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« What They Said About MIDDLEMARCH | Main | Eliot's "Holy War" »

Writing "Middlemarch"

In her dairy on 1 January 1869, Eliot sketched an ambitious plan for her fiftieth year: "a Novel called Middlemarch, a long poem on Timoleon, and several minor poems."

In fact, she would not complete the promised novel for another two and a half years, an agonizing stretch of writing that caused her to fall into repeated depressions, only alleviated (as ever) by the constant attentions of George Henry Lewes.

Frankly, in 1869, Eliot needed to land a hit, if not to knock one out of the park. Although comfortably well-off from her books and now one of the darlings of the London literary glitterati, she hadn't published a commercial success in five years. Yes, critics had loved some of the pieces, but the public had yawned. And no wonder: she had wandered far afield, publishing obscure, didactic, and exhausting failures--a long poem called "The Spanish Gypsy," two disappointing novels ("Romola," set in fifteenth-century Florence about the doings around the reform-minded but squinty-eyed priest Savonarola and "Felix Holt: The Radical" about a rural uprising in a fictionalized bit of Warwickshire on the eve of the first reform bill, a nasty bit of priggish Toryism that "helped" the workers understand that the vote, while theirs, should not be exercised until they were more cultured), and a few short stories, each more lugubrious and plodding than the last. If she'd followed out her plan for 1869, a long poem about the Greek general Timoleon would probably not have helped things.

Despite repeated promises to John Blackwood, her publisher, that she was making progress on this novel called "Middlemarch," she was stuck hip deep in poesy. During 1869, she worked and reworked a lamentably wooden sonnet sequence called "Brothers and Sisters," a thinly veiled plea to remember the good ol' days back on the farm with her stern and evangelical brother Isaac who now headed the family and had summarily cut her off when she moved in with Lewes. Two shorter poems followed, these about her own fears of morphing into a half-baked has-been artist. Still, she was lucky she was a known commodity; she got a respectable two hundred and fifty pounds for one of them. Eventually, Eliot crumpled under the stress of writing and made no headway on the planned novel, believing (as she always did when she was writing) that everything she had written before had been a fluke.

But there were considerably headwinds. Just before she set "Middlemarch" on the docket, on 19 October 1868, Thornie, one of Lewes' sons (named for Thornton Hunt, Lewes' wife's lover), had died, a terrible tragedy. He was in his mid-twenties, something of a rake, and a bit of a flop at almost everything. Eliot and Lewes had packed him off to Africa to try to get him set up on a farm. Instead, he had come home with tuberculosis of the spine, a rare and horrible disease in which the bacteria take residence in the spinal column, slowly dissolving tissue and bone until the vertebrae collapse and paralysis sets in. Thornie lay on the floor of Eliot and Lewes' home and screamed in agony for hours on end. Henry James was present for one particularly horrible episode and knelt beside the boy, mopping his brow with brandy, thought to cool fevers.

Eliot had loved Thornie, always insisting that he call her "Mutter," the German for "mother." (He was educated in Swiss schools.) She took his education and raising to heart, although it was clear early on that despite intellectual promise he couldn't stick to any task at hand. Nonetheless, she repeatedly told her confidants that she had finally become a mother. And he died in her arms. Perhaps a story about a medical doctor was just too close to the bone.

You see, "Middlemarch" started out as solely Lydgate's story. Eliot had become entranced by a narrative about the medical profession. Besides the constant medical attention at their home up until Thornie's horrid death, she knew about recent advances and past failures through Lewes. At the time, he was busy researching medical history for what would become his ground-breaking books on the theory of psychology long before Freud. She also remembered her sister Chrissey's husband, Edward Clarke, who had tried to practice medicine in rural England as a "gentleman" and was continually rebuffed by the local gentry as just another tradesman.

Eliot hammered away at the Lydgate story on and off throughout 1869. But in December of that year, she records that she paused from this hard-won novel to begin another, tentatively titled "Miss Brooke." She wrote that it was a "subject which has been recorded among my possible themes ever since I began to write fiction."

Indeed, "Miss Brooke" may well have been the germ of one of the unwritten "Scenes of Clerical Life," her first book. As it now stands, it contains three stories. However, it was to have had more. But Eliot gave up on the shorter format and turned to more sustained novels with "Adam Bede." Nonetheless we know she had thought about writing another "scene" before cashing in her chips, a small story called "The Clerical Tutor," about a woman who marries a learned parson to help him with his studies, only to realize he has no need for her.

She returned to it with a vengence. Things were picking up. A month later, she'd written a hundred pages of "Miss Brooke." And she continued apace on it throughout 1870. It was only at the beginning of 1871 that she came upon the brilliant notion of stitching the Brooke story onto the Lydgate fragments she had written. What caused her to imagine fusing these two novels is a matter of much critical debate. We know it happened; we don't really know why.

But within three months of her decision, she was back in despair, claiming that the new work had "too much matter, too many moments." Lewes had other ideas. He saw the potential and was already working with Blackwood on the publication details. Eliot had never been serialized in Blackwood's magazine. The stodgy publisher had always felt her stories too daring to risk with his family-values readership. Yes, her Florentine flop "Romola" had been serialized, but it was the only novel not published by Blackwood.

Lewes pressed for serialization, but Blackwood was hesitant, not because he feared the subject matter of "Middlemarch," but because he'd seen almost none of it. As ever, Lewes had all sorts of alternatives. On 7 May, he sketched out a scheme by which the novel would be brought out in eight installments, one every two months, each an eight-shilling edition. He even proposed the unheard-of idea that Eliot would be paid a two-shilling per copy royalty. Writers of the day sold their copyrights outright to publishers for limited amounts of time. Nobody paid royalties. But Blackwood immediately agreed, sensing success. (They didn't even have the word "royalty." Blackwood called it her "lordship share.")

Meanwhile, Eliot kept working. By the time Lewes and Blackwood had a deal, she'd finished Books One ("Miss Brooke") and Two ("Old and Young") of "Middlemarch" while on holiday in Surrey. As usual with Eliot, composition then ground to a halt, then picked up, then stalled, then raced on. But she had enough done that by December, 1871, Blackwood brought out the first book of "Middlemarch," confident he'd get the eight books in good standing at the proper time.

His confidence was almost unfounded. Book Six proved the hardest. She labored over it. It wasn't finished by summer, 1872, and Blackwood needed it immediately to get it ready for an October publication. Lewes whisked her back to Surrey for holiday. She developed gum troubles. She hesitated. She labored. She lay in bed for days. And then just as suddenly, she was off--and Book Six was finished in a (for her) record of five weeks. Encouraged by her writing success, Lewes suggested to Blackwood that he bring out the final two volumes in monthly installments, timed to the Christmas book-buying season--and by that autumn, Eliot was correcting the proofs for the last of them.

Eliot's compositions always involved theatrics on her part. She turned morose, she became depressed, she worked like a dog, she got ill, she got giddy, she got irritable, she lay in bed, she wrote until she had severe headaches, she claimed her pace was four pages a day, she claimed her pace was a paragraph a day--but mostly, she doubted herself the whole way through. It's been theorized--posthumously--that the root causes of her distress were that she needed the aura of heroics as a motivator, or that she was morbidly afraid of failure, or that she could not get the voices of her disapproving family out of her head, or that she felt that her fiction was inferior to Lewes' scientific writing and so needed a way to make it seem weightier. Whatever the cause, the rousing success of "Middlemarch" put her fears to rest. They didn't ever torment her again in quite the same way.

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