplating another woman and musing that if he acted outwardly sanctimonious like a bachelor might (a "goody-goody" in the eyes of people at that time), he could pretend he didn't expect the best. This allows him to interact with her "safely" in terms of his fiancee.

Bachelors were at times considered socially odd. They were bachelors because they had no money or good looks or education or even perhaps were gay, and could, therefore, have no "expectations". By not showing off, therefore, by trying to be witty or charming, Sir James might still get her to interact with him and in a way that would not betray his engagement to another woman. In other words, he is trying to see how far he can go. At the time, once engaged, you had to cut back on the flirting.

  • It is not true that Sir James is engaged to Dorothea who is also referred to as Miss Brooke. Sir James is interested in Dorothea, thus having chosen a potential partner, he rather self-servingly assumes that it is the superior choice.
    – Shimrod
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 22:02
  • @Shimrod Well, since it says he was contemplating marriage, I assumed he was. MY BAD. Nevertheless, I believe the sentence in question characterizes how he is behaving at the party and not his behavior over an long arc of time.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 8, 2021 at 22:33
  • I don't read the personal pronoun he as standing for Sir James: I read it as standing for any bachelor who pretended not to expect perfection in his choice of beloved (at least in the opinion of Sir James)
    – BoldBen
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 2:07

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