The attraction of young, idealistic Muslims to the pompous frauds of radical Islamism is often hard to fathom. Only by understanding that radicalization is a fundamentally expressive act, a questing after coherence and meaning, can we grasp it. And the supreme portrayal of what we might call supply-side “radicalization” is George Eliot’s ardent young Dorothea Brooke in her great novel Middlemarch, later hailed by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” I believe it is unparalleled as a depiction of how the mix of youth, idealism, illusion, and projection can open up an individual to a disastrous detour in their life-project.
In the provincial town of Middlemarch in the years before the great reform bill of 1832, Dorothea Brooke, young and idealistic, noble but ignorant, enters a disastrous marriage to a much older man, Mr. Casaubon, a “dried bookworm towards fifty,” a petty and egotistic scholar with the touch of the charlatan about him. (His book, The Key to all Mythologies, will never be written, and he knows it.)