English, Department of



John Rignall

Date of this Version


Document Type



The George Eliot Review 32 (2001) Published by The George Eliot Fellowship, http://georgeeliot.org/


The George Eliot Review 2019


For a reader of George Eliot, opening this Companion may be a bit like opening a box of chocolates. There is a pause as one wonders where to begin, but once begun, it is difficult to stop tasting and savouring the contents. The articles are written in a fluid and concise, easily readable style, and present such an abundance and particularity of detail that the most dedicated student of George Eliot's life and work will find new information and insights. And even where the facts are more or less familiar, details we may have forgotten remind us again of the complexity and breadth of George Eliot's interests, her works, her life.

Unless one has already a specific question in mind, where and how to begin is perhaps the most difficult decision for the reader opening this book for the first time. Alphabetically? This is, coincidentally, an appropriate beginning, since the second entry under' A' is 'Adam Bede', George Eliot's first full-length novel, and the work whose widespread critical acclaim moved her at once into the rank of the foremost novelists, as Times writer E. S. Dallas pointed out. In the alphabetical mode, one might continue methodically, feasting on 'Addison, Joseph', '''Address to Working Men, by Felix Holt''', 'Aeschylus', 'Agatha' (cross-referenced), 'America', and so on until one reaches the concluding page of entries, where the letters 'Y' and 'Z' (there is no X, nor, earlier, any Q), represented by 'Young, Edward' and 'Zionism', conclude the feast. There is an appropriateness too in this final entry's relationship to George Eliot's work, for Zionism (or 'Judaism', to which the reader is referred) is central to the plot of her last novel, Daniel Deronda.

But one is unlikely to work from A to Zed through 454 densely packed pages. Although the alphabetical approach offers a satisfying clarity to the linear mind, I found myself unable to keep to this path, preferring to sample the entries at random, until I found myself enticed into one of the meandering pathways marked by asterisked cross-references that appear so frequently to direct me to related topics. Thus, after 'Adam Bede' I had opened at random on 'Feminist criticism’, and read most of that entry before being prompted by the asterisk to sample 'renunciation'. This finely detailed entry is one of the Companion's many cogent interpretations of George Eliot's fiction that remind the reader how her richly nuanced work defies easy categorization and simplistic generalization.

Tom between following onward to * 'Goethe's notion of renunciation', and my desire to return to 'criticism, modem', of which 'Feminist criticism' had been a subtopic, I chose the latter path and, determined to stay on the straight and narrow for the nonce, I examined the several subsections of modem criticism, each by a different expert. Their concise and clear introductions to late twentieth-century critical approaches to George Eliot's work enable general readers as well as students of literary theory to get a purchase on the basics of this sometimes arcane and jargon-filled subject. Each subsection is followed by a list of seminal texts.