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  • Emma Behrens

"Middlemarch" on Political Reform

I am under no illusion that you will read Middlemarch. Published in 1872, the 850-page tome is a stunning meditation on the human condition, but an arduous intellectual undertaking, to say the very least. My initial intent was not to perpetuate the stereotype of the English major gushing about Eliot’s masterwork, not-so-subtly bragging about how they made it through their reading unscathed, but as the novel’s 150th anniversary is upon us, I feel it is time to highlight Eliot’s work once more, specifically its commentary on the nature of political reform.

To give a brief, sentence-long synopsis of a piece wildly undeserving of such a reduction, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life chronicles the intersecting lives of various inhabitants of the titular yet fictitious English town of Middlemarch. The political heart of the piece revolves around the subplot concerning the election of Arthur Brooke, a kind yet bumbling landowner. His campaign is advised by Will Ladislaw, a radical political journalist and an outsider to the town. The reasons for his negative perception in circles of power are manifold, from his “dangerous” progressive political beliefs to his “foreign blood.”

The Middlemarch elite are livid when they learn of Ladislaw backing Brooke’s campaign. Even the sympathetic Brooke wishes to remain “independent” about the Parliamentary reform Ladislaw champions. Brooke is hesitant to back the legislation that would become the Reform Act of 1832, for its enfranchisement of shopkeepers, tenant farmers, and small landowners worried the landed elite who then possessed the majority of England’s political power.

After a disastrous speech on the part of Mr. Brooke, his efforts not to rock the boat resulting in a bumbling display of incompetence, he and Will vow to leave politics, the former out of embarrassment and the latter out of frustration. Mr. Brooke hesitates to vocally favor election reform out of fear of exile from noble circles, and Ladislaw is appalled by Brooke’s refusal to do so.

However, it is revealed in the novel’s final chapter that years later, Ladislaw does return to politics, not as a speechwriter, but instead as a member of Parliament championing reform. While Mr. Brooke lives “to a good old age,” he never reenters the political sphere.

The significance of such a subplot in the contexts of English and global politics is far from trivial. The Reform Act of 1832 was a landmark legislation in its enfranchisement of middle-class white men, a group who previously had no say in English politics. Such reform paved the way for similar legislation, from the 1918 Representation of the People Act that allowed non-landed men to vote to the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 that enfranchised non-landed women. Eliot’s discussion of the roots of the 1832 Reform Act marks a turning point in English politics, one that influenced legislation around the world.

More broadly, Eliot’s depiction of the struggle between Ladislaw’s high-minded idealism and Brooke’s philosophy of the landed elite calls attention to the function of capital in politics. While Ladislaw’s vision of enfranchised masses ultimately came to be, Brooke’s hesitation for reform held sway due to the power his station and capital afforded him in spite of strong public opposition. He was able to ignore the calls of even his own tenant farmers for he had complete financial power over them.

The wealthy’s hesitation for change that the general populous demands is a concept with applications to American politics too numerous to chronicle, from demands for free and reduced college tuition to calls for universal healthcare. While compromises between such groups may occasionally be reached, a stable position between them is untenable, as Will cautions Mr. Brooke. When change is so vocally demanded, asking for its compromise or reduction “is like asking for a bit of an avalanche which has already started to thunder.” Change is coming, and the Mr. Brookes of the world must either ride the avalanche or get out of its way.


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