Middlemarch is often thought to be the greatest novel in the English language. George Eliot’s 1871 novel is also a great defense of classical liberalism—not only a celebration of the spirit of market as against politics, but of the market as catalyst of better personal lives.
One of the principal themes of Middlemarch is the difficulty of marriage. I believe that this focus is what prompted Virginia Wolfe to say that it is “one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” It is striking that so many previous 19th century novels (and indeed earlier ones, like Tom Jones, which Henry Fielding wrote in 1749) instead have as their main story line the difficulties of getting married to the person one wants. Once marriage happens, it is assumed and sometimes said that the couple lives happily afterward. Pride and Prejudice (1813) is the exception that proves the rule: The famously mismatched Bennets play important roles but their marriage is comic background rather than a matter for dramatic resolution.
George Eliot believes that the essential problem of marriage is that most people choose partners on the basis of their own illusions. Sometimes these are altruistic illusions, like those of Dorothea Brooke, the heroine of the novel, who marries the elderly Reverend Edward Casaubon in the vain hope that she can help him finish a master work on universal mythology, a task to which his shallow pomposity makes him completely unequal. Sometimes the illusions are more self-centered ones, like those of Rosamond Vincy, who marries Doctor Tertius Lydgate for a social status he does not possess and he in turn marries her for physical beauty, which he mistakes for a great soul. The motive forces of their romantic attractions are ideas internal to themselves, rather a sober consideration of the reality of the other person.
The counterpoint to Middlemarch’s many marriage myth-makers is Mary Garth, who is focused on the actual qualities of her suitor, Fred Vincy, even to the extent of demanding that he not be a minister, a profession for which he is obviously unfitted. Importantly, she herself is the child of the most market-oriented people in the book—the sturdy rural bourgeois Caleb and Susan Garth. Caleb is market man, manager, and rationalizer of the gentry’s feudal estates in the countryside surrounding Middlemarch. And Susan is a mistress of household production, making money by sewing and other work. The Garths are strivers trying to do the best by their children through industry and mutual tolerance. It is this outward-directedness that makes for a good marriage. Moreover, participation in the market allows them to estimate the true value of people and things: the realistic estimation that is at the heart of market society allows their daughter Mary to be successful not only in choosing a mate, but in shaping him for successful marriage.
Note that the market here is not portrayed as destroying other values, like love and fidelity, as is often the case in both Marxist and conservative critiques, but as putting them on a realistic and stable foundation. Moreover, a successful life does not consist of throwing off authority with a view to vindicating the authentic self, but in creating enduring associations with others. Middlemarch is thus a riposte to those who think that the essence of liberalism must loosen rather than strengthen the bonds of community and family.
And it is also clear that Eliot contrasts politics unfavorably with the market and a market-infused family life. The story takes place in the shadow of the struggles to enact the Reform Bill of 1832—probably the most important democratizing act in British history, greatly expanding the franchise and making it more effective by eliminating or at least tempering the so-called rotten boroughs (districts with few voters in them). Even so, those in politics, or anyone acting without the bonds of market or familial associations, are not portrayed favorably. When the townfolk condemn Dr. Lydgate, they are mostly motivated by malice and envy. Political actors are generally represented as quite self-interested. At the end of the book, some characters speculate about how they can use the initial failure of the Reform Bill to get into the House of Lords. If the danger of marriage is that it will be built on illusions, however benevolent, the danger of politics is that it may rest on sheer malevolence.
Of course, Middlemarch is not a political tract. But Eliot makes important points about the relation of private life, public life, and the spirit of market liberalism that are as powerful today as they were when she wrote them almost 150 years ago.