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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

An Age of Transition

The Ruins (1885) by James Tissot
 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 (Ch. 37).

Middlemarch takes place around the time of the passing for the Reform Bill of 1832, though it was written a few years after the Second Reform Bill of 1867.  The first three decades of the 19th century was a turbulent time in England.  On the heels of revolution in France, England was still largely agrarian, though the Industrial Revolution had already started the move to factories.  The end of the Napoleonic Wars resulted in harsh economic conditions in England for the working class.  The combination of the demobilization of the army and the increased use of machinery as opposed to human labor led to massive unemployment.  The introduction of the Corn Laws, which sought to protect British farmers against foreign imports, caused increased bread prices when many people had less money.  Further, the Enclosure Acts during this time took land away from the lower class and granted it to the already wealthy landowners.  These economic conditions produced a series of uprisings, such as those by the Luddites, who broke machines to prevent loss of employment, and such as that known as Peterloo, where the working class demanding parliamentary reform clashed with British cavalrymen.  This is the situation in England heading into the 1830s.  The English landed classes feared a revolution such as that experienced in France and decided to institute changes that would avoid the complete overthrow of English society.  Therefore, the government introduced a number of reforms that addressed the concerns of the middle and working classes. 

The Reforms Bill of 1832 was a boon to the middle class, though it failed to make easier the lives of the working class.  Among the reforms it instituted were the extension of suffrage to all male landowners and proportional representation in the House of Commons.  Along with the Catholic Emancipation, which permitted Catholics to serve in Parliament, the Reform Bill still only enabled a fraction of the English population to vote and did not allow secret ballots.  Nevertheless, the bill proved to be an important stepping stone to later reforms.

The Chartist movement further sought to  address inequalities in English society.  The Chartists called for secret ballots and wanted property demands for those running for Parliament to be removed.  The movement gained significant traction after the passage of the New Poor Law of 1834, which among other provisions relegated the poor to workhouses.  Though the movement played a role in the repeal of the Corn Laws, it was disbanded in 1848 and was unsuccessful in achieving its aim.  However, the Chartists paved the way to reforms later in the 19th century.

This is the environment in England during the setting of Middlemarch.  Eliot's description above details the chaotic atmosphere.  It was, as Walter Broughton has written, an "age of transition."  Ladislaw personifies that transition in his inability to find firm footing in Middlemarch society, though he eventually becomes a MP.  Though Ladislaw had always demonstrated the ability to achieve greatness, Casaubon continued to form impasse, even after his death.  Eliot sought to portray the impact of the transitional period on everyday people.

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