Fred remains troubled by his debt. His creditor is Mr. Bambridge, a horse-dealer who often lends money to hedonistic young men. Fred owes him £160, and three months ago he renewed the debt with the signature of Caleb Garth. Fred has thus far felt completely confident that he will be able to pay back the debt, having always been able to rely on his father’s money. Having grown up rather spoiled, he doesn’t know much about the value of money or how rich Mr. Vincy actually is.
This passage shows that growing up wealthy tends to make people behave irresponsibly with money. This is true both because they don’t have a sense of the real value of money and because they are overconfident that there will always be enough money to rely on if things go wrong, leading them to pursue reckless behavior.
The Garths have always felt great affection for Fred and Rosamond. Before marrying Mrs. Vincy’s sister, Mr. Featherstone had been married to Caleb Garth’s sister, thereby creating a connection between the Garths and Vincys. Fred has always adored Mary and treated the Garths’ house as his “second home.” The Garths used to be much wealthier than they are now. The Garths are known for living “in a small way.” Caleb was more than happy to renew Fred’s debt for him, although Mrs. Garth never found out.
The importance of rank and money in Middlemarch does not preclude friendships from existing across these differences. However, a sense of imbalance can remain prominent. Even worse, this can mean that wealthier people (like Fred) take advantage of those who have less (like Caleb Garth).
While all this is going on, Fred fails his exam, which makes it even worse that he racked up such serious debts in college. Yet his family members are somewhat lenient because they think he will be the main recipient of Featherstone’s estate. The narrator observes that rich young men are often treated with more forgiveness for misuse of money than poor people who steal because they are starving. Fred is not a compulsive gambler, but his optimistic spirit, enjoyment of games, and desire for money lead him to betting.
This is an important passage, which identifies serious moral failings of the society depicted in the novel. Fred and other wealthy young men like him are forgiven not because their privilege makes what they’ve done any more acceptable (in fact, the opposite is true) but because people expect them to become even more wealthy and powerful later. It is thus a kind of unjust, strategic forgiveness.
Years ago Featherstone gave Fred a horse, and in his desperation to pay his debt Fred tries to sell the horse, even though it is a treasured and useful possession. He rides to the Houndsley horse fair accompanied by Bambridge and Horrock, the Middlemarch vet. Fred’s fondness for these two men is puzzling, considering he is generally a rather refined, snooty person who looks down on those who aren’t university-educated. Horrock is known as a drunk who beats his wife. He indulges in every kind of pleasure, which makes him “a gay companion.”
Fred is snooty, but he is also hedonistic, and this leads him to associate with men of lower rank because they indulge in the kind of reckless, sensual pleasure that men of his status are not expected to engage in. By this time it is clear that Fred is a thoroughly irresponsible, practically delinquent young man.
The night before the fair begins, a farmer who knows Bambridge explains that he is selling a hunting horse named Diamond. Fred decides to persuade the farmer to swap horses with him, with Fred throwing in an extra £25. He knows he will be able to sell Diamond, who is much superior to his own horse, for at least £80. He ends up completing the swap and giving the farmer only an extra £30. He immediately heads home.
Fred believes he is pulling off a clever plan, which will allow him to escape the burden of his debt. However, one of the lessons of the novel is that trying to scheme or cheat one’s way out of difficulties (and especially financial difficulties) will never work out well in the end.