by Gwydion M. Williams
A study of a significant character from Middlemarch by Marianne Evans (George Elliot)
The 18th century gentry had an agreed religion that very few of them took seriously. The quiet contempt of the educated for official beliefs is nicely encapsulated in Horace Walpole’s tale about a gentleman on his way to be executed for murder, who declined to discuss his religious views on the grounds that he had no wish to follow the bad example of Lord Bolinbroke.
Bolingbroke was best known for having tried to bring back the Catholic Stewarts in place of George I and the Hanoverians, but he himself was no Catholic, nor anything within the range of popular faith. He is commonly described as a Deist, but Deism normally means a belief in God but not Jesus. Bolingbroke took a different view, accepting the authority of Jesus but wishing to redefine it in a way that would have shocked most believers.
Sir Robert Walpole was much less serious about religion than his rival Bolingbroke, who cared enough to risk unpopularity for his own notion of truth. Walpole could rest on the comfortable separation that earlier generations had made between religious creeds and the actual business of commerce, law and government. Samuel Butler later encapsulated it in Erewhon, where his imaginary land has two distinct systems of banking and money. The ‘Musical Banks’ are treated with great politeness, like religion in Britain, yet it is universally known and accepted that real power and value lie elsewhere.
Like Mr Bulstrode in Middlemarch, a representation of Wilson’s own middle-class stratum, those characters were not generous enough to live virtuously, but also not cynical enough to avoid being exposed as hollow shams. The most recent dramatisation of Middlemarch leaves out essential elements of the plot: only by reading the book will you be able to make sense of Mr Bulstrode’s odd inability to lie after he had been able to commit an indirect murder.
Despite feminism, Middlemarch and the other novels Marianne Evans still appear under her pen-name ‘George Eliot’. Illustrating, I suppose, just how much supposed ‘high culture’ is merely the repetition of well-known ideas in some minor variant, and how rare real though actually is.
Marianne Evans was a thinker, in a way that Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters were not. She was part of the 19th century examination of Christianity that broke conventional Christianity as a serious intellectual movement
The Brays and the Hennells quickly drew her from extreme provincialism, introducing her to many ideas in violent disagreement with her Tory father’s religious and political views. When Charles Hennell married in 1843, she took over from his wife the translating of D.F. Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu kritisch bearbeitet, which was published anonymously as The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, 3 vol. (1846), and had a profound influence on English rationalism. (Britannica 2001)
She was also a pioneer of the wider freedoms that women in Britain only definitely established for themselves in the 1960s:
Convinced that his break with Agnes was irrevocable, Evans determined to live openly with Lewes as his wife. In July 1854, after the publication of her translation of Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, they went to Germany together. In all but the legal form it was a marriage, and it continued happily until Lewes’ death in 1878. “Women who are content with light and easily broken ties,” she told Mrs. Bray, “do not act as I have done. They obtain what they desire and are still invited to dinner.” (Ibid.)
Britain kept up an irrational opposition to divorce right to the bitter end, loyal to its Latin-Christian roots and without taking notice of alternatives such as Orthodox Christianity, which permits divorce and remarriage without notable damage to its morals. Nothing could ease the misery of unfortunate and relatively conventional couples short of the complete collapse of the old moral order, which is what in fact occurred.
Puritanism had purified the Latin-Christian tradition of most of its original Christian heritage, removing images and other things that had been part of the religion for almost as long as it had existed. Yet Puritans also hung on oddities like the prohibition on divorce. And they put much of their energies into foolish innovations such as campaigning against alcohol–even though Jesus and the apostles are recorded in the Bible as regular and moderate drinkers.
The immoderate and self-destructive drinking found within those societies influenced by Puritanism should have been a clue that the doctrine had wandered far away from its roots and was a major obstacle to living an approximately Christian life. Instead the problem was blamed on the availability of alcohol, with no blame placed on the excessive stress and callousness of the society that Puritan-influenced Britain and America had built.
Puritanism in a coherent form is almost extinct in mainland Britain. And we are a vastly better off for being rid of it. Most active Christianity is either Anglican or Roman Catholic, Catholicism gaining strength as Anglicanism gives in to modern values, but both are functional religions. Puritan by contrast is a dysfunctional creed, as is shown by the intense polarisation between hysterical religion and swinish hedonism that you get in the USA, which has yet to produce anything like a functional religion. (It’s also pretty dysfunctional in Northern Ireland, where the Puritan wing of the Protestant community has generally been the chief opposition to compromises that might have preserved most of what they valued.)
