Written amid the hopes and fears of political upheaval before the second major Reform Bill passed in 1867, George Eliot’s novel representing conditions accompanying the Reform Bill of 1832 suggests that authentic reform must come by much more than parliamentary legislation. Real reform requires, the novel implies, the slow cultivation of informed minds, class-bridging sympathies, courage, and clear-sighted rejection of personal and class-based delusions. Faithful to her artistic creed of realism—the true-to-life portrayal of human beings, including believably slow development of individuals and the relationships among them—Eliot represents evils that unquestionably urge reform, but she implies that some of these evils derive from human frailties. It is therefore a moral radicalism that would serve the nation best, one that would convert self-serving egotism to altruistic efforts and materialistic obsession to spontaneously creative living.
In a backward-looking introduction, Eliot directs her readers to view social change as a slow process. She returns, after the exotic settings of Romola (1862-1863) to the Midland England of her childhood and to the slower-paced life of 1831. Then, as in 1866, the elderly and established feared the rapidity of technological progress and resulting social changes, while progressives attacked blatant social evils. Eliot refers to the social evils of the 1830’s as “departed,” but the reference is ironic because many of the evils remained in 1866. She argues implicitly for continued reform. She reassures conservative readers of the 1860’s that the nation had survived reforming changes and would survive more reform. She also addresses the disappointments of progressives who had hoped too much from the earlier bill. Legislation alone could not instantaneously replace feudalism with democratic capitalism, as if the nation could be “shot, like a bullet” from Winchester to Newcastle, an image that recalls England’s long development from its ninth century political center, Winchester, still sleepily agrarian after ten centuries, to the new industrial railway center, Newcastle. Innovation was both inevitable and desirable, however, and Eliot’s jabs at those who feared it in 1831 suggest that the author was attempting to quell similar fears in 1866.
Eliot’s frequent irony and realistic...
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