Key Themes: History and Science
These two themes, whilst they are not immediately obvious, form an important context for Middlemarch. It is often seen as a overly traditional or ponderous book but is in fact George Eliot's attempt to do something new and experimental, as will be apparent from the following discussion. It should be remembered that the subject matter of both Adam Bede and Mill on the Floss was controversial, and that it is a gross misinterpretation to see Eliot as a purely conventional author.
Surprising as it may seem, it is impossible to treat science and history separately when writing about Middlemarch. Henry James asked in an early review: "If we write Fiction so, how shall we write History?" (Henry James, Galaxy, March 1873). Middlemarch is ostentatiously a history: George Eliot refers to herself with other writers as "We belated historians" (chap. 15). We are reading into the past. Middlemarch is a classic realist novel, creating the illusion it is fact not fiction. And Middlemarch is a wonderful way to write history for the events of the period are made imperceptibly part of the experiences that the characters undergo. We experience history as a whole, as the environment in which these people move and breathe. Social, political and scientific events are part of a world, not a series of separate advances. Thus the Great Reform Act becomes indistinguishably part of Will's love for Dorothea as Mr Brooke brings Will back to Middlemarch to help him stand for parliament.
But how does the science come into this? The rest of Middlemarch's title calls it not a history but "A Study of Provincial Life". It is slightly tongue in cheek, this title, mocking our preconceptions about provincial life as something outside our own sphere of experience, as small or petty or inconsequential. In fact, the book draws us in to experiences as meaningful as any in the field of human feeling. That word "Study" suggests a scientific examination of a subject and many references and metaphors in the book re-emphasise that connection. Eliot describes herself as "unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven" (chap.15). In the same chapter she refers to Lydgate's scientific investigations, using the microscope, as "showing new connections and hitherto hidden facts of structure". Earlier in the book, she compares her own art to using a microscope: "metaphorically speaking, a strong lens... will show a play of minute causes" (chap 6). George Eliot is writing a natural history of Middlemarch, using new scientific techniques: applying the "testing vision of details and relations" that Lydgate brings to "pathological study" to the science of human interaction (chap 16). History becomes the complete study of creatures in their environment.
How does this treatment of her subject interact with the subject itself? It helps her answer the tricky question: what is society? What unifies a disparate group of people and desires? Eliot is making a scientific investigation of Middlemarch as a medium for life. Lydgate first encounters it over the affair of Tyke as the hospital chaplain: "a case in which the petty medium of Middlemarch had been too much for him" (chap18). The alliteration is no accident. Society is the medium in which we live, like the pond water that microbes inhabit. George Eliot is putting a drop under the microscope.
Lydgate initially believes he lives independently from this medium and aims to impress his ideas upon Middlemarch. Idealists like him are shown to be subtly arrogant. They believe that they work on society rather than society on them; in fact, Middlemarch continually defeats the would-be improvers in its ranks. Eliot is not an open advocate of sweeping reform. There is a strong implication, for example, that Mr Brooke would be better off carrying out improvements on his own land than trying to change parliament (see chapter 39). Instead, Eliot wishes to ensure we are not controlled by our hereditary habits. Lydgate, for instance, is unable to assimilate Dorothea because women like her "had not entered into his traditions" (chap 30). This weakness is one of the factors that triggers his downfall; he marries Rosamund because she so entirely seems to conform with his traditions. The main narrative drive of the book brilliantly serves to illustrate Eliot's wish. Mr Featherstone's and Mr Casaubon's wills dominate Dorothea and Fred but both learn to throw off the burden of inheritance and to act independently. Whilst illustrating our all-powerful relationship to society Eliot also demonstrates the importance of acting independently from it.
Eliot's scientific examination of the Middlemarch-medium also serves to remove any possible providential centre - the workings of God - from the book. Nothing happens without a cause or effect. Dorothea persuades Mr Brooke to ask Caleb Garth to make some improvements on his estate which means Caleb
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