Writing About George Eliot: An Inventory

Durade GEA week or so ago I noted that among my remaining summer projects was thinking through “what kind of larger project could emerge from the essays I’ve been writing on George Eliot”: “Do they, could they, add up to something larger, perhaps some kind of cross-over book project?” is the question — and if so, of what kind?

I’ve begun doing the brainstorming and free writing that I hope will lead me to a more or less coherent, if inevitably preliminary, answer to these questions — enough of an answer that I can continue the conversations I’ve begun about preparing an actual book proposal. I figure a book project of this kind will have to have a theme: a unifying idea that motivates it, an organizing argument of some kind. I have some sense of what I don’t want to do (nothing narrowly didactic, nothing cloyingly trendy, nothing particularly personal). But what else is there? Across the top of many different documents now, in various fonts and highlighted in various colors, is some version of the question “What do I want to say about George Eliot?” Coming up with my answer to that question — one I’m excited about and committed to — will (I hope) do a lot to counteract my anxiety that hardly anybody will want to hear what I have to say. If I build it, they may not come, but whatever happens, I won’t be sorry to have put in the work if I am saying something I believe in. If I actually hope to pitch a book project, it would be foolish to be completely indifferent to potential audiences, but at the same time, surely nothing interferes more with good writing than obsessing on (imagined) reception.

As I try to sort out responses to the Big Question of what I want to say now and how I might ‘package’ it, I thought a good first step would be to take an inventory of what I’ve already said. I can’t figure out what it all adds up to, after all, unless I have a clear picture of what “it all” is. What are the recurring issues? What examples or approaches would I want to build on? What have I not done that I’d like to get to? And, equally important, what am I now dissatisfied with, and what have I lost interest in?

Here, then, in the spirit of a research notebook, is a list of nearly everything I’ve written about George Eliot since I read Middlemarch for the first time on the train across Europe in 1986, with some light annotations on the earlier stuff to get me thinking about it again. I’ve included book reviews and selected blog posts, on the theory that they, as much as (sometimes even more than) more self-contained pieces they might indicate trends, priorities, and/or problems. For almost any reader, this is sure to be TMI. Sorry! But I think the exercise will be very helpful for me, not least in setting up a one-stop-shopping site for future reference.

1. ‘Definition More Or Less Arbitrary’: Ideas of History and Fiction in Carlyle’s The French Revolution: A History and George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. (B. A. Honours thesis, English & History, U.B.C., 1990)

As far as I can recall, I wrote no undergraduate papers on George Eliot, though we did study Middlemarch in my 19th-Century Novels class with Ira Nadel. So this was my first attempt at writing about her fiction. My preoccupation then, and for some years after, was with questions of genre — more specifically, on blurring borders between history and fiction. There’s only incidental discussion of the novel’s morality, and more than in large-scale form, I was interested in small-scale issues, such as metaphorical language.

2. “‘Familiar rather than Heroic’: Historicity and Domesticity in Adam Bede and Jude the Obscure.” (Seminar paper, Cornell, 1990)

“Or, the Beginning of a Long Project,” is the additional subtitle Mary Jacobus scrawled on the front page of this anxiously ambitious paper for her class. Its focus was on ways these novels redefine what or who counts as historically significant.

3. Review of Rosemarie Bodenheimer’s The Real Life of Mary Ann Evans. Victorian Review (1995)

4. “Romola and the Victorian Discourse of History.” Conference paper (Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada, 1994)

An early version of a chapter from my Ph.D. thesis.

5. Reinventing History: George Eliot and the Victorian Discourses of Gender and Historiography. (Ph.D. thesis, Cornell, 1995)

Only two chapters of my dissertation were specifically about George Eliot: one on Romola and one on Middlemarch. For more about it, see below.

book6. Gender, Genre, and Victorian Historical Writing. (Garland, 1998)

