Middlemarch: Composition and Publication History



The publication of Middlemarch firmly established George Eliot's place as one of the most popular authors of her time. She achieved both critical and commercial success with an innovative type of serial publication which compelled her to write quickly and challenged contemporary readers to wait two months between installments. Though in her journal and letters Eliot left fewer notes about Middlemarch than most of her other works, we do have detailed notebooks of her plans for this novel as well as her original manuscript. We can use her records of characters and plots as they occurred to her in order to learn more about the way in which Eliot wrote and published Middlemarch. Jerome Beaty's textual criticism and Gordon S. Haight's biographical work inform much of how we think about Eliot and this novel in particular.

One Novel/Two Ideas:
Early in 1869, Eliot decided that she would write her next novel about a provincial town called Middlemarch, an idea she had been considering vaguely for a long time. She knew that the plot would revolve around a doctor, Lydgate, and would include the residents of the town he came in contact with, but this original plan left out all of the characters we now know from Tipton Grange, including Dorothea and Casaubon. Eliot began to write this projected novel on July 19, 1869, but the narrative advanced slowly (Notebook to Novel 3). Between July and November of the next year, she had written only a few chapters of "Middlemarch" and had researched a bit about hospitals in order to gain background in Lydgate's profession. But in early November Eliot became inspired to begin a new novel, "Miss Brooke." This second project involved a pious young woman whom we now know as Dorothea. "Miss Brooke" flowed quickly and easily for Eliot, and by March 19, 1871 she had written 236 pages of a novel which comprised both "Middlemarch" and "Miss Brooke." Eliot joined nine and a half already written chapters of "Middlemarch" with ten newly composed chapters of "Miss Brooke" as she saw increasing connections between the principle characters of each project. Jerome Beaty admirably attempts to reconstruct the beginnings of Middlemarch, about which the author left few notes, in his seminal work, Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel. But Stanton Millet's more recent study of Eliot's manuscript argues that she did more than simply put together the two novels. He maintains that she changed the focus of the novel from one about vocation, centering on Dorothea and Fred Vincy, to one about more complicated issues of marriage and deep human relationships, involving the plots of Dorothea and Lydgate. Eliot's own confusing numbering of manuscript pages plus her use of different types of paper creates much of the debate over the possible discrepancies between the original sequences and how they later appeared in print. Problems such as these also arise because of the lack of notes from the beginning parts of the novel. Middlemarch became Eliot's first serial novel involving more than one plot, and this experiment carried over into the type of serialization she employed.

Serialization Experiment:
When Eliot contemplated her newly combined novel of 236 pages early in 1870, she realized that as the work was progressing thus far, she would need more space than the conventional contemporary serial publication of novels allowed. In her oft-quoted journal entry for March 19, 1871, she muses, "My present fear is that I have too much matter, too many 'momenti'." She combined two major plots and had too much to say concerning both to fit into the normal three-volume publication. She had the option to release her long novel in small monthly parts as Dickens did with David Copperfield and Thackeray with Vanity Fair. But Eliot hated to present her work in such small chunks and wanted to issue large sections at once. Her companion George Lewes suggested that they invent a new format for Middlemarch which would allow for fewer but longer installments which sold for more money than the parts publication of other contemporary British novels. This new kind of serialization would publish Eliot's novel in eight half-volume books to be issued every two months. Lewes posited his invention in a letter on May 7, 1871, to Eliot's publisher, John Blackwood, who accepted the idea, while Eliot continued to write (Notebook to Novel 44).

The new serialization plan allowed Eliot more space within the parts of the initial publication, and it meant that Blackwood released the first finished edition in four volumes instead of the standard three. And each of the eight Books would contain nine to fifteen chapters instead of the three or four usual in serialization. At the time of the publication agreement between Lewes, Eliot, and Blackwood, Eliot was still working on joining Books 1 and 2 and integrating the themes and personalities of Miss Brooke and Middlemarch. Because the format forced readers to wait two months between parts, Eliot needed to ensure that the plot and characters of Book 1 intrigued the public enough to purchase the second installment. Also, her book-form publication meant that consumers bought only Eliot's work. Whereas with other serialized novels, the public read parts within the pages of serial magazines which cost less and could be discarded carelessly, with Middlemarch, readers knew that when they purchased an installment of Eliot's novel, they made a weightier investment. This difference made it even more crucial for Eliot's momenti to be sufficiently captivating. By December 1, 1871, when the first Book was published, Eliot's handwritten narrative reached about halfway through Book 4. As they awaited reviews and reactions from Book 1, Eliot and Lewes addressed publication concerns which the eight-book release occasioned.

