"The woman of genius": George Eliot and the publication of Middlemarch

20 March 2019

History | Literature

In her Annals of a Publishing House (1897), the English writer Margaret Oliphant refers to George Eliot, otherwise known as Mary Anne Evans, as “the woman of genius” who occupies the space of being “one of the great writers of her time”. Eliot’s reputation continues to live on over 120 years later.

Research Source: Literary Studies, which publishes this week, features a wealth of early manuscripts belonging to Eliot from the British Library, including the printer’s copy for the publication of the first edition of Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. The manuscript offers a fascinating insight into Eliot’s writing process through the corrections and inserts that she made throughout the volume. Indeed, Eliot had an interesting publication career which can be tracked in Literary Studies through the letters received and sent of John Blackwood, her publisher.

Blackwood was first anonymously introduced to Eliot when George Henry Lewes – who was openly in a relationship with Eliot - sent him a first draft of "Amos Barton" under the guise of it being a friend’s manuscript. Blackwood’s response in a letter dated November 12th 1856 was positive:

“I am happy to say that I think your friend’s reminiscences of Clerical Life will do. If there is any more of the series written I would like to see it, as, until I saw more, I could not make any decided proposition for the publication of the Tales, in whole, or in part, in the Magazine…. “Amos Barton” is unquestionably pleasant reading."

Blackwood decided to publish “Amos Barton” in the January 1857 edition of ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’ and his excitement about this can be seen in a letter from him to a Mr Langford in December 1856:

“The January number begins with the first of a new series by an unknown writer. I do not even know his name. If he is not a first-rate, he is the best simulation I have seen for many a day.”

And first-rate Eliot was, although the reception to “Amos Barton” was not unanimous in its praise, as Blackwood notes in his letters. This mixed literary reception to Eliot’s works would continue to characterise her career up to the publication of her final novel, Daniel Deronda (1876). However, Blackwood’s continued appreciation of Eliot’s works is evident, as in a letter to his wife from Trieste on the 2nd June 1872:

“I got here about seven this morning, after a not unpleasant voyage, considering the company and the circumstances…. I have sheets of George Eliot (‘Middlemarch’) to read in the evening, which will be a comfort.”

Despite the mixed response that Eliot received from critics and authors alike, her books sold enormously well. The public appetite would not wane for her last novel, Daniel Deronda. On the 11th May 1876 Blackwood writes to George Henry Lewes that:

“I never recollect a case in which the sale of a work published in a serial form kept so closely up to the first start…. ‘Deronda’ has evidently hooked his fish at the first start and is keeping him steadily on the line all through the run."

Eliot herself would report back on feedback she had received about Daniel Deronda:

“A statesman who shall remain nameless has said that I first opened to him a vision of Italian life, then of Spanish, and now I have kindled in him a quite new understanding of the Jewish people. This is what I wanted to do – to widen the English vision a little in that direction and let in a little conscience and refinement."

It is Middlemarch rather than Daniel Deronda, however, which Eliot is now most celebrated for. Her writing legacy becoming synonymous with her penultimate book was foreseen by several female writers in the nineteenth-century. Writing in Women Novelist’s of Victoria’s Reign (1897) - which is also included in Literary Studies – Eliza Lynn Linton calls Middlemarch ‘the best and grandest of her novels.’

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About the Author

James Young

James Young

I have been part of the Adam Matthew Editorial team since the summer of 2017. Since then I have worked on projects ranging from the East India Company to Shakespeare's Globe