Composition and publication
Middlemarch originates in two unfinished pieces that Eliot worked on during the years 1869 and 1870: the novel "Middlemarch"[a] (which focused on the character of Lydgate) and the long story "Miss Brooke" (which focused on the character of Dorothea). The former piece is first mentioned in her journal on 1 January 1869 as one of the tasks for the coming year. In August she began writing, but progress ceased in the following month amidst a lack of confidence about it and distraction caused by the illness of George Henry Lewes's son Thornie, who was dying of tuberculosis. (Eliot had been living with Lewes since 1854 as part of an open marriage.) Following Thornie's death on 19 October 1869, all work on the novel stopped; it is uncertain at this point whether or not Eliot intended to revive it at a later date. In December she writes of having begun another story, on a subject that she had considered "ever since I began to write fiction". By the end of the month she had written a hundred pages of this story and entitled it "Miss Brooke". Although a precise date is unknown, the process of incorporating material from "Middlemarch" into the story she had been working on was ongoing by March 1871.
By May 1871, the growing length of the novel had become a concern to Eliot, as it threatened to exceed the three-volume format that was the norm in publishing. The issue was compounded by the fact that Eliot's most recent novel, Felix Holt (1866)—also set in the same pre-Reform Bill England—had not sold well. The publisher John Blackwood, who had made a loss on acquiring the English rights to that novel, was approached by Lewes in his role as Eliot's literary agent. He suggested that the novel be brought out in eight two-monthly parts, borrowing from the method of Victor Hugo's novel Les Misérables. This was an alternative to the monthly issuing that had occurred for such longer works as David Copperfield and Vanity Fair, and it avoided the objections of Eliot herself to the cutting up of her novel into small parts. Blackwood agreed to the venture, though he acknowledged "there will be complaints of a want of the continuous interest in the story" due to the independence of each volume. The eight books duly appeared throughout 1872, the last three instalments being issued monthly.
With the deaths of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens (in 1863 and 1870, respectively), Eliot was "generally recognized as the greatest living English novelist" at the time of the novel's final publication.