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  • Reforming Spaces:The Architectural Imaginary of Middlemarch
  • Heather Miner (bio)

Midway through George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothea Brookes makes a decision: she will move to Yorkshire and build a “school for industry” (472). Dorothea’s unexpected and often overlooked plan is an important expression of her sustained interest in model working-class environments, but it is also a fundamental demonstration of how Eliot engages with industrial relations in the novel: through architecture rather than through electoral politics. Critics have frequently faulted Middlemarch for the slight attention Eliot gives to “railways, cholera, [and] machine-breaking” (Eagleton 120); in this essay, my goal is to enlarge our understanding of the novel’s representation of reform by exploring culturally and historically important manifestations of architectural reform in the novel.1 Dorothea’s paternalistic architectural interests run the gamut of utopian and pragmatic attempts to reform spaces for the working class in nineteenth-century Britain. Initially, Dorothea plans to (re)construct cottages on her uncle’s estate, then thinks to establish the industrial village in Yorkshire, and finally endows the fever hospital in Middlemarch. These sites are lenses through which Eliot sees how distinctive spaces grow, develop, and die away as important cultural locations, from the time of the story’s setting, 1829 to 1832, to the time of its publication, 1871 to 1872. In shifting focus to a critically overlooked facet of reform in Middlemarch, I chart the novel’s engagement with sites central to the evolving Victorian middle-class perspective on the reform of built environments from the 1830s to the 1870s, which I am calling the novel’s “architectural imaginary.” The proleptic architectonics of Middlemarch, I argue, reflects Eliot’s critique of the political conservatism and idealistic concepts of working-class labour and domesticity embedded within Victorian spatial design.

This essay, then, centres on Dorothea’s ostensibly dilettante interest in architecture to show how the novel functions as a historical chronicle of spatial reform during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Eliot’s representation of Dorothea’s progressive architectural imaginary presents a complex chronology that suggests that the anachronistic discourse of architectural reform be read within the novel’s own terms and within the historical contexts that bridge the years between its setting and its composition. My analysis of the phases of Dorothea’s architectural imaginary begins with the rural working-class cottage, a space particularly pertinent to architectural [End Page 193] reformers in the 1830s. Dorothea’s interest in cottage reform is immersed in an unresolved tension between the picturesque cottage, with its nostalgic evocation of a pastoral, peaceful countryside, and the reality of life for agricultural and industrial labourers in these decaying spaces. The abandonment of the cottage and, subsequently, the industrial village, as sites of reform and the turn to the sanitary site of the hospital in the novel mirror the reality of spatial reform in the decades preceding the novel’s composition, as architectural reformers shifted their focus to the modern space of the institution rather than the aesthetic or picturesque sites. In moving toward the hospital by way of the industrial village in Yorkshire, the novel shifts out of utopian, pastoral, and theoretical modes to engage in a more practical way with the realities of national life and questions of spatial reform current in the 1870s. The architectural imaginary projected in the representation of these sites is both Dorothea’s and a historical cultural imaginary specific to the middle class.2 By allowing the heroine of her meticulously historicized novel to anticipate future reformist developments, Eliot rejects the notion that the reform of the built environment alone can solve large-scale social problems. Placing Middlemarch in the context of architectural texts and controversies, this essay traces the unique place of the novel in revealing broad shifts in Victorian spatial reform. Middlemarch’s architectural imaginary exposes the limits of spatial reform to effect structural political change.

In exposing these limits and examining social ideology through specific types of built environments, I want finally to suggest that Eliot anticipates Michel Foucault’s conception of heterotopian spaces, sites that are, to him, the fundamental symbols of modernity.3 Heterotopias are unique sites that demonstrate a society’s transcendent...


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pp. 193-209
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