George Eliot

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Middlemarch Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on George Eliot's Middlemarch. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of George Eliot

George Eliot was the daughter of an estate manager in Warwickshire. She received an unusually extensive education for a girl at the time, although only up until the age of 16. After this point she continued to read widely, the results of which are palpable in her writing, which is intellectually sophisticated and filled with references to a diverse array of knowledge. As a young woman she became socially involved with a group of agnostics and political radicals. She began translating works of German theology into English and publishing short reviews in periodicals. She spent time living alone in Geneva before moving to London, where she worked as the editor of a progressive literary journal named The Westminster Review. Eliot met George Henry Lewes in 1851. Lewes was in an open marriage, and he and Eliot soon became a couple, traveling to Germany together as a “honeymoon” and living as husband and wife, despite the fact that Lewes never divorced his previous wife. This arrangement was the source of significant scandal at the time. Eliot published her first short story at the age of 37 and her first novel, Adam Bede, two years later in 1859. Middlemarch was published in instalments between 1871-72, and Eliot’s last novel, Daniel Deronda, was published in 1876. Lewes died in 1878 and after this Eliot married John Walter Cross, again causing controversy because Cross was 20 years younger than she was. Eliot died of kidney disease in the same year of her marriage, 1880.  
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Historical Context of Middlemarch

Middlemarch is set in 1829-32, forty years before it was written (and published). As a result it is considered a “historical novel,” although some critics argue that the difference between when it is set and when it was published is not significant enough to warrant this term. In any case, Middlemarch is very attentive to the historical events of the time, which play a significant role in both the foreground and background of the narrative. The most important of these is the 1832 Reform Act, which expanded the population of eligible voters in the country and changed aspects of the parliamentary system in order to make it more democratic. Other important events include the Catholic Relief Act of 1829, which allowed Catholics to become Members of Parliament, the rapid developments in science and medicine that took place in the early nineteenth century, and the leadup to the railway boom of the 1840s.

Other Books Related to Middlemarch

In many ways, Middlemarch resembles other sprawling realist novels of the nineteenth century, including works by Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Its attention to rural life, political radicalism, and the oppression of women particularly resonates with the novels of Thomas Hardy. Middlemarch has been hugely influential on many generations of novelists since its publication, from Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf to contemporary novelists such as Hilary Mantel, Zadie Smith, and Min Jin Lee.
Key Facts about Middlemarch
  • Full Title: Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life
  • When Written: 1869-71
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1871-72
  • Literary Period: Nineteenth-century English novel
  • Genre: Realism; historical novel
  • Setting: Middlemarch, a fictional town in the Midlands, England, in the years 1829-32
  • Climax: When Will and Dorothea finally declare their love for one another and kiss during the thunderstorm
  • Antagonist: There is no real antagonist; although John Raffles is the most villainous character in the book, he is more of a wayward fool than an antagonist
  • Point of View: Third-person narrator who occasionally speaks in the first person, potentially conveying Eliot’s point of view

Extra Credit for Middlemarch

Ambitious goals. Writing Middlemarch featured on a list of George Eliot’s New Year’s resolutions at the beginning of 1869.

Superfans. Middlemarch inspires fervent devotion among its readers. The New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead even published a book of her own entitled My Life in Middlemarch (2014), which combines autobiography with an account of her attachment to the novel.