Published in 1872 but set in the year 1829, Middlemarch documented an age that hungered for progress for both men and women. This use of this specific era immensely contributed to the themes of the novel as the concept of social improvement was initially being introduced to Great Britain. This novel follows four relationships, each with its own narrative, during the years leading up to the passing of the 1832 Reform Act. The 1832 Reform Act predominantly addressed voting rights and political representation but painted a picture of revolution and cultural change. Middlemarch is an intricate novel infused with eccentric characters and themes that not only address the issues of femininity, class, and spirituality but serve as catalysts to societal change. Reformation is a dominant theme throughout Middlemarch and is present in both the plot and in each character’s lives and actions. During a time of limited franchise, convoluted electoral systems, and almost non-existent female representation, Great Britain yearned for pollical and societal change.
The ever-changing patterns of life in Victorian England were the cause of overarching debate. The shift from land-ownership to a life dependent on manufacturing and trade bled into the Victorian period, causing urbanization to expand and population to increase. Industrialization such as railways and telegraphs introduced a new pace that would change our world forever. Despite these increases in population and recently established industrial cities, the British Parliament failed to recognize the necessity of inclusive representation. When a reform bill was developed that would redistribute votes and eliminate votes from “rotten boroughs,” a term used to describe a town able to elect a parliament representative despite a small number of voters, often a single person or family, it was rejected. After one year and a rejected second reform bill, the third reform bill was passed due to overwhelming public pressure.
The Reform Act of 1832 was established in order to “’take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament. The act resulted in the addition of parliament seats to cities that became dominant during the industrial revolution, and extraction of seats dominated primarily by rotten boroughs. It also widely increased the electorate, allowing more eligibility voting to adult males. This act ultimately made parliamentary constituencies more representative of the nation as a whole, removed corrupt parliament seats, and expanded voting eligibility beyond wealthy patrons.
In order to provide readers with the societal and political context of this time period, Eliot presents numerous references throughout Middlemarch in both the environment of the characters and in the lives of the characters. By doing so, Eliot is able to truly exemplify the complexity of this era amidst industrialization and cultural reform. A few references made to this time period include the mention of George IV’s death in chapter 37, reference to diseases and contemporary medicine, and the demonstrated effects of a newly introduced railway system in the lives of our characters. While many hesitated to accept and encourage reform, it was welcomed by many, including Caleb Gath, who in chapter 56 of this novel states: ‘Now, my lads, you can’t hinder the railroad: it will be made whether you like it or not.’
Political reform is a dominant theme in Middlemarch. To execute this theme, Eliot introduces a number of characters that continually strive to refine the diplomacy of this era., specifically Mr. Brooke. Readers are given an inside look at the politics of Middlemarch through the involvement of Mr. Brooke, a parliamentary candidate, and desperate reformer. Despite his eventual failure, Brooke longs to be elected by reformers. Unfortunately, Brooke is described in the following way: “a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote … Mr. Brooke’s conclusions were as difficult to predict as the weather: it was only safe to say that he would act with benevolent intentions and that he would spend as little money as possible in carrying them out.” While these traits lead to an eventful defeat in his run for parliament, Eliot used this loss to provide readers with an inside look into the timeline of the Reform Bill and the issues it aimed to solve. In fact, it is through Brooke we learn of the initial denial of this proposal. In chapter 84, readers are informed of this failure and potential strategies for passage. This can be seen in the following passage: “It was just after the Lords had thrown out the Reform Bill … The ladies also talked politics, though more fitfully. Mrs. Cadwallader was strong on the intended creation of peers: she had it for certain from her cousin that Truberry had gone over to the other side entirely at the instigation of his wife, who had scented peerages in the air from the very first introduction of the Reform question, and would sign her soul away to take precedence of her younger sister, who had married a baronet.”
Will provides readers with insight into the future of democracy. In chapter 46 of the novel, Will states: ‘Things will grow and ripen as if it were a comet year. The public temper will soon get to a cometary heat, now the question of Reform has set in. There is likely to be another election before long, and by that time Middlemarch will have got more ideas into its head.” Soon, Will is proven correct, which ultimately leads him to the side of Mr. Brooke, to whom he will serve as campaign manager for Brooke’s parliamentary candidacy. Although his intelligence and idealism cause him to doubt Brooke’s ability to secure an election, Will supports Brooke throughout its entirety. Throughout this experience, Will provides Brooke with advice regarding the principle of reform and continues to develop his own passion for electoral improvement which remains even after his marriage to Dorthea. While political reform is a commanding theme throughout this novel, the plot of scientific reform has an equally outstanding correlation to the 1832 Reform Act.
Eliot presents scientific reform in a number of ways throughout Middlemarch. Although the 1832 Reform Act primarily addressed political reform, it was political reform that led to the question of medical and scientific progress. This era, referred to by Eliot as a “dark period,” suffered due to a lack of secure healthcare. The link between political reform and scientific reform is made clear in the following statement made by the narrator in chapter 46: “While Lydgate, safely married and with the Hospital under his command, felt himself struggling for Medical Reform against Middlemarch, Middlemarch was becoming more and more conscious of the national struggle for another kind of Reform.” The passage of the 1832 Reform act resulted in a more democratic society, meaning that more citizens would now practice medicine based on their own ability rather than based on their family’s societal position. As with political reform, many Middlemarch citizens denied the necessity of scientific reform despite instances such as Fred Vincy’s near-death due to an incorrect prescription. The issues of science and medical practices are addressed a number of times throughout the novel and can be exemplified through characters such as Lydgate and Cadwallader.