By Dr Sarah Barnette, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford
Read George Eliot at your own risk. She is not a writer of pithy quotations for your tote bag or feel-good narratives to assuage the ego. George Eliot prepares us to lead other kinds of life, to inhabit other kinds of minds and bodies. She takes her readers seriously.
On 17–19 July at the University of Leicester, 140 delegates gathered together to take Eliot seriously and to commemorate the bicentenary of her birth. I travelled to Leicester from the US as one of around 100 speakers from across the world. Plenary talks were by Rosemary Ashton (UCL) and Nancy Henry (University of Tennessee, Knoxville), with George Levine (Rutgers) and Gillian Beer (Cambridge) in conversation with Sally Shuttleworth (Oxford). The pulse – systole and diastole – of the conference seemed to be an alternation between deep engagement with the relevance of Eliot’s writing and acknowledgement of the difficulty of expanding her readership. The subject of how to popularise Eliot – and to ask why she is not popular yet – framed the discussions for more than one panel. We know her as ‘the female Shakespeare’, a comparison that makes her work sound remote and poignant, serious and playful, topical and neglected all at once. And this is accurate. Reading George Eliot is captivating, but it forces a difficult self-awareness and self-expansion. It is well worth the efforts of readers, who will quickly discover that Eliot’s writing can surprise, illuminate, exasperate, encourage, and inspire us by turns, but readers need to know something of Eliot in order to pick up her books in the first place. We need, for example, a wider readership to start thinking of Middlemarch as something other than ‘the death knell for a book club’.
George Levine remarked in the Plenary with Gillian Beer and Sally Shuttleworth, ‘I don’t think Victorianism should be a hard sell. There’s so much that’s immediately relevant to our contemporary situation’. For Eliot scholars, Eliot’s work is a case in point. Surely, we ask ourselves, the scope of her learning, the depth of her intellectual engagement, and the far reach of her vision should ensure her popularity in north Warwickshire and beyond in ways commensurate with Shakespeare in the south? What of the sheer usefulness of her writing in honing our skills of self-reflection and other-awareness, and in sharpening our interpretative acuity? Or of her sense of humour, so easy to relish as it ranges from the wonderfully gentle to deliciously scathing? Rohan Maitzen (Dalhousie) suggested in her talk on reading outside the academy that Eliot is perhaps a hard sell because her fiction is so morally consequential – in other words, she is too fierce – while Kelda Green (Liverpool) drew our attention to Eliot’s labelling of her works as ‘deeply serious things’. Rosemary Ashton looked to Eliot’s ironic view, calling her a writer in ‘two minds’, ambivalent and even-handed in ways that encourage scepticism. Doubt and the certainty that nothing is certain figure strongly in her work – all of which can sound irritating to the uninitiated. Nevertheless, attendees at GE2019 were united on the front that Eliot’s strategies for stretching readers’ minds and expanding our views of the world are indispensable. Whether she is questioning our assumed distinctions between humans and animals or artfully employing the rhetorical strategy of negation (the practice of describing what is not accurate in a narrative before turning to what is), she is in the business of cultivating interrogative habits of mind and stimulating multitudinous modes of thinking that enhance the quality of our social life and exchanges.
Eliot offers readers a heady mix of (her) learning and experience and many of the speakers have been hard at work to disentangle the myriad subjects woven into Eliot’s ethic and aesthetic. Egyptian mythology, astronomy, interior design, the science of religion, cosmopolitanism, (female) alcoholism, the self-help industry, and Darwinian (and pre-Darwinian) thought, to name a few, were drawn forth for discussion. Eliot’s mastery of contemporary subjects has also lately extended into scholars’ recognition of the interdisciplinary potential of her writing. Sally Shuttleworth commented on the ubiquity of Eliot at NAVSA 2018: ‘I was so interested at NAVSA last year by how much George Eliot there was! In haptics, animal studies, natural histories, disability studies – because she thought so deeply and sensitively about everything’. This growth was similarly evident at GE2019. Josie Billington and Philip Davis (Liverpool) gave papers on Eliot in the context of psychoanalysis and shared reading groups, respectively; Alison Liebling (Cambridge), a criminologist, discussed Eliot’s humanism in relation to the power of decency to make individuals in prisons thrive and expand; Beverley Park Rilett (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) has wedded Eliot studies with the digital humanities with two much-needed open-access resources – the George Eliot Archive and George Eliot Review Online; and in a panel on teaching Eliot, Jennifer L. Holberg (Calvin College), Anita Turlington (University of North Georgia), and Steven J. Venturino each offered strategies to open up the humanities and move beyond training future critics towards instilling productive habits of reading that forge healthier relationships with time in a digital age and foster self- and other-awareness as lifelong mental health practices.
More accessible, perhaps, to novice and expert alike were talks on the power of touch and affective action in Eliot’s work, her use of sensory descriptions to create shared experiences, and her (sometimes eerie) contemplation of silence. I found myself in a community of scholars concerned not only with reading Eliot’s texts, but also in reading items from her life – the things she touched and places she lived. On the first afternoon, partners from the ‘Exploring Eliot Collections Fund Project’ displayed objects from Eliot’s life in a glass case. A square decorative oak teapot stand – reputedly carved by Eliot, or else her brother Isaac or friend Elma Stuart – was placed beside a work diary by her father Robert Evans dated June 1832 to July 1833, Eliot’s thirteenth year. I passed from these to a series of early-twentieth-century north Warwickshire images by the photographer Clare Speight (1869–1959), arranged as postcards and adorned with Eliot quotations and the corresponding fictional place names from her novels. Opposite, the George Eliot Fellowship (GEF) had prepared a table of merchandise, newsletters, and membership forms. An Alliance of Literary Societies bookmark with Eliot’s portrait and the Middlemarch quotation, ‘What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?’, caught my eye, as did the GEF’s leaflet on raising funds for their anticipated building project: ‘We need your help! To create a George Eliot Visitor Centre at Griff where she lived’.
All of this paved the way for settling into an altogether more rounded experience of Eliot via the George Eliot Country Tour, arranged for the final afternoon by John Burton and Vivienne Wood, Chair and Vice-Chair of the GEF, as well as other members of the GEF Council. Attendees were invited to walk awhile in the places Eliot knew as a child and young woman – Arbury Hall and South Farm, Astley Church, and Griff House – and to frame the visits with readings from Scenes of Clerical Life and The Mill on the Floss, in which we find so many of Eliot’s local references and descriptions. Chilvers Coton is Shepperton Church of ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’; Arbury Hall is the Cheverel Manor of ‘Mr. Gilfil’s Love Story’; Astley Church is Knebly. ‘You’re all George Eliot enthusiasts’, John told us as we wound our way along the canal system on the Arbury Estate. ‘Just drink it in’. We have not had our fill yet and will continue to read Eliot – with ourselves and others – at our own risk.