Appearing Elsewhere: “Middlemarch and the ‘Cry From Soul to Soul'”

Dorothea_and_Will_LadislawAn essay I worked on during my sabbatical on faith and fellowship in Middlemarch has just been published in Berfrois. The general themes will not surprise any regular visitors to Novel Readings (or readers of my other essays on George Eliot, particularly my essay on Silas Marner in the Los Angeles Review of Books). In fact, the germ of this essay was a blog post I wrote years ago on George Eliot and prayer; ever since then I have wanted to expand those passing comments into a fuller reading of Middlemarch along those lines, and now I have!

I’ve also written about Middlemarch in a somewhat less consoling way, in my essay on the novel’s “miserable morality” at Open Letters Monthly.

“Janet’s Repentance”: Revisiting a Scene of Clerical Life

scenes2I’m not sure when I last read George Eliot’s first published fiction, Scenes of Clerical Life. It might have been as much as 15 or 20 years ago that I read any of the stories right through, though I have certainly dipped into “Amos Barton” once or twice when thinking or writing about her realism and her intrusive narrator. I picked the book off my shelf again this week because I have been thinking (and will be writing) about scenes of visiting in Eliot’s novels. So many of her climactic moments are set up that way, with a sympathetic visitor bringing comfort or guidance to someone in crisis: Dinah visiting Hetty in prison in Adam Bede, for instance; Lucy visiting Maggie near the end of The Mill on the Floss; perhaps most notably, Dorothea visiting Rosamond in Chapter 81 of Middlemarch. The key thing, of course, is that these are human, rather than divine, “visitations” and thus neatly encapsulate her ongoing translation of religious beliefs into secular practices. As I was collecting examples, I had a vague memory of Edgar Tryan visiting Janet in “Janet’s Repentance,” so I thought I’d go back to the story and see what it adds to the pattern I’m exploring.

“Janet’s Repentance” is interesting for lots of reasons, including its grim account of Janet’s abusive marriage, which has driven her, in her misery and shame, to drink:

‘I’ll teach you to keep me waiting in the dark, you pale, staring fool!’ he said, advancing with his slow, drunken step. ‘What, you’ve been drinking again, have you? I’ll beat you into your senses.’

He laid his hand with a firm grip on her shoulder, turned, her round, and pushed her slowly before him along the passage and through the dining-room door, which stood open on their left hand.

There was a portrait of Janet’s mother, a grey-haired, dark-eyed old woman, in a neatly fluted cap, hanging over the mantelpiece. Surely the aged eyes take on a look of anguish as they see Janet — not trembling, no! it would be better if she trembled — standing stupidly unmoved in her great beauty while the heavy arm is lifted to strike her. The blow falls — another — and another. Surely the mother hears that cry — ‘O Robert! pity! pity!’

“Do you wonder,” asks our narrator, as the sordid tale unfolds, “how it was that things had come to this pass — what offence Janet had committed in the early years of marriage to rouse the brutal hatred of this man? . . . But do not believe,” she goes on,

that it was anything either present or wanting in poor Janet that formed the motive of her husband’s cruelty. Cruelty, like every other vice, requires no motive outside itself — it only requires opportunity. . . . And an unloving, tyrannous, brutal man needs no motive to prompt his cruelty; he needs only the perpetual presence of a woman he can call his own.

“A woman he can call his own”: that remark is strongly reminiscent of Frances Power Cobbe’s powerful 1878 essay “Wife-Torture in England,” in which Cobbe emphasizes the corrupting effect of presumed “ownership”:

The general depreciation of women as a sex is bad enough, but in the matter we are considering [spousal abuse], the special depreciation of wives is more directly responsible for the outrages they endure. The notion that a man’s wife is his PROPERTY, in the sense in which a horse is his property . . . is the fatal root of incalculable evil and misery. Every brutal-minded man, and many a man who in other relations of his life is not brutal, entertains more or less vaguely the notion that his wife is his thing, and is ready to ask with indignation (as we read again and again in the police reports), of any one who interferes with his treatment of her, “May I not do what I will with my own?”

