English, Department of



Judith Johnston

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (38)


George Eliot and the Discourses of Medievalism argues that Eliot abandons realism in her last two novels in favour of medievalism, and that recognizing the presence and function of medieval discourses in Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda enables subversive political readings. Johnston positions these readings against criticism of the novels that identifies a collapse of narrative coherence and characterization in Eliot's 'failure' to sustain their apparent realism. In contrast, Johnston proposes that Eliot's manipulation of medievalism signals neither the failure of realism nor realism's antithesis. Johnston argues that the discourses of medievalism that Eliot manipulates share a facility for transformation: hagiography (saints' lives), allegory and romance are 'flexible, capable of changing shape, of shifting from a type of realism, into fantasy, and sometimes back again' (26). Eliot uses these archaic forms to confront contemporary issues and enable a 'shifting political perspective that can accommodate the unlikely and the unexpected', to craft a novel of reform (Middlemarch) and a novel of regeneration (Daniel Deronda) (17). Johnston demonstrates convincingly that Eliot's version of medievalism recalls an age in transition, and that she returns to medieval structures in order to depict improbable and unlikely transformations in the Victorian age, another period of rapid change.

Johnston's reading of Middlemarch aims to defend Dorothea Brooke's centrality through examination of Dorothea, Ladislaw and Lydgate via the interpretative model offered by medieval discourses. Dorothea's life is considered in relation to the lives of female saints, Lydgate is a failed hero in the tradition of romance, and Ladislaw is patterned on the Dreamer figure of allegory. Johnston's discussion of Eliot's research into hagiographies of female saints is fascinating, demonstrating how Eliot drew on Anna Jameson's commentaries on St Theresa as an active reformer in the characterization of Dorothea. Johnston also investigates Eliot's references to the saints Barbara, Clara, Dorothea and Catherine, tracing Dorothea's progress from passive immurement to escape via these saints' lives. She argues that Dorothea's characterization through medieval hagiography is a submerged metaphor for her suppression, and that when she discards restraint after Casaubon's death hagiography is supplanted by a secular narrative. The saints cease to be invoked and Dorothea walks away from the tomb, thus overturning the hagiographic model in which the tomb marks the end of the saint's narrative.