Money in Middlemarch
Old provincial society had its share of this subtle movement […] some slipped a little downward, some got higher footing […] Municipal town and rural parish gradually made fresh threads of connection--gradually, as the old stocking gave way to the savings-bank, and the worship of the solar guinea became extinct; while squires and baronets, and even lords who had once lived blamelessly afar from the civic mind, gathered the faultiness of closer acquaintanceship.
GEORGE ELIOT, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 11.
*Caution spoilers ahead*
Middlemarch takes place in an epoch of great economic change; as such various characters in the novel are preoccupied with questions concerning money, whether they actively profit from others’ misfortunes, or inadvertently find themselves in financial jeopardy.
Money is a ubiquitous point of connection between the inhabitants of Middlemarch.
The town financier Bulstrode, who funds the hospital and loans money to various characters, is extorted by Raffles, a gambler who threatens to reveal the dishonest origins of his prosperity. Said wealth, (ill-begotten from a disreputable pawnshop), rightfully belongs to Will Ladislaw who, in turn, refuses Bulstrode’s bribe of £500 a year, in part, because he is anxious to not disappoint Dorothea. Dorothea, heiress to her uncle’s estate and wife to the wealthy Mr Causabon finds out that Causabon, in an attempt to exert posthumous power over her, has made an amendment to his will to disinherit Dorothea in the event she weds his cousin, Will Ladislaw.
At the novel’s close, Dorothea weds Ladislaw anyway, takes over Lydgate's loan from Bulstrode at the behest of Rosamond and appoints Farebrother rector of Lowick, putting an end to the financial worries that he had previously kept on top of by winning games of chance. Said games took place in the billiard room at the Green Dragon, the same place where Lydgate gambled away substantial money and Fred Vincy lost a bet after bragging about his inheritance. In Middlemarch’s latter half, Fred is passed over by the miserly Featherstone (from whom he expects to inherit Stone Court) in favour of his uncle’s secret illegitimate son, Joshua Rigg an aspiring moneylender who — like Bulstrode (to whom he sells the estate) — is financially preyed upon by the parasitic Raffles.
'Any one watching keenly the stealthy convergence of human lots, sees a slow preparation of effects from one life on another, which tells like a calculated irony on the indifference or the frozen stare with which we look at our unintroduced neighbor. Destiny stands by sarcastic with our dramatis personae folded in her hand.'
GEORGE ELIOT, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 11.
ARTHUR BROOKE | Idle landlord & aspiring MP
Mr Brooke is a wealthy bachelor and landowner of Tipton Grange. Despite the fact Brooke makes strides to run for a seat in the House of Commons and frequently — if ineptly — espouses his liberal beliefs and desire for reform, he treats his own tenants poorly and is slow when it comes to making improvements on the properties they rent. Moreover, in his capacity as a magistrate, he expresses little sympathy for struggling families who turn to poaching for food.
DOROTHEA BROOKE | Diligent philanthropist
At the novel’s opening, Dorothea is a considerable heiress: her firstborn son is set to inherit her uncle’s sizeable estate, along with £3,000 a year. She goes on to marry the insular and wealthy Mr Casaubon under the misapprehension she can aid him in his academic endeavours. Eighteen months later, at just twenty-one, she becomes a widow and discovers that he has added a clause to his will that stipulates she will forfeit all claim to his inheritance if she marries his younger cousin, Will Ladislaw.
NICHOLAS BULSTRODE | Sanctimonious financier
A perpetual outsider though he has been a Middlemarch banker for 30 years, Bulstrode is in equal parts moralising and miserly. As the plot of the novel unfolds, we learn that an unscrupulous past involving the black-market dealings of a coastal pawn-shop has predicated his affluence. We also learn that with the help of John Raffles, Bulstrode prevented the rightful inheritor of his wife’s estate from being contacted (her daughter from a previous marriage, and the mother of Will Ladislaw). Bulstrode used this money to relocate to Middlemarch only to be blackmailed by the man who was his accomplice. When the truth of Ladislaw's claim on the estate is made known, Bulstrode attempts to appease him with an offer of £500 a year. Middlemarch opinion turns on him when the truth comes out, and the circumstances surrounding Raffles’ death become known.
