Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.
Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.
These magnificent closing lines of George Eliot’s Middlemarch are among the most famous in English literature, and very justly so.
I think of them today because of the news that Rod Dreher’s sister Ruthie has died, at the age of 42, leaving behind a husband and three young children. Rod has been writing about Ruthie this week on his blog, and it’s becoming increasingly and luminously clear to his readers just how many lives she touched in her circle of action. George Eliot is perhaps the only great artist to pay tribute to the Ruthies of the world, to whom we all owe so much — people who will never be famous, but whose influence is “incalculably diffusive” and often outlives their names.
Thanks be to God for Ruthie, and for all of her invaluable kind.