Going to Middlemarch: History and the Novel

Article excerpt

Here is a series of propositions, about the writing of history and the writing of fiction. The propositions are made by considering George Eliot a kind of historian, and her novel of 1871, Middlemarch, as a kind of history.1

The first proposition is this: that the place where I am is Middlemarch; I shall turn out to mean that, even though this account may have been given hundreds of miles from Middle-- march, far away, and in another country. The University of Warwick, where I teach, is a campus university, built in 1963, two miles outside the boundary of the City of Coventry, an industrial city in the heart of the English Midlands and the county of Warwickshire. Mary Ann Evans was born in 1819 in Arbury, Nuneaton-just north of the city of Coventry-where her father was land agent to the Newdigate family. Middle-- march is Coventry, the fictionalized version of the place in which she grew up. Warwickshire, the county that Henry James called the "the core and center of the English world; midmost England, unmitigated England" is named "North Loamshire" here, and is the countryside surrounding the fictional parishes of Tipton and Lowick, the country houses, granges, and rectories in which the plot of Middlemarch is played out.2

The last time Marian Evans3 visited Coventry-Middle-- march-was in 1853. After her family learned of her relationship with the physiologist and psychologist George Henry Lewes (who could not marry her, as the divorce law made it impossible for him to break with his wife), their profound disapproval prevented her ever going home again. She avoided the city during her last Midlands visit, in 1855. Middlemarch was Eliot's seventh novel, and one of the three she set in fictionalized versions of the time, place, and politics of her own childhood (the other two are The Mill on the Floss [1860] and Felix Holt [1866]). Middlemarch was the last of her Warwickshire novels, published in parts in 1871 and 1872.

This, says one of Eliot's recent biographers, "is that very rare thing: a successful historical novel. In fact, it is so successful that we scarcely think of it in terms of that sub-genre of fiction.114 In this historical novel, Middlemarch is a silk-ribbon manufacturing town, just as Coventry was in her lifetime. We know about the ribbon manufacture from the text, by the number of times we see the dyers' hands stained red in the Green Dragon Inn; by the narrator's comments on the trades that support Middlemarch's best families; and also by Rosamond Vincy's thoughts on the likes of young Plymdale, which tell us not only what kind of town but also what kind of cultural space we're in:

[These] young [Middlemarch] men had not a notion of French, and could speak on no subject with striking knowledge, except perhaps the dyeing and carrying trades, which of course they were ashamed to mention; they were Middle-- march gentry, elated with their silver-headed whips and satin stocks, but embarrassed in their manners, and timidly jocose.

These young men are supported in their imperfect acquisition of cultural capital by a system of rural out-working. Middle-- march's economic hinterland makes a brief eruption in the text, in Chapter 34, when Rosamond's father, Mr. Vincy, is described as "one of those who suck life out of the wretched handloom weavers in Tipton and Freshitt." This is a fragment of a social history that George Eliot wrote without visiting any kind of archive, an untaken journey that must raise questions about the writing of history in general.

She gave the book the subtitle A Study of Provincial Life. It is in fact a historical study of Coventry and Warwickshire in the late 1820s and early 1830s, taking as its frame the period between September 1829 and May 1832.5 The author wrote in the wake of the Second Reform Act of 1867, about the First Reform Act of 1832, setting her story in a period when she was herself eleven and twelve years old. Twentieth-century commentators were not much interested in this most precise and peculiar temporal dissonance, though Sir Walter Scott (who wrote many more historical novels than did George Eliot) explained its uses well enough in 1814, in his Introduction to Waverley; or Ms Sixty Years Since. …