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Middlemarch | Study Guide

George Eliot

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Middlemarch | 10 Things You Didn't Know


At the height of her career, George Eliot was generally regarded as the greatest living English novelist. Her novel, Middlemarch, was her sixth—and is often considered her finest. First published as a serial from 1871–72, Middlemarch focuses on the lives of characters living in a fictional town of the same name.

It was instantly a favorite of Victorian readers, its serial format easily shareable and especially good for cliffhanger endings that kept the audience coming back for more. When the novel was finally published in its entirety, it sold thousands of copies—and its appeal has endured ever since. Contemporary writers Julian Barnes and Martin Amis have both called it the greatest novel ever written in the English language.

In 2015 a BBC survey of book critics from outside the United Kingdom deemed Middlemarch the greatest British novel of all time.

1. George Eliot had more than one name.

Also known as Mary Anne Evans, Marian Evans, Maria Evans Lewes, and Mrs. John W. Cross (among other names), Eliot chose a male pen name so her works would be taken seriously in an age when women writers were relegated to romance novels. On her tombstone in Highgate Cemetery, George Eliot's name appears in quotation marks along with the name "Mary Ann Cross," a reference to her husband John Walter Cross, whom she married after the death of long-time love Victorian writer and critic G.H. Lewes.

2. George Eliot created "pop" music.

Eliot was a wordsmith, creating or making popular words such as lampshade and lunch-time. She was even the first to use the word pop to describe music. In addition to its use as an adjective, Eliot used the word as a noun to describe "a piece of popular music." She wrote

But there is too much 'Pop' for the thorough enjoyment of chamber music they give.

3. George Eliot lamented her lack of progress on Middlemarch.

On September 11, 1869, she wrote, "I do not feel very confident that I can make anything satisfactory of Middlemarch." Six months later, she told her publisher, John Blackwood, "My novel, I suppose, will be finished some day."

4. Middlemarch and "Miss Brooke" (Book 1) began as two separate stories.

Very little of the original story about Middlemarch, which focused on Lydgate, had been completed in November 1869 when the son of George Eliot's partner died of a serious illness. Due to the tragedy, Eliot's work ground to a halt. It wasn't until more than a year later that Eliot began work on the story "Miss Brooke," which focused on Dorothea. She later combined the two stories to form the text of Middlemarch.

5. The town of Middlemarch is probably based on Coventry, England.

Critics have speculated that the town of Middlemarch was inspired by Coventry, the city in which George Eliot lived with her father throughout most of her 20s. Like the fictional Middlemarch, 1830s Coventry was a thriving industrial town known for its textile industry.

6. Middlemarch was originally published as a series.

At more than 700 pages, the length of Middlemarch was a cause for concern for both Eliot and her publisher. They agreed that the novel would be published in eight separate installments throughout 1871–72.

7. Middlemarch was a huge commercial success.

When Middlemarch was finally published as a single volume in 1874, it sold 10,000 copies in the first six months. In August 1874 Eliot declared that "the sale of Middlemarch is wonderful out of all whooping." By 1879, around 30,000 copies had been sold.

8. Initial reviews of Middlemarch were mixed.

Author Henry James called it "at once one of the strongest and one of the weakest of English novels," praising its attention to detail that ultimately thwarts the action of the text. Victorian writer and scholar Edith Simcox, however, declared that it has "scarcely a superior and very few equals in the whole wide range of English fiction."

9. Middlemarch was adapted as a TV miniseries in 1994.

At the cost of more than $1.5 million per episode, it was, at the time, the most expensive series the BBC ever produced. Fortunately, it paid off. A 1994 article in the New York Times describes how it "mesmerized millions of viewers" and set off a "mini-craze for Victorian fiction."

10. George Eliot's father inspired a character in Middlemarch.

Like Caleb Garth, Robert Evans was an estate manager. One 19th-century critic also speculated that Garth owes to Evans some of his "noblest qualities," one being his pride in a job well done. In Middlemarch Garth echoes Evans when he says to Fred:

You must love your work, and not always be looking over the edge of it, wanting your play to begin ... you must not be ashamed of your work, and think it would be more honourable to you to be doing something else.

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