a novel social history

MiddlemarchI read George Eliot’s Middlemarch recently, and it is so absolutely wonderful that I wish to coerce everyone into reading it. Consider this, then, a Trojan horse post. In the guise of rough-hewn, wooden ruminations on social history, novels and parliamentary reform, I shall smuggle Middlemarch and its glory into the unguarded citadel of your reading list.

Middlemarch is, by admission of its own subtitle, a “Study of Provincial Life”, and the fictional town of Middlemarch is widely supposed to be based on the town of Coventry. It is, despite its subtitle, much more than provincial life — it contains real people, real thoughts and dilemmas and impulses, real life, mediated by a subtle, omnipresent narrator who dips into each mind and each relationship with all the wisdom and sympathy one might ascribe to the Christian God that George Eliot herself came to reject. And it deals, for me most pertinently, with two characters who want very much to be good people and achieve great things in their lives, but whose stories, as it turns out, don’t go as planned, and whose eventual lives are lived out, from the point of view of Great History, provincially and wholly unremarkably.

It is, I think, for them that the novel is wrought into something of a vindication. “The growing good of the world,” Eliot tells us, gently, in closing, “is partly dependent on unhistoric acts … That things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”. It is, for instance, Dorothea Brooke, the young female idealist — “foundress of nothing, whose loving heartbeats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centering in some long-recognizable deed” — who is rescued from a history that is simply not equipped to recognize her, or indeed the hordes of others who populate the faceless, provincial crevices between the Great and Notable Historical Deeds. (I suppose, then, you might say that Middlemarch is … a kind of particularly imaginative social history).

Contrariwise, in Middlemarch, it is Great History instead that resides in the interstices of provincial events. The novel takes place against the specific backdrop of English electoral reform, between the rather precise dates of 30 September 1829 and the end of May 1832. This seems to have been a particularly tumultuous period for England. The Reform Act of 1832, with which the personal histories of Middlemarch denizens are delicately entwined, was a Bill of far-reaching consequence, redressing the most patent inequalities in the system of representation by redistributing members of Parliament to correspond with population centers, and extending electoral rights to more people than ever before in the history of England. It’s probably not much of an exaggeration to say that it put England on the long, besieged road to universal suffrage — but I’m no Victorian expert. Middlemarch also feels the new, unfamiliar touch of those fast-changing nineteenth-century worlds: of science and medicine; of railroads and evolution; of the place of women in society; of the small, sad forebodings of a coming godless world.

In this time of great historical flux, Eliot speaks to us from her own subtle, wonderfully wise moral center: and as in life and in true histories, no person is hero or villain. In Middlemarch, there are only men and women doing as they can in their places and times, whose characters are never “cut in marble, [nor] solid and unalterable”, but “living and changing”, and so sometimes, “becoming diseased as our bodies do”. I even think that, with reflection, and if read with our own careworn repositories of lived experience in mind, Middlemarch might teach us how to be — and what more could we ask for from any history, great or small? Go forth and read it, and be edified.

NB: We must count it among the many great successes of Middlemarch that it was able to provoke my curiosity about the contemporary events and parliamentary developments that were, it seems, so well known at the time that they needed no introduction or elucidation. Really, there cannot be anyone or anything else that could have made this sorry philistine actively want to inquire into what she has always considered the snore-fest of English constitutional history — with the sole, glorious exception of Quentin Skinner.


5 responses to “a novel social history

  • Tim

    I love this post, in part because I love Middlemarch and in part because I love Quentin Skinner. 😉

    Eliot’s historical sense is sharp, and her powers of observation are as acute as Flaubert’s, but she has one great virtue that Flaubert foregoes, something that I think is a particularly English virtue of charity: like Flaubert, she sees through everyone, to what they really are, but unlike Flaubert (and like her great predecessors Chaucer and Shakespeare) she forgives them everything.

  • Rachel

    ahh! my first citadel turns out to be already conquered. I shall direct my feckless Trojan horse to more fertile grounds.

    but your point on forgiveness, to me, is just right. it makes me think that if one can be so privy to the most intimate impulses of ordinary people — whether petty and base, lofty and misguided, thoughtless and cruel, hurriedly kind, vulgar yet goodhearted, and so on — and yet can find such catholic forgiveness even in exposing them … it really is something truly exemplary. I plan to revisit the novel sometime, when said lived experience is somewhat larger.

    PS: Quentin Skinner is indeed unbearably excellent.

  • robin


    You’ll never believe me — but you’ll have to, b/c why would I make such a thing up? — I started Middlemarch just two nights ago. Snagged it more-or-less randomly from my bookshelf and brought it to bed, where it’s remained since. Photographic evidence:


    Middlemarch and an argyle sock. That’s the human condition right there.

  • Tim

    Middlemarch contains multitudes. In fact, I’m surprised that you didn’t include the obligatory scholar-reading-Middlemarch reference to Casaubon, plugging away at his “Key To All Mythologies.” 🙂

  • Renee

    I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since 10th grade when someone who I respect more than anything in the world told me the book had changed her life……Guess I’ve been putting it off too long…..consider this “citadel” conquered ^_^

    By the way even though I am not a historian in the least I have nothing but respect for your writing and work. Keep posting!

    all best,

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