George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a very large book. I know this because I speed-read it last month, and that isn’t actually possible. It is also a very wonderful book: all the summaries, while strictly accurate, make it sound depressing but it isn’t – once you commit to the 1000 pages of it, everything becomes inevitable and deserved and in character. It’s a very tender, human novel. I like it so much.
I am not the only person to feel this way! Due to the machinations of master-conspirator Ellen Kushner, I met Danny Fein and Benjy Brooke of Litographs, and was commissioned to illustrate Middlemarch.
A lot happens in 1000 pages, and the novel has an ensemble-cast, so the process of finding an iconic image was complex. In the end, I simmered the ideas down to a focus on Dorothea’s story (since she begins and ends the novel), and the idea of how the choices we make, the context in which we live and the passage of time all limit the options available to us (I’ve been told that sounds depressing, but spread over 1000 pages it’s almost reassuring). So the sketches featured Dorothea, her husband the elderly, academic Casaubon, Highly Symbolic Trees (TM), and passionate, unsettled Will Ladislaw.
Who lost out in the final design. I listened to many episodes of 99% Invisible in the process of cutting out the final illustration.
The 1830s did not have the best sleeves.
I then scanned the silhouette in and moved a few elements around – detached the bird, extended the line of hills, and so forth – before adding colour, converting it to an appropriate vectorised image and sending it off to Litographs, to be overlaid on text and printed (here is a video of their process).
It can be produced in black and white or other colourways, on posters, wall-clings, tote bags and t-shirts – all through the Litographs website. They also have lots of other books, and are reprinting Alice in Wonderland on people using temporary tattoos, so have a look around while you’re there!