Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life is a novel by George Eliot, published 1871–2. The scene is laid in the provincial town of Middlemarch, in the English Midlands, during the years of the agitation immediately preceding the first Reform Bill in 1832. The novel has a multiple plots, with several interlocking sets of characters. Dorothea, an ardent and idealistic young woman, under the negligent though affable care of her eccentric uncle marries the elderly pedant Mr Casaubon, despite the doubts of her sister Celia, her neighbour and suitor Sir James Chettam (who later marries Celia), and Mrs Cadwallader, the rector’s outspoken wife. The marriage proves unhappy. Dorothea realizes during a disastrous honeymoon in Rome that Casaubon’s scholarly plans to write a great work, a ‘Key to all Mythologies’, are doomed, as are her own aspirations to share in her husband’s intellectual life, and her respect for him gradually turns to pity. She is sustained by the friendship of Casaubon’s young cousin Will Ladislaw, a lively, light-hearted young man, detested by Casaubon, who begins to suspect that Dorothea’s feelings for him are questionable; his irritation is increased by his fear that he has acted justly but ungenerously to his impoverished kinsman. Shortly before he dies, with characteristic meanness, he adds a codicil to his will by which Dorothea loses her fortune if she marries Ladislaw.
Meanwhile, we follow the fortunes of Fred and Rosamond Vincy, son and daughter of the mayor of Middlemarch; the extrovert Fred, unsuitably destined to become a clergyman, is in love with Mary Garth, an unselfish young woman who is caring for her disagreeable and aged relative Mr Featherstone. Mary will not accept Fred unless he rejects his father’s ambition that he should enter the church, and proves himself responsible and self-sufficient. Rosamond, the town’s beauty, sets herself to win the hand of Tertius Lydgate, the ambitious and high-minded young doctor. She succeeds, but the marriage is wrecked by her self-centred materialism. Lydgate, finding himself in debt, reluctantly borrows money from Mr Bulstrode, a religious hypocrite. Lydgate’s career is ruined when he is implicated in the death of Raffles, an unwelcome visitor from Bulstrode’s shady past. Only Dorothea, now widowed, continues to believe in him, but she is deeply shocked to find Ladislaw and Rosamond together in compromising circumstances. Rosamond reveals that Ladislaw has not betrayed his love for Dorothea, and Dorothea renounces her inheritance to marry him. Fred Vincy becomes a steady young man and marries Mary Garth. Lydgate is condemned to a lucrative but unfulfilling practice as a fashionable doctor and dies with his early ambitions unfulfilled.
Throughout this wide-ranging and complex narrative, George Eliot analyses and comments upon the social, intellectual, and political upheavals of the period, contrasting the staunch Tory attitudes of Chettam and the Cadwalladers with the growing demand for Reform, unsatisfactorily espoused by the hapless Brooke, more effectively by Ladislaw, who becomes an ‘ardent public man’, and a member of Parliament, with Dorothea’s support. The importance of marital loyalty is also a consistent theme, movingly reflected in Mrs Bulstrode’s support of her husband after his disgrace.
George Eliot’s reputation reached its height with Middlemarch, despite some complaints that the action was slow or the tone didactic. Its status as one of the greatest works of English fiction remains unquestioned.