1. 19th-Century Novel. Today we begin three weeks on Middlemarch. To me, this is what going to university should be about: this novel challenges us intellectually and philosophically, and it is aesthetically and formally brilliant. As if that’s not enough, it’s also very funny (“‘He has got no good red blood in his body,’ said Sir James. ‘No. Somebody put a drop under a magnifying-glass, and it was all semicolons and parentheses,’ said Mrs Cadwallader”). I’ll open today with a lecture on George Eliot’s very interesting life as well as an overview of some key ideas governing her fiction (realism, determinism, sympathy). Then we’ll get started on the particulars of Middlemarch itself next time, probably with a focus on Dorothea’s marriage and the ways it (and, of course, its treatment by the narrator and in the narrative) highlights the central issue of (mis)interpretation.
2. Victorian Women Writers. It’s week two on North and South. Last week we ended up talking quite a lot about the obviously crucial scene in which Margaret confronts the striking workers on the steps of Thornton’s mill. One of the key interpretive questions about the novel is the relationship between the private or romance plot and the social or political plot. We read some interesting articles on this last week and no doubt our discussion of it will continue, now that everyone has read to the end of the book. I hope we will also focus on what the novel says about the problem of women’s vocation: one of this week’s critical articles puts the novel in the context of the Crimean War and makes a number of connections with Florence Nightingale, which is interesting. As we begin Middlemarch in our seminar next week (yes, I get to work on it in two classes at once, which I call luxurious!), we will also be able to put Margaret’s efforts to find meaningful occupation up against Dorothea’s. Does Margaret perhaps fare better than Dorothea in the end, at least in this respect? Is that a problem, in the end, for Gaskell’s social analysis?