By Fay Martin
Housing is unaffordable, we read and hear everywhere, and that is jeopardizing our economy and discouraging the younger generation. Ah, hasn’t it always been thus?
In Middlemarch, George Eliot’s novel published 151 years ago, Dorthea, the nerdy ward of her Uncle Brook of Tipton, said, “I think we deserve to be beaten out of our beautiful houses with a scourge of small cords – all of us who let tenants live in such sties as we see around us. Life in cottages might be happier than ours, if they were real houses fit for human beings from whom we expect duties and affection.” Dorthea is not able to convince her uncle to undertake reforms: “fancy-farming”, he calls it, “the most expensive sort of whistle you can buy.”
That would set a dangerous precedent among the gentry – men of privilege must hold the line against the rising tide of despair and disrespect for the established way, even if it means that some people have nice houses, some people have nasty houses, and some people have none.
When Dorthea becomes a widow with significant means, she engages a gifted farm manager to develop a planned community on her property, one that combines proper housing, a productive pottery industry, educational opportunities and other necessary amenities.
Alas, even she does not have enough money to do it properly. She walks away from her fortune for the love of a good man, Ladislaw.
He walks away from a job propping up Dorthea’s uncle who is ambivalently seeking election on a platform to hopefully extinguish the rising threat of revolution: the memory of tumbrils in French streets is but a century old. Ladislaw becomes a politician of the new variety, a man of the people, for the people.
Middlemarch does not extend to describing his success in addressing inequity in any of its manifestations. But since similar inequity is distressingly evident in our present world, I think we have to conclude that his success was limited, or at least impermanent.
What we might also conclude from Middlemarch is that, unfortunately, there is no magic bullet for solving social ills, no electing the right person or the right party, no blinding bolt of economic good luck.
What makes a difference, Dorthea holds, is the cumulative and continuing work of concerned citizens to make the world a better place, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who live faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
I love George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) but I think she’s half wrong: the well-being of the world is wholly owing to those who live faithfully a hidden life.
It is the daily acts of being the best human being we wish others were that will deliver the life we want, individually and collectively.
Assigning our well-being to others won’t work – never has, won’t now. We must each do our part, whatever that may be, every day, for as long as we grace this earth.
As Dorthea found out, trying to make big change can be overwhelming. But it needn’t be, as it wasn’t for her, discouraging.
A whole bunch of Littles, strategically combined, constitute a Big. Even if our individual contributions aren’t acknowledged, aren’t etched on our tombstones, they still add up to a better world.
And, we who take action on everyday challenges have the peace, happiness and serenity of knowing we are living a full and vibrant and significant life.
You can read Middlemarch, which in my Penguin paperback edition is, yes, 900 pages of luscious Victorian prose. (Virginia Woolf famously described Middlemarch as ‘one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.’) Or you can read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, published 2014, which examines her modern life through the lens of Dorthea’s world. Or you can treat yourself to an excellent 1994 BBC adaptation, screenplay by Andrew Davies, that runs 6 episodes on Britbox, Amazon Prime, or Netflix (not Canada). Drink deep; think hard.