Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 39 (2008) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/
This lively book is part of a new Cambridge University Press series already more than thirty titles strong, for 'readers who want to broaden their understanding of the books and authors they enjoy' - a mission statement which is quickly decoded: 'Ideal for students, teachers and lecturers'. The range of authors and topics included is canonical yet catholic, and not exclusively Anglophone: American authors are well represented along with English and Irish ones, there is a clutch of drama and theatre titles, Francophone literature and Derrida, postcolonial literatures and Modernism. The books are relatively short at about 60,000 words, and observe a series format with sections on life, contexts, works, and reception.
It is important not to underestimate the challenge posed by such a brief. Nancy Henry rises to the occasion, giving half her space to George Eliot's writings, including reviews and essays, and inflecting the other specified headings in appropriate ways, as historical contexts and literary influences, and 'Afterlife'. She succeeds in providing a brisk account that naturalizes fresh understandings of George Eliot's work in the wake of such theoretical events as deconstruction, New Historicism, Marxist, feminist and postcolonial theory (with the observation that practitioners of Queer studies have not attended much to her oeuvre). She sustains a thread of argument throughout, at once reiterating and re-orienting familiar tropes about the trajectory of George Eliot's career as a 'movement toward this position of a writer who aimed to communicate, not with the ignorant and idle, but with the educated and the diligent reader' (46). Such a line of argument places particular weight on Romola and other writings of the 1860s, including Felix Holt, which Henry persuasively shows to be more radical than recent readings have allowed.
Given the series formula it is hardly possible to develop lines of argument in any detail, yet Henry succeeds in giving a good sense for example of George Eliot's place in Victorian culture, especially but not only literary culture. I was particularly taken by the account of George Eliot and railways, and of technology in general (21-23) - an important emphasis, but one that I couldn't help feeling to be a touch at odds with the cover illustration (Thomas Churchyard's 'Coach Travel in Bad Weather' is far from an idealized Dickensian coaching scene, and nicely references both the introductory chapter of Felix Holt and also the opening of the 1994 Middlemarch television serialization).