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The Cambridge Introduction to George Eliot
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  • Page extent: 142 pages
  • Size: 228 x 152 mm
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 (ISBN-13: 9780521854627)

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  • Published April 2008

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The Cambridge Introduction to
George Eliot

As the author of The Mill on the Floss and Middlemarch, George Eliot was one of the most admired novelists of the Victorian period, and she remains a central figure in the literary canon today. She was the first woman to write the kind of political and philosophical fiction that had previously been a male preserve, combining rigorous intellectual ideas with a sensitive understanding of human relationships and making her one of the most important writers of the nineteenth century. This innovative introduction provides students with the religious, political, scientific and cultural contexts that they need to understand and appreciate her novels, stories, poetry and critical essays. Nancy Henry also traces the reception of her work to the present, surveying a range of critical and theoretical responses. Each novel is discussed in a separate section, making this the most comprehensive short introduction available to this important author.

Nancy Henry is Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York at Binghamton. She is the author of, among other books, George Eliot and the British Empire (Cambridge, 2002; paperback edition, 2006).




Cambridge Introductions to Literature




This series is designed to introduce students to key topics and authors. Accessible and lively, these introductions will also appeal to readers who want to broaden their understanding of the books and authors they enjoy.

•Ideal for students, teachers, and lecturers

•Concise, yet packed with essential information

•Key suggestions for further reading

Titles in this series

Eric Bulson The Cambridge Introduction to James Joyce

Warren Chernaik The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s History Plays

John Xiros Cooper The Cambridge Introduction to T. S. Eliot

Patrick Corcoran The Cambridge Introduction to Francophone Literature

Gregg Crane The Cambridge Introduction to The Nineteenth-Century American Novel

Kirk Curnutt The Cambridge Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald

Janette Dillon The Cambridge Introduction to Early English Theatre

Janette Dillon The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Penny Gay The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare’s Comedies

Jane Goldman The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf

Kevin J. Hayes The Cambridge Introduction to Herman Melville

Nancy Henry The Cambridge Introduction to George Eliot

Leslie Hill The Cambridge Introduction to Jacques Derrida

David Holdeman The Cambridge Introduction to W. B. Yeats

Adrian Hunter The Cambridge Introduction to the Short Story in English

C. L. Innes The Cambridge Introduction to Postcolonial Literatures

M. Jimmie Killingsworth The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman

Pericles Lewis The Cambridge Introduction to Modernism

Ronan McDonald The Cambridge Introduction to Samuel Beckett

Wendy Martin The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson

Peter Messent The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain

David Morley The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing

Ira Nadel The Cambridge Introduction to Ezra Pound

Leland S. Person The Cambridge Introduction to Nathaniel Hawthorne

John Peters The Cambridge Introduction to Joseph Conrad

Justin Quinn The Cambridge Introduction to Modern Irish Poetry

Sarah Robbins The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe

Martin Scofield The Cambridge Introduction to the American Short Story

Emma Smith The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare

Peter Thomson The Cambridge Introduction to English Theatre, 1660–1900

Janet Todd The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen

Theresa M. Towner The Cambridge Introduction to William Faulkner

Jennifer Wallace The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy




The Cambridge Introduction to
George Eliot

NANCY HENRY



CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi

Cambridge University Press
The Edinburgh Building, Cambridge CB2 8RU, UK

Published in the United States of America by Cambridge University Press, New York

www.cambridge.org
Information on this title: www.cambridge.org/9780521670975

© Nancy Henry 2008

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception
and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements,
no reproduction of any part may take place without
the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2008

Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

A catalogue record for this publication is available from the British Library

ISBN 978-0-521-85462-7 hardback
ISBN 978-0-521-67097-5 paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs
for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not
guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.



In Memoriam
George Brite Merchant (1920–2002)
Nancy Brite Merchant Henry (1929–2003)
Bitsy (1988–2005)




Contents




  Preface page viii
  Acknowledgements x
  Abbreviations xi
 
  chapter 1 Life 1
 
 
  chapter 2 Historical contexts 14
 
  chapter 3 Literary influences 30
 
  chapter 4 Works 41
 
  Reviews and essays 41
  Scenes of Clerical Life 46
  Adam Bede 52
  The Mill on the Floss 56
  Silas Marner, “The Lifted Veil” and “Brother Jacob” 62
  Romola 70
  Felix Holt, The Radical 77
  Poetry 83
  Middlemarch 88
  Daniel Deronda 94
  Impressions of Theophrastus Such 101
 
  chapter 1 Afterlife
 
  Notes 104
  Further reading 120
  Index 123


Preface




Two of George Eliot’s fictional heroines fantasize about journeying to see a famous writer. Unhappy Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss harbors a pathetic dream: “she would go to some great man – Walter Scott, perhaps – and tell him how wretched and how clever she was, and he would surely do something for her” (Mill, Ⅳ:3). Equally wretched Romola leaves her husband with the intention of visiting “the most learned woman in the world, Cassandra Fedele, at Venice” to ask her advice about how she can learn to support herself (R, Ⅱ:36). Perhaps the narrator of Adam Bede offers the explanation for why neither Maggie nor Romola realizes her fantasy: “if you would maintain the slightest belief in human heroism, you must never make a pilgrimage to see the hero” (AB, Ⅱ:17).

