View Full Version : Why did Elliot set Middlemarch 40 years earlier?

01-02-2014, 10:21 AM
It is interesting that the story is set about forty years in the past from the time it was written. Contemporary readers would have been alerted by the references to Robert Peel and by a sheep rustler having been sentenced to hang. I wonder why Elliot decided to do this.

01-03-2014, 08:18 AM
Well, kev, I suppose there are two ways of looking at this - either in general or specific terms. (And I must add at this point that I've not read the novel, although do have a copy which I've just flicked through; but I hope you find the following useful or thought-provoking.)

In general terms, an author might set a novel in the recent past as a way of establishing familliarity with her readers; something which might be nostalgic, comforting and somewhat conservative, not wanting to upset the readers with the shock of the new or unfamiliar. Added to this, the name 'Middlemarch' suggests the ordinary, the average, with its connotations of being 'middle England' (although the expression is modern). Swift did something similar in Gulliver's Travels I seem to remember. Of course, an ordinary backdrop can act as a relief for the extraordinary.

In specific terms, the novel was first published in 1871, which makes it set in 1831 - a year before the Great Reform Act of 1832. Not only would this parliamentary act and its consequences be familiar to readers, it might also have an impact on the behaviour of the novel's characters, or on its themes. As I'm sure you know, the act ushered in greater personal freedoms, and was partly at least a response to the effects of the French Revolution and the fervour it whipped up on Blighty's shores. It might be interesting to consider if any of this has an impact on the novel and perhaps causes tensions between tradition and modernity, and through which characters these tensions find expression.

Which edition do you have? I often find it rewarding to seek out a few different editions from the local library and read a bit from each introduction to give me an idea of some of the themes and context of a novel without - hopefully - spelling it out so clearly there's no mystery left in reading it! Anyway, I hope that helps, kev.

01-03-2014, 12:05 PM
Thanks for the post. I have a Penguin edition. I did not want to read the introduction, in part because it gives away the plot.

I wondered how old George Elliot was when she wrote the book and whether she could remember 1831. I imagine a writer my age could write a book set in the 1970s and could make it sound authentic, but I would be surprised if he or she could do so for a book set earlier than that.

I have read a number of 19th century books now, and I get the sense that the late 19th century felt very different to the early and mid 19th century. Darwin undermined religious belief. The trains revolutionized travel. The telegraph revolutionized communications. During the century the population increased from about 12 million to 40 million, many of whom moved from agricultural work in the countryside to factory work in the cities. It was also a time of great political reform. In the first decades of the century, one could in principle be executed for a very wide range of offenses, for example, counterfeiting and burglary. By the end of the century, in effect, the only capital offence was premeditated murder. Education was made compulsory to the age of 14 in about 1870. Suffrage was extended to all men, whether or not they were land owners. Even the political parties changed. The Tories mutated into the Conservative Party while the Whigs mutated (I think) into the Liberal Party. So the difference between 1831 and 1871 would have been much bigger than the difference between 1974 and 2014. The biggest difference between 1974 and 2014 is the advance in digital communications: mobile phones, computer technology and the internet.

Regarding the Great Reform Act of 1832, I am afraid I am not familiar with that, but I will look it up.

01-03-2014, 12:57 PM
The Great Reform Act 1832 was the act that extended the franchise to hundreds of thousands more people, gave parliamentary seats to the new cities and did away with rotten boroughs. I think it is relevant because Mr Brooke is thinking about standing as a Member of Parliament in chapter 6 or 7.

I see from Wikipedia that George Elliot would have been about twelve in 1831, which is old enough to appreciate what the times were like.

Interestingly, Wikipedia reports that Julian Barnes and Martin Amis consider Middlemarch to be the best book written in the English language. By coincidence, I am concurrently reading Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis, which is a very different state of England satire.