CAMDEN FAREBROTHER | Kindhearted cleric
Farebrother is introduced wearing a threadbare suit and supports his widowed mother, aunt, and unmarried sister with an annual wage of just £400. He is a skilful gambler with a penchant for cards and billiards which he uses to supplement his income. Despite this vice, he is presented as a decent, honourable man, as is indicated by his surname. He served as the hospital chaplain for many years long before the position was attached to a salary, and generally puts the needs and wants of others before his own. Following her husband’s death, Dorothea offers Farebrother the prosperous position of rector at Lowick.
TERTIUS LYDGATE | Imperceptive intellectual
Dr Lydgate hails from a titled Northumberland family and is unimpeachably proud of the fact he is ‘better born than other country surgeons’. Ironically, this conceit is referred to by the narrator as one of his ‘spots of commonness’. Educated in Paris, his lavish taste and lack of prudence — exacerbated by a penchant for gambling and the parallel predilections of his wife — ultimately result in near bankruptcy.
JOHN RAFFLES | Malicious extortonist
As is hinted at by his surname, Raffles is a cunning and deceitful blackmailer, a gambler, and an alcoholic. He attempts to extort money from both Rigg (his stepson) and Bulstrode. For Raffles, bribery is more than just a means to an end. Indeed, the narrator notes that ‘Raffles had made it evident that his eagerness to torment was almost as strong in him as any other greed’. Like Bulstrode his past is interwoven with a disreputable pawn shop that sold stolen wares and profited off ‘of lost souls’.
JOSHUA RIGG | Acquisitive opportunist
As the novel progresses, we discover that Rigg is the illegitimate son of Peter Featherstone and thus the rightful heir to Stone Court according to Old Featherstone’s second will. He sells the estate swiftly to Bulstrode, for the ‘one joy after which his soul thirsted was to have a money-changer’s shop on a much-frequented quay’. The narrator goes into tremendous detail about his rationale for this sale, despite him being a minor character:
‘He had a very distinct and intense vision of his chief good, the vigorous greed which he had inherited having taken a special form by dint of circumstance: and his chief good was to be a moneychanger. From his earliest employment as an errand-boy in a seaport, he had looked through the windows of the moneychangers as other boys look through the windows of the pastry-cooks; the fascination had wrought itself gradually into a deep special passion’.
ROSAMOND VINCY | Covetous social climber
Rosamond marries Lydgate under the assumption his wealthy family will provide for him and his future spouse. Once they marry her expensive taste, coupled with Lydgate’s poor choices drives the couple into debt. At the novel’s close, the narrator tells us that Rosamond marries an older man from whom she receives a comfortable inheritance.
FRED VINCY | Cossetted gentlman & chronic gambler
Fred begins the novel as a fickle — if affable — young man with a propensity for gambling and poor decision-making. He relies considerably on the erroneous belief he will inherit a substantial sum of money from his uncle, Peter Featherstone who owns Stone Court. He persuades Caleb Garth into co-signing a loan to get him out of gambling debt. Though Featherstone gives Fred £100 to partially pay off the loan, he instead uses this money to buy a horse from an unscrupulous dealer at The Red Lion. This decision, instead of allowing him to recoup his losses, costs the Garth family their savings. Taken under the wing of Mr Garth, Fred goes on to become the land agent’s apprentice. His story reaches a redemptive end when he marries Mary Garth and takes over the management of Stone Court.
In the course of the nineteenth century, the manufacturing industry gradually became a dominant force within the British economy. This had a considerable impact on class relations. The manufacturing class emerged, particularly in the Midlands and the North, as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Growing international trade in the capital, a prosperous national economy, and rapidly advancing technological innovation resulted in a surfeit of new investment opportunities. Speculative business ventures involving overseas commodities, and advancements in railway locomotives, steamships, and factory equipment, were a constant topic of conversation. Eliot herself had a growing and diverse portfolio of low-risk investments including shares in the Great Indian Peninsular Railway.
