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George Eliot was an English novelist writing in the mid-19th century. And before we go any further, we should let you know that Eliot was a woman. Don't let the name fool you – it was just a pen name, because she didn't think that female novelists were taken seriously as artists. Her real name was Marian (or Mary Ann – she spelled it both ways) Evans. So now you know, and can laugh up your sleeve at folks who say, "Oh, you're reading Middlemarch by George Eliot? I just loooove his novels."
If we had to sum up Middlemarch in just a few words, we might say that it's a novel about social and political reform. But it's also a novel about love and marriage. And about trying and failing. And about second chances. It is, in other words, a huge and wide-ranging novel. And we do mean huge: the edition we're using (the 1994 Penguin edition, edited by Rosemary Ashton) is 838 pages long. That's a lot of pages, but then, Eliot had a lot to say.
The length of the novel actually forced Eliot's agent (and long-time lover), George Henry Lewes, to invent a new way to publish it. For most of the 19th-century, novels were published in one of two ways – either broken into installments of one or two chapters to be printed in a magazine (like Charles Dickens's novels), or published in 3-volume hardbacks (called triple deckers). But Middlemarch was too big to fit into three volumes, and publishing it a chapter or two at a time would take forever. So Lewes arranged to have it printed in eight installments over the course of sixteen months to get people hooked on the story, and then to print it altogether in four volumes. This was a great move by Lewes – Middlemarch sold like crazy, and confirmed Eliot's reputation as the greatest living English novelist.
But why was Middlemarch so popular? Well, it was socially and politically relevant when it first came out: it was published in 1870-71, just four years after the 2nd Reform Bill was passed in Parliament. Reform was a big deal in 19th-century England. Who would get to vote, and who would take care of poor people, and healthcare, and minimum wages – everyone had some pet reform project they wanted to bring before Parliament. But Eliot didn't want to write a novel about something that had just taken place, so she set the novel forty years earlier, in 1830 – just before the First Reform Bill was passed. Eliot believed that it takes time to understand historical events – it's impossible to understand all the consequences of something right after it takes place. It's like how all the best Vietnam War movies were made at least 5-10 years after the end of the conflict. Forty years, Eliot reasoned, was the perfect amount of distance: it's long enough that people have gained some perspective on what happened back then, but it's recent enough that the events are still pretty familiar.
Setting the novel right before the First Reform Bill of 1832 made the novel both historical and immediate (since reform was still such a hot topic). That contrast of historical and immediate, and of the universal and the individual experience, is something that comes up again and again in Middlemarch. Eliot's ability to move between specific events and general trends makes her characters some of the most sympathetic in English literature. That's what made her so popular at the time and it's part of why people still love her novels today.
Middlemarch is a huge book. In fact, it's of the longest novels ever written in English. But the reason that it was – and is – so popular is that there's something in it for everyone. Yes, it's about marriage, but it's also about science, politics, reform, and second chances…
But most of all, it's a novel about feeling out of place – either as an outsider in a new place (like Will Ladislaw), or as someone who is behind the times (like Mr. Casaubon), or as someone who is ahead of his time (like Lydgate). Dorothea, the protagonist, feels out of place, too. She's more like a medieval saint, we're told in the prelude to the novel, than like a traditional Victorian heroine. Even Rosamond, the most superficial character in the novel, feels out of place. Of course, she feels like she doesn't belong in the town of Middlemarch because she's too good for it, but you get the picture.
Have you never moved to a new place? Felt awkward at a party where you didn't know anyone? Felt misunderstood? Yeah, we have, too. Feeling out of place is something that pretty much everyone has experienced. It's part of being human. And that's why Middlemarch is considered to be George Eliot's greatest novel – she gets at the core of common human experience.
New Middlemarch adaptation coming out in 2010
We don't know much about this one, since the casting information hasn't been posted as this guide was being written, but we do know that the screenplay is by Andrew Davies (who did the BBC Pride and Prejudice), and that it's slated to be directed by Sam Mendes (of American Beauty fame).
1994 BBC mini-series
This is probably the best adaptation of Middlemarch to date.
Sketching Mr. Casaubon as St. Thomas Aquinas
This is a clip from the 1994 miniseries.
Dinner conversation with Mr. Casaubon
Another clip from the 1994 mini-series
Breakfast at the Vincys' house
From the 1994 mini-series.
Sketch of Marian Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot
In the words of American modernist writer Henry James, "[Eliot] is magnificently ugly – deliciously hideous...in this vast ugliness resides a most powerful beauty which, in a very few minutes steals forth and charms the mind, so that you end as I ended, in falling in love with her."
Painting of Marian Evans, a.k.a. George Eliot
This is a slightly more flattering picture of her.
Portrait of George Henry Lewes, Eliot's long-term lover
This man had some crazy facial hair.
Portrait of a young woman by Rembrandt
Mary Garth is described as looking like a young woman in a Rembrandt painting: not pretty, but with a kind of timelessness to her.
"Darwin's Plots: Evolutionary Narrative In Darwin, George Eliot, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction"
This is an article by literary critic Gillian Beer about evolution in Middlemarch (and other Victorian novels).
"George Eliot, Positivism, and the Social Vision of 'Middlemarch'"
This is an article by critic James F. Scott.
"Philosophy in the Bedroom: Middlemarch and the Scandal of Sympathy"
A recent article by critic Hina Nazar.
"Middlemarch and the Woman Question"
An article by Kathleen Blake in Nineteenth-Century Fiction
"History by Indirection: The Era of Reform in Middlemarch"
An older article by Jerome Beaty – excellent source if you're interested in the political context of Middlemarch.
"Middlemarch and History"
An article by Michael York Mason
"Ladislaw and the Middlemarch Vision"
An article by Jane Marie Luecke
"Allusive Mischaracterization in Middlemarch"
An article by Claudia Moscovici
"Unity Through Analogy: An Interpretation of Middlemarch"
This is an older article by David R. Carroll
"Middlemarch: Touching Down"
An article by Calvin Bedient
The Victorian Web
www.victorianweb.org is a great online resource if you're studying 19th-century British literature. This is a link to their overview page on Eliot.
George Eliot Biography
This is a good, reliable source on Eliot's biography.
Eliot was so quotable that one of her super fans, Alexander Main, actually published a collection during her life, entitled "The Wit and Wisdom of George Eliot." You can check Main's collection out at a library; this is just a webpage with a lot of bon mots by Eliot collected by modern super fans.