The need for consistency in the amount of pages in each part particularly interested Blackwood. Eliot's composition troubled him because she wrote on both lined and unlined paper so that the amount of text on each of her handwritten pages differed, making quick calculation from her paper to printed copy difficult. Though in the smaller parts serialization, publishers often demanded strict adherence to a certain length, Lewes and Blackwood made allowances for the discrepancies between Eliot's parts. They were most concerned with the appearance of the Books so that consumers would be willing to pay the same amount for each selection. Because Blackwood insisted that the book "must not look thin for 5/-[florin]," in a few of the shorter Books Blackwood printed on thicker paper, and Lewes suggested adding advertisements to bulk up the half-volumes (Notebook to Novel 47).

Lewes arranged the publication contract with Blackwood for the release of Middlemarch in England. He bought the rights to Eliot's novel for four years and £6000, and they scheduled the serialization to run every two months starting in December, 1871. After working out the new serialization calendar with Blackwood, Lewes negotiated contracts with other nations. He sold the American rights for £1200 to Osgood, Ticker & Co. from Boston, who decided to issue the long novel in weekly installments despite Eliot's objection to such fractionation in the British publication. Osgood, Ticker & Co. then sold their claims to Middlemarch to Harper's Weekly of New York, in which the novel appeared each week from December 16, 1871, until February 15, 1873 (Haight 437). Lewes also arranged for printing in Germany and Australia, and Eliot's work reached readers around the world.

First Revisions:
After those in England had read Book 1 the reviews of praise appeared. Most critics and leisure readers adored Dorothea and were anxious to discover what would happen to her in the next book. Originally, Eliot had envisioned her novel as two entirely separate plots so that each half-volume detailed the story of only Dorothea or of the Middlemarchers (George Eliot's Serial Fiction 191). She submitted to Blackwood a Book 1 which we now know as a little more than the first nine chapters of "Miss Brooke". Then she and Lewes realized the need to prepare readers for Book 2 by introducing the characters of the town in Book 1; the second installment became entirely their story. But most reviews of Book 1 confounded their intent by completely ignoring the last two and a half chapters of the Garths, the Vincys, Lydgate and other Middlemarchers.

Eliot scholars differ in opinion as to whether she ever read reviews of her work. Many believe letters from Eliot and Lewes which claim that the author did not want to know what others thought of her work until she completely finished the project. Yet we have other evidence showing that Eliot used outside feedback as she wrote. Carol Martin investigates this debate, and it appears that if Eliot did not read the early reviews of Middlemarch, Lewes at least relayed the infatuation readers had with Dorothea which led to a revision of the plans for Books already written ("Revising Middlemarch"). Lewes and Eliot feared a fickle public would not wait four months to see Dorothea again in Book 3, so Eliot moved the Rome wedding trip sequence from Book 3 to Chapters 19-22 of Book 2. The two months between installments necessitated this revision, and the commercial concerns of publication forced Eliot to abandon her initial desire to separate the two plots.

The year of composition during serialization was a difficult one for Eliot. She described it afterwards as "a sort of nightmare in which I have been scrambling on the slippery bank of a pool, just keeping my head above water" (Haight 443). In September of 1871, she became ill with gastric fever which kept her from writing for two months, and she was often troubled by pain in her teeth. She wrote the first books slowly as she coped with the discomfort. After the initial joining of Miss Brooke and Middlemarch, she spent much time planning and outlining the plot in her notebooks before writing each part. It took a few books for Eliot to become accustomed to the new publication schedule, and this time of uncertainty added to the slowness of the composition. We can trace the progress of the last five books of Middlemarch through Eliot's detailed notes. She did not rely on the outlines for the first three books, written before Book 1 was published. Later outlines most likely eased the pressure of the serial deadlines.

 Book 4 progressed slowly because of Eliot's gastric fever, and she needed to make up time quickly after she recovered. By the end of January she had finished this fourth installment which she wrote in three months, one month less than she took to write Book 3, but still not rapidly enough to keep up with the bimonthly timetable. Book 5, finished in the beginning of May, also took three months, and Blackwood began to worry. By this fifth half-volume, Eliot had completely blended the two plots, and her notes became more elaborate as she wrote faster. Book 6 took only two months, from May to July, and her notes for this part brought the plot through the next two books, and by Book 8 she employed minimal notes. By July, Lewes, who proofread each manuscript, saw that Eliot's composition carried the novel ahead of schedule, and he suggested that Blackwood publish Books 6, 7, and 8 monthly rather than bimonthly. Eliot and the publisher agreed, and Eliot continued her rapid advancement with the last two books, completed in early August and September respectively. Thus, Book 1 was published December 1, 1871; Book 2 on February 1, 1872; Book 3 in April; Book 4 in June; Book 5 on July 29; Book 6 in October; Book 7 in November; and Book 8 in December, 1872.