In 1844, provincial banking shifted from a series of disparate country businesses into a more sophisticated, commercial enterprise dominated by the Bank of England. The Bank Charter Act of 1844, gave the Bank of England exclusive rights to issue notes, backed ‘pound-for-pound’ with gold reserves. Prior to this act, in the years Middlemarch is set, provincial banks could issue their own notes unrestricted.
Wealth, in this era, could come and go at the swing of the latest speculative venture. What’s more, debt, irrespective of class or station, affected all walks of life.
Broadly speaking there were two contending schools of thought on the subject of debt in the public imagination. One intimated that debt was an inevitable and necessary part of commercial life and could thus not be considered immoral in and of itself. The pious country banker Mr Bulstrode has an intimate knowledge of ‘the financial secrets of most traders in the town’ and is the purveyor of numerous private loans. As the narrator explains to us, any ‘spiritual conflict’ that Bulstrode bears from tempting his neighbours into debt is mitigated by an ‘inward argument’ that imagined any power he might gain from such enterprises would be devoted to ‘the glory of God’.
Charles Dickens' Household Words and All the Year Round published a series of articles dedicated to the topic of debt that implied quite the opposite. One article, printed in All the Year Round in 1864, supposed that debt, not drink was the ‘greatest curse of the land’. ‘So completely does insolvency pervade society’, it speculated, ‘that those who are not in debt are almost as much victims to the consequences as those who are.’ With misguided young men like Fred Vincy, ‘a trouble to themselves, and to their friends, through owing money’, making ‘their debts and their troubles’ those of their neighbours - leaving the likes of Caleb or Mary Garth to face the consequences.
Exhibit 27 - The Banker's Private Room, Negotiating a Loan, by John Callcott Horsley, (1870), oil on canvas, Royal Holloway, University of London. Purchased for Thomas Holloway, 1883. Find out more about visiting Royal Holloway's stunning Grade 1 listed Picture Gallery or book a research visit to view the private collection here.
In an effort to charm the banker opposite her, a young woman clothed in a sumptuous fur-trimmed coat leans across a table offering up her proposed terms. Her demeanour and body language are at once seductive and self-possessed. Notwithstanding her coyly proffered fan and flirtatious posture, she meets his eyes with confidence.
Women, in this era, played an active if hidden role in financial affairs, particularly those associated with one’s household. Like Rosamond Vincy, a seemingly ‘mild creature’, with a ‘terrible tenacity’ for getting her own way the young woman in Horsley’s painting displays a confidence that belies the performative coyness of her disposition. Indeed, Rosamond’s awareness ‘that she was a much more exquisite ornament to the drawing-room’ than her female peers, directly predicates her desire to find herself ‘a husband whose wealth corresponded [with] her habits’.
Dorothea, who with idealistic sincerity proclaims midway through the novel, that ‘money buys [her] nothing but an uneasy conscience’, functions, in this respect, as a foil to Rosamond. Though in the earlier half of the novel, she rather performatively shuns the costly jewels of her late mother (after failing to justify ‘her delight in the colors by merging them in her mystic religious joy’), this somewhat haughty disdain for materiality gives way, to a decidedly more rational perspective. By the novel’s end, Dorothea gives up Causabon’s estate to marry Will and declares, with considerably more humility, that she will take care to ‘learn what everything costs’.
'No third person listening could have thoroughly understood the impetuosity of Will’s repulse or the bitterness of his words. No one but himself then knew how everything connected with the sentiment of his own dignity had an immediate bearing for him on his relation to Dorothea and to Mr. Casaubon’s treatment of him.’
GEORGE ELIOT, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 61.
By design, the concept of money — as a fungible token of exchange — is effectively intended to erase its lineage. Throughout Middlemarch however, various characters approach money as though it carries traces of its moral history.
