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Middlemarch and the Rocky Road to the Reform Act of 1832

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I spent my summer vacation at Dickens Universe on the University of California Santa Cruz campus. In anticipation of the bicentenary of George Eliot’s birth, this year’s book was Middlemarch, rather than the usual novel by Dickens.  I had promised the blog team that I would write a post on Middlemarch after attending this literary fest. I had read Middlemarch about 15 years ago and knew there was something about a will in the novel, so initially, I had planned to write yet another post about inheritance issues in a 19th century novel. Indeed, after attending the Dickens Universe, I came away convinced that wills, estates, and inheritances frequently operate in 19th century British novels as devices by which the plot is advanced. However, although I will undertake to discuss wills, estates, and inheritances in a later post, I was inspired to begin this series of literary/law posts with a discussion of the 1832 Reform Act on parliamentary reform.

Middlemarch is a complex novel, with multiple characters and plot lines, tracing the history and fortunes of four couples: Dorothea and Casaubon; Dorothea and Will Ladislaw; Rosamund and Lydgate; and Fred Vincy and Mary Garth. The book is set against an uneasy backdrop of personal, professional, and political change in Great Britain. The issue of reform permeates the novel from the first chapter, in which we are introduced to Dorothea Brooke who yearns to improve the lives of those around her – establishing an infant school in the village and planning model cottages for a neighboring estate. The book’s preface, often overlooked, provides a framework for the novel, invoking St. Theresa of Avila and her “passionate, ideal nature [which] demanded an epic life.” However, the preface continues that other Theresas have been born since then but have not found for themselves an “epic life … perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity.” This prefigures both the personal and political striving and failings in the book as well as the heroine’s ultimate fate.

Political change intrudes in the book in the form of what would become the Reform Act of 1832. Unlike the United States, franchise was considerably limited in Great Britain in the early 19th century, and parliamentary seats were not apportioned based on population. Large manufacturing cities which had grown up during the 18th century, such as Birmingham and Manchester, had no representation in Parliament while older, less populated areas - rotten boroughs - were over-represented. The Age of Reform, 1815-1870 (originally published as volume 13 of the Oxford History of England) provides information about the complicated history of this law.  The first reform act was introduced in the House of Commons on March 1, 1831.  The proposed bill was intended to create an uniform franchise in the boroughs: “to include occupants of buildings of £10 annual value; [while] in the counties votes were given to £10 copyholders and £50 leaseholders for a term of years while the long-established forty shilling freeholder kept his rights.” This bill also sought to provide for more even representation across the country.  It disenfranchised 60 boroughs of 2000 inhabitants or fewer while providing new seats to several large manufacturing cities as well as giving London additional seats. 26 counties had their representation doubled, including Yorkshire, and new seats were given to Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.  However, though the bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, Parliament was dissolved in April 1831 before the bill could advance any further.

While this first bill was being debated in the House of Commons, “there was a new political animation in Middlemarch, and a new definition of parties which might show a decided balance if a new election came … ‘Things will grow and ripen as if it were a comet year,’ said Will. ‘The public temper will soon get to a cometary heat, now the question of Reform has set in.  There is likely to be another election before long, and by that time Middlemarch will have got more ideas into its head.'”  Will is correct and after the fall of the government in April 1831, a general election was called which returned a majority of reform-minded members to the House of Commons. It is in this election that Dorothea’s uncle Mr. Brooke runs as a candidate. Unfortunately, he is not very well suited to be a candidate and there is a somewhat comical element to his ambitions. When we are first introduced to Mr. Brooke, he is described as “a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote … Mr. Brooke’s conclusions were as difficult to predict as the weather: it was only safe to say that he would act with benevolent intentions, and that he would spend as little money as possible in carrying them out.” Even as a possible candidate for Parliament, he is undecided about the position he should take: “Only I want to keep myself independent about Reform, you know; I don’t want to go too far;”  He does however, recognize that his campaign manager, Will Ladislaw, would be better suited for the job: “I can’t help wishing somebody had a pocket-borough to give you, Ladislaw.  You’d never get elected, you know.  And we shall always want talent in the House; reform as we will, we shall always want talent.” Of course the joke is that the Reform bill is intended to do away with pocket-boroughs and “have a House of Commons which is not weighted with nominees of the landed class, but with representatives of the other interests.”

Mr. Brooke, nor surprisingly, performs poorly in his run for Parliament, faltering badly in his candidacy speech: “‘I am uncommonly glad to be here … This was a bold figure of speech, but not exactly the right thing; for, unhappily, the pat openings had slipped away …’ Ladislaw, who stood at the window behind the speaker, thought, ‘It’s all up now.'” Happily, others did better in the election and a greater number of reformers were elected to the Commons. A second reform bill, with similar terms to the first, was then introduced and passed by the Commons only to be defeated in October 1831 in the House of Lords with 19 bishops voting against it. The government then approached King William IV with the idea of creating new peers to pack the House of Lords and push through the Reform Bill. Chapter 84 of the novel refers to this defeat and the plan for getting the bill passed: “It was just after the Lords had thrown out the Reform Bill …  The ladies also talked politics, though more fitfully. Mrs. Cadwallader was strong on the intended creation of peers: she had it for certain from her cousin that Truberry had gone over to the other side entirely at the instigation of his wife, who had scented peerages in the air from the very first introduction of the Reform question, and would sign her soul away to take precedence of her younger sister, who had married a baronet.”

After the failure of the second reform bill, there were riots and disturbances throughout the country and a third reform bill was introduced in December 1831. The bill was eventually passed on June 4, 1832 after a number of political maneuvers including a repeat threat by William IV to create additional peers to force the bill through the upper House. It is possible to argue that, although Eliot grounds this novel against the backdrop of the struggle to enlarge the franchise, that she was doubtful of how effective it would be in directly improving the lives of the many people.  Indeed, some of the people who see the greatest benefit are the tenants of the failed Parliamentary candidate, Mr. Brooke: his friends make a compelling case that if he is to run as a reform candidate for Parliament, he must invest in his estate. As for the hero and heroine of this novel:  Will Ladislaw is eventually elected to Parliament, but Dorothea, the St. Theresa of the novel, takes on the traditional role. “Dorothea could have liked nothing better, since wrongs existed, than that her husband should be in the thick of the struggle against them, and that she should give him wifely help.” The novel’s narrator acknowledges the disappointment many might feel at this retreat into the role of a helpmate but the narrator also notes that “no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done … ” Acclaimed as a novel of realism, I would argue that although there are some happy endings in the book, at the same time, the author acknowledges the slow pace of change in the world both for the individual and for society itself, and the limits on women who yearned to better the world.

George Eliot. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.,

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