01-04-2014, 10:02 AM
Thanks for your informed and insightful response, kev Ė youíre almost tempting me to read the novel itself! (I struggle with Victorian novels, although I admit I always end up liking them in the end.)

And, of course, while authors donít necessarily need to have been alive during the period in which they set a novel (think of Hilary Mantel, or, in the opposite direction, George Orwell) Iím sure it helped Eliot write Middlemarch, which, as youíve discovered, does have many admirers willing to acclaim it as the greatest novel in English. It is also likely that her readership (largely middle-class and middle-aged) will also relate to the novel more easily with it being set in the recent past.

I might disagree slightly with your suggestion that the change from 1831-1871 was Ďmuch biggerí than from 1974-2014, as, aside from the technological changes you mention, I think there have been great changes in sexual and racial equality; Britain has become far more multicultural in that time; and there have been challenges to tradition and authority, in various forms Ė from religion to political to those in the family. Then there is the shift from traditional working class, trade union-dominated manual industries to the world of call centres, service sector jobs and white van men working self-employed or for small businesses, caused in part by the privatisation of massive state-owned industries. Politically, there has been a shift from ideology-based politics to Ďpragmaticí or events-driven campaigning. Even with transport, far more people own cars today, and far more fly by plane to foreign locations. And as a last point, itís interesting to see how the changes in technology have changed the language: there has been a noted informalisation of language, as now everyone wants to be your best mate, and your bank is likely to send you an email saying: ĎHi Keví rather than the traditional ĎDear SiríÖ mums and dads want to be mates with their children, and send them friend requests on Facebook (which, according to a recent study, is putting kids off Facebook).

All of which isnít to say that there wasn't great change in the C19th, just that itís hard to measure one against the other! But yes, to return to your original question, certainly the period in which Eliot set the novel was a time of change, and, from the little reading Iíve done from my own Penguin edition (an older version, published as a tie-in with a BBC adaptation from 1993, if youíre interested in watching that) this has a great bearing on the novel, its characters, their hopes and ambitions; something you seem to have discovered already with the influence of the Great Reform Act on the political ambitions of one of the characters.

Another piece of contemporary information that you might bear in mind from what Iíve read (and without wishing to say too much) is that in 1832, changes in the medical professional lead to the establishment of what became the British Medical Association; these changes in practice, and tensions between more modern and traditional means of practising medicine, also have an impact on the novel. In fact, more generally, tensions between tradition and modernity are at the heart of many aspects of the novel.

That was a rather long-winded response, kev, but maybe thatís fitting. Hope it helps. Cheers, b|v.

01-04-2014, 11:52 AM
There seemed to be plenty of black and Asian people in Britain when I was a boy. Once my mother told me off at the school gates for calling some kids blackies, although she did not tell them off for calling me freckle-face. My Irish grandparents often had a black guy calling around, who I think worked with my grandfather fixing cars. We also seemed to be exposed to a lot of feminism. There was often some local news item about a female car mechanic or builder, who was usually much better than her male colleagues. At school, we had to do needlework and cooking while the girls had to do wood work and metal work. My mother trained me and my brother to do house work. There had been a feeling that it was a point of pride to men that their wives did not have to go out to work, but my father said that was all changing. I cannot remember my mother not working. Television was there, just not as many channels. Cars were there, just rarely more than one per household, and they rusted more, and often would not start in the morning. Contraception was diminishing the importance of marriage, although people still talked of living in sin. I still think digital communications is the biggest difference between now and the 70s. If you see a sitcom from the 70s, quite often the plot would not work now because either someone would pull out a mobile phone or look something up on the internet. Maybe that and the shops being open more often.

01-05-2014, 10:33 AM
Thanks for the reply, kev. This is straying from the discussion about Middlemarch somewhat, and Iím sure thereís anecdotal evidence to the contrary, but my point about race is not that there were fewer people from ethnic minority groups (although there were, in total and as a percentage), but that how they are treated has changed dramatically, particularly with regards to the law.