When Bulstrode attempts to atone for having deliberately concealed Will Ladislaw’s existence from his grandmother, Ladislaw fervently rejects his offer of recompense on the grounds the money originates from a ‘thoroughly dishonourable’ business, a pawnbrokers that profited from stolen goods and the distress of ‘lost souls’.
Intel on this ill-gotten money provides Raffles with the leverage to blackmail Bulstrode — for such information would contaminate both Bulstrode’s religious reputation and his integrity as the town’s banker.
The idealistic impulse that motivates Ladislaw to fling back the offer with such vehemence, the narrator tells us, stems from a complicated mix of ‘passionate rebellion against this inherited blot’ on his ancestry and an inkling that ‘it would have been impossible for him ever to tell Dorothea that he had accepted it’.
Even Bulstrode himself puts his ill-gotten wealth through an elaborate purification ritual by financing the new hospital and other ‘clean’ business investments.
'Fred was conscious that he would have been yet more severely dealt with if his family as well as himself had not secretly regarded him as Mr. Featherstone’s heir… in fact, tacit expectations of what would be done for him by uncle Featherstone determined the angle at which most people viewed Fred Vincy in Middlemarch; and in his own consciousness…’
GEORGE ELIOT, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 23.
We first hear of Fred Vincy from his ever-indulgent mother, who calls for the servants to knock on his door ‘again’ and inform him ‘it has struck half-past ten’. Ignoring her daughter’s entreaty not to let him have red herrings at this hour, she tells Rosamond not to be too hard on her brother and makes excuses for his lackadaisical attitude towards attaining a career: ‘few young men have less against them, although he couldn’t take his degree—I’m sure I can’t understand why, for he seems to me most clever.’ Shortly thereafter we are informed that ‘it’s the talk up and down in Middlemarch how unsteady young Vincy is’ and how he is ‘forever gambling at billards’. Worst still, it is ‘openly said that [he] has raised money on his expectations’, by securing loans on the promise that he will inherit Stone Court.
However, Fred’s story assumes a more redemptive arc from the moment he sees Lydgate at the Green Dragon ‘looking excited and betting, just as he himself might have done’. Fred finds himself ‘almost embarrassed’ to witness his brother-in-law’s mediative, rational manner eclipsed by a desperate, ‘narrow consciousness which reminds one of an animal with fierce eyes and retractile claws’.
'It was a strange reversal of attitudes: Fred’s blond face and blue eyes, usually bright and careless, […] looking involuntarily grave and almost embarrassed [...] while Lydgate, who had habitually an air of self-possessed strength, […] was acting, watching, speaking with that excited narrow consciousness which reminds one of an animal with fierce eyes and retractile claws.'
George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 66.
The destructive practice of gambling is a recurrent motif in Middlemarch, from Rev. Farebrother who partakes to supplement his paltry income to the young men understood to be “addicted to pleasure” prayed upon by Mr Bambridge, a persistent ‘figure in the bar and billiard-room at the Green Dragon’.
Though Lydgate is initially sickened by the sight of ‘agitated features clutching a heap of coin’ and has a ‘contemptuous pity’ for ‘the half-idiotic triumph in the eyes of a man’ who jubilantly beggars his neighbours, his ‘repugnance’ soon dissipates when he faces financial difficulties himself. Just as he had ‘tried opium’ his thoughts turned ‘upon gambling — not with an appetite for its excitement, but with a sort of wistful inward gaze after that easy way of getting money, which implied no asking and brought no responsibility.'
What Lydgate had, with taught dispassion, earlier regarded as an immoral vice imbued with a ‘meanness’ that he viewed as beneath him, becomes, under financial pressure, a compulsive need that narrows his mind ‘into that precipitous crevice of play’.
'Lydgate was playing well, and felt confident; the bets were dropping round him, […] visions were gleaming on him of going the next day to Brassing, where there was gambling on a grander scale to be had, and where, by one powerful snatch at the devil’s bait, he might carry it off without the hook, and buy his rescue from his daily solicitings.'
