The action of Middlemarch takes place "between September 1829 and May 1832" or forty years prior to its publication during 1871–2, a gap in time not so pronounced for it to be regularly labelled as a historical novel; by comparison, Walter Scott's Waverley (1814)—often regarded as the first major historical novel—takes place some sixty years before its publication. Eliot had previously written a more obviously historical novel in Romola (1862–63), set in fifteenth-century Florence. Critics Kathleen Blake and Michael York Mason opine that there has been insufficient attention given to Middlemarch "as a historical novel that evokes the past in relation to the present". Critic Rosemary Ashton notes that the lack of attention to this aspect of the novel might indicate its merits in this regard: "[Middlemarch] is that very rare thing, a successful historical novel. In fact, it is so successful that we scarcely think of it in terms of that subgenre of fiction". For its contemporary readership, the present "was the passage of the Second Reform Act in 1867"; the agitation for the Reform Act of 1832 and its turbulent passage through the two Houses of Parliament, which provide the basic structure of the novel, would have been considered the past.
Although irregularly categorised as a historical novel, Middlemarch 's attention to historical detail has been recurrently noticed by critics; in his 1873 review, Henry James recognised that Eliot's "purpose was to be a generous rural historian". Elsewhere, Eliot has been described as adopting "the role of imaginative historian, even scientific investigator in Middlemarch, and her narrator, as conscious "of the historiographical questions involved in writing a social and political history of provincial life"; this narrator compares the novel to "a work of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus", who is often described as "The Father of History".