Following the murder of Stephen Lawrence, the subsequent public inquiry stated the Met police force was Ďinstitutionally racistí, and this had an effect on legislation culminating in the Equality Act 2010. Now far more people have protection from the law against racism, or other hate crimes based on religion, sexuality, gender, age, disability, etc. Added to this, you have the rise of political correctness, and the widespread change in opinions of how unacceptable racism is. You could also ask how many non-white people have positions of power and influence now compared to 1974; how many are represented positively in the media in general, and so on.

As I said, itís difficult to judge one against the other. Iím not denying the extension of the franchise had a big impact (and one that Eliot uses as a backdrop to the action in Middlemarch, in answer to your original question), but really it took subsequent reform acts to change things further; women still couldnít vote, of course; and it wasnít until the turn of the C20th that working class people had their own party to vote for anyway, with the establishment of the Labour party.

But yes, getting back to Middlemarch, I hope it will be interesting for you to bear in mind this theme of change, political and social, and consider how it finds expression in the novel.

01-07-2014, 07:18 AM
I wonder if one of the things that changed in the forty years between 1831 and when the book was published was increasing professionalism in medicine. Elliot seems to have a great interest in medicine and knows quite a lot about it. I have just read chapter 15 (which is hard going) which described Lydgate, the young doctor's, background and ambitions. He wants to be a reformer and a researcher, as well as a country GP.

While I was reading about Lydgate's background, I was thinking that studying to become a doctor would be the sort of thing that Dorothea would have liked to do. She has a great eagerness to study and to do good, but she did not have the opportunity. I wondered if twenty years later, she would have been one of the women to volunteer as a nurse and sail off to the Crimea with Florence Nightingale.

01-21-2014, 01:08 PM
One of the minor characters was described taking the train from Brassington. This was Britain's first passenger train line, and it had only just opened. By 1870, train travel had transformed the country. Caleb Garth talks about introducing a crop rotation scheme on Mr Brooke's land. Agriculture was vastly transformed during the 19th century. It had to because the population over tripled.

02-06-2014, 06:48 AM
Also, 1871 was only two years after the Second Reform Act. Therefore, Eliot is overtly drawing parallels between the era of the Great Reform Act and today. Chances are that she might have started on the book (or masterminding the book) in the time coming up to the Second Reform Act (or at least, she would remember the feelings surrounding that). Therefore she may relate to the events of The Great Reform Act.

04-01-2014, 05:38 AM
I wondered how old George Elliot was when she wrote the book and whether she could remember 1831. I imagine a writer my age could write a book set in the 1970s and could make it sound authentic, but I would be surprised if he or she could do so for a book set earlier than that.

It is difficult to speculate why Elliot would have chosen this specific time setting, but with regard to her ability to functionally describe it, especially in light of the fact that she did indeed live in this period of history as a child, I think it may have actually been an advantage to her. To draw a comparison: for those reading this post who are old enough to have lived 40 years ago I'm sure you will agree that the enormous changes which have occurred during the intervening period are easy to recall. In this regard we can cite the collapse of a superpower (Soviet Union), the rise to economic stardom (China), the impact of terrorism throughout the world, the recent worldwide economic debacle and the enormous technological impact in the realm of information transfer such as the internet and cell phones as well as all the other gadgets now available.

Speaking for myself, I can vividly recall what everyday life was like as well as the dichotomy of the overall cultural ethos when comparing life 40 years ago to today. Actually, I find it easier to make sense of the past because it is already written in stone whereas the present seems to be evolving at such breakneck speed and in such a chaotic and desultory manner that it is hard to maintain one's bearings.

Perhaps one of the reasons Elliot set Middlemarch 40 years earlier was that it gave Elliot a fixed resource of historical data and personal experience upon which to draw which would also beguile her readers to vicariously relate to those times as they read the novel.

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04-02-2014, 06:14 AM
Can you please read your messages and reply soon, thank you.