Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 36 (2005) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
This, despite some blemishes and limitations indicated in passing below, is an examination of selected writings by Milton, the stories about him, and the engagement with his life and works which is reflected in the life and works of George Eliot. Nardo's primary aim is to show how Eliot's 'strenuous dialogue with Milton's life and art ... animated the epic novels she wrote for an age of unbelief' (1). Immediately we are struck by the large claims implied by 'animated' and 'epic' and the convenient but dubious definition of 'an age of unbelief'. The statement does scant service to the quality of Nardo's own strenuous dialogue with her subjects. The claims she makes are large, though Eliot's affinities with Milton and later revisions and departures are cogently addressed. Eliot appreciated that Milton's 'readiness to defy contemporary beliefs and customs matched her own.' (6). The Spanish Gypsy, as might be expected, receives close attention - parallels with Paradise Lost are tellingly delved - there is some penetrating analysis of Miltonic associations and reference in Middlemarch, and Nardo's range throughout is impressive, since she takes in Milton's prose, for example the treatises on divorce and Areopagitica, in order to demonstrate the depth and detail of Eliot's own familiarity and conscious assimilation. Nardo examines the 'Milton cult' (26), and takes central issue with the critical concept that 'reading Milton had a debilitating effect on nineteenth-century women writers' (26). She doesn't merely chart influences, but looks at what was written and believed about Milton. Though I am not sure that this is really relevant, Nardo believes that the legends about Milton [as lover and father] 'hover beneath the surface of both Romola and Middlemarch (and, to a lesser degree, Adam Bede and Felix Holt)' (65). The image is inverted though the sense is evident, but in the chapters dealing with those texts one is aware of some straining on Nardo's part. For example, one can accept that Milton 'tinted the lens through which Eliot viewed even Renaissance Florence.' (67), but I find it much more difficult to sense, let alone believe, that Savonarola's meeting with Romola outside Florence has overtones of the 'erotic' and that 'Romola's conversion has become, in part, a seduction' (76).
Due emphasis throughout is rightly given to Eliot's reviews of Keight1ey's 1855 biography of Milton, but occasionally one feels that the quality of this detailed study is not matched by the quality of its footnotes: thus Dr Brabant is described as being middle-aged in 1843 at the time of Marian Evans's infatuation with him (he was in fact 62), While Mark Pattison is dismissed as 'the pedantic and egotistical biographer of both Milton and Isaac Casaubon' (88) without any indication that both studies were written after the publication of Middlemarch (1871-2), being issued in 1875 and 1879 respectively. The above description of Pattison is glib and superficial.