This monograph is a revised and expanded version of my dissertation, with the same two chapters on Romola and Middlemarch.From the Introduction: “this study argues that during the nineteenth century a new category of facts entered the running for membership in history’s exclusive club: facts about women and the circumstances of their lives. . . . the ebb and flow of Victorian debates over gender, genre, and historical writing . . . gradually and unevenly altered the horizons of possibility for historical writing about women and, ultimately, made women’s history as we know it today conceptually possible.” What does this have to do with Romola and Middlemarch? Basically, I ‘read’ both novels as ‘interventions’ in these debates, interpreting them in the context of work by 19th-century women historians as well as other 19th-century historiography. I always felt there was something a bit strained about the set-up of these readings: there’s nothing really wrong with them, but at the same time there was never any intrinsic necessity to discuss George Eliot as part of this particular project, except that I wanted to write more about Middlemarch and couldn’t really avoid Romola in a work about historical writing. The other parts of the book added more to our collective wisdom — but the closest I’ve ever come to going back to these issues is (unexpectedly, perhaps) in the essay I wrote for Open Letters on Richard III. Whatever else I do about George Eliot, I don’t expect I’ll be picking up this thread again.

7. Review of Hao Li, Memory and History in George Eliot: Transfiguring the Past and Neil McCaw, George Eliot and Victorian Historiography,Victorian Studies 45:2 (Winter 2003).

8. “The Moral Life of Middlemarch: Martha Nussbaum and George Eliot’s Philosophical Fiction.” Philosophy and Literature 30:1 (2006).

Though this essay is not in anything like the style I’d choose for my book project, its focus on the philosophical significance of form in Eliot’s fiction is something I keep returning to as I try to answer my Big Question.

9. “George Eliot: Moralist for the 21st Century.” Conference paper, ACCUTE (Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2006)

10. “‘The Soul of Art’: Understanding Victorian Ethical Criticism.” English Studies in Canada 31:2-3 (2005 [published 2007]).

Adam Bede provides a central example for my commentary on Victorian theories of ethics in fiction, specifically that the single most important concept in these theories was that treatment matters more than subject. The morality of Adam Bede is not determined by its story of seduction and infanticide but by its treatment of that story, particularly its efforts to show us Hetty sympathetically.

11. “George Eliot: the Friendly Face of Unbelief.” Novel Readings (June 2007)

A praecursor to my LARB essay on Silas Marner, as is the conference paper on GE as “Moralist for the 21st Century.”

12. “George Eliot and Prayer.” Novel Readings (October 2007)

13. “Middlemarch in the 21st Century.” Novel Readings (April 2008)

14. “‘The Secular Laureate of Revelation’: Zadie Smith on George Eliot.” Novel Readings (May 2008)

I think about this essay a lot, both because it’s a very good essay and because I envy Smith the ability to just start talking about Middlemarch without having to justify (that is, pitch) a story. When you’re Zadie Smith, you can do this. When I write for Open Letters Monthly, I can do this too, which has been one of the great joys of writing for that venue!

15. Summer Reading Group on Adam Bede. The Valve (June-August 2008)

16. “But Why Always George Eliot? Ahdaf Soueif Rewrites Middlemarch.” Conference paper, ACCUTE ( Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, 2009)

Some central ideas of this paper became the core of my Open Letters essay on Soueif. There’s some continuity between this work and the Philosophy and Literature essay in my attempt to relate the form of novels to their ideas.

17. “Second Glance: The Radicalism of Felix Holt.Open Letters (January 2010)

18. Review of Brenda Maddox, George Eliot in Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), Open Letters (November 2010)

19. “Philosophical Novels.” Novel Readings (January 2011)

Recaps some central arguments from my essay in Philosophy & Literature.

20. “George Eliot and Me.” Novel Readings (February 2011)


21. “Ahdaf Soueif: A Novelist in Tahrir Square.” Open Letters (April 2011)

A central issue in the essay is the comparison of Soueif’s fiction to George Eliot’s, particularly Middlemarch, which is evoked through the epigraph to In the Eye of the Sun.

