Middlemarch: Background and Context

 George Eliot was the male pen-name for female Victorian writer Mary Anne Evans, born November 22nd, 1918 and died December 22nd, 1880. Eliot said that she used a male pen name in for her work to be taken seriously. Given the opinions of women writers at the time (or, you know, all that fun anti-women grumbling that was popular among so many of the Victorians), its not entirely surprising that she would choose to do so. She is the author of seven novels, including two others that I’m planning on reading for this challenge: Silas Marner (1861), and Mill on the Floss (1860). Other works include Adam Bede (1859) and Daniel Deronda (1876). She was a writer of the realism school, meaning a great many of her novels are about depicting people as they are (including a great knack for deeper psychology on the part of Eliot) without many frills or interpretation. Realism is described by the always trusty (mmhmm duh most definitely) Wikipedia as being a literary and artistic school that existed in contrast to romanticism (which, as opposed to being all ‘this is how people are, isn’t that fascinating because it’s real life no matter how boring’, was far more ‘isn’t life pretty and grand and it’ll only get prettier and grander when we realize how pretty and grand all people can be on the inside with their prettiness and grandness’), and started to really get it’s ball rolling right around the time of the Industrial Revolution. From what I’ve manged to glance at so far in Middlemarch, we’ll have to see just how tasty I find this ‘people as they are’ representation, although I’ve heard nothing but delicious little niceties about the novel from those whose literary opinions I hold so dear.

(that’s her, the darling Eliot herself, channeling a George Lucas princess long before the Jedi himself)

As for Middlemarch itself, the novel is one

set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch during the period 1830–32. It has multiple plots with a large cast of characters, and in addition to its distinct though interlocking narratives it pursues a number of underlying themes, including the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. The pace is leisurely, the tone is mildly didactic (with an authorial voice that occasionally bursts through the narrative),[1] and the canvas is very broad.

Doesn’t that just sound thrilling? To be honest, while that description might not sound like literary adrenaline (‘the tone is mildly didactic’? read: boring. ‘the pace is leisurely’? read: huge), there are a number of characters who do sound particularly interesting. I’m interested to see how things play out for Dorothea, in all of her shiny-faced love and ‘squee’-ing love for Mr. Casaubon; I also feel myself having a soft spot for Rosamond, who is described as being naively innocent. Other than that, I do feel like there is one thing that’s worth mentioning in terms of better understanding where Middlemarch is coming from.

The Reform Act of 1832 was an act put forward by the Whigs, one that proposed great changes to the structure of the electoral systems of both England and Wales. As Trusty Wikipedia tells us, it’s an act that

granted seats in the House of Commons to large cities that had sprung up during the Industrial Revolution, and took away seats from the “rotten boroughs“—those with very small populations. The Act also increased the number of individuals entitled to vote, increasing the size of the electorate from about 400,000 to 650,000, and allowing a total of one out of six adult males to vote, in a population of some 14 million.

Needless to say, the bill faced opposition, most strongly from the House of Lords, the counterpoint to the House of Commons in the British parliamentary system. However, at the end of the day, it was a reform that led to a series of other reforms through Britain, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland throughout the 19th century.

In terms of the effects on Middlemarch, from what I can tell so far is that the Dorothea’s uncle, Mr. Brooke, is a politician or local religious figure of some kind who came down on the Whig side of the reform, setting him apart from some of the landed gentry surrounding him in Middlemarch. Doing a bit of research in to the reform has been a little help, but needless to say it’s not the political commentary that I’m looking forward to the most about truly diving in to the novel!

I’m excited to truly get a start on the first book of the new project, and despite the fact that I feel like this post is slightly more negative than I would have intended, I don’t think I could have picked a better book to start with than Middlemarch! For those of you who have read it – what did you think? Any words of wisdom before I start the adventure? And for those that haven’t – any intention to?


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