Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 38 (2007) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
This set of eight original essays engages afresh with a novel that many readers might claim to know well, in such a way as to make 'the lights and shadows ... fall with a certain difference' (chap. xxi). Karen Chase is well-known for her own studies of George Eliot, not least George Eliot: 'Middlemarch' (1991). Here, she confines herself to an introductory essay, which cogently states the brief given to her contributors, to reflect on how Middlemarch can be read in the twenty-first century. 'Who besides Eliot has been better aware of the alteration of objects given a change in perspective?' she asks rhetorically (p. 4), and proposes some different relativities from those that have been orthodox in discussions of George Eliot's greatest novel, especially in the last half-century. A glancing comparison with Wuthering Heights, for example, gives a new dimension to the ongoing comparisons of George Eliot and 'the Brontes' . The goal is not novelty for its own sake. Rather, Middlemarch is accorded the status of being ripe for irreverence, 'something this novel sorely needs after more than a century of worship' (p. 9). Chase describes the unplanned but highly welcome result that Middlemarch is confmned as 'an open text with illimitable interpretations', by authors who are evidently enjoying themselves in their present engagement with it (p. 9).
The team assembled is essentially Anglo-American, four men and four women, mostly high profile Victorianists. The substantial expertise each brings to their commission involves little traversing of old ground, though in some cases (notably Hillis Miller's' A Conclusion in Which Almost Nothing Is Concluded: Middlemarch's "Finale"'), there is explicit moving on from and refinement of earlier positions. Take, for instance, Gillian Beer's tour de force, 'What's Not in Middlemarch' , which leads off the collection. At least initially stimulated by recent interest in the materiality of texts, Dame Gillian takes us back to the situation of those who read the novel as it came out in its eight book-length parts between December 1871 and December 1872, implicitly interrogating many readings of the novel since. She makes great capital of the advertisements, with wonderful disquisitions on sewing machines, and on manganese, and on chocolate. Her real theme, absences from Middlemarch, is argued by means of subtly disorienting assertions, circling principally through appetite, both gustatory and sexual. Moreover, Beer reminds us in yet another salient recontextualization, 'The spiritual is absent from this book', commenting further on '[t]hat principled denial of religious comfort in Middlemarch the novel ... has become almost invisible to many readers now' (p. 27).