22. “Your Book Club Wants to Read Middlemarch? Great Idea!” Novel Readings (May 2012)

23. “Madame Bovary II: The Doctors’ Wives.” Novel Readings (May 2012)

24. “Macaroni and Cheese: The Failure of George Eliot’s Romola.” Open Letters (June 2012)

25. Review of Nancy Henry, The Life of George Eliot. Open Letters (September 2012)

26. “‘Look No More Backward’: George Eliot and Atheism.” Los Angeles Review of Books (October 2012); rerun in Salon.Com (October 2012)

27. “The Stage Swarmed with Maggies: Helen Edmundson’s The Mill on the Floss.” Novel Readings (November 2012)

28. “Queen of the Gypsies: On Spoilers and the Ending of The Mill on the Floss.” Open Letters (February 2013)

29. “Her Hands Full of Sugar-Plums: The Miserable Morality of Middlemarch.” Open Letters (March 2013)

30. “‘Not Fitted to Stand Alone’: Deborah Weisgall, The World Before Her.” Novel Readings (May 2013)

31. Middlemarch for Book Clubs. Site launched June 2013.

32. Assorted teaching posts, e.g. Mrs. Tulliver’s Teraphim (November 2011); Middlemarch Everywhere (March 2012); Close Reading Middlemarch (February 2012); and Look Who’s Talking in Middlemarch: Quiz Show Edition! (November 2009).

Whew! Actually, an unexpected benefit of compiling this has been to remind me just how much I have written about George Eliot over the years. I have a lot to think about, but also a lot to work with.


13 thoughts on “Writing About George Eliot: An Inventory

  1. Jo VanEvery July 24, 2013 / 12:08 pm

    This seems like a really useful exercise if only in seeing how your thinking has changed and developed since your student days. The most noticeable thing being a rather sharp change in emphasis from an interest in the relationship between literature and history to your current more philosophical interest. I suppose the concern with form and treatment is the thread that carries through though I may be over-interpreting.

    On the question of audience, it seems that you have a feeling you need to convince people to be interested in what you are interested in. This would be tedious. Is it possible to imagine an audience of people already interested in this? What difference would it make to imagine yourself writing for people who are already convinced that whatever you have to say is interesting (or even important) and just want to know all those details?


    • Rohan July 24, 2013 / 8:53 pm

      Jo, I think you are right about the continuity, at least starting at the point you rightly note as a shift in directions. (That was also a post-tenure decision, to abandon work that had ceased to seem particularly important to me.) I am pretty sure that what I want to talk about is that philosophical dimension, and the issues of sympathy and imagination that are so central to it. You are also right that it makes sense to imagine an audience that is already won over — but the other dimension of this is having to pitch the project in a way that explains why it’s so interesting. So it’s a question, I guess, of looking at what I really am interested in talking about, and then thinking about how to explain it well to someone else — not about trying to come up with something else to say that I think I could sell, if that makes sense as a distinction.


      • Jo VanEvery July 30, 2013 / 9:47 am

        That does make sense. Definitely figure out what you want to say. Then pitching it is more like reviewing (probably in a more sensible order) the things that made that thing important to you.


  2. Colleen July 24, 2013 / 1:14 pm

    Or, what about something about why people struggle so much with Eliot? (If they didn’t, Rohan wouldn’t have felt “A Middlemarch for Book Clubs” would be a useful project, right? What other book, besides maybe Finnegans Wake, needs such a thing? Especially a book that actually has a plot!)

    I just re-read Anthony Trollope’s bit in his autobiography about what’s wrong with Eliot’s novels and it boils down to this: they’re too philosophical, and therefore too difficult/young people won’t want to read them! I find it both a relief and a letdown that such concerns aren’t confined to my generation…Who are novelists writing for, what are they trying to do for/give to those readers? Eliot and Trollope perhaps had very different senses of authorial responsibility; I suspect that might be one of the most profound understatements I’ve ever made.

    I’m just thinking out loud as it were; I have no idea how to approach such partially biographical questions with any critical or historical rigor (but then I didn’t have to try much, working in the Renaissance, with relatively little known about the authors I worked on.) Does Eliot talk about her intentions, her reading, her writing, her sense of any of this stuff?

