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The Historical Context of Middlemarch

George Eliot set Middlemarch in the England of the 1830s, a turbulent era in which the forces of change played tug-of-war with the status quo.

Politics
One of the most contentious issues of the day was parliamentary reform. Parliament was grossly unrepresentative of the population; seats in both houses of Parliament were controlled by wealthy upper-class landowners. The government was elected by only 18 percent of the male population. Women, the working class, Catholics, non-Anglican Protestants, and many businessmen were forbidden to vote. And while some districts with tiny populations or even no population were fully represented, others with large populations had little or no representation. After extensive rioting throughout the country, the Reform Bill was passed in 1852. But while this bill redistributed parliamentary seats more fairly and gave most middle-class men the right to vote, women and the working class were still excluded from the decision-making process.

Medicine
Knowledge about the body and disease and its treatment grew exponentially during the 19th century. Many new techniques, such as microscopy, began to take the place of less accurate methods of observation. Actual change among physicians was slow, however, and well-trained doctors versed in the latest medical knowledge were rare.

Religion and Culture
While political and economic change swept across England in the 19th century, most people remained steadfastly dedicated to the strict codes of behavior dictated by the Church. Above all else, women were expected to marry well. They were to bear children and stay close to home. Men were expected to be the sole wage earner and head of household. Unwavering commitment to the Church and its teachings was considered the highest of virtues. And while Darwin's theory of evolution, published in 1859, presented a formidable challenge to Christian creation beliefs, most people regarded it as blasphemous and remained firm in their faith.

Economics
Middlemarch takes place during the Industrial Revolution, a time when factories and urban areas sprang up in farming villages once isolated and dependent upon wealthy landowners. The mill hands who left their failing farms behind to work in factories, however, found that life remained oppressive. Many of them -- including children -- worked 12- to 14-hour days and continued to live in poverty. England was fast becoming the world's richest nation, but the wide disparity between its wealthy and its poor continued.

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