This Week in My Classes (November 5, 2007)

Despite the best efforts of Tropical Storm Noel, it looks like our regularly scheduled programming can go ahead this week. So it’s Middlemarch again, and after working hard the last two weeks on sympathy, morality, and point of view at a more or less personal level, I think this week we’ll shift our focus to politics. My undergraduates (unless this group is wildly atypical) will have at best only a dim idea of the novel’s historical context, so it’s time for a walk-through of some basic information about the 1832 Reform Bill. Then we can consider Mr Brooke as a ‘progressive’ candidate. We’ll take another look at the party in Chapter 10, in which Brooke invites a “rather more miscellaneous” crowd than Mrs Cadwallader quite likes. Then we’ll look closely at the visit to Dagley’s farm in Chapter 39, a section which ties class and political perception to aesthetics and point of view:

Mr. Brooke got down at a farmyard-gate, and Dorothea drove on. It is wonderful how much uglier things will look when we only suspect that we are blamed for them. Even our own persons in the glass are apt to change their aspect for us after we have heard some frank remark on their less admirable points; and on the other hand it is astonishing how pleasantly conscience takes our encroachments on those who never complain or have nobody to complain for them. Dagley’s homestead never before looked so dismal to Mr. Brooke as it did today, with his mind thus sore about the fault-finding of the ” Trumpet,” echoed by Sir James.

It is true that an observer, under that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people’s hardships picturesque, might have been delighted with this homestead called Freeman’s End: the old house had dormer-windows in the dark red roof, two of the chimneys were choked with ivy, the large porch was blocked up with bundles of sticks, and half the windows were closed with gray worm-eaten shutters about which the jasmine-boughs grew in wild luxuriance; the mouldering garden wall with hollyhocks peeping over it was a perfect study of highly mingled subdued color, and there was an aged goat (kept doubtless on interesting superstitious grounds) lying against the open back-kitchen door. The mossy thatch of the cow-shed, the broken gray barn-doors, the pauper laborers in ragged breeches who had nearly finished unloading a wagon of corn into the barn ready for early thrashing; the scanty dairy of cows being tethered for milking and leaving one half of the shed in brown emptiness; the very pigs and white ducks seeming to wander about the uneven neglected yard as if in low spirits from feeding on a too meagre quality of rinsings, — all these objects under the quiet light of a sky marbled with high clouds would have made a sort of picture which we have all paused over as a ” charming bit,” touching other sensibilities than those which are stirred by the depression of the agricultural interest, with the sad lack of farming capital, as seen constantly in the newspapers of that time. But these troublesome associations were just now strongly present to Mr. Brooke, and spoiled the scene for him.

I find it useful to bring students’ casual assumption that universal suffrage is an obvious good up against Dagley, which of course is just what George Eliot wants to do as well. To give them a fuller sense of the intellectual context for ‘progressive’ intellectual opposition to the rapid expansion of suffrage, I usually bring in bits of Carlyle, such as the “Democracy” section of Past and Present, which juxtaposes impassioned lamentation for “the lot of those same dumb millions of toilers” (“Do we wonder at French Revolutions, Chartisms, Revolts of Three Days? The times, if we will consider them, are really unexampled.”) with an equally impassioned refusal to accept democratic solutions:

Liberty? The true liberty of a man, you would say, consisted in his finding out, or being forced to find out the right path, and to walk thereon…. You do not allow a palpable madman to leap over precipices; you violate his liberty, you that are wise; and keep him, were it in strait-waistcoasts, away from the precipices! … Liberty requires new definitions.

I might bring in some of Mill’s cautions about the tendency of democracy towards mediocrity: “No government by a democracy or a numerous aristocracy, either in its political acts or in the opinions, qualities, and tone of mind which it fosters, ever did or could rise above mediocrity, except in so far as the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided … by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few” (On Liberty). And there’s always Culture and Anarchy, too, for some choice tidbits about the pros and cons of the Englishman’s fetishization of his “right to do what he likes.” (“And certainly, the mistakes that we male and female mortals make when we have our own way might fairly raise some wonder that we are so fond of it,” as George Eliot points out.) These examples prepare students for what they often, initially, find the oddity of George Eliot’s cautious approach to democracy, which I usually illustrate with examples from Felix Holt and the later “Address to Working Men (by Felix Holt)”:

“And while public opinion is what it is—while men have no better beliefs about public duty—while corruption is not felt to be a damning disgrace—while men are not ashamed in Parliament and out of it to make public questions which concern the welfare of millions a mere screen for their own petty private ends,—I say, no fresh scheme of voting will much mend our condition. For, take us working men of all sorts. Suppose out of every hundred who had a vote there were thirty who had some soberness, some sense to choose with, some good feeling to make them wish the right thing for all. And suppose there were seventy out of the hundred who were, half of them, not sober, who had no sense to choose one thing in politics more than another, and who had so little good feeling in them that they wasted on their own drinking the money that should have helped to feed and clothe their wives and children; and another half of them who, if they didn’t drink, were too ignorant or mean or stupid to see any good for themselves better than pocketing a five-shilling piece when it was offered them. Where would be the political power of the thirty sober men? The power would lie with the seventy drunken and stupid votes; and I’ll tell you what sort of men would get the power—what sort of men would end by returning whom they pleased to Parliament.” (Felix Holt–the Radical?)

Now, the danger hanging over change is great, just in proportion as it tends to produce such disorder by giving any large number of ignorant men, whos notions of what is good are of a low and brutal sort, the belief that they have got power into their hands, and may do pretty much as they like. (Address to Working Men)

“Would you want Dagley to vote?” is a crudely reductive version of the questions George Eliot is raising–but at the same time, it rather goes to the heart of the problems she identifies for us, and I think it will generate some useful discussion. In turn, our consideration of the novel’s class politics (if that’s the right way to label these issues) prepares us to consider its gender politics once we’ve read to the end.

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