 (If you’re interested in reading more on this aspect of Victorian marriage and its treatment in Victorian fiction — try Lisa Surridge’s Bleak Houses and Kate Lawson’s The Marked Body, both of which discuss “Janet’s Repentance.”)

millIt’s also interesting how recognizable George Eliot is here. Many of the things she does better (or at least more fully, or with greater finesse) in her later novels are here already, such as the patient unfolding of social context — the “thick description” within which her plots acquire so much more meaning than their simple actions might indicate — and the pulsation between individual moments and philosophical ideas, facilitated by the narrator’s commentary on the action. Just as, despite her protective camouflage, Eliot’s friends “IRL” knew her when they read her earliest fiction, any readers of The Mill on the Floss know they are in familiar company when they see this anticipation of the famous “men of maxims” passage:

Yet surely, surely the only true knowledge of our fellow-man is that which enables us to feel with him – which gives us a fine ear for the heart-pulses that are beating under the mere clothes of circumstance and opinion. Our subtlest analysis of schools and sects must miss the essential truth, unless it be lit up by the love that sees in all forms of human thought and work, the life and death struggles of separate human beings.

And Janet’s appeal to Mr. Tryan — “It is very difficult to know what to do: what ought I to do?” — is one that has echoes across Eliot’s oeuvre, including in a passage in Middlemarch that is central to my thinking about the broader question of religion in Eliot’s fiction: “Help me, pray,” says an overwrought Dorothea to Dr. Lydgate; “Tell me what I can do.”

The big difference, though, is that in Middlemarch the appeal may have the same impulse as a prayer (“an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer”) but it is directed at a doctor, and it’s not even really his medical advice she wants but something more fundamentally human, some guidance about how to be in the circumstances. The transformation from sacred to secular is even more distinct in the climactic encounter between Dorothea and Rosamond much later in the novel. But in “Janet’s Repentance” not only is Janet asking a clergyman (and an Evangelical one, at that) for help, but his advice is religious advice — and it is not undercut, or translated into humanistic terms, by the narrator. David Lodge notes in his introduction to my Penguin edition that “Janet’s Repentance” is “a completely non-ironical account of a conversion from sinfulness to righteousness through the selfless endeavours of an Evangelical clergyman.” He goes on to suggest that Eliot’s “religion of Humanity” is just below the surface, but it’s certainly not visible the way it is in her later works. It’s true that Tryan’s kindly fellowship is essential to his success as a religious ambassador: “Blessed influence of one true loving human soul on another!” says the narrator. But it’s trust in God that Tryan recommends, and that brings Janet peace.

Durade GEThe ending of the story is a bit of a disappointment: like Anne Brontë’s Helen Huntingdon, Janet feels obliged to stand by her man as he pays the final price for his cruel and self-destructive behavior. I think that in both cases this affirmation of ‘proper’ wifely devotion is important to direct our attention to the sins of the husbands. Brontë has a more political point to make, though, about the structural as well as ideological failures of marriage, while Eliot’s story focuses us more on the internal moral life and on the redemptive value of compassion and faith. Janet also does not get the hard-earned Happily Ever After that Helen enjoys, at least, not in this life: as Lodge points out, Eliot “even compromised with her belief in immortality to the extent of allowing her hero and heroine a ‘sacred kiss of promise’ at the end.” Disappointing, as I said, and surprising, from an author who wrote so stringently about the immorality of acting on the basis of future expectations rather than immediate consequences:

The notion that duty looks stern, but all the while has her hand full of sugar-plums, with which she will reward us by and by, is the favourite cant of optimists, who try to make out that this tangled wilderness of life has a plan as easy to trace as that of a Dutch garden; but it really undermines all true moral development by perpetually substituting something extrinsic as a motive to action, instead of the immediate impulse of love or justice, which alone makes an action truly moral.

Was she catering to her as-yet unconverted audience, do you suppose, in setting Janet up as a memorial to “one whose heart beat with true compassion, and whose lips were moved by fervent faith”? Or practicing what she herself preached by inhabiting, as fully as possible, a point of view different from her own?

This Week In My Classes: Micromanaging Middlemarch

OxfordMaybe there should be a question mark in the title of this post. I hope there should be! But I’m not sure, and that makes me just a little anxious.

