|Author||George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)|
|Working title||Miss Brooke|
|Set in||English Midlands and briefly Rome, September 1829 – May 1832|
|Publisher||William Blackwood and Sons|
|Preceded by||Felix Holt, the Radical (1866)|
|Followed by||Daniel Deronda (1874–6)|
Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life is a novel by the English author George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), first published in eight installments (volumes) during 1871–72. The novel is set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch during 1829–32, and it comprises several distinct (though intersecting) stories and a large cast of characters. Significant themes include the status of women, the nature of marriage, idealism, self-interest, religion, hypocrisy, political reform, and education.
Although containing comical elements, Middlemarch is a work of realism that refers to many historical events: the 1832 Reform Act, the beginnings of the railways, the death of King George IV, and the succession of his brother, the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV). In addition, the work incorporates contemporary medical science and examines the deeply reactionary mindset found within a settled community facing the prospect of unwelcome change.
Eliot began writing the two pieces that would eventually form Middlemarch during the years 1869–70 and completed the novel in 1871.
Although the first reviews were mixed, it is now widely regarded as her best work and one of the greatest novels written in English.
Middlemarch is centred on the lives of the residents of Middlemarch, a fictitious Midlands town, from 1829 onwards—the years preceding the 1832 Reform Act. The narrative is variably considered to consist of three or four plots of unequal emphasis: the life of Dorothea Brooke; the career of Tertius Lydgate; the courtship of Mary Garth by Fred Vincy; and the disgrace of Nicholas Bulstrode. The two main plots are those of Dorothea and Lydgate. Each plot happens concurrently, although Bulstrode’s is centred in the later chapters.
Dorothea Brooke is a 19-year-old orphan, living with her younger sister, Celia, under the guardianship of her uncle, Mr Brooke. Dorothea is an especially pious young woman, whose hobby involves the renovation of buildings belonging to the tenant farmers, though her uncle discourages her. Dorothea is courted by Sir James Chettam, a young man close to her own age, but she remains oblivious to him. She is instead attracted to The Reverend Edward Casaubon, who is 45, and Dorothea accepts his offer of marriage, despite her sister’s misgivings. Chettam is meanwhile encouraged to turn his attention to Celia, who has developed an interest in him.
Fred and Rosamond Vincy are the eldest children of Middlemarch’s town mayor. Having never finished university, Fred is widely considered a failure and a layabout, but he allows himself to coast because he is the presumed heir of his childless uncle Mr. Featherstone, an unpleasant, though rich, man. Featherstone keeps a niece of his through marriage, Mary Garth, as a companion, and, though she is considered plain, Fred is in love with her and wants to marry her.
On their honeymoon in Rome, Dorothea and Casaubon experience the first tensions in their marriage when Dorothea finds that her husband has no interest in involving her with his intellectual pursuits, which was her chief reason for marrying him. She meets Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s much younger cousin whom he supports financially. Ladislaw begins to feel attracted to Dorothea, though she remains oblivious, and the two become friendly.
Fred develops a deep debt and finds himself unable to repay the money. Having asked Mr. Garth, Mary’s father, to co-sign the debt, he now tells Garth he must forfeit it. As a result, Mrs. Garth’s savings, which represent 4 years worth of income she held in reserve for the education of her youngest son, and Mary’s savings are completely wiped out. Consequently, Mr. Garth warns Mary against ever marrying Fred.
Fred comes down with an illness and is cured by Dr. Tertius Lydgate, the newest doctor in Middlemarch. Lydgate has new ideas about medicine and sanitation, and believes that doctors should prescribe but not themselves dispense medicines, drawing the ire and criticism of many in the town. Rosamond Vincy, who is well-educated and seeks to make a good match, decides to marry Lydgate and uses Fred’s sickness as an opportunity to get close to the doctor. Though he initially views their relationship as pure flirtation, Lydgate backs away from Rosamond after discovering that the town considers them practically engaged. However, after seeing her a final time, he breaks his resolution to abandon his relationship with Rosamond and the two become engaged.
