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The secrets of George Eliot’s Middlemarch manuscript

a page with a handwritten title

Middlemarch: a study of provincial life, created 1871-72. Courtesy The British Library © Jonathan Garnault Ouvry. Used under a CC BY 4.0 licence.

George Eliot’s hometown displays her handwritten manuscript of Middlemarch to round off her 200th birthday celebrations

The British Library’s copy of Middlemarch consists of four of George Eliot’s handwritten notebooks containing the final, revised draft of what many consider to be her finest novel, and for some, the best novel of the Victorian period.

Written between 1871 and 1872 and subtitled ‘A Study of Provincial Life’, Middlemarch follows the lives of the inhabitants of the eponymous small Midlands town in the early 1830s and encompasses political reform, the coming of the railways and the shifting social and marital status of its three main characters, Dorothea Brooke, Tertius Lydgate and Fred Vincy.

Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans in Nuneaton, Warwickhsire, grew up in the Midlands and prior to moving to London lived in Coventry and knew the area and its people well. Her first novel, Scenes of Clerical Life, was drawn directly from the local characters she had grown up with. She returned to the area for inspiration when writing Middlemarch, which is generally accepted to be based on Coventry.

Eliot’s handwritten manuscript of the novel is currently being displayed in the White Gallery at Nuneaton Museum & Art Gallery whose George Eliot-related collection encompasses everything from personal possessions and items of clothing to a recreated version of her drawing room.

a handwritten manuscript page from

Courtesy The British Library © Jonathan Garnault Ouvry. Used under a CC BY 4.0 licence.

a handwritten manuscript page from George Eliot's Middlemarch with crossings out and corrections

Courtesy The British Library © Jonathan Garnault Ouvry. Used under a CC BY 4.0 licence

It was originally written on loose leaves, which were later bound into volumes, and like the best literary manuscripts, it is full of revisions, crossings out and notes, offering some fascinating clues to the great novel’s development. Close inspection also reveals the traces of the careful interweaving of the two stories that Eliot combined to make the novel.

According to the British Library, Eliot first conceived the idea for a novel exploring lives in provincial English society in 1867 and began writing it in 1869. She completed the first three chapters by the end of the year, until her progress stalled. Then, in December 1870, after writing 100 pages of a new story called ‘Miss Brooke’, she had the idea of combining the plot line she was developing with her existing Middlemarch material, and Dorothea Brooke became one of the great novel’s central characters.

A close inspection of the manuscript shows how different paper was used for the two novels, which were later bound together, and that Eliot wrote and rewrote several key scenes and re-worked passages to make sure her characters were consistent. The manuscript also reveals how the novel was reshaped to allow it to be serialised over a series of eight books.

a mnasucript with a handwritten short poem

Courtesy The British Library © Jonathan Garnault Ouvry. Used under a CC BY 4.0 licence.

a photo of the final page of George Eliot's Middlemarch manuscript

Courtesy The British Library © Jonathan Garnault Ouvry. Used under a CC BY 4.0 licence

The loan of Middlemarch forms part of the British Library’s Treasures on Tour programme, working with partners across the UK to share its collection of over 170 million treasures, and offers the perfect end to celebrations which have taken place over the last twelve months in Nuneaton and Coventry to celebrate Eliot’s 200th birthday. Visitors to Nuneaton Museum can also enjoy the accompanying “Scenes of Eliot’s Life” exhibition, which offers an introduction to George Eliot’s early days and work.

Middlemarch is on display at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery until March 1 2020.


Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery

Nuneaton, Warwickshire

The Museum and Art Gallery is set in the beautiful Riversley Park and has three galleries which house regularly changing temporary and touring art exhibitions. We also have galleries devoted to permanent displays of local author George Eliot, local history and our fine art collection.

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