It is always hard to find a good balance between showing students what’s interesting and important in the novel we’re studying and letting them explore and discover things on their own. But it is particularly challenging with a novel as dense as Middlemarch, and I fear that — in recent years especially, as I’ve become more certain of my own ideas about the novel — I have become a little too controlling during our class time.

In my defense,  Middlemarch is long, our time is short, and an inductive or Socratic approach guarantees some serious inefficiency in arriving at anything like a thorough understanding of the novel. More than that, it’s flat-out unreasonable to expect anyone reading the novel for the first time to keep good enough track of the details (whether of plot or of narrative commentary) to put the pieces together confidently into an interpretation they feel ready to defend. It takes a lot of time and rereading to do that! And that’s not even taking into account the kinds of contextual information — historical, political, theoretical — that helps make sense of things that happen in the novel, or that enriches a reading that otherwise might focus (of necessity) quite superficially on the plot.

It’s true that, as Steve recently argued about Wuthering Heights, it is perfectly possibly to have a thrilling reading experience “without a speck of annotation,” or its in-class equivalent. My own first reading of Middlemarch was innocent in just that way. But in class, we come to study Middlemarch, not (just) to praise it, and I believe strongly that “expert guidance” can enhance that reading experience in myriad ways — else how would I show up for work every day? At the same time, it’s my job to train students to read well themselves, not just to show them how well I can read! With that in mind, I proceed in all of my classes through a blend of lecture and discussion, laying out facts and, where it seems appropriate, big-picture interpretive frameworks, but also asking open-ended but purposeful questions that begin with observations and then build towards interpretations by looking for connections and patterns. Even when I am outright lecturing, I’m not “just” transferring information (something I think is in fact easily undervalued) — I’m also modelling the process; class discussion is a collaborative way of doing the same thing. The further along we get in our discussions the less distance there is between observation and analysis, because (if all goes well) the early classes demonstrate the most fruitful lines of inquiry, or lay down tracks to pursue as we continue our reading.penguin

But, again, open discussion has built-in inefficiencies, and with Middlemarch — both because I love it so and because I have worked hard myself to connect its ideas across its many parts — I am always tempted to minimize them by doing more demonstrations, more set pieces of explanation. For instance, over time I have developed a range of detailed of lecture notes that focus on particular themes or problems (interpretation and misinterpretation, say, or reform, or religion) and trace them through examples from across wide swathes of the novel. This is precisely the kind of thing that’s hard for students to do: by the time they get to Chapter 31, Chapter 15 is a long way behind them; by the time they get to Chapter 77, how much detail can they remember of Chapter 43? I also have a few favorite examples of the novel’s formal properties that I like to work through with some care so that they see how its structure reflects its central ideas. Again, these are hard things to notice on a first reading (the chronological shifts especially), so it seems right that I should steer the class pretty closely through all of this. But it’s not good if my well-meaning guidance precludes their — and my — finding out what they are interested in or letting them work out connections on their own, or if it means I am just using our class time to insist on my own way of reading the novel. That’s sort of what they are there for, but in some important ways it is not what they are there for at all!

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking at them without interruption for the whole class period! Last week, precisely because I’ve been worrying about this micromanaging tendency, I did not stick rigidly to my notes but consciously tried to throw out more open-ended questions and see where they took us. It’s pretty clear, though, that for many of them the novel is a lot to manage on their own (I’m not sure I want to know how many have fallen behind in the reading). When not a lot of answers are forthcoming, what’s a micromanager  control-freak  enthusiast responsible teacher to do but fill in the gaps herself?

But I’m hopeful that they are oriented reasonably well in the novel now. We’re heading into sections that lend themselves to genuine debate, too, and that should give the discussion some good momentum. Toomorrow, for instance, we’ll consider whether Dorothea should have promised Casaubon to “carry out my wishes . . . [and] avoid doing what I should deprecate, and apply yourself to do what I should desire.” His request prompts a painful inner struggle for her, so presumably there are genuine reasons on both sides. And we’re not far from Raffles’s death, which raises lots of interesting questions about culpability. Overt crises in the action typically help bring more abstract problems (here, about sympathy and morality) into focus and make them seem more urgent.