   George Eliot (Marian Evans Lewes) was a literary hero to many during her life and to subsequent generations of readers and writers. In historical memory, she is as compelling and charismatic a figure as she was in life. Her astonishing mind led men and women to fall in love with her even before she began to write fiction. Some fell in love with her through reading her fiction. In the final years of her life, many came to pay tribute at the carefully orchestrated afternoon salons in her London home, the Priory. After her death, some of the pilgrims became disillusioned, and her reputation suffered.

   It is not surprising that 150 years since she published her first story, her fiction too has attracted acolytes and detractors, both with a peculiar intensity that reflects the ambivalent feelings of subsequent generations toward the Victorian age, which Eliot so powerfully represents. The realism that was praised in the mid nineteenth century for extending sympathy to common, unheroic people was often criticized at the end of the twentieth century for its essentially middle-class perspective. Such responses suggest that how we read George Eliot’s writing has everything to do with our own historical context, but to appreciate her works properly, we need to know something about their contexts.

   This book provides an introduction to Eliot’s life, reading and historical milieu, contexts that are intimately related: reading was part of her life and her life is part of history. As her much-admired contemporary Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote in her verse novel, Aurora Leigh (1856): “The world of books is still the world” (Bk. 1, line 808). Interpretations of the individual works offered here may suggest some reasons why today’s readers will find relevance to their world in Eliot’s characters, her plots and the hard philosophical and moral questions they raise. The contexts make the texts more accessible so that readers may discover the intellectual and moral challenges – as well as the pleasures – of reading them.

   Eliot’s books remain popular, or perhaps more accurately, “canonical,” generating editions, companions, and books and articles from a wide variety of critical perspectives. The proliferation of interpretations and scholarship is a testament to the richness – and to some extent the difficulty – of her writing. Scholarship adds to our knowledge, and criticism provokes our thinking; both are immensely helpful in exploring the complexities of Eliot’s essays, novels, and poetry. The most compelling experience of her writing, however, will be personal, and will follow only from close, engaged, and informed reading.

   Eliot’s works speak to universal human experiences of the young and old: to misunderstood children, like Maggie Tulliver; to anyone who has lived with a secret, like Mrs Transome; to idealists, like Dorothea Brooke, who persist in bad choices with the best of intentions; to ambitious professionals like Tertius Lydgate, who become weighted down with petty politics and domestic cares; to women trapped in bad marriages like Romola and Gwendolen; or to those who have been adopted and wonder about their parentage like Daniel Deronda. Eliot’s subtle, psychological portraits of these and many other characters account for the power her fiction still has today.

   Just as Eliot’s fiction showed – boldly for her time – that ordinary people could be the heroes and heroines of novels, so she knew that the great writer she had become, attracting pilgrims in want of advice, was really not a hero at all, but a fallible human being. The novelist Anne Thackeray Ritchie reported Eliot as asking, “if she hadn’t been human with feelings and failings like other people, how could she have written her books?”1 Perhaps this is why heroes should not be visited. Eliot knew that the best place to search for the wisdom of great writers was their writings.




Abbreviations



References to GE’s works will be to volume and chapter numbers and the titles will be abbreviated as follows:

AB Adam Bede. Ed. Valentine Cunningham (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1996).
BJ “Brother Jacob.” The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob. Ed. Helen Small (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1999).
DD Daniel Deronda. Ed. Graham Handley (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1988).
FH Felix Holt. Ed. Fred C. Thomson (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1988).
GEL The George Eliot Letters. Ed. Gordon S. Haight, 9 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1954–5, 1978).
LV “The Lifted Veil.” The Lifted Veil and Brother Jacob. Ed. Helen Small (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1999).
Mill The Mill on the Floss. Ed. Gordon Haight (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1981).
MM Middlemarch. Ed. David Carroll (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1988).
Poetry The Complete Shorter Poetry of George Eliot. Ed. Antonie Gerard van den Broek (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2005).
R Romola. Ed. Andrew Brown (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1994).
Scenes Scenes of Clerical Life. Ed. Tomas A. Noble (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1988).
SCW George Eliot, Selected Critical Writings. Ed. Rosemary Ashton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
SEPW Selected Essays, Poems, and Other Writings. Eds. A. S. Byatt and Nicholas Warren (New York: Penguin, 1990).
SM Silas Marner. Ed. Terence Cave (Oxford: World’s Classics, 1996).
TS Impressions of Theophrastus Such. Ed. Nancy Henry (London: Pickering and Chatto, and Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994).



Acknowledgements



I would like to thank Tom Cooper, Phil Rogers, and Margaret Wright for reading individual chapters of this book. I thank Graham Handley and Linda Bree for reading the entire manuscript. I have benefited from all of their comments. My ongoing conversation with Graham Handley about George Eliot’s life and writing, begun over fifteen years ago, continues to provide insight and inspiration, and I thank him particularly for helping me to write an introduction to George Eliot.

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