Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 31 (2000) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
Jerome Beaty died on 30 January 2000, at the age of 75, after a year of illness during which he was working actively on Dickens and George Eliot. He was a fine Victorian scholar and critic, an editor, and a pioneer in the field of George Eliot textual studies. His book Middlemarch from Notebook to Novel (Urbana, 1960) analysed the genesis and composition of one of the most complex English novels, revealing that what seemed a seamless whole, more praised than studied, had its origin in two separate narrative beginnings and plans. He showed the painstaking scissors-and-paste which put together the separate enterprises, Middlemarch and Miss Brooke, neither of which took off creatively until, once pointed in each other's direction, the twin conceptions joined in a perfected whole. The scholar's careful, minute reading of manuscripts, proofs, texts and letters turned out to be a study of imagination, its unpredictability, chanciness, wayward and mysterious subterranean or lateral motions. It was a proof that what may begin as distinct texts can cohere through the integrity of an artist's imagination, in form, language, psychology and theme. The innovative study of revision was continued in an essay he wrote for Middlemarch, Critical Approaches to the Novel, which I edited for the Athlone Press (then of the University of London) in 1967.
Critic as well as scholar, Jerome Beaty's textual work always showed a large intelligent literary judgment: for instance he examines variations and revisions of authorial commentary in Middlemarch, while never lapsing, as even later scholars occasionally do, into condescension towards that favourite Victorian narrative mode and figure. He wrote in a lively individual language, less unusual then than now, but exceptionally personal in style, writing as he talked, with enthusiasm tempered by humour, never solemn or reverent or self-involved. His work on George Eliot, Dickens and Charlotte Bronte, was speculative as well as factually exact, analytic as well as textually precise and socially aware. He never forgot that the artist's imagination is a product of what Wordsworth called the very world in which we live, the world in which editors play a part in the final text, in which a publisher's house style will alter an author's punctuation.
He was unusually well-equipped to write a biography of George Eliot, but I suspect was too close to the work of Gordon Haight, of which he was generously appreciative and in some measure critical. A perfectionist who found fault with his work as soon as it seemed finished, he started to revise his Middlemarch book for an English edition commissioned by the Athlone Press, but never finished it to his own satisfaction, and remained less well-known in the UK than he should have been.
Much of his writing was US centred because he devoted much time and work to Norton introductions and anthologies and teaching books, like the subtle and sensitive Poetry from Statement of Meaning (New York, 1965) which he wrote in collaboration with William H. Matchett.