Thursday, April 13, 2006

On Politics

A number of people have been complaining about the political chapters, and I would like to address that briefly.

If you seriously try to untangle Middlemarch politics, it will drive you crazy. The key to everything is the Reform Act of 1832 (Wiki and an English site) - this is what they're debating, and what divides the parties. Basically, the Act would enfranchise the middle class (one in seven adult males, according to that second site). While that doesn't sound like a very good percentage in these egalitarian times, it was enough to significantly reduce the power of the gentry in urban areas.

Now, this needs to be taken in context with the book. I am on somewhat shakier ground here, so those of you who have studied English history in more detail, please chime in. One of the big themes of the book, it seems to me, is class relations. You have your Freshitt, Tipton, and Lowick gentry on the one hand, and your sturdy industrialist middle-class Middlemarchers on the other. You have people who blur those lines: Lydgate, who has abandoned his class (if not its tastes); Ladislaw, whose grandmother married beneath her; Farebrother, who as a clergyman is able to walk among all classes. You have people who aspire to be a different class (Rosamond) and people with very rigid ideas of who can associate with whom (Sir James; Mrs. Cadwallader, her personal history notwithstanding). You have Vincys snubbing Garths. This stuff is everywhere.

Is it ironic that Brooke, as gentry, should be supporting Reform? Very. But Brooke, bless his heart, is one ball short of a billiard table. Ladislaw, I believe, recognizes that his candidate is an idiot, but until the Reform is passed, it is possible that someone like Ladislaw would not be able to have a political career of his own. He sees Brooke as a necessary stepping stone toward getting the right legislation passed.

Other class-subverting forces are at work as well: the railroad that's being built (hope that's not a spoiler; I can't remember if it's been mentioned yet). Industrial capitalism (which is elevating people like Bulstrode). Money, medicine, morality, there are cris-crossing lines everywhere.

Sorry this is unfocussed -- I have a little boy here who keeps interrupting. But I hope this will start some discussion of the topic. I thought the politics was dull my first time through as well, but it seems a lot more central on a second reading. Hope I've given you a fresh eye for it, anyway.


Blogger Ella said...

Heh. One ball short of a billiard table, indeed. But I agree fully with your take on Ladislaw's motivations.

1:39 PM  
Anonymous Danielle said...

This is very helpful! Since there is so much of this politics talk, I know that it has to be important somehow! Like Diana mentioned--reading this right now is sort of hit and miss (well, she didn't say it exactly like this). I am trying to just get the important events of the story down and no doubt I am missing out on details. I think this is a novel you could easily read many times and study and still "see" new things each time.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Diana said...

But Brooke, bless his heart, is one ball short of a billiard table.

Sorry to comment on such a thoughtful, informative post with a snide comment but you remind me in the above line that I love Brooke, and always imagine him as John Astin.

But, yeah. I'm just skimming over all that stuff and now feel TOTALLY inadequate.

3:40 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

I have things to say about the railroad! But that's next book (I think).

11:34 PM  
Blogger Joe Cadora said...

I agree with most of what Rachel is saying here, especially about the politics being complicated. I think they are not very important to the sense of the novel. This is because there is no "progressive" side to this in the sense that we modern readers use the word. Sure the "liberal" Whigs want to extend the franchise, but only to other middle class "propertied" people. The "conservative" Tories are against this, and want to keep things the way they are, but they are in fact more willing to consider the rights of poor tenants on their lands, because the state of the tenants, their cottages and gardens, reflect on the fitness of their landlords. The middle class Whigs are more apt, on buying a piece of land, to kick the tenants off or, if they're allowed to stay, to shun making any improvements to the tenant's conditions because this would be "bad business". Therefore, it's hard for us modern readers to pick a faction to identify with, whatever our politics.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous Hassan Akbar said...

I m just so amazed by what i read: politics, reforms and that sort of thing, u know. Thank u everyone for making it so interesting and informative. I hope the intruding little boy has been doing fine.

8:58 AM  

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