English, Department of


Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 39 (2008) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019 (39)


These two studies show that the ideological tug-of-war over the Victorian novel is far from over, and that George Eliot stands in the middle of it. Brigid Lowe's Victorian Fiction and the Insights of Sympathy is a bold and provocative attack on critics who have trawled nineteenth century novels for evidence that these works were concerned above all with exercizing ideological control. D. A. Miller, Terry Eagleton, Stephen Greenblatt, Catherine Gallagher, Deirdre David and Mary Poovey are all amongst Lowe's targets, and she draws on a wide range of sources to dismantle their conjectures. Rachel Ablow's The Marriage of Minds is, in comparison, a more traditional exercize in literary criticism. Repeatedly acknowledging her debt to the very same critics denounced by Lowe, Ablow elegantly traces the evolution of an idea through five canonical novels. Her readings set out to prove how representations of sympathy often concealed strategies to control female identity - precisely the sort of claim that Lowe sets out to undermine.

In The Marriage of Minds, Rachel Ablow seeks to unpick the Victorian notion that

novel reading constitutes a way to achieve the psychic, ethical, and affective benefits also commonly associated with sympathy in married life: like a good wife in relation to her husband, novelist and critics claimed, novels could 'influence' readers and so help them resist the depraved values of the marketplace. (1)

The introduction usefully reminds readers that the modern interpretation of 'sympathy', implying the ability to enter into another's feelings, was not necessarily that of Victorians, who often used the word to mean 'conformity of feelings' (8). This interpretation has great similarities with contemporary descriptions of the legal doctrine of coverture. What follows is an intriguing but unequal discussion of how ideas on sympathy in marriage and sympathy in the fictional genre are bound together in David Copperjield, Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, The Woman in White and He Knew He Was Right.