I do have more specific ideas I very much want us to “cover” about Middlemarch — points I think it is genuinely important to make, moments I believe we should pay particular attention to — before we reach the end of our allotted time for the novel. What I have to keep in mind is that it is impossible to actually cover everything we might conceivably address. Even my own “must-do” list is incredibly partial (Fred and Mary, for instance, always seem to get short shrift, which is all kinds of wrong). But that’s OK! “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending”: the narrator says so! I just need to keep my inner Casaubon under control . . .  Still, it’s both funny and frustrating to realize that it is getting harder rather than easier to find that ideal balance with this, my favorite book of all to read and teach.

#1book140 Q & A: Stephanie Burt and I Talk Middlemarch

OxfordThanks to the folks at #1book140 for including me in their 2-month Middlemarch read-along, for setting up a Q&A with me and Stephanie Burt, and then for preparing this Storify of it! We both really enjoyed going back and forth about this great novel, as I hope you can tell.

I am capable of going on at much greater length about Middlemarch: if these 140-character tidbits whet your appetite, you might enjoy this list of my top 10 reasons for liking George Eliot so very much, this essay on the miserable morality of Middlemarch, or my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. You can read the Storify of Rebecca Mead’s#1book140  Q&A here. You can read Stephanie Burt’s review of her book here; and you can watch her wonderful TED talk about why people need poetry here.

Addendum: Here’s the missing first part of my answer to Stephanie’s first question, without which some of what follows may seem a bit garbled!


June Updates: a New Open Letters Monthly and a Fun Q&A!


First of all, the June issue of Open Letters Monthly is up! I won’t itemize all of its contents, because I hope you’ll come over and have a look for yourself. But I will mention that it is the first issue in a while to include something by every editor. We’re pretty proud about that. My own contribution is this month’s “Title Menu” feature. We’ve always talked a lot about the popularity of the so-called “listicle,” but most of the ones we’d seen around just didn’t seem substantial enough for the lofty aspirations we have for long-form writing at OLM. Then it occurred to us that there’s no reason a list has to be trivial, or that long(er)-form writing can’t be fun. So we’ve been experimenting with our own version of the listicle since January, with all kinds of cool topics from memorable birth scenes to art crime to books that might (or might not) be poetry. Mine lists eight books inspired by George Eliot — there are others, I know, but these are ones I’ve particularly enjoyed.

In other news, I had mentioned not long ago that I would be participating in a Q&A on Twitter organized by the folks who run the Atlantic’s #1book140 club.* For a while I thought maybe it wasn’t going to happen after all, since #1book140 decided not to officially read to the end of Middlemarch (I’m not sure how much participation they usually get in their discussions, but it did seem to me that things weren’t exactly hopping on the hashtag). But it did! They talked Stephen Burt into being the Q to my A, and he and I had a grand old time going back and forth for an hour last night. He had a lot of interesting questions for me. One in particular that I had never thought about before was how the most famous “takeout quotations” from the novel change when you look at them actually in the novels. The Atlantic people are putting together a ‘Storify’ of our conversation, so when it’s ready I’ll be sure to post a link to it so you can find out not just what I said about that but which character in the novel I most identified with at 18, and what quotation I would choose if I ever opted to get a Middlemarch tattoo! I so much enjoyed exchanging ideas and favorite moments from the novel with someone else who’s excited about it: it made me realize that I’ve been thinking about it in the abstract recently more than I’ve actually been reading it. Hooray for having put it on my book list for 19thC Fiction in the fall term and having an excuse to go once more into all the details.

*In case you’re wondering how good this has been for the stats over at Middlemarch for Book Clubs, you’ll be glad to know that it has increased the hits there by literally dozens. 🙂

Open Letters Monthly: The February 2014 Issue!

It’s up! Go read it!