In Middlemarch, Christian extremism is represented by Mr Bulstrode the banker. None of the dramatisations I’ve seen are able to make any sense of him: he appears to act without coherence or reason. Yet read the book—remember it was written by a woman who had decided that Christianity was basically untrue, but who also was a sensitive and intelligent observer of human nature—and the underlying reason is there.
Mr Bulstrode is being blackmailed by Raffles, who knows unpleasant secrets from his past. His wife is innocent of this and unaware of any taint on Mr Bulstrode’s wealth, the source of which he had almost managed to forget about:
The unreformed provincial mind distrusted London; and while true religion was everywhere saving. honest Mrs Bulstrode was convinced that to be saved in the Church was more respectable. She so much wished to ignore towards others that her husband had ever been a London Dissenter, that she liked to keep it out of sight even in talking to him. He was quite aware of this; indeed in some respects he was rather afraid of this ingenuous wife, whose imitative piety and native worldliness were equally sincere, who had nothing to be ashamed of, and whom he had married out of a thorough inclination still subsisting. But his fears were such as belong to a man who cares to maintain his recognized supremacy: the loss of high consideration from his wife as from everyone else who did not clearly hate him out of enmity to the truth, would be as the beginning of death to him…
In the interview at the Bank, Raffles had made it evident that his eagerness to torment was almost as strong in him as any other greed… Bulstrode felt himself helpless. Neither threats nor coaxing could avail: he could not count on any persistent fear nor on any promise. On the contrary. he felt a cold certainty at his heart that Raffles–unless providence sent death to hinder him–would come back to Middlemarch before long. And that certainty was a terror.
It was not that he was in danger of legal punishment or of beggary: he was in danger only of seeing disclosed to the judgment of his neighbours and the mournful perception of his wife certain facts of his past life which would render him an object of scorn and an opprobrium of the religion with which he had diligently associated himself. The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases.
Once more he saw himself the young banker’s clerk, with an agreeable person, as clever in figures as he was fluent in speech and fond of theological definition: an eminent though young member of a Calvinistic dissenting church at Highbury, having had striking experience in conviction of sin and sense of pardon. Again he heard himself called for as Brother Bulstrode in prayer meetings, speaking on religious platforms, preaching in private houses. Again he felt himself thinking of the ministry as possibly his vocation, and inclined towards missionary labour. That was the happiest time of his life: that was the spot he would have chosen now to awake in and find the rest a dream. The people among whom Brother Bulstrode was distinguished were very few, but they were very near to him, and stirred his satisfaction the more; his power stretched through a narrow space. but he felt its effect the more intensely. He believed without effort in the peculiar work of grace within him and in the signs that God intended him for special instrumentality.
Then came the moment of transition. Was it with the sense of promotion he had when he, an orphan educated at a commercial charity-school, was invited to a fine villa belonging to Mr Dunkirk. the richest man in the congregation. Soon he became an intimate there, honoured for his piety by the wife, marked out for his ability by the husband, whose wealth was due to a flourishing city and west-end trade. That was the setting-in of a new current for his ambition, directing his prospects of ‘instrumentality’ towards the uniting of distinguished religious gifts
By-and-by came a decided external leading: a confidential subordinate partner died, and nobody seemed to the principal so well fitted to fill the severely-felt vacancy as his young friend Bulstrode, if he would become confidential accountant. The offer was accepted. The business was a pawnbroker’s, of the most magnificent sort both in extent and profits; and on a short acquaintance with it Bulstrode became aware that one source of magnificent profit was the easy reception of any goods offered without strict inquiry as to where they came from. But there was a branch house at the west end, and. no pettiness or dinginess to give suggestions of shame. (Middlemarch, by George Eliot. Penguin Books 1994, pages 661-664)
That’s to say, the business Bulstrode was joining would accept stolen goods, in addition to the regular pawnshop business of lending small sums on the security of personal possessions that the owner would later redeem. The thief would get ready cash for them and of course never come back for them, so that they could be duly sold. It was the early-Industrial equivalent of the modern ‘money laundering’–and then as now, it was not always as separate as it should have been from respectable business. Some business people do take honest and occasionally heroic stands against dubious business and profitable ‘grey areas’. Others do not, Bulstrode is typical of many actual Puritans in business in the he allows himself to be drawn in while still somehow seeing himself as doing God’s Work:
He remembered his first moments of shrinking. They were private, and were filled with arguments; some of these taking the form of prayer. The business was established and had old roots; is it not one thing to set up a new gin-palace and another accept an investment in an old one?
