Middlemarch: reform and change

Middlemarch is set in the period leading up to the 1832 Reform Act. Professor John Mullan explores how George Eliot uses the novel to examine different kinds of reform and progress: political, scientific and social.
Middlemarch is a great Victorian novel, but like several other great Victorian novels (Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations) it is set in an earlier age. It was first published, in instalments, between 1871 and 1872, but it opens in 1829. It is about the making of the society in which George Eliot and her readers lived and describes the hopes for progress of men and women of an earlier age. Many of its main characters have in common the conviction that they can make the world better, but all of these characters prove variously self-deluding in their idealism.

Manuscript of Middlemarch by George Eliot

Manuscript of George Eliot's Middlemarch [folio: 5r]

First page of Chapter One from the manuscript copy of Middlemarch.

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Copyright: © Jonathan Garnault Ouvry

Cover to Middlemarch [Book I]

Middlemarch [Book I] [page: title page]

Middlemarch was published in eight instalments, between December 1871 and December 1872. This is the cover of Book I, ‘Miss Brooke’.

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Political reform

Politics and science seem equally to offer the prospect of social improvement to Eliot’s characters. The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 has just been passed, removing the long-standing ban on Roman Catholics becoming Members of Parliament at Westminster. Reform is in the air. The people of Middlemarch continue to debate ‘the Catholic question’, but there are even greater changes on the horizon (ch. 1). Politics possesses Dorothea’s uncle Mr Brooke, who stands as a parliamentary candidate in support of the Reform Bill introduced by the government of Lord Grey, who became Prime Minister in 1830. What was called The Representation of the People Act eventually passed in 1832. It redrew the map of parliamentary constituencies to make them more representative of the nation’s population, doing away with so-called ‘rotten’ and ‘pocket boroughs’. It also widened the property qualification for voters, to include small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers. In towns it gave the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. Most working men, and all women, were still denied the vote.

Look About You: Dialogue against Catholic emancipation

Look About You (1828) is a political tract against Catholic emancipation. It takes the form of a fictional dialogue in which a tradesman explains to a farmer the dangers of allowing Catholic Members of Parliament to sit in the House of Commons.

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Mr Brooke is on the side of parliamentary reform, a cause suspiciously regarded by many of the burgers of Middlemarch. Brooke is supported by Will Ladislaw, a far more intelligent idealist, who tries to advise him but frets at his incompetence. Brooke is convinced that the times are with him – ‘we shall make a new thing of opinion here’ – but proves a poor advocate of progress (ch. 46). In a memorably comic episode he appears at the hustings before the electors of Middlemarch and, despite Ladislaw’s coaching, makes a disastrous speech (not assisted by two large glasses of sherry taken to steady his nerves). He retreats from the balcony of the White Hart, the laughter and catcalls of the crowd echoing in his ears, his political hopes in ruin. George Eliot’s first readers lived in a post-Reform age and are invited to think that the 1832 Act was overdue and modest in its ambitions (a second Reform Act in 1867 had widened the franchise further). Yet it is entirely characteristic of the novel that enthusiasm for reform is depicted with rueful irony.

Parliamentary Reform: the Act to Amend the Representation of the People in England and Wales

Abstract of the 1832 Reform Act, which changed who could vote and how the population was represented in Parliament. The frontispiece shows the king surrounded by four men who were instrumental in campaigning for the Act.

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John Doyle's political satires

John Doyle's political satires [page: vol. 2 no. 131 ['Handwriting upon the Wall']]

A satirical John Doyle cartoon about the Reform Bill in 1831, a year before the bill was finally passed.

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Scientific reform

So too with the dream of scientific progress. Tertius Lydgate, the young doctor who has newly arrived in Middlemarch, sees himself as a representative of scientific advance. After London and Edinburgh, he has studied in Paris, in the 1820s the centre of medical experiment and speculation. It was from France that the new medical knowledge seemed to be coming Lydgate is a would-be improver as well as a man of science, convinced that the medical profession offered ‘the most direct alliance between intellectual conquest and the social good’. ‘There was another attraction in this profession: it wanted reform’. He is impatient of ‘the irrational severance between medical and surgical knowledge’, like other would-be reformers of the day (ch. 15).

‘It must be remembered that this was a dark period’, George Eliot remarks, before telling us that standard medical practice ‘chiefly consisted in giving a great many drugs’, and that the public ‘swallowed large cubic measures of physic prescribed by unscrupulous ignorance’ (ch. 15). The reliance of doctors on the money they made from selling drugs to their patients was an issue of the day. Yet the ironical tone of Eliot’s remark about a ‘dark period’ warns the reader against condescension to the past. Lydgate’s modern attitudes to medicine may be endorsed by the narrator, but his idealism is also comical. Nor is the provincial England in which he arrives quite so shrouded in darkness. For he is not the only enthusiast for scientific knowledge: Sir James Chettam is reading Sir Humphry Davy’s Agricultural Chemistry; the local vicar, Mr Farebrother, is an expert entomologist. In this age before Darwin, natural history is still seen as a respectable hobby for a Christian gentleman. Such learning is evidently superior to the vast but empty erudition of Mr Casaubon.

Science supplies some of the novelist’s choicest metaphors for the scrutiny of human behaviour, as if an age of scientific advance were to be matched by a new kind of fiction. Analysing Mrs Cadwallader’s endeavours to make a match between Celia Brooke and Sir James Chettam, the narrator asks us to imagine looking through a microscope at a water-drop. A weak lens seems to show tiny creatures swimming obligingly into the mouth of a larger creature; a stronger lens will reveal ‘certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom’ (ch. 6). From a distance, Mrs Cadwallader’s behaviour looks inexplicable; examine her more minutely and you will see that she lives to exert her interest on her neighbours. It is typical of Eliot that, even while we notice what the scientific metaphor means, we also notice that the idea of Mrs Cadwallader like a voracious species of pond life is comic.

Questioning progress

So in Middlemarch George Eliot seems both to display a confidence in science and show how it is subject to human whims and illusions. While she was an intellectual who was au fait with all the most modern ideas, she used fiction to stand at an ironical distance from hopes of progress. As a woman, Eliot lived a life of brave independence and unconventionality: she made her own living; she wrote and argued alongside men, as an equal; she lived openly, for many years, with a man, George Henry Lewes, to whom she was not married. Yet Middlemarch is rueful in its depiction of female aspiration. Rosamond is encumbered with feminine appetites that destine her for an unhappy marriage. High-minded Dorothea, who has something in common with her author, is doomed to disappointment by her very ideals. It is her entirely unbookish but shrewder sister, Celia, who is likeliest to win contentment. Some contemporary reviewers were rather perplexed as what lessons about the ‘female lot’ to draw from the novel, while others saw it as a clear indictment of the restrictions faced by women. Dorothea has to suffer bitter self-correction before she can contribute anything to ‘the growing good of the world’ (Finale). It is Eliot’s genius as a novelist to use fiction to question most of what she herself believed.
  • John Mullan
  • Professor John Mullan is Head of Department for English at University College London. John is a specialist in 18th-century literature and is at present writing the volume of the Oxford English Literary History that will cover the period from 1709 to 1784. He also has research interests in the 19th century, and in 2012 published his book What Matters in Jane Austen?

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