At roughly the same time, Casaubon, returned from Rome, suffers a heart attack. Lydgate is brought in to attend to him and informs Dorothea that the nature of Casaubon’s illness and recovery is difficult to pronounce upon, that he may indeed live around fifteen years if he takes it easy and ceases his studies, although it is equally possible the disease may develop rapidly, in which case death would be sudden. Meanwhile, as Fred recovers, Mr. Featherstone becomes ill. On his deathbed, he reveals that he has two wills and tries to get Mary to help him destroy one. Unwilling to be mixed up in the business of his will, she refuses, and Featherstone dies with the two wills still intact. Featherstone’s plan had been for £10,000 to go to Fred Vincy, but his estate and fortune instead goes to an illegitimate son of his, Joshua Rigg.
In poor health, Casaubon attempts to extract from Dorothea a promise that, should he die, she will “avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire”. He dies before she can reply, and she later learns of a provision in his will that, if she marries Ladislaw, she will lose her inheritance. The peculiar nature of Casaubon’s will leads to general suspicion that Ladislaw and Dorothea are lovers, creating awkwardness between the two. Ladislaw is secretly in love with Dorothea but keeps this to himself, having no desire to involve her in scandal or to cause her disinheritance. He remains in Middlemarch, working as a newspaper editor for Mr Brooke, who is mounting a campaign to run for Parliament under a Reform platform.
Lydgate’s efforts to please Rosamond soon leave him deeply in debt, and he is forced to seek help from Bulstrode. He is partly sustained through this by his friendship with Camden Farebrother. Meanwhile Fred Vincy’s humiliation at being responsible for Caleb Garth’s financial setbacks shocks him into reassessing his life. He resolves to train as a land agent under the forgiving Caleb.
John Raffles, a mysterious man who knows of Bulstrode’s shady past, appears in Middlemarch, intending to blackmail him. In his youth, the church-going Bulstrode engaged in questionable financial dealings, and his fortune is founded on his marriage to a much older, wealthy widow. Bulstrode’s terror of public exposure as a hypocrite leads him to hasten the death of the mortally sick Raffles, while lending a large sum to Lydgate to allay his suspicions. However, the story of his past has already spread. Bulstrode’s disgrace engulfs Lydgate, as knowledge of the loan becomes known, and he is assumed to be complicit with Bulstrode. Only Dorothea and Farebrother maintain faith in him, but Lydgate and Rosamond are nevertheless encouraged by the general opprobrium to leave Middlemarch. The disgraced and reviled Bulstrode’s only consolation is that his wife stands by him as he too faces exile.
When Mr Brooke’s election campaign collapses, Ladislaw decides to leave the town and visits Dorothea to say his farewell. But Dorothea has also fallen in love with him, whom she had previously seen only as her husband’s unfortunate relative. She renounces Casaubon’s fortune and shocks her family by announcing that she will marry Ladislaw. At the same time, Fred, who has been successful in his new career, marries Mary.
The “Finale” details the eventual fortunes of the main characters. Fred and Mary marry and live contentedly with their three sons. Lydgate operates a practice outside of Middlemarch but never finds fulfilment and dies at the age of 50, leaving Rosamond and four children. After he dies, Rosamond marries a wealthy physician. Ladislaw engages in public reform, and Dorothea is content as a wife and mother to their two children. Their son eventually inherits Arthur Brooke’s estate.
Mary Anne Evans (22 November 1819 – 22 December 1880; alternatively “Mary Ann” or “Marian”), known by her pen name George Eliot, was an English novelist, poet, journalist, translator, and one of the leading writers of the Victorian era. She authored seven novels, including Adam Bede(1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), Middlemarch (1871–72), and Daniel Deronda (1876), most of which are set in provincial England and known for their realism and psychological insight.Evans used a male pen name, she said, to ensure that her works would be taken seriously. Although female authors were published under their own names during her lifetime, she wanted to escape the stereotype of women’s writing being limited to lighthearted romances. She also wanted to have her fiction judged separately from her already extensive and widely known work as an editor and critic. Another factor in her use of a pen name may have been a desire to shield her private life from public scrutiny, thus avoiding the scandal that would have arisen because of her adulterous relationship with the married George Henry Lewes.
Eliot’s Middlemarch has been described by the novelists Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as the greatest novel in the English language.