SaccoNovo1In case you need more detailed encouragement, here are some highlights:

One of my favourite contributors, Joanna Scutts, is back with a wonderful piece on Joe Sacco’s The Great War, which is a remarkable-sounding panoramic drawing of the first day of the Battle of the Somme inspired by the Bayeux Tapestry:

Unlike other drawings of the war, like Otto Dix’s Der Krieg cycle, the horror isn’t etched on the faces of men in pain; few expressions are visible, and we never get closer. Nor is it in the depiction of the explosions, which are delicately rendered, pointilliste swirls: artillery bombardment by Hokusai or Seurat. You just keep folding over the accordion pages, and gradually the battlefield becomes a casualty clearing station, the Red Cross wagons waiting, a white flag waving from a broken tree branch. And further on, past the walking wounded and the hospital tents and the lines of men on stretchers, there’s the end of the line—new trenches being dug, for bodies this time, and crosses nailed in. One gravedigger pauses with his arm across his face, exhausted by the heat or the horror. In the background a column of ants: innumerable new troops marching to the line in a loop that leads back to the beginning.

Steve Donoghue continues his series on the Tudors with Chris Skidmore’s The Rise of the Tudors; as usual he has as much fun (and does as good a job) telling us the story as telling us about the book under review:

According to a legend that’s too pleasing to be disbelieved, that story had its beginning in a moment of lust. Catherine of Valois, the pretty young widow of England’s King Henry V and mother of his son Henry VI, was living in the confines of Windsor Castle (as Skidmore points out, this in itself was cause for worry among the peers of the realm, since Catherine was young and strong-willed and kept calling herself Queen – English society hadn’t seen a setup like that in two centuries and didn’t quite know what to do with it) when she happened to glimpse a minor court functionary, Owen Tudor, swimming in the river with some friends, his long auburn hair plastered wet across his back. The girl was instantly smitten, and in due course there were Tudor children by the half-dozen, including two strapping sons, Edmund and Jasper, whose half-brother Henry VI gave them both rapid preferment at Court.

Ivan Keneally writes on Flannery O’ Connor’s A Prayer Journal:

O’Connor notes that the principal purpose of the letters is to express “adoration” for God, but much of their substance swings from distressed supplication to self-effacing confession. She sometimes prayed for guidance in prayer itself, to learn to love and draw near to a personal being who resists full comprehension. She seems to grope for a more visceral commitment and for the courage to surrender herself to God in a way that inspires rather than constrains her artistic creativity and rational powers; she pines to be “intelligently holy,” anticipating a preoccupation she would revisit ten years later in her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer” (1957), which investigates “what effect Catholic dogma has on the fiction writer who is Catholic.” She hungers for a beatitude that nurtures her creativity, not doctrinal shackles that constrain it. She even entreats God to supply her with a surfeit of inspiration, going as far as to describe the divine as the epiphanic source of her creative output, reducing herself to a mere vessel of God’s will:

Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don’t let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.

Greg Waldmann scrutinizes Andrew Sullivan’s I Was Wrong:

Viewers of The Dish today may find it hard to believe that this is the same person they read every day. (In fact, several have written to say they considered cancelling their subscriptions after they read I Was Wrong.) Today Sullivan is skeptical of intervention abroad, and generally wary of extreme political speech at home. But more than that, he – along with his staff – have fashioned The Dish into an almost bewildering cacophony of voices on the issues of the moment, and reserved its weekends for posts about and links to ruminations on philosophical, social and spiritual issues. It has become what he recently called “a very rare place online that takes some time in the week to gather and air the best ideas, arguments, insights in online writing about literature, love, death, philosophy, faith, art, atheism, and sexuality.” It is the most consistently interesting site on the web, and one of the more fair-minded as well. Iraq is at the heart of this transformation, but there are other reasons which this narrowly-focused e-book understandably leaves out.

 And the editors all pitched in to help you find the perfect verse for your Valentine. I like my own choices, of course (I have heard students mock those lines of Aurora Leigh, but I simply pity them for not appreciating the wonderful convergence of erotic ecstasy and prosody) — but of the others, I especially like Colleen’s contribution, by the 11th-century “poetess-courtezan” Izumi Shikibu:

It would console me
to see your face,
even fleetingly, between
lightning flashes at dusk


Also included: my review of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch. Long-time readers of this blog will know I’ve been lying in wait for this book ever since Mead’s New Yorker essay appeared three years ago. I use that predatory metaphor deliberately but also ironically, because by the time the book was officially announced as ‘forthcoming’ I was already less inclined to pounce. Though I stand by my New Yorker critique as an honest and rigorous reflection of my priorities for writing about Middlemarch, I have learned — from the comments on that post and from the evolution of my own thinking — to be (somewhat) more open-minded about how other people choose to write about it (or what they want to read about it).

