To introduce Middlemarch involves outlining two histories. George Eliot sets her book in one period (1829-1832) and writes it in another (1869-1871), deliberately manipulating the similarities between the two times. Both were periods of considerable upheaval and change.
From 1829 to 1832, the British government was racked with controversy over the Great Reform Act, going through three prime ministers in three years. The Act was a proposal to widen the franchise and reform the voting system and was finally passed in 1832. In 1867, the Second Reform Act widened the franchise further. These acts are important because they established a tradition of peaceful parliamentary change in Britain against a background of revolution and unrest in the rest of Europe, particularly France. There was a revolution there in 1830 and more disorder in the late 1860s. Reform was treated with suspicion because in many countries it seemed to have led to instability.
Medical concerns run parallel to political problems in these two periods. There was a severe outbreak of cholera in 1829 in England and several more throughout the century, including one in 1866. Lydgate tries to build a Fever hospital in Middlemarch partly to counter the high incidence of diseases like cholera. He was far ahead of his time. The first Fever hospitals were not successfully established in England until 1866. She was notoriously resistant to the medical advances made in Edinburgh and Paris.
Middlemarch thus offers a chance to investigate the process of change. George Eliot's readers in 1871 could judge for themselves the results of the changes in 1832. In fact, many of the reforms pending in the 1830s did not fully materialise until the 1860s. A second reform act was needed; medical discoveries made in the 1830s and 40s were not put into practise until the 1860s. In particular, almost nothing had changed when it came to the position of women: married women still had to hand over their property to their husbands and there was little provision for further education for women until 1869, when Girton College was started in Cambridge.
By playing on the parallels between her characters' and her readers' environment, George Eliot implies change is a more subtle process than political upheaval might suggest. How much of a difference did the events of 1832 really make? Her readers in 1872 would be forced to consider how far their new reforms would actually take them.
Setting the novel at the time of the Great Reform Act is also a useful literary device. The political situation and the controversy that surrounded it served to throw different classes into proximity at a time when social class was far more tightly delineated than it is today. Reform is a handy way for Eliot to link all the different social groups represented in her book: doctor, banker, businessman, labourer, baronet.
We may regard the Victorian age as time of set solid conventions but these very conventions may have been reactions to the change and upheaval the country was experiencing. It was in fact an age of contradictions. As Rosemary Ashton comments in her biography on George Eliot, it was a period of:
"Reverent faith and growing doubt; for imperial expansion and for increased democracy; for political and social reform and for retarding bureaucracy; for scientific progress and for an entrenched refusal to accept the conclusions suggested by that progress." (Rosemary Ashton, George Eliot: A Life, p. 8)
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