The profits made out of lost souls–where can the line be drawn at which they begin in human transactions? Was it not even God’s way of saving His chosen? ‘Thou knowest,’–the young Bulstrode had said then, as the older Bulstrode was saying now–’Thou knowest how loose my soul sits from these things -how I view them all as implements for tilling Thy garden rescued here and there from the wilderness.’
Metaphors and precedents were not wanting; peculiar spiritual experiences were not wanting which at last made the retention of his position seem a service demanded of him: the vista of a fortune had already opened itself, and Bulstrode’s shrinking remained private. Mr Dunkirk had never expected that there would be any shrinking at all: he had never conceived that trade had anything to do with the scheme of salvation. And it was true that Bulstrode found himself carrying on two distinct lives; his religious activity could not be incompatible with his business as soon as he had argued himself into not feeling it incompatible. (Ibid.)
Bulstrode reckoning it ‘one thing to set up a new gin-palace and another accept an investment in an old one’ is a typical piece of evasion as used within the Latin-Christian tradition, by Puritans and Anglicans as well as Catholics. Sometimes called Jesuitry, but it’s much older and more widespread than the Jesuit Order and used freely by the Jesuit’s bitterest foes. And much the same trick was recently used by President Bush, to try to reconcile theological objections to the use of embryonic stem cells with the undoubted medical benefits that such human tissues could bring. Not that I’d suppose that Bush suffered any pangs of conscience: more likely it was just a clever balance between the wishes of two rival sets of voters.
Experience shows that morality follows the law of ‘use it or lose it’. If you start quibbling and evading around an inconvenient moral principle, then that particular moral rule is on its way out. On the particular issue of stem cells, I welcome the vagueness because I do not see how human tissue could possibly be regarded as a human being until it grows at least a rudimentary brain. But where a line needs to be held, evasion and equivocation is more dangerous than outright opposition.
To return to Middlemarch, ‘Brother Bulstrode’ is gradually corrupted into running a business in defiance of his religious principles, while still being fiercely religious whenever it’s just at someone else’s expense. A common pattern, and not confined to Christians–I’ve mentioned before how Adam Smith kept his economics in one book (Wealth of Nations) and his morals in another, Theory Of Moral Sentiments. That this led to a very wealthy nation with confused incoherent morals is hardly surprising, and something our modern ‘conservatives’ have never dared address. Far nicer and more popular to gloss it over with fine-sounding phrases.
Bulstrode actually would have got away with such behaviour, common enough in 19th century Britain. The hold Raffles has on him comes from another matter. His patron Mr Dunkirk dies and Bulstrode hopes to marry his widow–this is the first Mrs Bulstrode, and not the one we encounter in the book. The first Mrs Bulstrode has a lost daughter whom she wishes to be reconciled with, perhaps make her heir, if she can be found.
Years before, the only daughter had run away, defied her parents… If she were found, there would be a channel for property–perhaps a wide one, in the provision for several grandchildren… the mother believed that her daughter was not to be found, and consented to marry [Bulstrode] without reservation of property.
The daughter had been found; but only one man besides Bulstrode knew it, and he [Raffles] was paid for keeping silence and carrying himself away.
That was the bare fact which Bulstrode was now forced to see in the rigid outline with which acts present themselves to onlookers. But for himself at that distant time, and even now in burning memory, the fact was broken into little sequences, each justified as it came by reasonings which seemed to prove it righteous… It was easy for him to settle what was due from him to others by inquiring what were God’s intentions with regard to himself. Could it be for God’s service that this fortune should in any considerable proportion go to a young woman and her husband who were given up to the lightest pursuits, and might scatter it abroad in triviality–people who seemed to lie outside the path, of remarkable providences? Bulstrode had never said to himself, beforehand, ‘The daughter shall not be found’–nevertheless: when the moment came he kept her existence hidden; and when other moments followed, he soothed the mother with consolation in the probability that the unhappy young woman might be no more.
There were hours in which Bulstrode felt that his action was unrighteous; but how could he go back? He had mental exercises, called himself nought laid hold on redemption, and went on in his course of instrumentality. And after five years Death again came to widen his path, by taking away his wife. He did gradually withdraw his capital, but he did not make the sacrifices requisite to put an end to the business, which was carried on for thirteen years afterwards before it finally collapsed. Meanwhile Nicholas Bulstrode had used his hundred thousand discreetly, and was becoming provincially, solidly important–a banker, a Churchman, a public benefactor; also a sleeping partner in trading concerns, in which his ability was directed to economy in the raw material, as in the case of the dyes which rotted Mr Vincy’s silk.
