Originally published in eight parts in 1871-72, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is set four decades earlier in the period leading up to the Reform Bill. The novel began as two separate stories, which George Eliot decided to combine: that of the young and idealistic Dorothea Brooke, who marries a much older, arid scholar; and that of the surgeon Tertius Lydgate, who has recently moved to the town of Middlemarch, hoping to serve the community and introduce medical innovations. Both Dorothea and Lydgate become disillusioned, their plans for improvement frustrated by their choices in marriage and by the ‘hampering threadlike pressure of small social conditions’. Around these two characters Eliot assembles a large cast and a number of subplots, using the metaphor of a spider’s web to convey the links between the many characters and the novel’s themes of progress, ambition and community.
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