Casaubon is a serious-minded studious individual pursuing research so recondite that only he really understands why he’s doing it. When his doctor tells him he needs to let up and take it easy for the sake of his health, he takes it like a convict’s sentence of hard labour, as relaxing as ‘tow-picking is to prisoners’.
The image is of an ‘oakum’ room in which prisoners were made to pick apart old ropes to make oakum, which was used to caulk or seal the joints of ships and pipes. ‘Tow’ here refers to the coarser woody fibres of hemp or flax.
‘In short, you recommend me to anticipate the arrival of my second childhood,’ said poor Mr Casaubon, with some bitterness. ‘These things,’ he added, looking at Lydgate, ‘would be to me such relaxation as tow-picking is to prisoners in a house of correction.’
Source: George Eliot, Middlemarch (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), p. 305
Photo credit: ‘Large oakum-room (under the silent system) at the Middlesex House of Correction, Coldbath Fields’, Henry Mayhew and John Binny, The Criminal Prisons of London, and scenes of prison life (1864), p. 301