This doesn’t mean that everything has changed! As I say in my review, I began the book feeling pretty skeptical. But how pleasantly surprised I was! As I say in the review, “Mead won me over.” And I do think it’s not just that the book is “more expansive than the New Yorker essay . . . better balanced, more thought-provoking, and, unexpectedly, more self-effacing.” It’s that I feel more positive and less defensive myself. Most importantly, I have done a lot more of my own non-academic writing about George Eliot since 2011, but  I have also come to feel more connected to a greater variety of conversations about books, not just through my blog but through the people I now know on Twitter (full disclosure: including Mead herself). I can see now, too, that it’s a good thing that Mead hasn’t written same kind of book I want to write. If she did, after all, there wouldn’t be any need for my book! I admit that amidst the flurry of publicity and praise for her book, I am finding it harder to hang on to my ideas about what my book should be, and especially to imagine what the audience for it would be, if her kind of book is the kind of book so many people like. But, putting my own selfish preoccupations aside (which is what Middlemarch teaches, after all), I can say that hers is a lovely book of its kind. I think my review is scrupulous, and I know it to be completely sincere:

What My Life in Middlemarch ultimately offered me — what I cherished about it — was its celebration of the continuities as well as the changes that mark our growing into ourselves, and of the special role books so often have in this process as tangible symbols of who we have been, are, and aspire to be. “Most serious readers,” Mead rightly notes, “can point to one book that has a place in their life like the one Middlemarch has in mine. I chose Middlemarch — or Middlemarch chose me — and I cannot imagine life without it.”

Why Do I Like George Eliot So Very Much? My Top Ten Reasons!

Eliot Drawing

A wise man once told me that the introduction to my long-imagined book should represent “the passionate peroration you’d deliver verbally about ‘Why George Eliot?’ if it came up in intelligent company.” After drawing up my inventory of everything I’ve written about George Eliot over the years, I started to feel a bit overwhelmed by the particulars, and so I thought I’d get back to basics of that kind, without a lot of second guessing about what counts as a unifying idea or what I’d be able to make an appealing ‘pitch’ for.

For some reason, in my head the peroration is always in response to the question “Why do you like George Eliot so very much,” which is of course a modified version of Charlotte Brontë’s challenge to George Henry Lewes to explain his admiration of Jane Austen. Though I enjoy and admire Austen’s novels, this question still seems perfectly reasonable to me, though given the extraordinary heights of contemporary Austen-mania, it’s one that sounds more contrarian now than it would have in 1848! What I appreciate most about Brontë’s question is the interesting conversation it begins: the clarity of Brontë’s catalog of complaints about what she saw as Austen’s limitations, and Lewes’s intelligent acknowledgment of those limits even as he concluded that Austen was “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” Given her own very different experiences and sensibilities, it’s no wonder that Brontë could not see greatness in a writer who had, she thought, no poetry. And Lewes’s answer, and his more extensive commentary on Austen in his essay on “Lady Novelists” (included in this collection, if you’re interested!) both point us towards yet another standard of excellence — one realized in the novels of the woman who became Mrs. Lewes.

Conversations about authors we love should not be approached in a competitive spirit. After all, there’s no need to rank writers, or to pit them against each other; happily, literary greatness is not a zero-sum game. As Henry James says in “The Art of Fiction” (included in that same collection),

There is no impression of life, no manner of seeing it and feeling it, to which the plan of the novelist may not offer a place; you have only to remember that talents so dissimilar as those of Alexandre Dumas and Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Gustave Flaubert, have worked in this field with equal glory.

“Nothing, of course,” James also observes, “will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it; the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.” But establishing the grounds of our admiration — clarifying them both for ourselves and for others — may contribute to appreciation, which is a more complex, or at least more self-conscious, response than that “primitive” liking. The process is inevitably self-revelatory, because our preferences convey, implicitly at least, something about the kinds of people we are — or aspire to be. But that, again, is no grounds for either discomfort or disagreement: if (James again) “the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” so too the community of readers can, happily, contain multitudes — those who, say, admire Flaubert above all others, and those who … don’t.


