Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 22 (1991)
In Book 6 (chapter 56) of Middlemarch, George Eliot presents a scene in which the citizens of the hamlet of Frick set upon a group of railway surveyors, "the enemies of mankind”, with hayforks. The surveyors escape with their lives only through the intervention of Caleb Garth and Fred Vincy. This incident allows Eliot to discuss the attitudes of the working classes towards the technological developments of the Industrial Revolution and to contrast these attitudes with those of the middle class. While middle class women "regarded travelling by steam as presumptuous and dangerous", the local landowners, who had the vote as a result of the Reform Bill of 1832, felt that the railways should pay them a very high price for their land and their "permission to ruin mankind". Eliot notes that landowners opposed the railways for a variety of reasons: pastures were being cut in two, the noise of the steam engines would cause cows to cast their calves and mares their foals, property rights were being violated, ruffians were being brought into the neighborhood who would not have come but for the railway, and the railway would eliminate the need for the better breeds of horses. These and similar objections of the rural middle class to the building of railways in Britain were addressed in a variety of publications and editorials such as George Godwin's 1837 "An Appeal to the Public on the Subject of Railways". Yet, it is the argument of the disenfranchised lower classes that technology, represented by the railway, would "on'y leave the poor mon furder behind" which is the most telling.