Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Reform Bill: Middlemarch's political backdrop

I must admit that my eyes glaze over whenever Middlemarch touches on politics. From some of your comments, it sounds like I'm not alone.

After doing a bit of research, I returned to text and was amazed to find how little politics there was. My ignorance simply blew it out of proportion.

However, politics is clearly part of the book. Middlemarch was published in 1871-2, but its setting is the 1830s. Eliot is at times quite colourful in describing the past of 40 years previous as ancient history, implying how greatly times had changed.

From The Oxford Companion to English Literature:
The Reform Bill of 1830 widened the parliamentary franchise by extending the vote to include the rich middle classes, and removed some of the inequalities in the system of representation by redistributing members of Parliament to correspond with the great centres of population. The Bill was introduced by Lord John Russell (1792–1878) in 1831, and carried in 1832. The Reform Bill of 1867, which more than doubled the electorate, extended the franchise to include many male members of the industrial working class, and Bill of 1884 took in (with the exception of certain categories, i.e. lunatics, convicted criminals, and peers) all males over 21. In 1872 voting by ballot was introduced. Women over 30 were enfranchised in 1918; and women over 21 received the vote in 1928. In 1969 an Act was passed which lowered the age of all voters to 18. The question of reform is a principal theme in many Victorian novels, notably in G Eliot's Middlemarch and Felix Holt.

While Eliot did not see most of those changes, it is important to note that they all stem from that one little bill that Sir James opposes and that Mr Brooke supports without seeming to fully understand.

Early in chapter 6 we learn that Brooke "took Peel's side about the Catholic Bill."

(I'm using Wikipedia as reference for what follows, not that it's by any means an authoritative source, but for the sake of ease — the nature of the information is such that it's easily verifiable.)

Robert Peel was born to one of the richest textile manufacturers of the early Industrial Revolution (the elder Robert Peel was most noted for reform of working conditions during the first part of the 19th century) and was a star of the Tory party.

(Note to our American friends: Tories are Conservatives; Whigs are Liberals.)

Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom occurred during the late 18th century and early 19th century and involved reducing and removing many of the restrictions on Roman Catholics (eg, re property ownership, and therefore voting rights). In 1829, the Duke of Wellington and Sir Robert Peel, against their previous judgements, introduced and carried another major Catholic Relief Act, removing many of the remaining substantial restrictions on Roman Catholics in the UK.

I assume Mrs Cadwallader's accusation against Brooke refers to finally relenting to grant Catholic relief.

At the end of chapter 35, Featherstone "was dead and buried some months before Lord Grey came into office."

Lord Grey:
In 1830, the Whigs finally returned to power, with Grey as Prime Minister. His Ministry was a notable one, seeing passage of the Reform Act 1832, which finally saw the reform of the House of Commons, and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. As the years had passed, however, Grey had become more conservative, and he was cautious about initiating more far-reaching reforms. In 1834 Grey retired from public life...

(Mr Brooke supports Grey (ch 46).)

The Reform Bills, Act of 1932:
This act not only re-apportioned representation in Parliament, thus making that body more accurately represent the citizens of the country, but also gave the power of voting to those lower in the social and economic scale, for the act extended the right to vote to any man owning a household worth £10, adding 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000. Approximately one man in five now had the right to vote. Some sources say only one in seven.

For many conservatives, this effect of the bill, which allowed the middle classes to share power with the upper classes, was revolutionary in its import. Some historians argue that this transference of power achieved in England what the French Revolution achieved eventually in France. Therefore, the agitation preceding (and following) the first Reform Act, which Dickens observed at first hand as a shorthand Parliamentary reporter, made many people consider fundamental issues of society and politics.

My understanding is that the county in which Coventry (the model for Middlemarch) is set was divided into two districts, thus increasing its representation in Parliament.

Understand that the Bill was contentious: the motion was carried with a government majority of one vote.

It's also argued that:
the influence of the gentry was still strong in the Parliamentary composition and there was still great disparity between the population of constituencies. Indeed some argue that the power of the rich had been increased. Some working men who had previously held the vote were disenfranchised when some less common (and generous) franchisement systems were abolished after the standardisation of such systems nationwide.

At the end of chapter 39, Eliot makes it quite clear that nobody understands the full implications of the political machinations. Nobody knows what's best for them.

From chapter 51:
Mr Brooke, necessarily, had his agents, who understood the nature of the Middlemarch voter and the means of enlisitng his ignorance on the side of the Bill — which were remarkably similar to the means of enlisting is on the side against the Bill.

Brooke calls Ladislaw "a kind of Shelley, you know." In 1819, Shelley wrote the essay "The Philosophical View of Reform," his most thorough exposition of his political views, and soon after created a journal call The Liberal.

All of this has to do with the rise of the Middle Class. It is the perfect backdrop for Middlemarch's characters to be struggling with the themes of tradition vs modernity, societal expectations vs the claims of the individual. Progress, social/industrial but personal too. The character's bear all the symptoms of middle class: for the first time in history (am I exaggerating here?) people have the time and money to worry about what to do with their life, where to extend their charity, what causes to support.

Eliot sums things up nicely as chapter 37 starts (emphasis mine):
The doubt hinted by Mr. Vincy whether it were only the general election or the end of the world that was coming on, now that George the Fourth was dead, Parliament dissolved, Wellington and Peel generally depreciated and the new King apologetic, was a feeble type of the uncertainties in provincial opinion at that time. With the glow-worm lights of country places, how could men see which were their own thoughts in the confusion of a Tory Ministry passing Liberal measures, of Tory nobles and electors being anxious to return Liberals rather than friends of the recreant Ministers, and of outcries for remedies which seemed to have a mysteriously remote bearing on private interest, and were made suspicious by the advocacy of disagreeable neighbors? Buyers of the Middlemarch newspapers found themselves in an anomalous position: during the agitation on the Catholic Question many had given up the " Pioneer " — which had a motto from Charles James Fox and was in the van of progress — because it had taken Peel's side about the Papists, and had thus blotted its Liberalism with a toleration of Jesuitry and Baal; but they were ill satisfied with the " Trumpet," which — since its blasts against Rome, and in the general flaccidity of the public mind (nobody knowing who would support whom) — had become feeble in its blowing.

It was a time, according to a noticeable article in the "Pioneer," when the crying needs of the country might well counteract a reluctance to public action on the part of men whose minds had from long experience acquired breadth as well as concentration, decision of judgment as well as tolerance, dispassionateness as well as energy — in fact, all those qualities which in the melancholy experience of mankind have been the least disposed to share lodgings.

These are complicated times, and like Middlemarch's inhabitants, their politics are messy mixes of opposing forces, of both good and bad.

Still bored? Confused? (Still middle class?)


Blogger rachel said...

Pbbbbt! You outdid me, you cross-poster! ;-)

2:02 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

Oops. We were writing more or less simultaneously. I offer some specific historical details. As for relevance — what Rachel said.

11:36 PM  

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