What is George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’?

Anne Enright once said that every novel could, with minimal damage, be re-titled as Person Gets it Wrong. It is a gesture that would well serve George Eliot’s Middlemarch, as it is a novel primarily concerned with bringing even the most marginal of its characters’ ideals into collision with discommoding contingency. Although, it leaves us with the problem as to what to do with the subtitle, A Study of Provincial Life. There are a number of ways we could interpret this phrase, it could imply the narrator’s tendency to treat society empirically, as though it were one of Mr. Farebrother’s specimens beneath Mr. Lydgate’s microscope, according to the maxim that tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. Before that though, it might be productive to consider the narrator herself.

The narrator is mostly sympathetic (‘I am sorry to add that she was crying’), though sometimes disapproving (‘apt to be a little severe towards her own sex’), often didactic (‘do not imagine’) and self-conscious; she reprimands herself for beginning a chapter from Dorothea’s perspective before taking Casaubon’s as a means of compensating. Who exactly is speaking at any given time can be difficult to pin down exactly, as she will often interleave the characters’ thoughts (‘mouldy futilities’, ‘insects’) with her own, more objective rendering of the situation. From when she speaks is also not without complication, as she seems to speak out of a foreknowledge as to which memories which will stay with characters for the rest of their lives. Although, a lot of these questions may be left by the by; the long, long sentences in which she writes, which tease out situations from almost every conceivable point of view according to breathtakingly elaborate analogies the nuances of which seem honed to the most minute details give Middlemarch its best moments. Feng and Hirst have written that the difference between a naturalist’s free indirect discourse and that of a modernist is that the former preserves grammatical coherence, so that the precise junctures at which one register slips in under the other can always be precisely detected. This is not a perfect definition, but we are less interested in prodding paragraphs until they rupture, and more in how the narrator’s methodology subverts itself in broader terms.

At one point, the narrator describes how her task is somewhat limited in its scope: ‘that light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe’. This universe which forms Middlemarch’s backdrop, is in the year 1829–1831, a period which witnessed a wide range of labour agitation in the form of mass demonstations and loom breaking; demonstrations of over 100,000 took place in Birmingham and London. Though drawing a single disposition across all those involved in these events would be quite impossible, one symptom of its cause, and certainly that aspect of it which had the closest approximation to broad range of support across all classes, was a push to extend the franchise to the more of England’s population. However, according to E.P. Thompson, those most public leaders tended to damp down the demands of the more radical artisans and other skilled or semi-skilled working men. This, in conjunction with the counter-revolutionaries of the time scared into action by events in France, was effective in quashing the most radical aspects of this movement.

Given this capacity to move between time and space, the narrator’s attention is strangely limited to that of individuals, and individuals who own land at that. Although, to be fair, Middlemarch takes place in a fictionalised version of Coventry, far from the industrial centres of the north such as Manchester or Birmingham. In The Making of the English Working Class,E.P. Thompson mentions that in Coventry, skilled labourers would have been ribbon-weavers and were often semi-unemployed. We may add to this, from what we see in the novel, a substantial rural labouring underclass of unskilled workers, and tanners, who we see disrupting Mr. Brooke’s liberal, reform-based speech when he stands for election. Apart from Mr. Brooke’s obvious discomfort amongst the working men, this crisis in labour remains muted in Middlemarch, manifesting itself in brief references to the Vincys being slightly harder up financially than they were expecting.

There are two exceptions to the narrator’s myopia, but they are likewise revealing. One, is in the form of an encounter with Dagley, a labourer with a small, neglected holding on Mr. Brooke’s land. Mr. Brooke requests that he keep his son’s dog under control as it is interfering with his coursing but Dagley is drunk, says he will not, and makes a number of warnings about the changes the voting reform bill will bring. The narrator explains Dagley’s behaviour by referring to his having engaged in ‘muddy political talk’ which can render the labouring poor idle and resistant to change. His education, here seems to have rendered him more ignorant. The second, is a group of harassing a number of railway agents. Mr. Garth, a local labourer surveying the area, chases after the men, threatening to report them to the magistrate, then tries to convince them how incorrect they are to oppose the railway. One among them, Timothy Cooper, provides the most articulate defense against the installation of the line, although, in a very thick dialect, descending to almost Elizabeth Gaskell levels of didacticism. The narrator furthermore describes Cooper as ‘having as little of the feudal spirit, and believing as little, as if he had not been totally unacquainted with the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man’. Thomas Paine’s books and other pamphlets were incidentally banned and in many areas, the police enacted violent reprisals on those who sold or disseminated his writings. This weighting the scales is all the more surprising considering how sympathetic or humanist Middlemarch is elsewhere. So sympathetic is the narrator, that we are in effect expressly forbidden from feelinging negatively towards Casaubon; for every paragraph explicating Dorothea’s anguish, we get Casubon’s sense of being peripheral to intellectual (‘unvenerated’) and social (‘unloved’) life. That these references to the labourers are demonstrative of a deeper conservatism, may be attested to by the narrator’s early summing up of the medical profession at the time: ‘disease in general was called by some bad name, and treated accordingly…as if, for example, it were to be called insurrection, which must not be fired on with blank cartridge, but have its blood drawn at once’. The brutality of counter-revolution at the time in which Middlemarch is set, not just at the infamous Battle of Peterloo, but also by police forces at various local levels sounds a rather sadistic and bloodthirsty note in the text, which shows up, I think, the limits of this emphasis on sympathetic narration.

Frederic Jameson writes of the realist novel as existing in a dialectical tension with its antecedent, the romance. While the novel in the mid to late ninteenth century might claim to see and to represent ‘the world as it is’, it remains partially dependent on the mechanics of the romance plot; techniques such as coincidences, letters and wills. John Raffles appears to me as one such throwback, a return of the Gothic repressed, his murder only partially re-constituted within the naturalistic novel’s machine by being plausibly deniable, due to intentional negligence with prescribed opiates, and accompanied by a transfer of capital which will redeem Lydate from bankruptcy. It is not revolution or reform that changes a community, rather the steady circulation of gossip through the rural community.

Without bringing any statistical reading to bear on Middlemarch I noticed on my reading a sequence of words which seemed to attach themselves to particular character. For Dorothea, it was ‘ardent’, for Rosamund, ‘neck’. For the workers, the incorrigible symptoms of inequality, it is ‘ignorance’, one which occurs in each of the instances mentioned above, as well as references to the social life at The Tankard on Slaughter Lane, the metonymic device by which the low life of Middlemarch is gestured towards, and I would so very much like to read a Middlemarch that did not feel the need to lean on these three words quite so often as it does.

Author: Chris Beausang

I am a person who is PhD’ing in NUI Maynooth, using the open-source statistical programming language R to perform operations on large textual corpora in order to situate the novelists Anne Enright and Eimear McBride in a more nuanced and informed way to early to mid-twentieth century modernism. My interest in the topic is based on the fact that I find too many people describe Enright and McBride as being influenced solely by Joyce or Beckett, which is fine, and probably not inaccurate, but it gets tedious, and I think there’s a lot of mileage yet to be gotten out of investigating their indebtedness to Stein, Mansfield or Woolf; we don’t necessarily have to attribute everything interesting in Irish letters to Irish men.

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