 Comparisons of Eliot's notebooks, manuscripts and final drafts illustrate many changes on the way from composition to publication. We have already looked at the chapter rearrangements Eliot and Lewes decided on in the first few books. Jerome Beaty has researched all three of Eliot's stages to the final edition of Middlemarch and his work greatly informs this rudimentary examination of Eliot's revisions. Between the planning stages of the notebooks and the first drafts of the books, the majority of changes involved the switching of events to different times. For example, Eliot originally planned for Raffles' death to occur after the marriage of Dorothea and Will, though in the novel the union appears afterwards. This change allows for Dorothea to intercede with Rosamund on Lydgate's behalf after the scandal and find Will and Rosamund together. This particular scene, in which Dorothea interrupts Will and Rosamund, was another significant change. In her notes, Eliot planned for a scene of "anger, jealousy, reproach, ending in Dorothea's passionate avowal and declaration that she will never marry him" (Notebook to Novel 90). Instead, Dorothea stays true to her character as we know it and leaves the room quietly and stoically. Also, Eliot envisioned the date of Rosamund's baby's birth as June 1, 1831, though in the end Mrs. Lydgate miscarries (Notebook to Novel 72). And Dorothea was to tell Sir James of her marriage to Will, but finally, Mr. Brooke does so. Eliot had planned most of the events and dates far in advance (she knew of Dorothea's eventual marriage to Will from the beginning of her notes on the novel), though she switched them around later to best fit the rest of the plots.

 Most of the changes between the manuscript and the final Cheap Edition of 1874 occur between the manuscript, which Lewes corrected, and the first 1871-2 serialized edition. Beaty calculates these revisions to amount to about 500, and attributes about 100 to printer errors and 100 to modifications between the first and final editions ("The Text of the Novel" 38). Eliot had to change uniformly the names of some characters like Mary Garth, who was originally Mary Dove, and Helen/Harriet Cadwallader who became Elinor. Beaty arranged the hundred most important revisions in various categories: Eliot expanded contractions to make characters like Caleb Garth speak with more intelligence, and she showed Fred's progression to maturity as he gradually shed contractions from his speech. She also worked on better portrayals of dialect, translated phrases originally printed in French, and acknowledged sources of literary allusions. Some changes also clarify how we should view characters, and Eliot moves adjectives around to imply qualities we may more respond to readily than outright authorial comment.

 The most drastic change Eliot made in all three versions of the text available today comes after Book 8 in "Finale". The last two paragraphs of the novel underwent revisions in tone and implication from the manuscript to the first edition to the final 1874 edition. The manuscript mentions Dorothea's first marriage and condemns the hypocrisy of society. Eliot made the conclusion harsher in the first edition by implicating society in Dorothea's horrible marriage to Casaubon and indicts it for the dearth of education for women. Readers objected to this second version, complaining that Middlemarch did not ever approve of the marriage. Thus, the final version became much more general as the narrator leaves out mention of the first marriage, female education, and society's hypocrisy. These changes show a difference in tone as the final version accepts the reality the first two lament.


By the time the final Cheap Edition of 1874 was published, it was obvious that Middlemarch was a complete commercial success for Eliot. Before Blackwood published Book 1, Lewes wrote that he expected to sell 10,000 copies of the novel at what he took to be "a cheap rate" for the eight half-volumes (Haight 436). The first serialized edition actually sold about 5,000 copies at 5s per part, still profitable, though less so than Lewes had anticipated. The Libraries were upset at the new form of publication which forced them to buy more than the usual volumes, but public demand showed them the loss they would incur by a boycott. The next publication of Middlemarch after serialization was a four-volume bound edition, published in 1873, which sold for 21s. The public bought almost 3,000 more copies of this collection. And the 1874 Cheap Edition, the final version revised by George Eliot, set the novel in one volume selling for 7s. 6d. Eliot, Lewes, and Blackwood little expected a huge surge in sales, but readers purchased 13,000 more copies of this authoritative edition in its first six months of release (all numbers taken from Haight 443). Eliot made her fortune with Middlemarch, but some biographers point to the critical praise she received as impetus for the large sales. Haight indicates word of mouth as well as the late but extremely flattering review in The Times of March 7, 1873, as an assistance to the sales of the 1873 edition. The publications in the United States, Australia and Europe made Eliot famous around the world and induced many fans to send her gushing letters of admiration.

Middlemarch remains a favorite of readers more than a hundred years after its first publication, and just as we have yet to settle the dispute over whether Eliot actually read reviews or had them censored for her or knew nothing about them at all, biographers still wonder about her composition technique. Eliot claimed that her best writing came forth in bursts of unconscious inspiration and that she did not revise. But others have shown proof of her meticulous style, as in the detailed notebooks Beaty uses for his study. The planning shown in these diaries of composition belie Eliot's insistence that she wrote freely and straight to manuscript. Beaty also pointed to heavily marked up pages within the manuscript. That Eliot changed her mind during the writing of Middlemarch does not diminish the fact of the accomplishment though. The argument only adds to the interest of the composition and publication of this novel which made serialization history.

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