    So, why is it hard? What is it about philosophical fiction that is hard? Is it that Eliot, in spite of over-dissecting everything (that’s Trollope again)


    • Rohan July 24, 2013 / 8:57 pm

      Colleen, that issue of why she’s a bit more difficult / less popular one is one that I’ve noticed does recur in my OLM essays, usually with poor Jane Austen standing in as the antagonist, as a writer who’s easier for people to love. You’re right to point to the Middlemarch for Book Clubs as another symptom of my own interest in this question. I guess if I could, I’d like to do on a larger scale the kind of thing I’ve tried to do in the OLM essays, that is, show some of the pleasures and the interest of her approach, admitting that sometimes (Romola!) it gets a bit much but that it’s always worth that effort.


      • Colleen July 25, 2013 / 6:02 pm

        Here’s a companion question, just to satisfy my own curiosity (and because maybe I feel like bringing down the wrath of the internet on my head): Why do people like Jane Austen so much? I don’t see what the big deal is.


        • Rohan July 25, 2013 / 6:10 pm

          There are some suggestions in this book – and my review of it…


          I have wondered the same thing sometimes, obviously. I only really like two of her novels (P &P and Persuasion). In some cases I think it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: people are absolutely sure she’s amazing so they read her with that as their guiding assumption. But for other people, I suppose that for people who like that sort of thing, she is the sort of author they really, really like! I have a colleague (quoted in that review, IIRC) who protests that she is a “hack” — so at any rate the adulation is not unanimous. I’m find with people loving whatever books and authors they love, of course. But I am so tired of All Things Austen that it makes me a bit cranky sometimes.


        • Amateur Reader (Tom) July 25, 2013 / 6:43 pm

          The current Austen craze is a cosmic re-balancing of the 19th century Walter Scott craze.

          These are forces beyond our understanding.

          Also, Mansfield Park is a well-made novel – hack, please!


  3. Jeffry House July 24, 2013 / 5:19 pm

    I’ve read only the response to Martha Nussbaum, and the material which has appeared in Open Letters and/or Novel Readings, so my suggestion may be off the wall.

    When I ask myself what I think is an underappreciated vein in Eliot, I think of her translation of David Strauss’s Life of Jesus. That book was a huge intellectual event all over Europe, and the kind of close reading a translator must do requires repeatedly turning to the text and to nuances of meaning. I believe Eliot herself wrote an article about this, but it seems to me that such work would have knitted her to Europe-wide questions. How exactly this happened, would be interesting to me.

    Your Nussbaum essay dealt with Eliot as a proponent of moral philosophy; did the figure of the historical, non-divine, Jesus inform that philosophy, and if so, how? (I believe Strauss talks about the ethical contribution he thinks such a historical figure can make.)

    Bear in mind that my Eliot knowledge strives to attain the level attained by an average undergraduate. This may all be old hat among those who know stuff. It seems to me though that a book about Eliot as part of something greater, history and ethics, Europe and England, would have broader attraction.


    • Rohan July 24, 2013 / 9:04 pm

      Jeffry, that’s a very interesting suggestion you have. I don’t at this point see myself taking quite that route, e.g. focusing either on that translation or specifically on the role of the historical Jesus in her philosophy. But I am very interested (obviously, not uniquely so!) in her philosophy as a secular one: a few of my blog posts, one conference paper, and the essay on Silas Marner for the Los Angeles Review of Books all talk about religion in her fiction. There are certainly lots of serious scholarly books that put her in the kind of rich context you mention (I’m thinking of one called George Eliot’s Intellectual Life, for instance). I don’t know that much attempt has been made to write about this for a broader audience, though.

      I think my own guiding light right now is that what I really want to do is cross-over literary criticism, not intellectual history–an arbitrary distinction in some ways, especially where GE is concerned, but what that means to me is I want to be talking about her novels, about the experience of reading them, about reading them closely and thoughtfully and appreciating their form as well as their ideas — so not extracting philosophical precepts to present in the abstract or doing a lot of contextualizing. The Zadie Smith essay I mention above (now in her collection “Changing My Mind”) is exemplary, to me, in this respect. It does bring in intellectual contexts but very much in the spirit of appreciating Middlemarch as a novel.

      I think I’m rambling now! But replying to everyone’s comments has helped me see that there are already some limits and directions in my head about this.


      • Jeffry House July 25, 2013 / 12:46 am

        We like your rambling.


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