After the publication of The Mill on the Floss in the spring of 1860, George Eliot took a trip to Italy, where she started research for what she believed would be her next work of fiction, Romola. Although she had not begun the actual composition of this novel by the autumn of 1860, the ‘ambitious project’ had become such an unremitting conceptual focus for her that the writing of another work before Romola could not help but be viewed by the novelist as a sort of creative interruption. Indeed, George Eliot charges Silas Marner with reaching ‘across my other plans by a sudden inspiration’. Yet there is still some debate as to how early the actual specifics of Silas Marner occurred to the writer. Andrew Brown argues that George Eliot was thinking of ‘a quite different English novel during August and September 1860—a novel subsequently supplanted by Silas Marner’ and that ‘her sudden inspiration for Silas came as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy as regards her declared intention of postponing Romola’.
It is not difficult to infer why Silas Marner—a much-shorter work, set in a personally more familiar time and place—would have been a kind of compositional relief to George Eliot. But thematically as well, in contrast with the dauntingly tough story of Romola, Silas Marner offers a vision of a simpler and purer goodness.