This has become rather a long preamble! My reluctance to launch willy-nilly into simplistic lists is one of the many, many reasons I’ll never be a contributor to BuzzFeed or BookRiot. But enough is enough: time to get on with it.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: the top ten reasons I like George Eliot so very much. These are not the only qualities I value in a novelist — not a definitive list of what I think makes a great novelist. Nor are they qualities I think she has exclusively – coincidentally (!), other novelists I greatly admire share many of them. They are simply an outline of the qualities of this novelist that make this reader so appreciative. They are, in point form, my “passionate peroration”!

  1. Her intellectual richness and breadth. Her novels are full of complex ideas about many aspects of human experience and society. I always learn from them, and they always give me a lot to think about. This is not to say that I always agree with what I think she’s saying, but it always seems worth trying to follow her thinking.
  2. Her emphasis on sympathy for our imperfect fellow humans. I find her vision of how we can make life better for each other both beautiful and morally valuable.
  3. Her insistence on the moral significance of art — her understanding of fiction as both an artistic and a philosophical form.
  4. The importance she places on historical and social contexts for people’s behavior. We can’t understand people unless we understand their circumstances, and understanding is a crucial part of sympathy. Understanding and sympathizing are not the same as excusing and forgiving, though.
  5. Her use of literary form to support as well as convey her ideas. Her books are profoundly artful, not just ‘philosophy teaching by examples.’ Reading them is an entire experience.
  6. The sophistication and beauty of her language. All this talk of philosophy and ideas should not be taken as indicating that she isn’t worth reading just for the quality of her prose. It’s also striking to me how varied its cadences are, both within and across books. She has her leaden moments, to be sure, but she is capable of both poetry and inspiration as well.
  7. Her humor, which ranges from sly wit to deft irony to outright comedy.
  8. Her tenderness and pathos. Though at times there is a certain ruthlessness to her, or at least to her narrators, at others she can, with the utmost delicacy (and sometimes with sheer Dickensian sentimentality) rend your heart.
  9. Her people. Amos Barton, Mrs. Poyser, Maggie Tulliver, Tito Melema, Dorothea Brooke, Gwendolen Harleth, Grandcourt: they are distinctly, memorably, themselves, complete with their own histories and families and, my favorite thing, voices. Sure, Adam Bede is a bit too upright, and Felix Holt is wooden in his virtue, but the number of her amazingly good characters (and characterizations) completely overwhelms the weaker ones. Her dialogue is every bit as sharp as Austen’s (and less confined to drawing rooms), and her psychological insights are often astonishing.
  10. Her emphasis on people as members of families and communities. Both her stories and her morals urge us to see ourselves as connected to others — to turn away from egotism and selfishness and to ask, as Dorothea eventually does, “Was she alone in that scene? Was it her event only?” Though I sometimes think this principle has its dark side, I still find it truthful and inspiring.

Lists are artificial things, and 10 is an arbitrary number, but there’s actually a useful discipline in trying to isolate the things that really matter to me in this way. Some of these items certainly overlap, many of them are intricately connected, and there’s plenty more to be said about all of them, but looking over the list, I’m satisfied: imperfections of presentation aside, yes, these are the reasons I like her so very much. What do you think — did I miss any of your favorite things about her?

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.


Middlemarch for Book Clubs: the beta launch

OxfordJust over a year ago, I got somewhat exercised over a news story claiming that Middlemarch is the kiss of death for book clubs. My annoyance was exacerbated by the number of links it got from other sources, which added up to quite the anti-Middlemarch buzz for a while.

My first response was a post on this blog that included a list of 10 tips to help book clubs that wanted to read Middlemarch but felt they could use a little support. In that post I also made a bold pronouncement: “I’ve decided, therefore, to put together an online site to encourage and support reading Middlemarch–whether in book clubs or on your own.” I was and am well aware that there’s no shortage of information about George Eliot and Middlemarch already available, but the work of finding and filtering with an eye to what might be useful and illuminating for book clubs (rather than, say, scholars) is not insignificant, and having relevant basics gathered in one place might — or so I thought and hope — simply be convenient.


