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Middlemarch | Context

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The Catholic Relief Act and the Reform Act of 1832

Middlemarch is set against the backdrop of political reform (1829–32). With the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829, Catholics in England got back some of their rights, including the right to be elected to Parliament. The Catholics had a long history of persecution in England, beginning when King Henry VIII withdrew from the Catholic Church in 1534 and set up the Church of England in opposition to the Roman Church. Thereafter, allegiance to Catholicism was suspect or even treasonous, and people were expected to be loyal to the Church of England, synonymous with the state. Catholics had to practice their religion in secret and could not buy land, hold office, or inherit property. The Penal Laws imposed fines and sometimes prison sentences on people who did not attend Anglican (Church of England) services.

The Roman Catholic Relief Act was championed by the Whigs and decried by the Tories. The Tory Party was associated with the Church of England and was the party of the landed gentry, which is why Mr. Brooke's friends do not want him to stand as a Reform candidate. The Whig party supported electoral reforms, the abolition of slavery, and restoration of the rights of Catholics. The Whig party was also the home of religious dissenters like Mr. Bulstrode.

The Whigs took control of Parliament in 1830 and tried to pass a Reform Bill, which would have significantly expanded the vote to white male members of the middle class—any man who owned at least 10 pounds worth of property. The bill was intended to address unequal representation in government. At the time, large industrial cities such as Birmingham and Manchester had no representatives in government while underpopulated rural areas ruled by wealthy landowners had many representatives. For example, one rural county had 44 representatives while the heavily populated city of London had four. Neither the first nor second Reform Bill passed, but by 1832, reform was accomplished. The Reform Bill of 1832 reassigned government seats and extended the right to vote to small landowners. These changes benefited the middle class but did little to extend government participation to the working or poor classes. Nonetheless, the Reform Act of 1832 began an era of wider participation in the electoral process.

Social Classes

Middlemarch depicts a wide range of social classes at a time when these classes were still relatively static. The upper classes in Middlemarch are the landed gentry, represented by Sir James Chettam, who is also a titled baronet, Mr. Brooke, Mr. Casaubon, and Sir Godwin Lydgate. These upper-class families lived on estates, large tracts of land with manor houses and agricultural fields that were, for the most part, worked by tenant farmers. The landed gentry made their money by renting land and dwellings (cottages) to tenant farmers. If the landlord kept up his farms and cottages, then the tenants were relatively prosperous. Some prosperous farmers even owned land. If the owner of the estate was stingy, as is Mr. Brooke, then tenant farmers such as the Dagleys might live in hovels. A good landlord hired a skilled manager such as Mr. Garth to manage his estate.

The middle classes in Middlemarch include the Vincys, the Garths, the Bulstrodes, the Farebrothers, and the physician apothecaries. Within the middle classes were distinctions in rank based on profession as well as money. For example, Mr. Vincy is a manufacturer of a higher class than his wife, who is a shopkeeper's daughter. Mrs. Vincy does not want to socialize with the Garths, who have come down in the world.

At the top of the working class were craftsmen and skilled workers, such as weavers and tanners. Mr. Trumbull, an auctioneer and rental agent, and the landlady Mrs. Dollop, are also working class, as are tenant farmers.

The Church provided one avenue for moving up in class, which is why Mr. Vincy wants Fred to become a clergyman. Fred, Will Ladislaw, and the physicians Minchin and Sprague have attended university. Ladislaw, however, is of an indeterminate class because of his mixed heritage and absence of class pretensions.

Religion and the Clergy

Catholics (called Papists) were a minority in England, because most had moved over to the Anglican Church with King Henry VIII in the early 1500s. This form of Christianity was similar to Roman Catholicism in beliefs and practices, although priests were allowed to marry.

The Evangelical movement was a force that the Anglican Church had to reckon with, and Mr. Tyke is an Evangelical, as are Bulstrode and his family. Evangelicals emphasized a literal interpretation of the Bible, centrality of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, and a need to convert others to their way of thinking. Mr. Farebrother and Mr. Casaubon are traditional Anglican ministers. Dorothea is not an Evangelical but, rather, she is influenced in her Christianity by the beliefs of the Waldenses sect, which aspired to poverty and moral rigor and a return to a simplified form of Christianity.

Young men of the middle classes sometimes went into the Church to maintain class status or simply to make a living, such as Mr. Cadwallader, a priest who would rather be fishing. Fred Vincy is sent to university as the eldest son, while Mr. Vincy's second son follows his father into the manufacturing business. One problem with the religious vocation was that a clergyman might get an appointment that did not provide enough income, which is the case for Mr. Farebrother at St. Botolph's. Sometimes a priest might lose out on a position because of doctrinal differences, as does Mr. Farebrother when the chaplaincy is voted on. The landed gentry had the power to appoint priests to parishes. A parish priest was called a vicar or a rector. If the priest was in charge of more than one church, he might have appointed a curate or a deacon to minister to the needs of the congregation.

Allusions and Epigraphs

Each chapter in Middlemarch is preceded by an epigraph, a short quotation that illustrates an important idea introduced in the chapter. Understanding these chapter "heralds"—and many of them are obscure and difficult to understand—is not necessary for comprehending the novel. Many of them are self-explanatory; others are explained in the opening lines of the chapter. The author also uses many allusions throughout the novel, mostly referring to other works of literature or art or to political events and English history, such as Don Quixote, Rembrandt, and the Protestant Reformation. An authoritative, annotated version of Middlemarch will explain the meaning of many of the allusions (see Further Reading), which will enhance understanding and enjoyment of the story.

Medical Professions

The state of medical practice in England at the time of the novel was fairly horrendous. The most well-respected medical men knew very little about the human body. Physicians were required to attend the Royal College of Physicians after they had graduated Oxford or Cambridge. These were the sons of aristocrats, classically trained, but not medically trained. The next tier of practitioners were surgeons, who performed physical treatments such as setting bones and blood letting. Surgeons had a five-year apprenticeship and took at least one course in surgery and one in anatomy. The lowest tier of healers, classified with tradesmen, were apothecaries, who were paid for dispensing medicine. However, they could not charge people for dispensing medical advice, which was the province of the physician.

As time passed, some medical men were credentialed as surgeon-apothecaries, also called general practitioners, and eventually they won the legal right to collect fees for giving medical advice. The best medical training was available outside of England—in Paris and Edinburgh—where doctors were trained in teaching hospitals and made case notes based on observations. The physicians in training were also allowed to conduct autopsies. Dr. Lydgate, a surgeon-apothecary, has received the best training that England has to offer, as well as the superior training of Paris and Edinburgh, which is why he is head-and-shoulders above the other medical men in Middlemarch.

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