Am I the only reader who sees, in Eliot’s twinned stories of Dorothea and Lydgate (originally two separate novels, of course) an as-it-were Nausicaa/Odysseus implicit-tale of thwarted possibility? Am I the only person who thinks they’d make the perfect couple: both young, beautiful, idealistic, driven? Of course they can’t be together because Doroetha is married, and by the time she is free to marry again Lydgate is married. And I concede there’s nothing in the novel that explicitly reverts to any mutual attraction between them. Maybe it’s a mere will-to-neatness on my part that thinks in these terms, but still.

Adam Roberts. Doesn’t every reader of Middlemarch feel precisely this way? I have always assumed so! But maybe I have a perverse expectation that the world will agree with me.

I believe that the way Dorothea and Lydgate just miss each other is one of the most important elements of the story. Had the timing of their lives been oh-so-slightly different Lydgate could well have met Dorothea before he met Rosamond and before she met Casaubon, and of course they would have fallen in love. Having met a woman of beauty and substance Lydgate would have been invulnerable to Rosamond’s shallower charms; and having met a young, good-looking man who was actually doing good to people in need, Dorothea would never for a second have considered the desiccated Casaubon as a possible love interest. Both would have been spared grief, and Lydgate would have remained a doctor committed to social reform rather than turning into a physician to the rich and gouty.

But it didn’t happen, because their social calendars didn’t quite match up. And — this is surely Eliot’s main point — on just such slender threads do all of our fates hang. She is describing for us a world in which people are not “meant for each other”: they find each other, or don’t, according to the whims of chance.

The other great novelist who shows us the world in this light is Tolstoy. I’m going to quote a (long!) passage from Anna Karenina featuring two minor characters who go out mushroom-hunting together. You’ll get the context as you read.

They walked on for some steps in silence. Varenka saw that he wanted to speak; she guessed of what, and felt faint with joy and panic. They had walked so far away that no one could hear them now, but still he did not begin to speak. It would have been better for Varenka to be silent. After a silence it would have been easier for them to say what they wanted to say than after talking about mushrooms. But against her own will, as it were accidentally, Varenka said:

“So you found nothing? In the middle of the wood there are always fewer, though.” Sergey Ivanovitch sighed and made no answer. He was annoyed that she had spoken about the mushrooms. He wanted to bring her back to the first words she had uttered about her childhood; but after a pause of some length, as though against his own will, he made an observation in response to her last words.

“I have heard that the white edible funguses are found principally at the edge of the wood, though I can’t tell them apart.”

Some minutes more passed, they moved still further away from the children, and were quite alone. Varenka’s heart throbbed so that she heard it beating, and felt that she was turning red and pale and red again.

To be the wife of a man like Koznishev, after her position with Madame Stahl, was to her imagination the height of happiness. Besides, she was almost certain that she was in love with him. And this moment it would have to be decided. She felt frightened. She dreaded both his speaking and his not speaking.

Now or never it must be said — that Sergey Ivanovitch felt too. Everything in the expression, the flushed cheeks and the downcast eyes of Varenka betrayed a painful suspense. Sergey Ivanovitch saw it and felt sorry for her. He felt even that to say nothing now would be a slight to her. Rapidly in his own mind he ran over all the arguments in support of his decision. He even said over to himself the words in which he meant to put his offer, but instead of those words, some utterly unexpected reflection that occurred to him made him ask:

“What is the difference between the ‘birch’ mushroom and the ‘white’ mushroom?”

Varenka’s lips quivered with emotion as she answered:

“In the top part there is scarcely any difference, it’s in the stalk.”

And as soon as these words were uttered, both he and she felt that it was over, that what was to have been said would not be said; and their emotion, which had up to then been continually growing more intense, began to subside.

I read this for the first time when I was around twenty and found it utterly terrifying. It can’t be like that, I thought. (And for what it’s worth, I don’t now think that it is quite like that, though it would take me a long time to explain what I do think.) There’s a kind of clear-eyed mercilessness to the way that Tolstoy and Eliot alike reveal the workings of that most dreadful of gods, Hap.