George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 66.
Fred had simply snatched up this pretext for speaking, because he could not say, “You are losing confoundedly, and are making everybody stare at you; you had better come away.”
George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 66.
Provincial public houses, and the games that took place in them, instilled a sense of local camaraderie and helped to break the monotony of everyday life.
Gambling, like so many aspects of Victorian culture, was implicitly divided along class lines. Where upper-class gambling was often hidden in private-members clubs where the landed gentry partook in a compulsive form of conspicuous consumption, middle and working-class gamblers, desperate to improve their circumstances, frequented public houses like Middlemarch’s Green Dragon.
In the years before the Bank Holiday Act of 1871 working-class men and women had very little leisure hours to spare so drinking and gambling in the local public house served as the main form of entertainment.
Can you take a picture of modern Coventry that corresponds with a painting from the past? You can visit our Google Map to find an approximate location of the artist's vantage point and post your photo on Twitter under the hashtag #FindingMiddlemarch. Photographs posted may feature in later parts of the exhibition.
'The billiard-room at the Green Dragon was the constant resort of a certain set, most of whom... were regarded as men of pleasure. It was here that poor Fred Vincy had made part of his memorable debt, having lost money in betting... It was generally known in Middlemarch that a good deal of money was lost and won in this way'.
George Eliot, MIDDLEMARCH, Chapter 66.
Exhibit 31 - The Salon d'Or, Homburg by William Powell Frith, (1871), oil on canvas, Courtesy of the RISD Museum.
At the time Eliot was writing Middlemarch the gambling industry was flourishing.
William Powell Frith's panoramic painting The Salon d’Or, Homburg was exhibited to great acclaim at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1871. Frith had visited the popular casino near Frankfurt in 1869 where he made observational sketches to inform his composition. Each vignette tells its own story within the wider narrative of the painting, from the desolate woman turning away from the gaming table at the heart of the painting to the older couple behind her looking on in dismay at her very public misfortune.
Two years later, in 1872, Eliot visited the Salon d’Or with her partner George Henry Lewes, shortly before its closure the following year. It is probable that she would have been familiar with Frith’s work, having likely seen one of its many reproductions. Indeed, in a letter documenting her time in Homburg she describes witnessing a near identical scene; the sight of Lord Byron’s great-niece, at only twenty-six ‘completely in the grasp of this mean, money-making demon’ amid ‘the hags and brutally stupid men around her’ brought tears to her eyes.
Eliot continued to contemplate the rationale and psychology behind gambling in Daniel Deronda (1876), a novel which opens with the titular character observing a young woman avidly playing at the roulette table.
'There is very little dramatic Stoff [material] to be picked up by watching or listening. The saddest thing to be witnessed is the play of a young lady, who is only twenty-six years old, and is completely in the grasp of this mean, money-making demon. It made me cry to see her young fresh face among the hags and brutally stupid men around her.'
ELIOT TO JOHN BLACKWOOD, following a visit to Homburg, Oct. 1872
As we learn from old Featherstone, who counsels Fred against relying upon his ‘speckilating’ [sic] Uncle Bulstrode, in the 1830s the line that separated gambling from other forms of ‘lawful’ financial investment, like market speculation, was relatively indistinct. By the time Eliot was writing Middlemarch, in 1871, England had become a ‘nation of shareholders’ (George Robb White-Collar Crime 3). In calling attention to this worrying affinity, Eliot was therefore posing an uncomfortable ethical concern to a readership that likely would have been reluctant to recognise that which cast a shadow on their own activities.
Please cite this exhibition as follows: White, Rosalind. (2022) ‘Part Three: Money in Middlemarch’, Finding Middlemarch [Online Exhibition]. Royal Holloway, University of London. In collaboration with Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery, Nuneaton Library, Coventry Archives and the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum and funded by the Arts Humanities Research Council. Retrieved from Exploring Eliot [https://exploringeliot.org/discover-george-eliot/finding-middlemarch/-money-in-middlemarch/]