When I read Don Quixote (last year’s “big read”) for the first time, one of the reasons that I was able to appreciate it was that I got the references. I knew enough about Spain and the Mediterranean in the sixteenth century to get the little allusions and jokes scattered throughout that marvelous near-1000-page novel. As I read the first chapters of Middlemarch for last week, I had the strong sense that Eliot, like other Victorian novelists, was relying on her own readers’ sense of the recent past to be able to get the jokes. I don’t; therefore I didn’t get it. As any historian will tell you, Context matters.
So, I approached a colleague who teaches modern Britain and begged her to lend me a textbook. And I started reading. And lo and behold! I actually am starting to get what’s going on!
So, as a public service to Comrade Physioprof (who asked for it) and my other commenters (who didn’t, but who might appreciate it), I’m going to post a short series of “Middlemarch interludes” midweek, in which I cover some of the context — the quick-and-dirty textbook version of a nonspecialist. Beginning today, and over the next month, I’ll cover the following:
- Victorian Class society in the period of the novel
- The intellectual and spiritual revolutions predating the time of the novel
- Political reform in the period of the novel
- Society & Culture in George Eliot’s time (about 40 years after the time of the novel)
I would also love for someone out there to take a fifth post, about a month from now, on George Eliot herself — about 500 to 800 words to give the nonspecialists some context. Any Victorian lit specialists out there? Get in touch!
Okay, so that’s a long prelude to a first post. Here’s the real post:
Middlemarch is set in the provinces in the English midlands during the short period between 1829 and 1832. As we’ll see in a couple of weeks, these few years were a time of momentous political and social reform in Britain. But the novel deals broadly with class society in early Victorian Britain, in a time of frequent boom and bust cycles, so it’s appropriate to start there. Society in Victorian England can roughly be divided into three major groups, each with their own subgroups:
- The landed classes were made up of two distinct groups: the titled hereditary aristocracy (about 300 families), and the much more numerous landed gentry (about ten times as many families). Since the Brooks family and their associates are members of the latter, they’re the ones I’m going to focus on here. The gentry had a paternalistic attitude to the poor, especially those on their lands, but this was not part of any egalitarian impulse; they were fine with the social hierarchy just the way it was. Work for pay, including trade/merchant work, was considered demeaning, with the exception of “the professions”: clergy, military, law, and medicine. The gentry in their parishes (a political subdivision as much as an ecclesiastical one) were also closely linked with the Anglican church, and country squire and parson were the two complementary faces of authority in Victorian provincial society. As for women of the gentry, marriage was their main life goal, but this did not necessarily make them dependent, as they came to marriages with annual incomes settled on them by their fathers (contrast this with the more dependent situation of middle-class women, below).
- The middle class aspired to the wealth and status of the gentry, and kept a servant or two, a country house, and income-producing land when they could. Unlike the gentry, paid work remained central to their lives — for men, that is: the aspirational culture of this class, however, meant that women were not part of the workforce. Since women of the middle classes also lacked the income settlements of their counterparts in the gentry, they were much more dependent on their husbands, and it could be argued [?] that middle class was more patriarchal than the gentry — the familiar tropes of “separate spheres” and “the angel in the house”, after all, centered on the women of the middle classes. This was also the sector of British society most likely to be drawn to nonconformist religions like the Methodists or even some of the more fringe sects like Quakers or Unitarians… but we’ll get to that next week, okay?
- The working classes: I deliberately use the plural here because these were several distinct strata, ranging from artisans to semi-skilled laborers in the factories to unskilled manual labor in the mines or on agricultural estates. They did, however, have some common features. First, they were shut out from political participation (then again, so were the middle classes, until the 1830s, but we’ll get to that two weeks from now). Second, everyone worked: men, women, children. No angels in the house here. Third, they had little to no formal schooling.  The working classes were also targets of evangelical reformers, especially temperance reformers. Finally, this period saw the beginnings of growth in trade unions, which were as much a source of social fellowship as they were an economic negotiating body.
All right. That’s enough to be getting on with, don’t you think? Next Monday we’ll meet here to discuss the second half of book 1, and sometime in the middle of next week I’ll post an interlude covering all those nonconformist religious sects that I’m sure are going to play a role in future chapters. And remember: Anyone who’d like to take a crack at summing up the author’s life and career in 500-800 words, drop me a line!
 The novel itself is set in the midst of a pretty big boom cycle, fueled by over-speculation. A few years after the end of the novel’s story, the huge boom was followed by an equally huge bust that took England over half a decade to climb out of. The author knows this, but her characters do not. All they know is that things are chugging along quite well, economically speaking.
 Not that they were thoroughly illiterate. In fact, members of parliament found working-class literacy possibly dangerous, and passed laws to tax newsprint, making newspapers unaffordable to most working-class folk — though pamphlets with diverting or lurid tales or moralizing messages came cheap.