George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch (1871–72), subtitled ‘A Study of Provincial Life’, follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small Midlands town in the early 1830s. Eliot’s realist portrait of Middlemarch society charts the respective marital fortunes of Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate and Fred Vincy, against a backdrop of corruption and political reform.
Middlemarch was a long time in the making. Having conceived the idea for a novel about provincial English society in 1867, and written its first three chapters in 1869, Eliot’s progress stalled. It was in December 1870, after writing 100 pages of a new story called ‘Miss Brooke’, that the idea struck her to combine the Dorothea plot-line with her existing material.
This manuscript consists of four notebooks containing the final, revised draft of Middlemarch. The manuscript – which was written on loose leaves, later bound into volumes – still bears the traces of the interweaving of the two stories. Jerome Beaty’s study of the manuscript shows that the first nine chapters, written on paper watermarked ‘Parkins and Gotto’, belong to the ‘Miss Brooke’ story. Throughout this section, the location of the story has been changed to ‘Middlemarch’ from what Beaty suggests was originally something like ‘Misterton’. Eliot appears to have rewritten or recopied much, perhaps all, of her original ‘Middlemarch’ draft.
Unlike Charles Dickens’s serialised novels (where the pressure of monthly deadlines forced him to make undesirable cuts), publication in parts seems not to have had a detrimental effect on Middlemarch. Early in the writing process, it became obvious that Middlemarch would be too long to suit publication in three volumes (the usual practice at the time). Eliot’s partner George Henry Lewes wrote to her publisher on 7 May 1871 suggesting the novel be serialised in eight half-volume parts, prior to publication in four volumes. This plan was readily adopted and the eight parts appeared between December 1871 and Christmas 1872.
Though Eliot completed the first three parts of the novel prior to publication of the first, she wrote the remaining five parts with serialisation in mind. Jerome Beaty has pointed out that Eliot made a number of changes to the planned structure of the novel to ensure that Dorothea, Lydgate and Fred’s stories were further developed in each of the eight books.
Eliot is praised for the nuance and complexity which make her characters so true-to-life, but some of her finest portraits did not take shape until Middlemarch neared completion. Lydgate’s selfish wife Rosamond is one character who Eliot struggled to capture throughout the writing of the novel, as can be seen in the many revised passages in the manuscript. Perhaps the most accomplished scene in the novel – in which Rosamond admits to Dorothea that there is nothing between her and Will Ladislaw – was extensively revised to make Rosamond’s confession consistent with her character.
Eliot also improved her plans for the scene in which the banker, Bulstrode, brings about the death of his blackmailer, Raffles. The original intention detailed in Eliot’s notebook , was for Bulstrode to order a fatal dose of opium and alcohol for Raffles, but in the manuscript his actions are less clear cut. He hesitates to tell his housekeeper when to stop administering the opium and then vascillates over her request to give Raffles brandy, knowing that the drugs will probably kill him. The more nuanced final version marks out Eliot’s commitment to finding psychological truth in her characters, in a period when many novelists pursued sensation over realism.
Jerome Beaty, Middlemarch From Notebook to Novel (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960)
George Eliot, Middlemarch, ed. by David Carroll (Oxford: OUP, 1986)