At long last, I have a full (if not necessarily finished) version of that site now up for people to take a look at. As you’ll see if you visit it, it’s not a very fancy thing — it’s just a free WordPress site. I chose what I hope is a clean, easy-to-read theme and set up what seemed to me like simple but useful categories. At this point I feel very aware of what is not there (many more topics could be covered under ‘contexts,’ for instance) and also of how what is there reflects my own interests and idiosyncrasies as a reader and teacher of the novel. Depending on the response to this draft version, I could certainly end up adding more material. But I’m not sure I want to try to neutralize my own perspective: good discussions arise from encounters between different people’s minds, and I wanted the site to convey the sense that there’s a person behind it. That’s why I let myself be kind of chatty, including in the questions.

There are lots more excuses explanations I could offer for what I’ve done so far, but I think I’ll leave it at that for now. I welcome feedback, here or at the site, particularly from people who might some day — or have already — chosen Middlemarch for reading with their own book clubs!


Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Preview #1 – Choosing an Edition

I’ve been working industriously on my Middlemarch for Book Clubs website. I hope to have a “beta” version of the whole site ready to make public by the end of June, but I thought it would be helpful for me to get some feedback on a couple of pages sooner rather than later. One reason is that I’m especially concerned about finding the right tone (not too didactic, but clear and practical; enthusiastic but not gushing), as well as the right balance between too much and not enough information. But also — and this is particularly important for a page like this one on choosing an edition — I can’t be sure if I’m providing the right information. I’d be glad to know if you think I’m on the right track, or, if not, what changes or corrections or additions you’d suggest.

Middlemarch for Book Clubs: Choosing an Edition


The first thing to consider is whether you want everyone in your group to use the same edition of Middlemarch. Even if you think that this would be a good thing, it may prove impractical, as people may already own copies, or may prefer one version over another for their own reasons. My classroom experience (as well as experience in my own book club) has taught me that it can be frustrating trying to talk about a long book when people quite literally can’t get on the same page. This is one reason to encourage people to use some system of navigational aids, like post-it notes! However, because Middlemarch is divided into Books and then into chapters, it’s not that hard to find common reference points.

The next question is whether you want to use a ‘popular’ or a scholarly edition. With a novel like Middlemarch, I think it’s a good idea to have a reliable, well-edited text with thorough annotations–not because you must consult them, but because you may want to. Scholarly editions not only include thoughtful introductions and explanatory footnotes (helpful for everything from literary allusions to historical contexts) but also point out changes made to the novel over its publishing history. One of the most interesting of these in Middlemarch is a tweak to its Finale that might spark some debate among the members of your book club, especially if you’ve talked along the way about how far Dorothea is responsible for her own bad choices.



Oxford World’s Classics: This is the edition I usually assign in my classes. It’s readily available, Felicia Bonaparte’s introduction is illuminating, the notes are good but not overwhelming, and the layout is readable and leaves enough room for annotations. In the current printing, there are two paragraphs out of order: bonus points for the person in your group who spots them! (I’ve notified the press and subsequent printings may be corrected.)

penguinPenguin Classics
: This is another fine, reliable edition, with a good introduction by Rosemary Ashton; it has the benefit of also being available as an e-book, which may be an advantage if some of your members use e-readers.

nortonNorton Critical Edition:
This edition is the most scholarly of the options, in that it conveniently packages a scrupulous edition of the novel with a selection of critical essays about it. If that’s the kind of thing your book club likes, this is the edition for you. If you doubt you’ll want to read the criticism, however, I recommend an edition with larger type!

broadviewBroadview Press Edition:
This handsome edition of Middlemarch is supplemented by contemporary reviews and documents (rather than the mostly 20th-century critical materials included in the Norton). It is annotated in great detail, with special attention paid to the role of the visual arts in the novel; it is the only one of these editions that includes illustrations. The footnotes do occasionally almost overwhelm the novel itself. This edition is also available as an e-book.

There are [will be] links to some free electronic full-text editions of Middlemarch on the ‘Links’ page. I don’t particularly recommend these for reading the whole novel, though of course you may find them fine for your purposes. The searchable e-texts are great, however, for finding lines you remember but forgot to mark with post-its!