Social Justice in Middlemarch

There's more here than just the petty squabbles of the townsfolk.

Before I launch into my first thoughts on Middlemarch and some analysis, there’s something I need to talk to you about.

This book club is more work than I thought it would be. I’m super excited to be doing it with you. It’s going to continue through the year. Don’t worry! But creating good content for you takes time. That’s time I can’t use to work toward paying my rent, student loans, etc. I’m a freelance writer, so every work hour really counts. Next week, I’m going to make paid subscriptions available at a discounted rate. Everything you’re getting for free will continue as usual even if you don’t opt into a paid subscription. If you can pay, however, please do so. Your subscription will help me quite literally keep the lights on.

How many paid subscribers do I need? Right now, I have 625 free subscribers. This is a great number, and I’m excited you’re all here! To keep the book club going, I’ll need at least half of you to opt into a paid subscription. Paid subscribers have upgraded features, like the ability to comment on all posts instead of just discussions. Paid subscribers will also get subscriber-only posts. The larger the number of people who subscribe, the more I can do for you.

If you can’t afford to become a paid subscriber, that’s okay! Believe me, I understand. I’m over here rattling my tin can and hoping for money. I’m also hoping that if you can’t pay you can at least share and spread the word. Some of you have already been doing that! I see you, and I love you, and I appreciate how you’re making this community your own.

Me trying to run a book club:

Image result for please sir gif

~ sorry, wrong novel!

Now to our regularly scheduled programming.


Why is Middlemarch so long?

Although this sounds like a complaint, there happens to be a little bit of background to this. Believe it or not, Middlemarch is one of the longest novels ever written in English. (That’s right, gents. You can put away your measuring sticks. The ladies already won.) Not only that—Middlemarch’s length is one of the reasons it was so popular in the first place.

In the 19th century, most novels came to print as either a serialization or in three-volume sets. To make a serial, publishers broke novels up into sections of one or two chapters and printed these in magazine format.

serialized editions of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, sold at auction.

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The other typical publication form for novels, three-volume sets, were hard-bound and sometimes called “triple-deckers.” But just like with publishing today, there were set limits for how long triple-decker novels could be. Middlemarch, of course, was too hefty a book for triple-decker format. It was also too long for traditional serialization. Imagine waiting weeks or months for the next chapter of this behemoth. (Okay, and then what happened?) Serialization would have taken years.

What happens when you’re too big to fit the mold? You have to break it. George Henry Lewes, Eliot’s agent and some-time lover, brainstormed with the printers. They decided to combine the two ideas, printing Middlemarch first in eight thick installments. The public quickly became hooked. They loved the characters. They had such richness and life! The story had something—and someone—for everyone.

Original copies of Middlemarch installments, sold at auction for $81,250 (USD):

After that, Lewes had the novel printed in four volumes instead of three. (A quadrple-decker?) Middlemarch was a smash hit. It has lived on in our minds, libraries, classrooms, and reading circles ever since.

Why was Middlemarch so popular?

Other than the book’s length hitting that perfect, satisfying sweet spot for Victorian readers, Middlemarch also felt important.

Wait. What?

This idea threw me, so I had to do a little digging. It turns out Victorian readers had more in common with us modern folks than you might think. Many of them cared deeply about social justice causes like health care, the minimum wage, and the plight of the poor. (Remember Dickens and all his orphans? He was a bleeding-heart do-gooder just like us.) Although I’m sure Middlemarch won’t have many chimney sweeps and raggamuffins for us—unless they’re waiting sneakily in the wings—Eliot still endeavored to show crusades and pet causes her readers would recognize.

Middlemarch came out four years after the British Parliament passed the Second Reform Act. A momentous upheaval in the rights of the country, the Second Reform Act expanded the right to vote in the lower classes, enfranchising roughly one million men and doubling the English and Welsh electorate. Only men could vote. But the National Society for Women's Suffrage met for the first time in London the same year Middlemarch. The tide of change was rising underneath the stiff fashions of Victorian society. Storytellers, as they always do, would herald its coming.

Eliot set the novel not during her contemporary struggle to expand the vote, but during the period before the First Reform Act (1832) instead. Though its successor expanded voting rights, the initial Reform Act was more of a mixed bag. For one, it explicitly excluded women from voting. On the other hand, it expanded property qualifications so small landowners, tenant farmers, and shopkeepers could vote in elections.

The First Reform was still fresh in the minds of many Victorian readers, and, with the Second Reform around the corner, the expansion of rights and suffrage were hot topics. Eliot capitalized on these subjects du jour. She used her characters and scenarios to comment on them. This could have gone wrong. We’ve all read (at least part of) a failed political novel. The depth and detail of Eliot’s characters allowed her to rise above shallow political commentary and offer readers their world on the page, giving it back to them illuminated, richer and more understandable than it had been before.

Isn’t that what we all want in a novel? To see ourselves and come away changed?

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Until next time, thank you for reading with me.

~ Rebecca

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