Date of this Version
The George Eliot Review 44 (2013)
Does criticism move in circles and cycles? Perhaps, like a Yeatsian gyre, it progresses by revolving and rotating. If times have changed utterly since the appearance of Barbara Hardy's first book, The Novels of George Eliot (1959), then it is also hard to ignore how some new directions in criticism appear to be rediscovering matters close to this great critic's heart. Form and feeling, certainly, are both back. Professor Hardy used these two unfussy terms to describe, respectively, literature's structured way of happening and its potential to arouse or enrich a reader's felt experience; now, in the more modish guises of the 'new formalism' and the 'turn to affect', these same topics can be found being ruminated over at numberless sessions of academic conferences and in special issues of top scholarly journals, on both sides of the Atlantic. This situation is not a case of plus 9a change, plus c'est la meme chose but rather an illustration of the unquantifiable influence of Hardy 's work and a prompt to reopen her seminal pieces of criticism. As this new volume of essays shows, to celebrate her achievement properly means acknowledging the way it opens itself to the future - the way that, far from aspiring to be a last word on any of the novelists and poets she writes about, her writing seems to invite the possibility of new forms of understanding.
In that spirit, it is fitting that the volume's editors and contributors, many of whom studied with Professor Hardy or became her colleagues, mentees, and friends, have themselves gone on to shape how we read Victorian and modern literature. There is consequently a serious ethic of friendship in these pages, and a sense of the way understanding matters most when, in being shared, it overcomes the walls of the individual ego - something that George Eliot would have appreciated. The nature of the gift that Hardy's list of published work represents (and gift seems the appropriate word, given its ethical and affective insistence) is explored in a short. opening section titled 'Barbara's Work', which features two illuminatingly personal reflections by Isobel Armstrong and Sybil Oldfield. Both essays are characteristically compelling, but especially so for the way they move so deftly between private recollection, Hardy's life and writing, and nineteenth-century literature itself. They form what Oldfield rightly envisages as a 'conversation' (17), echoing the way L. C. Knights used that term to describe the true task of criticism. William Baker adds a near-comprehensive bibliography of Hardy's works to that conversation, which is a remarkable literary map of its own, not to mention the result of enormous labour, running to almost twenty pages and detailing her numerous conference addresses and public broadcasts as well her many scholarly volumes, critical editions, articles, and books of poems.