With 100 pages to introduce three characters and their circumstances, one can afford two pages merely to contrasts the physical appearance of Mary Garth with her friend Rosamond. I just love how Eliot asks us to luxuriate in the specificity not only of the appearance of Mary but also of the meaning of that appearance to each of them, to Middlemarch, and to the world in general, but with a smile, of course. Eliot has a marvelous sense of humor.
Only a few children in Middlemarch looked blond by the side of Rosamond, and the slim figure displayed by her riding-habit had delicate undulations. In fact, most men in Middlemarch, except her brothers, held that Miss Garth, on the contrary, had the aspect of an ordinary sinner: she was brown; her curly dark hair was rough and stubborn; her stature was low; and it would not be true to declare, in satisfactory antithesis, that she had all the virtues. Plainness has its peculiar temptations and vices quite as much as beauty; it is apt either to feign amiability or, not feigning it, to show all the repulsiveness of discontent: at any rate, to be called an ugly thing in contrast with that lovely creature your companion, is apt to produce some effect beyond a sense of fine veracity and fitness in the phrase. At the age of two-and-twenty Mary had certainly not attained that perfect good sense and good principle which are usually recommended to the less fortunate girl, as if they were to be required. Her shrewdness had a streak of satiric bitterness continually renewed and never carried utterly out of sight, except by a strong current of gratitude towards those who, instead of telling her that she ought to be contented, did something to make her so. Advancing womanhood had tempered her plainness, which was of a good human sort, such as the mothers of our race have very commonly worn in all latitudes under a more or less becoming headgear. Rembrandt would have painted her with pleasure, and would have made her broad features look out of the canvas with intelligent honesty. For honest, truth-telling fairness, was Mary's reigning virtue: she neither tried to create illusions, nor indulged in them for her own behoof, and when she was in a good mood she had humour enough in her to laugh at herself. When she and Rosamond happened both to be reflected in the glass, she said laughingly -
"What a brown patch I am by the side of you, Rosy! You are the most unbecoming companion."
"Oh no! No one thinks of your appearance, you are so sensible and useful, Mary. Beauty is of very little consequence in reality," said Rosamond, turning her head towards Mary, but with eyes swerving towards the new view of her neck in the glass.
"You mean my beauty," said Mary, rather sardonically
Rosamond thought, "Poor Mary, she takes the kindest things ill." Aloud she said, "What have you been doing lately?"
"I? Oh minding the house - pouring out the syrup - pretending to be amiable and contented - learning to have a bad opinion of everybody."
I enjoy how Eliot blows apart the stereotype of the young middle class girl literary stereotypes of the day - young, fair and carefree being one, or above marriageable age, superficially unattractive, and practical, however contented with her lot. Mary belies them both. And that little passage toward the end where she writes Rosamond's silent thoughts and contrasts them with what she says aloud is quite a modern vantage point to give an audience towards a character.