There may be coarse hypocrites, who consciously affect beliefs’ and emotions for the sake of gulling the world, but Bulstrode was not one of them. He was simply a man whose desires had been stronger than his theoretic beliefs, and who had gradually explained the gratification of his desires into satisfactory agreement with those beliefs. If this be hypocrisy, it is a process which shows itself occasionally in us all, to whatever confession we belong, and whether we believe in the future perfection of our race or in the nearest date fixed for the end of the world; whether we regard the earth as a putrefying nidus for a saved remnant, including ourselves, or have a passionate belief in the solidarity of mankind.
The service he could do to the cause of religion had been through life the ground he alleged to himself for his choice of action: it had been the motive which he had poured out in his prayers. Who would use money and position better than he meant to use them? Who could surpass him in self-abhorrence and exaltation of God’s cause? And to Mr Bulstrode God’s cause was something distinct from his own rectitude of conduct: it enforced a discrimination of God’s enemies, who were to be used merely as instruments, and whom it would be well if possible to keep out of money and consequent influence. (Ibid., page 665-667.)
Note that Bulstrode’s original errors are guided by greed, not necessity or immediate pressure. He could have had a satisfactory if unspectacular career had he withdrawn from Mr Dunkirk’s business when he saw it was not honest. He could perfectly well have told the truth about the missing daughter, it would just have reduced his prospects of inherited wealth. And yet his apparent religious fervour does not in fact hold against the lure of wealth. He is ready to be unyielding when it comes to other people’s welfare and basic needs, as with the proposed hospital. But when it comes to his own interests it is quite different. And such ‘Bulstrodism’ played a large part in actual British industrialisation and the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the wider society.
Someone should write Bulstrode’s Progress as a novel, taking the details from Middlemarch but filling them out and telling the tale from his point of view. It’s not something I’m ever likely to write, but I’d be glad to advise anyone who wanted to try.
Bulstrodism draws on the peculiar Puritan doctrine of wealth as a sign of God’s Blessing. A doctrine utterly opposed to the recorded words of Jesus, and alien to all existing Christian practice. But when Catholicism was rejected, some Puritan sects also manage to lose the inconvenient insistence upon Holy Poverty, and thus gain a convenient acceptability to a rising commercial class. (Not really ‘capitalist’, at least capitalism in the strict sense was only one trade and was also well developed within Catholicism.)
Puritans modified the authentically Christian idea of scorning wealth. Instead they helped rich people to reject the normal pattern of conspicuous consumption, lordly style and generous distribution that had traditionally kept the newly wealthy within the existing boundaries of the society. Money was set free, free to destroy Protestantism in the long run, over the lifetime of civilisations, but enhance its worldly power over a couple of centuries.
Bulstrode has successfully made the transition and is part of an economic framework that is busily ripping itself apart by such things as railway development–fatal to local identity and part of a destabilisation that is still going on. Marianne Evans might not have seen it so, her summary is that ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts’, with Dorothea as a prime example. Not indeed that it’s any crude ‘Improving Tale’. The book has Bulstrode suffer some retribution, but an innocent bystander suffers more.
What happens is that Raffles is taken ill, the heroic Doctor Lydgate gives him medication and warns strongly against allowing him any alcoholic drink. Bulstrode, knowing this, allows his servant to answer Raffles’ demand for alcohol, which kills him. But Raffles has already passed on the story. Bulstrode is challenged to ‘publicly deny and confute the scandalous statements made against him by a man now dead, and who died in his house … that he won his fortune by dishonest procedures’. He cannot bring himself to lie and instead engages in blather about the unchristian nature of his accusers.
Doctor Lydgate, who did nothing wrong, is tainted by association and by a loan from Bulstrode that is wrongly seen as a bribe. He has to leave Middlemarch and goes on to what would conventionally be seen as successful career: ‘his skill was relied on by many paying patients, but he always regarded himself as a failure: he had not done what he once meant to do’–which was to discover more about the causes of infectious diseases. Early 19th century knowledge was indeed inadequate, cholera was only discovered to come from contaminated water in the 1850s and it took a long battle to secure supplies of pure water just in Britain, much of the world still does not have it.
Had Bulstrode been one of the ‘coarse hypocrites’, a man who could mislead and ‘be economical with the truth’, he would have saved his reputation. Such a fellow would have been right at home with the present generation of Tories, who retained their faith in Jeffrey Archer almost up until his actual conviction. Or with New Labour, for that matter.