When choosing two books for my Wide Reading assignment I was conscious of two things. Firstly, that I wished to stretch myself in regards to the reading, analysing and writing elements of the work and secondly that I needed a specific question to keep a tight focus and structure to the essay. With a book as large and with such a complex structure as 'Middlemarch', it would have been quite easy to drift off-task and away from the question; a specific question was of the greatest importance.
Breaking down my question, I shall briefly define the key words in the sentence. By politics I do not mean to take the party politics of Jago and Casaubon, juxtapose them and put them into historical context. I mean politics in the true sense of the word, that is the manipulation of power between people, and how that affects the relationships of the characters. This does not mean that I will neglect politics on a wider scale, indeed that was my initial idea; I will place things in the wider political context in a separate section.
I had originally intended to read 'Homage to Catalonia' by George Orwell alongside 'Middlemarch' on the grounds that I enjoy Orwell very much and that it was a book with a strong political stance to it, which I thought would go well with 'Middlemarch'. According to a literary guide 'Middlemarch' was one of the first political novels. However, I soon realised that 'Homage to Catalonia' might be a poor choice as it would be more of an account of the Spanish Civil War than a novel with a political element to it.
Presumably Orwell would be writing from a very left-wing point of view and this would not necessarily complement a study of 'Middlemarch'. Indeed, the only points where the two could be drawn together (apart from the fact that they both have political elements) would be their respective differences. On the advice of my History teacher, I read 'The Masters' by C. P. Snow, which has a political element to it but on a more intimate basis, within a Cambridge college.
It almost goes without saying that I was relieved that 'The Masters' was not another 900-page tome of a work, and I am grateful to Snow for that. To introduce the two books and place them in the context of my question, I have briefly outlined the plots and themes that run through the respective books. George Eliot was over 50 when she wrote 'Middlemarch'. Thus the story is not so much a 'study of provincial life', to quote the back cover, but a reflection on provincial life which conveniently exemplifies a wider analysis of contemporary society.
Middlemarch is a provincial town in Loamshire, and the story is set in 1832, in the months before, during and after the Great Reform Act of 1832. The book is tainted with doomed romance, although this is partly rectified at the end with the proposed marriage of Dorothea and Will Ladislaw. Within 'Middlemarch' there are multiple plots that far extend beyond the boundaries of what can be tackled in this Wide Reading assignment and so I will mention them only briefly. 'Middlemarch' is not one story, it is a collection of six novels and there are four major ideas that run throughout the book.
The love affairs of Dorothea and Edward Casaubon, of Rosamond Vincy and Tertius Lydgate and of Mary Garth and Fred Vincy run alongside the political story of Bulstrode. The romances are on the most part unhappy. The Casaubons' marriage is ruined by Casaubon's never-ending research and intellectual studies. The Vincy / Lydgate relationship bears the brunt of the difficulties of Lydgate's professional career. The relationship between Fred and Mary has a somewhat more successful ending: "… these two made no such failure, but achieved a solid mutual happiness.
" p. 890 Their rumoured collaboration on their respective literary produce probably added to a bond that could never realistically occurred between Casaubon and Dorothea, no matter how virtuous her initial efforts were. 'Middlemarch' is not a charming book, yet it remains popular on several grounds. Not least of which is its length. It is not an inconsiderable read, and it cannot be taken lightly if someone has actually bothered to wade through the eight hundred and ninety-nine pages and a half of nineteenth century narrative for the killer last paragraph.
I won't reproduce it here for fear of destroying part of its significance within the book, indeed its impact is so great at the end of the book that it would be almost defiling to copy it here. 'Middlemarch' is a book of historical and socio-political importance. It mentions the Great Reform act of 1832, which gives a wider context and yet the majority of politics within the book are confined to within the characters. In 'The Masters' by C. P. Snow, the book opens with news of the impending death of the present Master, Royce, of cancer. Herein lies the first dilemma of the book.
The decision has been made not to tell him, as to minimize his agonising over death and, although not mentioned it is probably of importance, the succession of the Mastership. If Royce were to have expressed strong preference before his death then it would have surely affected the voting between the fellows. Royce lasts months longer than is originally forecast and this makes the formation of little parties within the college very difficult. Two candidates emerge in the form of Jago and Crawford. The consensus in the college is that they would both make very good Masters, but there are arguments against them.
Against Jago, fellows speculate as to whether he has made his name enough outside the college and it seems that he hasn't. It also transpires that Jago may not necessarily be suited to the role. Against Crawford, the general problem seems to be that he is a Scientist and to elect him Master would be to go against a great tradition of Classics in the college (in the last chapter, Snow typifies the perception of a Cambridge fellow; '… middle-aged or elderly men, trained exclusively in the classics, stupefying themselves on port. ').
For a minority, it seems as if voting for either is choosing the lesser of two evils. Chrystal is the example that springs to mind in the beginning at least. Not on excellent personal terms with Jago, he switches at the last minute to Crawford. While all this is going on, the college is trying desperately hard to attract the funding of Sir Horace Timberlake, who seems willing to donate a significant amount on the grounds that part of it is spent solely on the Sciences and attracting more young men to furthering their studies in that field.
Negotiations do occur but eventually Sir Horace donates a sum of a hundred thousand pounds to the college, the largest in its history. To 'The Masters' there is also a wider political context. There is mention of the Spanish civil war, and this ties in with the plot very slightly. It does not affect the book on such a level as the Reform Act does to 'Middlemarch', but it is there. Within the college, there is one mention of Crawford being a bolshevik, but the accuser quickly reprimands himself on the grounds that that may be a little harsh.
Yet what is significant to both books is the emphasis placed by their respective authors upon lower level politics. These base-level politics determine how characters comment on the various plots in 'Middlemarch' and who they vote for in 'The Masters'. What is interesting is that it is not always (sometimes, but not always) personal gain that governs the decisions and political stance of the characters involved.