Five days later, Bambridge, Hopkins, and Hawley are talking outside the Green Dragon. Bambridge mentions that while he was at the horse fair at Bilkley recently, he learned some gossip about how Bulstrode got his wealth from an old friend of Bulstrode’s called Raffles. Hopkins exclaims that he just conducted a funeral for Raffles the day before, and that Bulstrode was in attendance. Bambridge is shocked; Hopkins explains that Raffles died at Stone Court and that Lydgate attended to him. The crowd grows larger as more people come over to listen. Bambridge reveals the story he heard from Raffles, including the detail of Will’s involvement.
This scene is the perfect example of how gossip and misinformation originate. None of the men talking outside the Green Dragon is lying, and the facts they present certainly make up a coherent, convincing picture. However, this picture is not exactly true, and is likely to get further misinterpreted as the gossip spreads.
Bambridge’s story “spread through Middlemarch like the smell of fire.” Caleb is forced to admit that he heard the story too, and the gossip morphs to indicate that it was Caleb himself who first started spreading it. Distrust of Will, who is thought to have “cursed alien blood,” grows as a result of the story. Meanwhile, gossip also spreads about Lydgate suddenly being able to pay his debts thanks to a loan from Bulstrode. The excitement over this gossip is so intense that spreading it becomes akin to a job for some members of the community.
Of course, the Middlemarch residents have grounds to be seriously distrustful of Bulstrode, and to a certain extent Lydgate, after hearing the story. However, the fact that Will is also denounced shows how much rumor and gossip are fueled by preexisting prejudice rather than serious evidence.
The other Middlemarch doctors interview the servant who tended to Raffles in order to determine if Lydgate colluded in his death. The townspeople conclude that even if Bulstrode merely paid Lydgate to remain silent about the truth of his past, this still puts the already unpopular Lydgate in “an odious light.” People are aware of Bulstrode’s plan to leave Middlemarch, which they now see as him “running away” before the truth gets out. There is speculation over whether Bulstrode can be forced by law to give up his wealth to Ladislaw. Raffles, meanwhile, is painted as a wonderful man and tragic victim.
Again, this passage shows how the truth is mixed in with prejudice, fabrication, and hysteria in a way that is unethical and dangerous. The community seems to have some interest in restoring justice (as shown by their inquiry over whether Bulstrode can be forced to give Will the money he is owed), but their interest is largely in reveling in the scandal.
Bulstrode, still thinking himself safe, has abandoned his plan to leave Middlemarch permanently and instead decides to go to Cheltenham for six weeks as a vacation. There is a town meeting about cholera and sanitation; Bulstrode and Lydgate go together, and when they enter the hall Lydgate feels “a peculiar interchange of glances” being directed at them. When Bulstrode goes to give his opinion about the sanitation issue, Hawley stands up and asks for permission to speak on a matter of “public feeling.” He says that he and others present want Bulstrode to resign from all his public positions due to the “shameful” way he gained his fortune.
Here we witness the frightening side of mob mentality in Middlemarch. However much Bulstrode deserves to be condemned, the way that the town conspires around him and Lydgate entirely based on hearsay is disturbing. Again, if their interest were in justice, then an official inquiry and hearing would be necessary. However, instead they choose to immediately expel Bulstrode from the community.
Overwhelmed by a feeling of absolute horror, Bulstrode is silent, but only for a moment. He then declares that those who accuse him are hypocrites who believe lies because they hate him. Some people hiss and Hawley immediately fires back that Bulstrode must explain himself if he is to maintain his innocence. The meeting’s chairman, Mr. Thesiger, tells Bulstrode that he will receive a proper hearing but that his current behavior is unacceptable. He then asks Bulstrode to leave the meeting. Bulstrode goes to leave; seeing that he can barely walk, Lydgate helps him out.
Throughout the novel, characters faced with a difficult situation rarely choose to react in the most dignified, honorable way they can. Rather, their pride makes them become defensive, righteous, and accusatory—even when they are very clearly in the wrong (and, as in this case, outnumbered by a remarkable degree). This is one of the profound human weaknesses explored in the narrative.
Lydgate himself now believes that Raffles’s death is suspicious and that the £1000 Bulstrode gave him was a bribe. After the meeting, Mr. Brooke and Farebrother go to see Dorothea and tell her the shocking news about Lydgate and the New Hospital. Dorothea says she cannot believe that Lydgate is guilty, and that they must prove his innocence.
Among the people of Middlemarch, Dorothea stands out as someone who is inclined to believe in someone’s innocence rather than their guilt. In Lydgate’s case, this is perhaps because of their shared passion for social reform.