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« Becoming George Eliot | Main | The Cultural Icon That Is Huckleberry Finn »

MIDDLEMARCH and the Reform Bills

Although Eliot began MIDDLEMARCH in 1869 and wrote much of it into the early 1870s, the novel is set in the years surrounding the passage of what's become known as the First Reform Act of 1832 in England. (It is formally called the "Representation of the People Act 1832.") Actually a set of three bills passed through a contentious Parliament, this reform act (and the several that followed over the course of the nineteenth century) set the stage for much of the modern political environment in Great Britain, not to mention the act's distinct influence on both Continental and Trans-Atlantic politics in the ensuing years.

The besetting problems were voting rights and political representation. The British had never risen up in revolution as the French had, so the medieval dilemmas of political standing before the crown remained unresolved well into mid-nineteenth century (if not beyond). Yes, the solutions were murky in France, what with its constant see-saw between tyranny and democracy, even radical democracy; but that's another story. Suffice it to say that while the questions had at least been raised in Paris (often with a bloody hand), they hadn't even been posed in London. Even the Puritan revolt against the crown in the 1600s and the beheading of Charles I was not a revolution in the political sense of the word; Cromwell's was a coup d'état, followed by a dank miasma, ending with a restoration (glorious or not) to the way things had more or less been all along.

By 1830, political representation in the House of Commons came about in two ways: through the counties and through the boroughs. Representatives from counties were to protect the interests of the landed gentry; these representatives were known as "Knights of the Shire." They were often not elected but served at the behest of whatever gentry controlled the county itself.

The boroughs were to represent the population centers--which had been meager in the Middle Ages, naturally, but had become much larger during the Industrial Revolution. By 1830, a borough could be anything from a tiny hamlet to a large metropolitan area, from (as it were) Colebrook to Hartford. Each got one representative in the House of Commons.

You can see the problem. Now compound that with questions of who can cast a vote--that is, who, by law, is an "elector"? Dunwich, a village, had 32 electors. Westminster, a strip of London, had 12,000. Each got one representative. What's more, voting rights (that is, the right to be an elector) were based on two factors: property ownership (a "forty shilling freehold," established in 1430 under Henry VI and never adjusted for inflation) and patronage. Of Dunwich's 32 electors, half were chosen by two local lords. Old Sarum had 13 electors, all under the patronage system.

Worse yet, even the qualification of property ownership was dubious. Forty shillings was a piddling amount of land by the early 1800s--yes, far more than the common laborer could command but far less than, say, a priest in a comfortable parish or a good farm manager like George Eliot's own father. Plus, the gentry could command more than one vote per lord, particularly if the titled landowner controlled disparate, separated pieces of land that had each been historically one of the forty-shilling freeholds.

The deck was stacked. Add that to the fact that lords, politicians, and ne'er-do-wells could legally offer bribes for votes--in the form of either privileges (hunting on my land, for example) or (more often) drunken festivities--and the whole system was exhibit A of injustice.

The worst of these abuses like the borough of Dunwich came to be known as "rotten boroughs"--places where political representation was no more than a charade, where a handful of people commanded as much power as a vast swath of London or Manchester. Other towns like Old Sarum had either most or all of the electors under the control of the landed gentry--who, by the way, already found representation in the House of Commons by the county system with their Knights of the Shire, not to mention outright control of the upper chamber, the House of Lords. These hamlets came to be called "pocket boroughs," since they were in the pocket of a lord, a duke, an earl, or even the Prince of Wales.

The real marvel is that any reform happened at all. There had been attempts for centuries, but the people in power are ever loath to give it up. Nonetheless, reform was set in motion by the death of George IV in 1830. Parliament was by law dissolved on the death of the monarch. Nationwide unrest began to boil. Idealistic members of the Whig party stoked the flames--many of them, to their credit, were landed gentry who saw that the system could not continue without destroying the country and the crown in a major rupture.

Arthur Wellesley, The First Duke Of WellingtonA new government, deeply divided, was formed under Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, a Tory of the sternest rank. The Duke, new to his eminent status, held it tightly. Reform was on the agenda because of nationwide unrest; he was not for it. To put it bluntly, here's a quote from the Parliamentary records during the first political debate, "[A]s long as he held any station in the government of the country, he should always feel it his duty to resist [reform] measures, when proposed by others."

That did that. The government failed; the uneasy coalition between reformers and conservatives broke down. Elections were again held, this time giving the Whigs a wolloping majority in the Commons. Wellington was tossed out in favor of a zealous reformer, Earl Grey (yep, also of tea fame). Reform bills began making their way through Parliament despite stiff opposition in the House of Lords. When the upper house voted down the second reform efforts, rioting broke out in Derby, Nottingham, and Bristol. Unrest was at an all-time high. Could the bloody French Revolution come to British shores? The mere notion haunted almost everyone, even those crying for reform.

Charles Grey, The Second Earl GreyFinally, the bills managed to pass in a third attempt and reform officially was on the docket for the next century. In this first reform effort, one hundred and forty-three rotten and pocket boroughs were disenfranchised. Cities were given more proportional representation; the county system began to decay. And voting rights were extended to 650,000 citizens of England and Wales--in other words, about one in six adult men could now vote. (The story of what this meant for Scotland and Ireland is quite depressing; voting did not increase but in many ways was further restricted in these opening reforms.)

This reform may seem rather incremental in the broad scope, but the cultural change was immense--and muddled. The gentry could no longer rely on puppet strings for power although they still held the bulk of them. It was clear which way the tide was running. More men than ever could freely cast votes--which unfortunately led to even more poll bribery in the following years. Many of the gentry took to outright, in-the-open, cash-for-vote schemes. Yet the rising middle class was beginning to assert its power over not only the ballot but the country as well. The inherited interests, all the way up to the crown itself, were losing political standing--and, in a twist of fate, gaining social standing, passing from puppet masters to cultural icons, from the sources of political power to Madame Tussaud's wax works.

In the end, these reforms were lauded and feared thoughout England and Wales. How would people act with new-found political power in their hands? How would you know a gentleman when you saw him? Before, he was someone connected to power or money or land or any combination of them. He was someone bred. But what if political power was not bred in the bones but instead granted by the state? If power and goodness don't flow top down, but instead come as a "right" from the government to an increasingly large number of people, how will you tell the good ones from the bad? And so MIDDLEMARCH opens.

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